BRADFORD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2008 : including three Petzolds, two Bennings, ‘In Bruges’, etc

# 1 #
In Bruges; The Cottage; This Is Cinerama (1952); Funny Games U.S.The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Joy Division; Searchers 2.0

# 2 #
Drifters (1995 TV); Cuba Libre (1996 TV); The State I Am In (2000); casting a glance; RR; The Call of the Wild

  ### 1 ###    Films programmed/selected by others

IN BRUGES : [6/10] : Martin McDONAGH : UK (/Bel) 08 : 107m (BBFC timing) : seen 29.2 PV
   It's debatable whether the Belgian tourist authorities will be delighted or horrified by In Bruges, a comedy-thriller almost entirely shot in Flanders' most picturesque city. On the one hand, the location looks predictably superb - a wonder of swan-populated canals, dramatic architecture and pretty squares (plus a bevy of seductive women) – shot to maximum scenic advantage by cinematographer Eigil Bryld.
   On the other, the story which unfolds against these backdrops makes Bruges look like a danger-zone of weirdness, bloodshed and criminality – populated by drug-dealers, hustlers, prostitutes, assassins, stroppy North American tourists and snooty cops – and builds to a very violent climax that leaves plenty of blood on the ancient cobblestones.
   As the first feature-film by highly acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh – whose debut short, Six Shooter, won the Oscar – In Bruges has been one of the year's more keenly-anticipated new movies. But though there's much to admire and enjoy here, on this evidence it'll be a while before McDonagh transfers his stage reputation to celluloid.
   While his choice of geographical setting may be enticingly original, his plot – about two bickering hitmen forced into temporary exile after a messily botched 'job' – has a relatively hand-me-down feel, and he doesn't quite find sufficient fresh angles on what have become rather tired cinematic tropes.
   The early stretches – in which veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and his greenhorn colleague Ray (Colin Farrell) get their bearings in their disorienting, quietly exotic new environment – work by far the best, McDonagh relying heavily on their odd-couple badinage and contrasting personalities (culture-vulture Ken, laddish-boorish sensation-seeker Ray).
   But as the offbeat plot kicks in – via convolutions involving seductive local Chloe (Clemence Poesy) and the hitmen's short-tempered Cockney-gangster boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, suitably droll) – McDonagh seems to lose his way, most noticeably in an elaborate denouement which smacks heavily of self-indulgent scriptwriting contrivance. So while the picture is full of amusing situations and knockout lines, it never quite builds into a satisfying whole – losing itself in tangents and byways rather than playing to its considerable dramatic and comic strengths. 

THE COTTAGE : [6/10] : Paul Andrew WILLIAMS : UK 2008 : 92m (BBFC timing) : seen 6.3 PV
    Amiably daft horror-comedy; quite horrific and quite funny (but leagues below, say, Sheitan.) The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith (why doesn't he act more?) is the best value (especially the delirious "moth" business); a gleefully foul-mouthed Jennifer Ellison is also enjoyably game; Andy Serkis, for once, provides one of the quieter characterisations. A slightly odd, uneven and unexpected followup to the excellent London To Brighton for writer-director Williams – though perhaps not that much of a departure: both films take interesting liberties with genre conventions (specifically the much-discredited gangster-geezer genre). All told, a bit Neil Marshallish, but ideal midnight-movie/horror-festival fare.

THIS IS CINERAMA : [6/10] : Merian C. COOPER etc (? Gunther VON FRITSCH, Ernest B SCHOEDSACK, Michael TODD Jr ?) : USA 1952 : 116m : seen 7.3 PV (with intermission)
   The early-1950s arrival of television in millions of American homes sent the movie industry into a panic. Their initial reaction was a "bigger is better" approach, resulting in ultra-widescreen formats such as Cinerama. This is Cinerama is less a film than a showcase for the new technology's capabilities: an episodic, globetrotting compendium of sequences ranging from the awe-inspiring (a patriotically chest-beating, aerial tour of the continental USA) to the absurd (a painfully protracted visit to a Florida tourist-attraction). It's an amusingly quaint – and strikingly un-cinematic – journey down what now looks like an opulent but ultimately fruitless cultural cul-de-sac.

