Monday, November 14, 2011

Repulsion and Happy People

Three Two more from the Film Festival! Something old, something new, and something informative...
[Bellflower was going to be included in this group... It'll be coming soon instead...]

Repulsion is early Polanski and definitely 'classic' enough that it'd usually fall way outside the focus of this blog: I tend to lean away from writing about the classics, if only because plenty of people have already written plenty of words about these films - what's left for me to add? So I'll be brief...

[There are a couple of nice reviews to be found at Korova Theatre and Radiator Heaven]

Repulsion is a thriller in the old, almost forgotten sense of the world. It thrills. Every single person watching jumped at least once in the film, as poor Carol's hallucinatory nightmare threw shocks and scares at her in fits and starts. Polanski throws in a wonderful mix of the increasingly repulsive - an uncooked rabbit left out to gather flies and rot - the imaginatively uneasy - a crack in the wall that threatens repeatedly to burst apart - and the threat of real violence - sexually aggressive men pounce at Carol from every corner, some real, some imaginary. It's edge of the seat stuff that is propelled by a pulsing score and a camera that hovers voyeuristically around doorways and windowframes, beckoning the viewer into Carol's paranoid fears.

So little of her condition or the realities or origins of her fears is explained that you leave the cinema desperately untangling plot elements in your head, guessing and re-guessing which of the more plausible elements were imagined and which of the more outlandish were real. Great stuff.

Happy People - A Year in the Taiga
This documentary of Siberian life came with a "Narrated by Werner Herzog" tagline - surely as good a guarantee of an interesting film as there can be. Thankfully, it doesn't disappoint. We are taken, in a fairly straight-forward manner, through a calendar year in the lives of the trappers/hunters of a a Siberian village in the Taiga. Herzog contributes, as you might imagine if you've seen his (fabulous) Encounters at the End of the World, some perfectly dead-pan humour and a fair bit of admiration for the trappers. Occasionally, his wistful reminders that, out in the wilderness, they are free of government, free of taxes, free of bureaucracy, etc. etc. is a little too heavy-handed, but for the most part, his narration fits the documentary well.

Far more impressive than anything Herzog can provide are the demonstrations of traditional skills (especially the making of skis and the hollowing of a dug-out canoe), the rugged philosophy of the trappers and, above all, the sheer beauty of the landscape. The rive they live by and hunt around is an enormous sheet of ice for most of the year and comes slowly to life around May, looking something like a glacier rolling down a valley but much, much faster, carrying enormous chunks of ice as it flows. For the next couple of months it's navigable by boat, but after that it turns back to ice and becomes the domain of the snow-mobile. Happy People is a fabulous watch and, although occasionally too sentimental, it's a fascinating window into lifestyles we rarely see.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

LIFF25: El Sicario, Budrus and I Am Jesus

Ok then! Here come a few more review from the Leeds International Film Festival. I'm currently seeing more films than I can write about, so a review of Fanomonen's Night of the Dead will have to wait a day or so. For now, here are three documentaries from Monday and Tuesday...

El Sicario
This is certainly not a cheerful one! El Sicario can be summed up pretty quickly as one man in one room talking about the horrible things he has done. In a bit more depth, it is an ex-hitman in a hotel room in Ciudad Juarez, explaining over the course of 80 minutes what his life has contained. With his face masked throughout the film and no props other than a pad of drawing paper and a squeaky black marker, the hitman proceeds to explain the procedures of induction to the Mexican drug cartels and the jobs he had to carry out.

It is, as you can probably imagine, pretty gruelling stuff. He talks us through the day-by-day plan of a typical kidnapping, explains how the narcos (cartels) ensure there is at least one policeman in their pay amongst every group of new police recruits and recounts stories of strangling kidnapped people on the orders of the boss (if you strangle them before cutting them up, they bleed less, he explains).

Whilst this would all have worked equally powerfully (and in less time) if it were a written interview, his stories are compelling (and gruesome) enough to ensure that the time flies by. It's a grim but fascinating account of a lawless, dangerous life in a dangerous part of the world (Ciudad Juarez is now, apparently, the most violent city on the planet!)

Although you might not expect it from merely glancing at the subject matter, Budrus is a much more uplifting film than El Sicario. We've moved from Mexico to Palestine and are witnessing the residents of Budrus' attempts to prevent the Israeli fence from going through their lands, particularly their cemetery. In the face of the Israeli army's tear-gas and barricades, this is a film about people coming together to protect what they love (and, thankfully, succeeding). 

An especially powerful moment comes when a large group of Israeli peace-activists join the Palestinians in their village in opposition to the army. The interviewed army leader's claim that the destruction of this Palestinian village's cemetery was necessary for "Israelis to sleep soundly at night" rang somewhat hollow as a line of Israelis stood face-to-face with their own army. Perhaps even more shocking was the grumbled complaint from the army captain that they could no longer "use force" to crush the (nonviolent) opposition because "there were Israeli Jews in the group" - the implication that it was absolutely fine to violently crush peaceful Palestinian opposition remaining unspoken but unmissable...

I Am Jesus
From the serious to the ridiculous: I am Jesus is a wonderfully straight-faced documentary about three different people who fervently, honestly, astonishingly believe themselves to be the second coming of a certain Jesus Christ... 

From mental ex-secret-service hippy David Shayler ("I first realised I was Jesus whilst tripping on mushrooms...") via the bearded, robed Brazilian Inri Christo, to the messianic monk of the Siberian wilderness Vissarion, I have no hesitation at all in labelling these people as deluded, ego-centred freaks. For all that, little of what any of them do could possibly hurt anyone, so they're probably just best left to it really.

Great fun to watch and worth the ticket for the followers of Inri Christo's "mystical version" of Eye of the Tiger alone... 

Oh my...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

LIFF25 - Convento, Battenberg and Architects of Harmonic Rooms

Aaaaand the Leeds International Film Festival has kicked off. The opening gala of Wuthering Heights was not really the thing for me so, skipping over the first day, my festival started on day 2. There were lots of exciting sounding bits and pieces on today, including Human Centipede 2, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, 22nd May and The Beat is the Law - Pulp and the Sheffield music scene. I saw...

This was an incredibly fun animated short, a crazy magpie battling a squirrel armed with a fishknife in a scary guesthouse. With a train that brings battenberg cake.  It's about as cool as that sounds.

This was a "poetic documentary" about a curious Dutch family who, part-way through a ballet career, moved out and bought a shabby old convent in Portugal. The (now ex-)
ballerina and her two sons live a quiet, happy life in this convent. One of them attaches motors to various animal skulls to make mechanised creepy sculptures whilst the other is er... best friends with his horse.
It's a beautifully shot and gently paced documentary but its long, lingering shots are, I thought, a weak point in the end. The three people have so many interesting things to say when they do get to speak that I left thinking it was a shame we heard so little from them. For all that, it is utterly gorgeous and definitely worth a watch.

Architects of Harmonic Rooms & Records
This was a selection of six short films put together by the same people, exploring a handful of different underground artists and their thoughts on their work. So we get the (unbelievably naïve) Josephine Foster singing re-arranged Spanish folk, avant-garde screaming noisesmiths debating the merits of playing naked and punching pianos, and and Costa and Nero, a pair who re-work Greek folk tunes on guitar and bouzouki.
The pick of the bunch though was the much longer, completely mad experimental noise trip through salvaged-from-VHS 70s and 80s Asian horror. We had bass drones accompanying vampire bats, Frankenstein-esque experiments scored with throbbing guitar and a jangling crescendo of other living-dead far Eastern monsters. I just wish they'd given out a list of the films they'd culled their clips from! Great fun!