Leeds Film Festival 2016 Day 2

Lady Macbeth (UK) (review)

The often re-imagined story of Macbeth is played out once more, specifically deriving from the Russian novel 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'; the location moves to a 19th Century farmhouse in the English countryside; a little past it's best but better than the middle class can manage at the time.  In it, Katherine bounces around the walls, feeling alternate emotions of fear from the new husband that was forced upon her, and boredom at the cloying restrictions he places on her ample free time.

Boredom leads to curiosity and exploration, and one of the young labourers manages to take her eye, a welcome grubby change to the starched and uncomfortable dresses she is forced to wear.  The fierceness of the passion leads to desperation as this new freedom is threatened by her icy new relatives, and this in turn progresses to the spillage of blood.
Moody and dark, although not without a mischievous humour, the film succeeds in keeping you interested as the stakes are raised and Katherine turns to increasingly desperate measures to hold onto that which she values.  New parents be warned - it wasn't easy to watch at all in the last segment, but it was well made, well acted and more than a little challenging.  7/10

A United Kingdom (UK) (wiki)
My last film and the festival was only just getting started, oh well.  Due to go on a wider release than many of it's festival counterparts around Christmas time, A United Kingdom is a biopic of the [then, and unfortunately still now, controversial] relationship between quiet jazz loving Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, the prince and soon to be ruler of Bechuanaland - what would eventually become Botswana.

A chance meeting at a party brings the two together just after the Second World War, the prince studying in London by the hand of his father, who hoped a well-funded education in a first world nation would produce a wise ruler in waiting.  He hadn't banked on his son coming back with a marriage proposal - to a white woman, no less - a woman representing the oppression suffered by his people and those of the neighbouring countries in both the past and present.  It went without saying that similar sentiments were expressed on the other side, and their relationship had to endure much before even considering the implications of marrying a prince and moving to the other side of the world in the hope of making it work and being accepted.
It's fair to say that us English didn't help; the UK government at the time stood in their way at every turn, forbidding the marriage and nearly wrecking their chances of ever making it work, and the casting of Jack Davenport as the slimy, holier-than-thou face of Great British Ingrained Racism (aka the cultural government representative to Bechuanaland) was simultaneously over the top and perfect for the job of building up the bile with every sentence he utters and then, eventually (without giving away any spoilers) seeing him eat his stupid words.

There are some superficial comparisons to 12 Years a Slave, and though in terms of importance, I would rate that film higher than this one, the tone here is a little lighter and the bad times are a little easier to sit through; consequently the film is more enjoyable.  It's a good story (based on the actual events of the time), told well with some safe, predictable story elements.  You won't be surprised by the ending (they make the marriage work and eventually are accepted) but you will enjoy getting there.  8/10

You Had One Job, America

That was to not elect a sexist, racist, anti-semitic self-confessed sexual assault artist; bankruptcy aficionado and Useful Idiot to the Putin regime.

Hillary wasn't without her faults, but seriously, was she worse than that?

I don't say this lightly:  Jesus Fucking Christ.

Leeds Film Festival 2016 Day 1

It's the Leeds Film Festival yet again, and as is the case these days, my pickings are slim and based around a limited free time available.  Ms. Plants has kindly taken off to her parents for a day so I can Indulge a little bit, and what better date than the festivals' now-familiar Animation Day.

Belladonna of Sadness (Jpn) (wiki)

This dated anime has been restored, digitized and is about to be released on DVD for the first time.  Based on the book La Sorcieré, it re-imagines the struggles of Joan of Arc against a tyrant king and a very phallic devil, who comes to her aid as she is abused and abandoned by the other villagers and even her husband, whose descent into uselessness comes with all too little pressure.  Sensing a soul that is more resistant to his charms than usual, the devil offers power and revenge in return for her body and soul, and a place at his side to rule over the world.  With enough pressure, he knows that anyone can be tempted.

1973 is a long time ago, and I suspect director Eiichi Yamamoto's budget for such a psychedelic and downright erotic animated film may well have been curtailed somewhat.  Mix that with the minimalist tendencies of the time to animate, the audience is forgiven for needing a little time to adjust to the largely static scenes.  Don't get me wrong, there is some beautiful (and provocative) imagery here, but on our modern-day diet of fluid animation and big budgets, I'm not surprised at the scoffing and shaking of heads I noticed from some of the other theatergoers on leaving.