FUNNY GAMES U.S. : [8/10] : aka Funny Games : Michael HANEKE : US (/UK/Fr/Aut) 07 : 112m : seen 12.3 PC
   Haneke's ostentatiously 'shot-for-shot' remake of his 1997 Austrian original is simultaneously exactly the same and totally different: the English language, American setting and different actors (unlike the first version's Ulrich Muhe and Susanne Lothar, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth aren't a real-life couple) give the picture fresh context, implications and atmosphere – as does the very different state of world politics ten years on. On balance, not quite as suffocatingly claustrophobic as the first picture, but even those familiar with that masterpiece may find themselves sweaty-palmed with tension as Haneke's savagely uncompromising exercise in manipulation and cruelty so icily unfolds.
                      longer review for Tribune magazine

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA : [7+/10] : Rupert JULIAN : US 1925 : 101m : seen 13.3 CB (ropey DVD projection)
   Perhaps the most pleasing of the many versions of Gaston Leroux's tale, partly because we don't have to listen to any actual opera. Performances are hammy, with the notable exception of Lon Chaney as The Phantom: he spirals way beyond ham, impact boosted by his own outstanding, self-made prosthetics. But this isn't any one-man show: director Julian is great with shadows, and often fills the frame with action - both background and foreground. The picture rattles gleefully along, and must be seen in the "tinted" versions which include one ahead-of-its time "masked ball" sequence in a primitive form of Technicolor.

JOY DIVISION : [8/10] : Grant GEE : US 07 : 93m : seen 14.3 PC
   Hmmm, so what are the odds that, within less than a year, a fiction film and a documentary will be released on roughly the same subject-matter, and both will be exceptional? I'm no particular Joy Division fan, but this coincidence is exactly what has come to pass via Anton Corbijn's superb Control and now this non-fiction treatment of similar material. Fantastic rough-edged archive material is edited together with flair and sensitivity, all the key participants chip in, the music is marvellously integrated: this is, then, what music documentaries aim for, but so rarely achieve. An absorbing, entertaining, informative, nimble delight. 
                longer review to follow in week of UK release (2nd May)….. ONLINE

SEARCHERS 2.0 : [6/10] : Alex COX : US 07 : 96m : seen 15.3 PC
   The low budget hurts on this, Cox's belated (and Roger Corman-produced!) return to features (is it really his first made-for-cinema work since 1998's little-seen Three Businessmen?). But some slightly wooden performances and some no-more-than-passably-functional camerawork and editing are outweighed by the palpable warmth Cox feels for his characters and the snappiness of his dialogue. This is a shaggy, silly film-buff's road movie with its heart is emphatically in the right place – making for a rather pleasurable 90-odd minutes. Nothing special or memorable, but surprisingly likeable – perhaps a modest "pipe-opener" for eternal-renegade Cox en route to more ambitious fare?

  ### 2 ###    Films programmed/selected by N.Y. 

DRIFTERS : [7/10 TV] : Pilotinnen : Christian PETZOLD : Ger 1995 TV : 68m : seen 2.3   Very early Petzold – made for television, on a minimal budget that dictated the odd running-time. And, as so often happens, straitening financial limitations prove a major boon to the creative process: this is a fine, tough, surprising little picture that makes a virtue of its strict geographical restriction to the bleakly bourgeois/industrial Leverkusen area. And the languid Eleonore Weisgerber, as a sardonic, fatalistic, down-on-her-luck cosmetics saleswoman, is just terrific. The genre-referencing plot, meanwhile, takes its own sour time to come together but, as with Petzold's subsequent masterpiece The State I Am In, it proves well worth the (brief) wait.

CUBA LIBRE : [6/10 TV] : Christian PETZOLD : Ger 1996 TV : 92m : seen 6.3 CB
   I'm not aware of Petzold ever having made a bad or uninteresting film so far – but of the seven I've seen, the ones I find least effective are Wolfsburg (2003) and Cuba Libre, his first feature-length work, made for German TV. It's a crucial stage in his development as a writer, but at this point he hasn't yet managed to fully work out how to integrate his preoccupations within the format of the thriller genre (the plot twists into near-incomprehensibility towards the end) or the structure of a 90-minute movie. Tough-nut protagonist Richy Muller, however, proves relentlessly watchable throughout.

THE STATE I AM IN : [9/10] : Die innere Sicherheit : Christian PETZOLD : Ger 2000 : 92m : seen 7.3 CB (rated 8/10 after first viewing)
   Petzold's masterpiece (so far): a superbly constructed, brilliantly acted and meticulously directed tale of teenage angst, hormones, terrorism, state-surveillance and inter-generational strife. Quiet surfaces and seemingly innocuous events consistently hint at much greater implications – and though there are the occasional longueurs here and there, they are swept away by one of the most shattering climaxes in all of cinema. The way Petzold dramatically concludes his (previously oh-so-measured) film's action – and then rolls his credits to the accompaniment of Tim Hardin's "How can we hang on to a dream" – is evidence of some kind of genius at work.

CASTING A GLANCE : [10/10] : James BENNING : US 07 : 80m : seen 14.3 CB (rated 10?/10 after first viewing)
   After two viewings – the first in ignorance of Benning's methods, the second in full knowledge – I'm convinced it's the crowning achievement of his career. A tribute to land-artist Robert Smithson, it's the "fictionalised" "biography" of Smithson's most famous work, the Spiral Jetty in Utah's Great Salt Lake, tracing its appearance, submersion and reappearance due to fluctuating water levels. Beautiful, mysterious, challenging, the film exerts a stimulating but hypnotic effect on its viewers, resulting in an experience unlike anything else in current or recent cinema. In more ways than one, Benning is out there on his own right now.

