Oct 19, 2012

24FPS @ LFF 2012: Diary 18/10

Dir: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
Punk, in all honesty, isn't a terrible film, it's just one I feel like I've seen several hundred times before; one more in a long line of “I'm sixteen and angry at my Dad” movies. Looking as though it is set in the late 1970's among the French punk scene, and involving a couple of clashes between skinhead and anti fascist punks, the film it is most obviously comparable to is Shane Meadows' This is England, and that does Punk no favours at all.

Paul (Paul Bartel) is about sixteen, and lives with his Mother (Beatrice Dalle). He resents his absent Father, but has a few friends in the hardcore punk scenes and a Father figure at the gym he trains at. There's little in the way of story, and many trite scenes that we've seen in all of these films; the same fights with Mum, long anticipated confrontation with Dad, gang fights, fights with a girlfriend (Marie-Ange Casta, who shows up for about ten minutes total and contributes little of note aside from her fantastic breasts). None of it is notably terrible, but everything feels so rote, so seen it all before and so aimless.

Bartel and the rest of the non-professional cast do well enough, and Dalle remains a peculiarly fascinating presence, even in a role as thin as this, but I was never invested in Paul or his relationships.

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire is, apparently, yet another victim of the disease that makes its sufferers abandon technique in favour of 'realism'. In this case the most irksome feature is the fact that the film frequently looks like the focus puller fell asleep at his station. According to the LFF brochure the film is not set in the late 1970's as I thought. So when is it set? Sauvaire's design offers no clues, and if it is supposed to be contemporary why does nobody own a mobile phone? These are small details, but they all add up to create a satisfying picture of a world, and when they are missing that process is undermined.

I found Punk a wearing experience. I tired of its feedback loop of scenes of people shouting at each other between taking drugs, I found myself distinctly underwhelmed too by its desire to shock (a completely random scene featuring two transsexual hookers buying drugs) and annoyed by the level of cliché (yes, the obligatory traumatic haircut scene is here). However, the worst scene comes near the end, when Paul goes backstage at punk gig and get some spectacularly trite psych 101 advice from a singer, at which juncture Sauvaire may just as well put a flashing caption “THE POINT” on screen. It's a predictable and rather empty point, and getting there is a long and tedious process.

Dir: Sean Baker
The most frustrating experience as a critic is seeing a film you want to like, that you like parts of, but which doesn't manage to live up to its potential. On that note: Starlet.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a relatively new pornstar working in the San Fernando Valley. Furnishing her new rented room she picks up a large thermos at a yard sale, intending to use it as a vase. When she's first using the thermos, Jane discovers thousands of dollars in it. She spends some of the money and, feeling guilty about both that and the fact that Sadie (Besedka Johnson), the woman she bought the thermos from, clearly has no idea that there was money in it and won't take it back, Jane decides to befriend this irascible old woman.

In story terms, half of Starlet is excellent. The relationship between Sadie and Jane is original and well drawn by Baker's screenplay. It does go through all the familiar beats, as the suspicious Sadie slowly accepts Jane into her life and the sunny Jane works on brightening Sadie's life a little. Their interactions are funny, and the growing warmth that slowly seeps into Hemingway and Johnson's interactions with each other feels genuine.

For all that he does hit some familiar beats with his screenplay, Baker does have some more original touches, largely in what he doesn't include. Another film might have a forced heart to heart between Sadie and Jane about Jane's job, but it's never addressed (or judged), and the discussion about the money, which could hang over the film, never arises between them. This might feel like an oversight, but that scene could only really be a cliché, and I'm glad it's not there.

The two central performances are really the key. Johnson is prickly, irascible and often very funny while Hemingway is all sunshine and good intentions (so much so that after a while I forgot that she'd begun the film by, essentially, stealing from a woman in her eighties). Between them they make the half of the film that concentrates on this relationship both compelling and endearing.

The other side of the film, dealing with Jane's work and her friends in the porn industry (including her housemates Stella Maeve and James Ransone) is problematic in that it lacks that same appeal, has some serious issues with some of the performances, and suffers from a real tonal mismatch with the Jane/Sadie story. Worse is the decision to use hardcore insert shots during the scene that shows Jane going about her day job. I get that the film is going for gritty and realistic here, but it's undermined by the fact that it couldn't be more obvious that Dree Hemingway isn't the one performing these shots, and also by the fact that the scene feels completely gratuitous and out of place. It exists so that something can go wrong while Sadie is dogsitting for Jane, but there's no reason we need to see Jane at work, and certainly no reason for those hardcore shots, which will only limit the audience for a film that could otherwise have wider appeal. The tonal mismatch is stunning. The Jane/Sadie story is a film I would happily take my Mum to see, but the rest of the film totally and needlessly precludes that, and that's a real pity.

Starlet is Sean Baker's first feature, and you can tell. Visually the film is hamstrung by what is either technical incompetence or one of the worst artistic choices of the festival. Almost every other shot in the film, including every shot that takes place outside, is ridiculously overexposed, the light blown out to a distracting degree. Assuming the film was being correctly projected and that Baker and DP Radium Cheung aren't totally incompetent when it comes to lighting (and I suspect it was, and they're not, because the shots that aren't blown out are reasonably well composed) this is an inexplicable choice, and it nearly cripples the film.

