Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Grim Reaper Comes to the London Film Festival: 50/50, Into the Abyss, The Descendants

A boy buddy movie about cancer? What was I thinking? Truth is with Joseph Gordon Levitt's million dollar smile really anything is possible. Based on the writer Will Reiser's actual experiences, Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a radio journalist, is diagnosed with a rare cancer in his late 20s and learns from the internet that he has a 50/50 chance of survival. The movie is the unfolding of his life, loves, and friendships post-diagnosis. Levitt's charming ability to make chemo-stry (sorry) happen with just about anyone is what makes this film. Even Seth Rogin becomes somewhat endearing while basking in Levitt's radiant glow. (Okay, I'll stop.) I laughed. I cried. A lot. I still don't know why I, of all people, a paranoid hypochondriac extraordinaire, chose to see this. Was it because of Anjelica Huston (totally great as the cancer stricken boy's suffocating mother)? Was it for Anna Kendrick (just ok as grief-therapist-in-training who falls in love with her patient)? It was probably because at the film festival I try to see things I would never otherwise see. It really is a cute, whacky, perfectly acceptable small film that does succeeds in making cancer funny. Does the world need such a thing? Quite possibly.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is the documentary by Werner Herzog about a boy, Michael Perry, on death row in Texas. Again, what was I thinking? It seems I was in pursuit of the grim this year and grim this film certainly is. It's really a horror film in the guise of a documentary. Herzog (whose voice we hear, but who we see only in vague reflection in the glass dividing him from the prisoners) interviews a whole cast of characters somehow involved in Perry's fate--from his partner in crime Jason Burkett, to Burkett's father, to the prison chaplin, to the ex-executioner (my favorite of them all), to Jason Burkett's miraculously pregnant mail-bride who provided the audience with some comic relief through her charming penchant for self-deception. Each of them, as we all are, is trapped inside his or her own terrifying reality. A worthy film I am not unhappy to have seen but it falls short of great documentary in the manner of, say, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line or anything by Chris Marker. At the screening, the producer who introduced the film compared it to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which is not a stretch (the crime is similar) but Herzog is more interested here in sociology than psyche, which helps him cope with the intensity and insanity of his subject, but makes our experience more voyeuristic than empathetic.

Elizabeth King is in a coma after a boating accident and unlikely to live. Matt King, her husband, discovers from his teenage daughter that Elizabeth was having an affair. They hatch a plan to confront her lover, bringing father and daughter into a new intimacy. In the meantime, King and his cousins are about to decide what to do with a huge chunk of pristine land his family owns in Hawaii, handed down through generations from their royal Hawaiian ancestors. Hence the film's title: The Descendants. The whole state is waiting to see what these descendants will do with their legacy while the audience is waiting to see how King will help his children deal with their mother's impending death. Would I run to see that film? No. But it's the film festival AND the director is Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) AND it stars George Clooney. I go because Alexander Payne's celluloid rendering of quirky Americana is always surprising, and not only is Clooney Clooney, he has an inclination these days for trying to stretch himself as an actor. Payne's script hovers between sitcom and surreal, nothing which isn't done extraordinarily well on tv, but Payne includes in the mix extended pathos--something few can pull off convincingly in our age of irony and cynicsm. Dying mother in a hospital bed is a very tricky proposition both despite and because of delivering insta-sadness. Payne's project in this film is to redeem the sentimental to its original favorable sense: "Characterized by or exhibiting refined and elevated feeling"--as opposed to its current sense: "Addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion; apt to be swayed by sentiment." (OED) George Clooney, as Payne's chief means to this end, is a joy to watch even if a lot of the time what we are witnessing is a cinema icon struggling not to bury his very ordinary, flawed and vulnerable character under the weight of his own real life megastardom. This quasi-post modern distraction actually worked in a particulary Paynian way to further the film's mundane message i.e. we're all humans who suffer and love and laugh despite our own particular legacy. In the end, Payne and Clooney manage to pull off this strangely heartfelt movie, but not without a lot of help from the pitch-perfect performances from the supporting cast.

Moving from grim reaper to hyperactive stork, the most innovative and engaging film I saw at the festival was 17 Girls,

from French sororal (great word!) writing and directing team Delphine and Muriel Coulin. Beautifully shot in a small French port city in decline, the story is about 17 high school girls who decide to empower themselves by becoming pregnant. Based on the true incident in Massachusetts in 2008, the Coulin sisters imagine the girls' motivations in an intriguing twist on the tropes of teenage pregnancy. Unfortunately, the end was pat and predictable, deflating what was otherwise a mind-bendingly gorgeous and stunningly acted film.

The worst film I saw was Carnage (will post about this anon).

The most purely enjoyable was Nouka Dubi (Boat Wreck)

from Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh. Great plot, astonishing cinematography, stupendous singing, magic melodrama. Bollywood meets Tagore--need I say more?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Silent Films Redux: Underground, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Light of Asia...