Once you do, and accept the storytelling style, it is actually quite an enjoyable, even coherent film that I was glad I got to see.  The art style is much more European than east-Asian, the static watercolour drawings playing out like scrolling tapestry pages from a book, and and save for the dialogue (they don't even attempt lip-sync) you wouldn't think it came from Japan, and the script explores enough of the world it creates to not feel like all show and no substance, although quite how close it is to the novel I have yet to find out.  In short, go (it's being released in a few places as well as at Leeds to mark it's overdue release) but reset your expectations before you do.  6/10

 
Father and Daughter (Bel) - Michaël Dudok de Wit, the director of The Red Turtle, also made this film which was shown with gushing praise by LIFF director Chris Fell, who said that Isao Takahata, the Studio Ghibli director who brought de Wit's creation to the big screen considered it to be 'the best animated short film of the 21st century so far'.  While I would not go that far, it was cute and sweet and had a few feels as lonesome daughter awaits the return of her missing father, her life passing all too quickly while she watches and waits. 7.5/10

The Red Turtle (Jpn/Bel) (official site)
Out of the blue, a new Studio Ghibli film appears!  Kind of, anyway.  The first co-production with a non-Japanese studio (in this case, Belgium-based ), The Red Turtle is the fruits of the efforts between director Michaël Dudok de Wit and the passion of aging Ghibli director Isao Takahata, who upon seeing de Wits' earlier works, felt compelled to help him bring a larger work to a bigger audience.

It's a dialogue-free story of a shipwrecked man who by stroke of luck washes up on an island.  Food and fresh water are plentiful, but his determination to leave sets him on a losing streak; each time a flimsy raft is created and he sets sail for land proper, he is attacked by a large, red turtle and with increasing despair has to swim ashore through the fragments of broken hull.  When he spots the turtle coming ashore he takes the opportunity for revenge, an action which changes his outlook on the island forever.

From the red-tinged Ghibli logo, you can tell this is going to be a little different to what we normally see from the studio.  The art style, while typically Ghibli-realistic, is more pastel and muted, and the character faces are far more European in style, reflecting the work of de Wit rather than Takahata or Miyazaki.  This is no bad thing.  The quality is as high as anything the studio has produced, and blends hand-drawn and computer generated elements very nicely.  For a character spending much of the film alone creating rafts, it moves along with entertaining pace and rarely feels to be dragging.  I did feel occasionally trapped between the realistic and fantasy aspects of the film as if sometimes they didn't quite sit perfectly with each other in the same picture, but mostly I was entertained and charmed and surprised myself by the feels I had at the end.  8/10

Cameraperson (US) (wiki)

Dirctor Kirsten Johnson has done her fair share of documentary filmmaking, most notably with Michael Moore in Faranheit 9/11 but also a raft of other films you are unlikely to have head of.  Many have their place either in the US or the Middle East, covering injustice and war, with a particular theme on what the victims of the atrocities in question did afterward.  This film, she describes as 'a memoir' of her film-making career, and is in total a selection of roughly-shot out-takes from the cutting room floor from the last 20 or so years of her career.

It has a 'behind the scenes' look about it, offering clips taken randomly from a roulette of her films, some of which are quite benign and ordinary and probably have some unsaid emotional value to the director, whereas others are given just enough context so you know that what you are seeing is pretty heavy stuff.  The ratio of the former to the latter is enough to maintain interest, and it was like watching an overview of several documentaries together for those who don't have the time to spend on them all.  Family life made this an appealing prospect.  7/10

A Silent Voice (Jpn) (wiki)

A final anime for the evening is a surprisingly touching story of school bullying and the aftermath as both protagonist and victim grow out of their childhood selves and reflect on their actions.  Shōko is a quiet, deaf girl moving to a new area and school, while carefree Shōya has the lay of the land, knows his position high up on the classroom pecking order, and is increasingly bored and restless with school life.  Sensing the growing disquiet about the special provisions paid to this new interloper, he gives into the temptations of teasing increasingly meted on the poor girl, to help pass the time.  Boundaries are pushed and teasing becomes outright abuse, until Shōko finally leaves.  As the teachers look for a source of the trouble and the clique of classmates turn on each other, Shōya becomes scapegoat, and is himself ostracized.

Filled with remorse, and suffering several miserable years in high school, he eventually bumps back into Shōko and attempts to make amends, but a life unaccustomed to considering the feelings of others presents many challenges.

Beautifully animated, though more stylized for my liking (and very occasionally falling into the fanservice trap) it handles both the wide subject of bullying from both viewpoints and the treatment of deaf people as human beings rather well and with satisfying depth.  In particular I found the inclusion of realistic sign language gestures by the characters to be novel for animation and also the amount of time spent ensuring the gestures were detailed and accurate as well really good.  Strangely, I found that relatively small detail one of the things that elevated the film above a sludge of identikit anime melodramas.

The only thing letting down A Silent Voice was it's stodgy attempts to resolve the story in the final third, where the gang of characters - all hating or liking or just hanging out with each other - had to work things out and purge the guilt.  It may have been down to the Japanese culture of excessive apologetic and a desire not to offend, but they took their bloody time saying sorry time after time.  Chopping out ten minutes or so would have tidied it up nicely and stopped it feeling bloated. 7.5/10

Still Here

Yes, I'm still here.  Blah blah children blah no time blah.

