Mini reviews of 31 films

30/11/2010

Mini reviews of 31 feature films (and one short) seen at the Leeds International Film Festival 2010. Reviews were first posted on Facebook during the festival.

Best film of the first day of the festival – French animation A Town Called Panic – very funny, laughed and grinned from start to finish. Other films were To Walk Beside You (Japan) – very poor, lacked any kind of visual or sound quality, and Son of Babylon from a Leeds production company about the missing and dead in Iraq which was moving and informative.

Day 2: two good films and one very bad one. Turkish film Kosmos was a mystical story of a man with healing skills which was both a gift and a curse, interesting style and excellent sound mix; documentary on the writer William S Burroughs (William S. Burroughs: A Man Within) was fascinating – a harmless looking old gentleman who was a gun-crazy junkie (accidentally shot his wife in the head), troubled, lonely and famous. Australian film Animal Kingdom was rubbish – please!, if story lacks drama, countless slow-motion shots wont fix it!

Day3 at the fest: Inside Job on the economic crisis – very interesting, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives – excellent; Uruguay horror film shot with a single take (yeah, right) The Silent House was scary but flawed – a woman just walks around a dark house for more than an hour (!), yes, adrenaline levels are high but come on – we want story, and the resolution was clichéd and illogical. But it was interesting to see a film from Uruguay. The best film yesterday – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film, as hypnotic and charming as always. Highly recommended!

Day 4: Children of the Beehive – a Japanese classic about ten little boys – war orphans wandering around Japan, trying to survive. Sounds grim but the film was actually delightful and in a somewhat lighter tone than, say, Oliver Twist. An unusual gem.

Day 5: went to see the Finnish film The Painting Sellers which was okay: there was an interesting relationship between the three characters who were essentially strangers but remained together in order to survive and find some comfort in a cold and lonely world but the characters remained too distant for the viewer to get a good sense of what they were going through.  But there was a heart-warming surprise (for me) as they showed an Estonian short film before the feature which was Ove Musting’s Dead Friend, You’ve Got My Respect which was very enjoyable and made people laugh.

Day 6: a group of Czech tourists visit North Korea (Welcome to North Korea) – which is not like Stalinist Russia but has evolved into a dystopia, it’s like being more Catholic than the Pope, someone said. A fascinating documentary. Highly recommended!
Also saw Russian film How I Ended This Summer which was good, loved how they managed to create tension with just two characters living in a faraway outpost, and the irony of someone being the main cause of their own problems (which is not uncommon in drama but was particularly clear in this one).

Day 7: went to see a Thai film called Mundane History. It looked like it was going somewhere at first but the story just stood still and then there was an effort to be very profound but turned out to be pretentious and meaningless. Not good. Although, it wasn’t as bad as To Walk Beside You.

Day 8: old Russian classic Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors which is a fantastic visual treat. The director (who’s actually of Armenian decent) abandoned soviet realism and invented his own cinematic style which resulted in having all his films banned and spending 10 years in prison. This film tells a story of a guy who loses the love of his life told in a madly dynamic and inventive visual style. Highly recommended and worth watching several times!
The second film was a brilliant Romanian film – Tuesday, After Christmas – a bergmanesque story of a man cheating on his wife. It’s naturalistic, tense and very engaging without any gloom and angst. Highly recommended! (also won the festival award)
The third film was interestingly enough on a similar theme: a story of a female adulterer focusing on sexual obsession – the Danish film The Woman Who Dreamed of a Man which was unconvincing and dreadful! A woman meets a man she has seen in her dreams and an affair ensues, both are married, she follows him around. But you just get bored to tears watching this woman just walk around for two hours with a very dramatic look on her face “oh, look, I’m an actor in a mysterious story”, walking-walking-walking, staring-staring-staring, the climactic scene with overtly dramatic music was just ridiculous. The filmmakers seemed to be concerned with making the actors look like fashion models and not with the emotional authenticity of the events. Was tempted to walk out.

Day 9: Japanese film Sweet Little Lies had an annoying main character and Anton Corbijn’s The American might have had a hint of 1970s feel but not enough depth (Coppola’s The Conversation is hard to beat when it comes to solitary characters). Both films: didn’t care about the characters, both had simplistic symbolism which failed to add any artistic value.