For a while now, the silent film accompanied by live music has been making a come back in London and beyond. It is an extraordinary way to spend an evening: watching cinematic history in the making while listening to composers' and musicians' interpretations of the visual. Here are the three I have seen recently:

UNDERGROUND (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith, score by Neil Brand, with Timothy Brock conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra

A stunning romance-comedy-noir-thriller starring above all else the London underground of the late 1920s, this is some extraordinary filmmaking. Light and shadow, German expressionism, Russian montage, Hitchcockian suspense, Chaplinesque humor, and it has one of the best chase sequences ever filmed. So much more entertaining than most films made today. The score was perfection, full of fabulous themes and wonderful surprises, the timing and flexibility of the orchestra conducted by the amazing Timothy Brock quite simply unbelievable. The film, beautifully restored by the BFI, was dismissed by reviewers when first released. If the packed and enthusiastic audience at the Barbican has anything to say about it, this print and score will surely set the record straight.

The screening at the Barbican was followed by a riveting Q&A with Brock, Brand, Robin Baker (Head Curator, BFI National Archive), Matthew Sweet (Writer, Historian and Broadcaster), and chaired by Francine Stock (TV/Radio presenter and novelist.) Wonderful stuff was revealed like how the harmonica sequence had to be played by a melodeon, how Asquith introduced the helicopter shot before the helicopter, and how David Thomson, according to Sweet, very wrongfully dismisses Asquith in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. (I subsequently read the entry--Underground isn't mentioned--and he does seem unreasonably nasty about Asquith, but we love David Thomson precisely because he can be so viciously wrong.) But what I appreciated most was the sheer love of film and music eminating off the Barbican stage from all of the speakers, most especially Neil Brand. I missed his score for Hitchcock's Blackmail which I understand was another triumph. Now in October in New York he will be conducting the New York Philharmonic in his restored score of The Gold Rush. If you happen to be in the big apple then go, go, go.

In the meantime, here's almost two minutes of that chase scene I mentioned from Underground. This is from the rooftop of the Lot's Road Power Station which is still there in romantic semi-ruins right down the road from where I live in London.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920) starring John Barrymore, directed by John Robertson, screenplay by Clara Beranger, live score written and performed by Blue Roses

It was raining, we were late, we were riding Boris bikes across Hyde Park and couldn't find anywhere to return them. We finally arrived at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill to see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, myself resembling in look and mood the latter. But settling into the plush red leather seats with a glass of red wine to warm us up, we were fast restored by this wild evening to our better selves. The very creepy, scary, weird film in which John Barrymore very impressively becomes a hideous, hairy, distorted version of himself, was accompanied by an equally macabre and intriguing score played and orchestrated by Blue Roses. There have been too-many-to-count film versions of this Robert Louis Stevenson story about our dark double-nature, but this one is the original and fascinating to watch. It was written by Clara Beranger, who would go on to have a very successful Hollywood career scripting over 70 movies.

This screening of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was part of the wonderful BIRD'S EYE VIEW FILM FESTIVAL's Sound & Silents strand which presents classic silent films by pioneering women filmmakers alongside specially commissioned scores by cutting-edge contemporary female musicians.

Upcoming from Bird's Eye View Sound & Silents: British Composer Mira Calix rescores early animation The Adventures of Prince Ahmed at the Aubin Cinema, Shoreditch, on Sunday 23 October. (

THE LIGHT OF ASIA (1925) directed by Franz Osten & Himansu Rai, written by Niranjan Pal with New Live Score By Pandit Vishwa Prakash

I had seen Franz Osten's amazing A Throw of the Dice at a screening in Trafalgar Square about a year ago so when I heard the BFI was showing The Light of Asia I quickly bought tickets. After an overlong introduction to the film (the occasion was actually a celebration of the filmmaker Niranjan Pal who went on to found with Osten and Rai the movie studio The Bombay Talkies Limited) the movie was finally screened. The film recounts the saga of Prince Siddhartha, who rejects his privileged life to search for Truth and becomes Buddha, or the Enlightened One. The story was just not as compelling as A Throw of the Dice based on the episode from "The Mahabharata" chronicling a harrowing love triangle. Still, they both shared the incredible Rajasthan settings, the erotic and exotic costumes, the jungles and palaces, elephants, camels, and tigers. Orientalism abounds but so does breathtaking beauty and astonishing filmmaking. The meticulous attention to lighting and patterning of Weimar cinema here meets the fantastical tradition of Indian storytelling. And the Prakash score was sublime.

A THROW OF THE DICE (1929) directed by Franz Osten

I know of two more silent film events upcoming in London which I will sadly have to miss but they promise to be great, great evenings.

THE FIRST BORN directed by Miles Mander with a live performance of Stephen Horne's new score at Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday, Oct 20 at 19:30. (

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC directed by Carl Dreyer (and one of the all time great silent films) with music from the London Symphony Orchestra on November 6 at 19:30. (