I want to recommend Starlet, there are such good things in it, and Dree Hemingway makes a great impression and, I suspect, has as bright a future as her Mother, Mariel, but ultimately the film is so uneven. The good parts are well worth seeing, but really not enough reason to rush out and pay festival or cinema prices.

Love Story
Dir: Florian Habicht
Before our screening of Love Story began, co-writer/director/star Florian Habicht came in and told us about the genesis of the film, he'd seen a woman on the subway in New York and he had given her his email address so they could meet up again, but after waiting to hear from her, he realised he had given her an old address. He then spent several days walking around the place where he'd seen her, asking people if they'd seen a woman of her description, before giving up because in a city the size of New York it was ridiculous. He has, however, got a movie out of it. A movie this woman was watching with us yesterday.

Love Story is about the most generic title you could imagine, but Habicht's film is anything but generic. Boy (Habicht) meets girl holding a slice of cake (Masha Yakovenko). Boy misses his chance to see girl holding a slice of cake again. Boy finds girl (no longer holding a slice of cake) and from there, things get strange. Rather than just make a love story, Habicht appears to have his film largely written by vox pop. In what seem to be genuine interviews with real New Yorkers on the street (including one whose cab he abruptly jumps in) he elicits the twists and turns of his film. Some ideas are generic (looking for something to go wrong during his sex scene the first usable suggestion is that he loses his erection), others are unexpectedly original (interviewing a man who would likely place in New York's top 10 nerdiest he asks what kind of romantic gesture he should use to bring himself and the girl, Marsha, back together and gets a genuinely different and rather beautiful suggestion).

The blending and blurring of fact and fiction is cleverly done, and even when something is quite clearly staged (when it's clear that there are several angles he can choose from, for instance) it's incredibly easy to invest in because Habicht is such an endearing presence, and because he's established a (peculiar) sort of reality.

Love Story is extremely original, often funny and sometimes unexpectedly moving (a question about first love elicits an incredible story from a homeless man). I can see that some people will find the structure and the occasional preciousness annoying, but I found myself totally wrapped up, charmed by the story and impressed by the originality of the telling.

Teddy Bear
Dir: Mads Matthiesen
The Teddy Bear of this film's title is a man, Dennis (Kim Kold); a gentle giant of a professional bodybuilder, living in Denmark with his elderly mother (Elsebeth Steentoft). Dennis' uncle has just come back from Thailand with a pretty young wife, and he suggests that his nephew make the same trip. Dennis takes the trip, but lies to his controlling mother about where he is going.

Teddy Bear is a wonderfully warm film, and that's largely down to the character of Dennis, and to Kim Kold's excellent performance. Kold is huge; clearly a real bodybuilder, and you can imagine him to be a scary guy to run into, but he makes Dennis totally disarming with a performance full of crippling shyness outside of the stage, and a simple, sweet, endearing nature. This doesn't mean that Dennis isn't complex. The relationship with his Mother is well drawn, and we get hints that while he's grown up as a man who is polite almost to a fault this relationship has also, whether passively or actively, prevented him from forming other relationships.

The film isn't exactly jam packed with surprises. The Thailand section of the film has some nice comic moments as Dennis tries to deal with aggressive advances of the prospective matches, but that part of the film really takes off when he goes to a gym and meets the widowed owner (Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard). The relationship between her and Dennis is sweet and Kold and Hougaard, while a decidedly odd couple, do have an awkward kind of chemistry between them which makes for some laughs and some very touching moments (a shot of the two in bed together, fully clothed, combines the two to fine effect).

Both an unconventional romance and a coming of (middle) age story, Teddy Bear does both well. It's a real shame that Kim Kold's very specific look may restrict the roles he's offered in future, because his small but hugely expressive performance is the engine of this charming little film.

Dir: Chris James Thompson
Titled The Jeffrey Dahmer Files in the LFF brochure, but going by Jeff on its title card, this documentary is a strange one by any title.

Director Thompson combines interviews with three key witnesses to the investigation of Dahmer; Detective Pat Kennedy, who took his confession; medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen and Dahmer's neighbour Pamela Bass with archive TV footage and some oddly chosen reconstructions in which Dahmer (Andrew Swant) goes about first day to day activities then things related to the murders (which are never themselves depicted).

The construction is simply bizarre, and while the interviews – the one with extravagantly moustachioed Kennedy in particular – are riveting in what they reveal both about Dahmer and about the interviewees, you can't help but feel that only having three people talking, and having them constantly interrupted by the reconstructions is somewhat like looking through a keyhole at Mount Everest. The reconstructions just don't work, they tell us nothing that couldn't be better related by the interviews, and while they are well shot (on what looks like 16mm) they don't bolster our understanding of Dahmer at all, and feel rather aimless. I, and I suspect many other audience members, soon began greeting them with a sigh.

The parts of the story the film addresses are well told, and Chris James Thompson clearly knows the questions to ask. He's also made a stylish film, it looks striking in the reconstruction scenes, and the repeated use of Swedish electro band The Knife on the soundtrack is perfect, given their chilling, doomy music. It's just a shame that the film's brief seems so restricted, and thus it feels incomplete.

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