RR : [7+/10] : (theoretical alternative title Rail Road) : James BENNING (billed as 'JB'): US 07 : 112m : seen 14.3 CB
   Cinema and trains have always gone together: the Lumiere brothers' riot-inducing footage of a train arriving at La Ciotat station in 1895; Edwin S Porter'sThe Great Train Robbery – the first narrative film – in 1903; Orson Welles proclaiming a studio to be "the biggest train set a boy ever had." Not to mention those Closely Observed Trains, Keaton's The General, and Alfred Hitchcock's lifelong love-affair with the railways (North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers On a Train, etc).
   In recent years, however, the train has gradually lost its pre-eminent place on the movie screen (see Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself) supplanted by "sexier" modes of transport – mirroring and emphasising the way right-wing governments in the USA and elsewhere have deliberately underfunded, privatised and "sidelined" what admirers believe to be the noblest and cleanest form of mechanised transport.
   James Benning now tries to rectify those wrongs with RR, which consists of nearly two hours of trains passing through our field of vision – i.e., that of his tripod-mounted, never-moving camera. An ideal triple-bill companion to Jean-Pierre Gorin's Routine Pleasures (1986) and Bill Daniel's Who Is Bozo Texino? (2005), it's a defiant, unapologetic, implicitly political celebration of the railroad – but also an excuse to visit some fascinating, hidden, underpopulated corners of the continental United States: mysterious, strangely alluring backwaters which, as we see, remain utterly unchanged by the trains' deafeningly noisy transit (even if they themselves have been formed or crucially altered by the railroad's proximity.)
   And they are invariably (and repetitively) rural or semi-industrial: oddly, Benning never shows trains in or near areas of high population; and he never films at night (a shame – we therefore miss the spectacle of the great "one-eyed monster" blasting its way through the darkness.) Shots may be very brief (what we take to be passenger trains, though they're never identified as such) or punishingly long – indeed, the film itself is all about duration, an irresistibly big, blunt, unadorned, uncompromising monolith of an artwork which unfolds majestically, relentlessly, indifferently, elusively as we watch. It's a tightly-constructed essay in space, time, colour and movement: the mechanisms of cinema reduced to their barest essentials. A journey into linearity and direction, set to the soothing, soporific rumble of wagon wheels on metal tracks.
   Benning sets some rules – the shots begin when the train enters the shot, end after the last carriage has passed by – and then proceeds to bend, break or ignore them as it suits the rhythms of his construction. Odd to describe such a behemoth of a film as "playful", then, but the label seems accurate. Look out for a cameo by some of Benning's beloved Hanjin container units; listen out for a sequence featuring his trademark "distant rifle shots" effect. And there's even room for a touch of gentle, lyrical/romantic magic: two white butterflies dipping above a meadow as Woody Guthrie sings "this land is made for you and me."

THE CALL OF THE WILD : [9/10] : Ron LAMOTHE : US 07 : 108m : seen 15.3 PC (rated 8/10 after first viewing)
   The short, controversial life of "spiritual voyager" Christopher McCandless (1968-92) – focus of Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into the Wild, recently filmed by Sean Penn's as a $15m narrative feature – is the subject of this top-notch documentary. Even audiences totally unfamiliar with McCandless's tragic, much-chronicled story will likely find themselves utterly absorbed by director/narrator/editor/cinematographer Lamothe's journey into his subject: a journey which is simultaneously geographical (he retraces McCandless's hobo-ish wanderings around the USA), philosophical (topically examining the nature of freedom in today's America) and bravely self-analytical – at several stages he measures himself against the ideals, achievements and inadequacies of his near-contemporary.
   DV-camera-toting one-man-band Lamothe's proudly wayward path even crosses that of Penn and his elaborate production on several occasions – inadvertent intersections which amusingly cast Hollywood's notions of creative "independence" in a savagely unflattering light. Frequently hilarious, consistently intelligent and, in the end, deeply moving, The Call of the Wild heralds the exciting arrival of a fresh and bold new voice in American non-fiction film.

Neil Young
1st-23rd March 2008

PC = Pictureville cinema, National Media Museum
CB = Cubby Broccoli cinema, -"-
all tickets : complimentary
NB : all timings are approximate unless stated otherwise

also seen at the festival and reviewed elsewhere:
13.Mar (CB) Fish Kill Flea
13.Mar (CB) Profit motive and the whispering wind
6.Mar (PV) Redacted

also seen at the festival
15.Mar (CB) Kenedi Goes Back Home