The G Man is just coming up to his second birthday, while The D Man is just hitting seven months.  Both are adorable, although D has found the resonant frequency of my ear drums and uses it to great effect when he needs to get our attention, which is all the time he is not asleep.  Fortunately, he sleeps.

The first six months of a childs' life are the most demanding, and mercifully, we are coming out of that period now.  We're getting little smiles (adorbz, I believe is the interweb term) and laughter and he is sitting up nicely now with only the occasional topple.  A horizontal perspective rather than just looking up at the fizz of the person currently giving attention or the light shade is one of the major steps to the wider world.

Such a perspective allows him to see his big bro coming, which is just as well as his love for his brother is.. heavy handed at the moment.  The hugs come just a bit too close to choking the poor little sausage and so we always have to be there before giggling turns to cries.

Both have their own demands of our time but the pressure is abating.  The podge that I had gathered this past year is now slowly being jogged back off again thanks to a little bit of exercise time in the mornings while they snore the wallpaper off the walls, which is just as well as I'm up for the Edinburgh Marathon next year - after missing out on London for the second time and having to skip York lest I did myself an injury waddling around.  Ms. Plants herself has managed to get onto the fat fighters regime to lose '3 stone by the end of the year' (of which 1 stone has already gone), so the challenge is on.

Unsurprisingly, the festival circuit had to somehow survive with only minimal attention but I have managed to see the odd film at Leeds this year, which I will get around to talking about soon.  No plantpots again, obviously as there are more awards than films.  Maybe next year it can come back.

Leeds Film Festival 2015 - Day 6

The Assassin (Tw/Chi/HK) (wiki)

You know when you watch a typical eastern martial arts epic; it's gorgeous, fast paced and has beautifully choreographed action sequences.  The story can lurch about a bit and the characters can sometimes do stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense, but you kept watching despite not quite being able to follow along because it was so damn beautiful.
I went into The Assassin resigned to the fact that I would get a bit confused somewhere between the subtle cultural differences and the complicated character relationships where just about everybody has an X in their name so it's difficult to keep track.  I could handle that so long as I got a flavour of the goings on and it excelled in the other areas.

Unfortunately, it didn't.

Even for a film of the type so culturally unfamiliar to me it was hard to follow, to the point of throwing my hands in the air at the futility if trying to follow the disjointed plot.  The basic premise appears to be this: a young woman has been trained well in doing assassinations, and her heartless trainer for complicated political reasons releases her back to her family to murder her cousin, who is living well in a castle somewhere with his family.  But she doesn't because reasons, and things get a bit sidetracked from there in the murky middle bit, and then it finishes with the mentor trying for about 5 seconds to kill her and then giving up.

There are precious few action scenes, and the ones that do happen are badly choreographed, seemingly random and often over without any sort of resolution.  Much of the film is a mixture of beautiful shots of scenery and palaces, mixed with the people within them milling about, staring at the walls, floor and each other, or waiting just a little too long for somebody to come walking through the door.  The rest of it is protracted cushion shots that seem to be there only to pad out the runtime in a futile attempt to make the film into an 'epic'.

It never got going, and then it ended abruptly without me quite knowing what had happened.  It felt like an unfinished idea that for some reason got cobbled together into a film just for something to do, without anyone daring to tell the director that there was nothing in the film to enjoy beyond the vista.  It needed more than just beauty, and it didn't have it.  Don't go into this expecting another Hero or Crouching Tiger.  Just don't go at all.  You will be disappointed. 3.5/10


Liza the Fox-Fairy (Hun) (wiki)

My final film this year was a last-minute change.  I was originally going to see the closing gala film, Carol, but after seeing ads on the telly about it last night, meaning I could watch it any time, I decided to switch to something that I probably wouldn't get another chance to see.  I noticed that this film had topped the audience charts at one point, so it seemed like the natural choice.

Liza lives a lonely existence as a care nurse to an elderly Japanese widow.  Her only friend is Tomy Tani, the ghost of a Japanese pop star that haunts the flat she tends that only Liza can see.  When Marta suggests that Liza finds a man before it's too late, Tomy gets jealous and anyone who gets close, gets killed to death.  Distraught at the rising body count and police sniffing around, Liza happens upon the Japanese fox-fairy tales of siren-like women destined never to be loved due to their deathly curse.
The world Liza inhabits is a slightly surreal 1970's mesh of dreary buildings and badly dressed grotesque characters, giving plenty of scope for dark, absurdist humour.  And plenty of these chances are lept upon with several squeals of laughter coming from the audience, many fuelled by the sheer absurdity of some of the situations, often breaking the fourth wall and including the audience directly.  It's a refreshingly playful, enjoyable film and one I am glad I switched to see, and almost makes up for The Assassin8/10

Leeds Film Festival 2015 - Day 5

Landfill Harmonic (US/Nor/Bra/Pgy) (site)

Many documentaries exist that highlight the struggling fortunes of poor communities in second and third world countries, often with images of stinking, steaming piles of rubbish tended over with men, women and children picking through the bits before the gulls can take the edible bits away.  Often such films use this imagery as a backdrop to make some greater point.  This is one film that attempts to add a bit of depth to some of the people of these villages, and highlight something special and unique to come out of one of them.