Day 10: the weakest one of the day – French horror film The Pack about a (tough) girl who is captured (because she’s also naive) by a mother-son team who need blood to feed a (well choreographed) pack of zombified miners who live in the ground (and like to pose for the camera. A lot.) A world where injuries are easily forgotten (even when under you foot) and instead of escaping the main character wanders into her captors’ house to browse through a photo album (as you do). And why make France look like it’s Texas? All in all wasn’t too bad but not very impressive either.
Going from worst to best: then there was the Irish thriller Savage about a guy who after being attacked (and castrated) by chavs tries to overcome fear and paranoia, growing into a brutal avenger. The story has no plot, main character is passive, lots of wallowing in doom and gloom (I’ll call it dloomy), lots of dloomy staring into the mirror and dloomy walking down the street accompanied by dloomy high contrast and jump cuts. Sorry, walking down the street with a frown does not create drama. Fest staff member said it had “massive social commentary” but the film didn’t go anywhere near examining where street violence comes from or what can be done about making people feel safer. Its solution was to invest in hoodies and knives. Not impressed.
Third, there was a French film Amer which was a fascinating visual treat with very impressive carefully designed visuals, editing and rhythm that told the story of a girl’s key three sensual experiences – as a girl, as a teenager and as a grown-up at her imposing family home.
Second best of the day was an American horror film called A Horrible way to Die (not the most fitting title for this film, makes it sound like cheap horror which it wasn’t) – an interesting take on the serial killer story: a woman who somewhat hesitantly starts going out with a guy has a serial killer as her ex-boyfriend, who’s in jail because she turned him in. The ex has just broken out of jail and is on his way back… There’s a good twist at the end (spoiler alert) as it turns out that current beau is a fan of the serial killer and is about to make her pay while the ex broke out of jail to save her. (end spoiler) The film had an interesting and original visual style which I couldn’t fully appreciate as it was the last film of the day and my eyes were aching from sitting in the cinema for 9 hours.
The best film of the day was Catfish – a humorous American documentary about a guy in New York who one day receives a painting of one of his photos and acquaints a talented 8-year-old girl in Michigan. (Facebook has ‘eaten’ my comments but I’ll try to recall them) He then becomes romantically involved with the girl’s older sister, exchanging emails and phone calls, and when visiting her state decides to pay a surprise visit only to discover he’s been duped. I’ve not seen a film that manages to incorporate the internet, Google maps, StreetView and Facebook into a film without making it feel forced. An interesting study of how easy it is to manipulate others online.

Day 11: an old Danish film Hunger based on Knut Hamsun’s novel. It’s about a starving writer who’s too proud to accept help or deny helping others. The character’s stubbornness and pride were at times painful and at times humorous (such as when he exaggerates someone being in awe of him in his imagination). Loved the use of dogs in this film who seemed to be better off than him. Recommended.

Day 12: Argentinian film The Invisible Eye was quite interesting. It’s about a young lonely school supervisor who has to reinforce strict discipline amongst pupils while she starts fancying one of the boys. Reminds a bit Haneke’s The Piano Teacher but wasn’t as intense. Definitely recommended!
Second one was a Haitian film Moloch Tropical which I didn’t enjoy as much but it was still interesting. It felt a bit uneven and clunky, it felt like a TV film (turns out it was a TV film) with bits of very bad acting (for some reason especially when people were on the phone). It’s about Haiti’s ruler’s final day of reign and the goings-on in the lives of his staff. It had its good moments and it’s interesting to see a film from Haiti which doesn’t happen very often. Recommended.
Both films had digital projection from hell. It’s bad enough when you see pixels on the big screen but the resolution on these two was so bad that you couldn’t see any details in the image and audio distortions made you cringe. Digital projection is on the rise, unfortunately, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.

Day 13: a tough night – first, a German documentary called Face the Wall about former East Germans. Five people tell their story about how unbearable life was in GDR, how they were determined to flee West but were arrested (mostly for fabricated crimes as Stasi interpreted the law as they pleased), they were imprisoned and interrogated 8-9 hours a day for months, forced to incriminate their families and manipulated by threats to their loved ones, and how East Germany then sold (!) them to the West. It’s scary to think that this went on very close by and during our lifetimes. These people are mentally scarred for life (one man struggled to spend one night in his apartment with all windows open for the claustrophobia and mostly sleeps in open air). Makes me think how many people in Estonia are living in post traumatic stress and what they go through when they bump into their persecutors in the street. Fascinating and highly recommended!
Second, a Spanish film Kidnapped. Again, Facebook has ‘eaten’ my comments but the overall impression was this: very realistic, tense and engaging all the way through but a story without a theme or any (intellectual) depth just leaves you indifferent.

Day 14: Norwegian film The Art of Negative Thinking (2006) which was very entertaining and funny. It’s about a support group of positive thinking who take on a new member – a young wheelchair-bound man whose extreme negativity starts having an effect on others in the group: he ends up putting an end to false smiles and bringing out painful truths (with therapeutic and ‘cleansing’ results). A very enjoyable black comedy. Recommended!

The last film seen at the Leeds Film Festival was The King’s Speech about the friendship between King George VI and his speech therapist – a more commercial film with good performances, engaging and entertaining but overtly simplistic and without an ounce of intellectual challenge. People love it and it’s in the top 20 of festival favourites but I felt emotionally manipulated (cheated) and empty afterwards, so I’m not sure whether to recommend it or not.

Top 10

1. Tuesday, After Christmas
2. Ucle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives
3. Face the Wall
4. A Town Called Panic
5. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
6. Kosmos
7. Catfish
8. Welcome to North Korea
9. A Horrible Way to Die
10.  The Art of Negative Thinking

And that’s 31 films in two weeks. Resuming normal cinema attendance mode.

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One Response to “Mini reviews of 31 films”

  1. Nice summary of the whole festival, it was nice for me having been there for the duration to either compare views or get an insight to films that I missed. Glad I aren’t the only one who is falling all over the predictable, dull, aristocratic attempt at the Rocky-underdog story (My anti-monarchy instincts don’t really help me have a measured and objective opionion though).
    Glad you liked The Art of Negative Thinking – my gut instinct is now telling me that it was the film of the festival for me.
    You can catch all my coverage scattered around the film&festivals website (links from my twitter @destroyapathy)

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