Paraguay doesn't promise the best start in life for many of it's children, some of which live in shanty districts around landfill sites.  One such site in Cateura was visited one day by Favio, an environmental surveyor who felt an urge to do something about the apparently hopeless situation the kids find themselves in.  Being a bit handy with an instrument and with a little cash, he was able to set up a small, free school where some of the local children could come and learn to play.  As popularity grew and new instruments dried up, Favio happened upon Cola, a kindly sole from the rubbish dumps that could turn his hand to make anything.  The Landfill Orchestra was born.

This low-key but heart-warming documentary tells the unlikely story of their rise to fame as their popularity grew.  Growing from a handful of young girls screeching out something barely recognisable on early prototypes to full-on duets with Megadeth on tour, they showed that everyone with the right encouragement and a bit of lucky opportunity could touch the sky.  Go to their website if you'd like to learn more. 8/10

The Club (Chile) (wiki)

Superficially, this sounded a little bit like a Chilean Father Ted, with its premise of four disgraced priests holed up in a remote house, where the arrival of a fifth brings all sorts of krazy shenanigans.  Beyond a vaguely Jack Hackett-esque elderly priest (although far less violent) this is far less comedic and a whole lot more uncomfortable.

It seems like the director set himself a challenge to make a film where the most unpalatable examples of society could be centre stage to a film and not be completely reviled throughout.  Four men and their female carer, each with their own reasons for ending up there live a lonely but manageable existence, moved silently away from their tarnished flocks to save the face of the Catholic church.  Despite their sordid past, the details of which are only lightly touched upon, these men are portrayed as human; caring, loving, even enjoying life in their unlikely idyll, as if set free from the ties of the institution that likely contributed to their predicament.  Unfortunately, their peace is broken when the church dumps a fifth body on them, and with it the drunken, shambling form of a stalker; a broken soul who somehow followed this new entrant from afar looking for answers.

The Club was uncomfortable to watch; within it are graphical descriptions of priestly transgressions, likely adapted from the many real-life accounts which occasionally grace our newsreels.  Those looking for a sympathetic view of how the Catholic Church handles such problems are out of luck; it portrays the body much as an unfeeling monolith, dumping it's problem children where few can see and forgetting about them until they start to cause trouble.  Rather, the film at least attempts to put a human face on the transgressors, whilst not neglecting to show the damage they cause to the people they are meant to serve.

There were elements within the film that didn't quite flow right, and a few loose ends along the way that I guess were forgotten about in the cut, but it gave a daring perspective on a taboo subject rarely tackled in film, and told with a hint of blunt, dark humour.  7.5/10

Leeds Film Festival 2015 - Day 4

Just time for one today:

Son of Saul (Hun) (wiki)

In among some kitchen decorating I found myself with a few hours free without a little one to look after, and my interest was piqued by this one.  Billed as a Bourne-style tense thriller set in Auschwitz, where a battered and domesticated Jewish Sonderkommando 'dedicates himself to one last desperate act of moral redemption'.  Thinking this would involve a righteous amount of hot lead justice at some nasty Nazis, I made time to get back to Leeds - this could be a pretty exciting watch.

Son of Saul is not without it's atmosphere.  For much of the 2 hours runtime you are looking over Saul's shoulder as he is harried from one chaotic, horrible job to another.  Showing us in flashes the rendering process of bodies and possessions from end to end.  Saul's 'moral redemption' act is all the more staggering that he managed to do what he did in the midst of it all without getting killed in all manner of ways.  As a film highlighting the remaining fragments of humanity in a situation where it has been all but eradicated this film excels.
What spoiled it for me was my expectation; which not for the first time led me to spend some considerable portion of the film expecting something to happen that would never come, and I would leave disappointed.  Saul never gets a gun and goes off on a killing spree, his entirety is reduced from average human to that of a defeated mule that somehow is encouraged to surreptitiously rebel in the only way his broken self can with the life spirit he has remaining.

It is thus a difficult film to score.  Certainly, you should not watch this film expecting action thrills and a good tingly feeling that justice will be served.  Forget Bourne, don't expect Saul to snap and go mental with the bad guys, and instead expect a more moralistic work that when approached correctly will deliver a powerful punch to the gut.  I wish I could have seen it a first time over again with a different mindset. 7.5/10