Raindance Film Festival 2011

By Indy Datta

Up front, an apology for the films, I didn’t see at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, whether because I couldn’t get in to the screening, because I got the time of the screening wrong by two hours, because I got stuck at the office, or because Westminster City Council decided at the last minute that that freaky Cuban movie would warp my fragile little mind. It takes, you might argue, some kind of special incompetence to spend the bulk of one’s spare time at a film festival for a week and yet not see a single one of the festival prize winners, but this is the hand I have to play.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the reviews, in the order I saw the films.

Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011)

Rhoda (Brit Marling), a brilliant and beautiful MIT student with a stellar future is driving home from a party after a few drinks, when she’s distracted by the appearance in the night sky of an enormous and vivid new heavenly body for long enough that she collides with another car, killing a woman and child, and putting a man into a years-long coma. The distracting light in the sky is the other Earth of the title, a perfect replica of our own world, with every person on it, it turns out, possibly a perfect replica of one of us.

Another Earth, co-written by Marling with director/cinematographer Mike Cahill, will always struggle to shake off its designation as the poundshop Melancholia, but the history of its cosmic conceit massively predates Lars von Trier’s latest arthouse hit (most notably and bathetically previously doing service in John Norman’s Gor series of tits-and-warhammers shuffle books for girl-fearing virgins everywhere). And as it happens, the sudden appearance of another planet in the sky is about the least silly and most convincing thing that happens in it.

Upon her release from prison, Rhoda moves back in with her parents and gets a job as a hot willowy blonde janitor in a local school, where she forms a spiritually enriching friendship with a cutely unthreatening old ethnic minority man (Kumar Pallana).While visiting the scene of her crime she happens upon John (William Mapother), now woken from his coma, visiting the scene of his wife and son’s death. Naturally, she stalks him to his home, discovering that he lives in inertia and squalor. The film becomes the story of the way Rhoda chooses to intervene in John’s life, with a parallel thread about her applying to be the first human to set foot on the other Earth.

Like this year’s Hollywood blockbuster, The Adjustment Bureau, this year’s glossy festival opener (and Sundance prize winner) squanders a decent metaphysical SF premise on a gloopy, self-important meditation on the conundrum of free will. It has nothing to distinguish it but Marling’s photogenic presence and a quietly witty ending that goes some way to rehabilitating some of what came before.

Montevideo – Taste of a Dream (Dragan Bjelogrlic, 2010)

Now more winningly known as Montevideo – God Bless You! – a fairly straight translation of the punning Serbian title Montevideo, Bog te Video, this is the story of the journey of the first Yugoslav national football team to the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 (or, more accurately, the start of that story: the sequel is due for release in Serbia next year). Based on a novel by a celebrated Serbian sports journalist, this is very much a film to print the legend and play to the gallery. So while the core of the film is the relationship between the legendary players Blagoje “Moša” Marjanović and Aleksandar “Tirke” Tirnanić, Bjelogrlic also gives us a winsome crippled boy (Tirke’s supposed best friend) as a point of view character, and a saucy yet otherwise pointless quadrangular romantic subplot, which heavily features the lightly clothed form of Serbian actress and pinup Nina Jankovic.

Montevideo is far from a chore to watch. It’s crude, but it has energy and attractive performances, and manages to make a virtue of its cheap and cheerful approach to period colour. It’s the Serbian entry for the foreign film Oscar, but I can’t see it making the shortlist: the football subject matter won’t help it, but the main strike against it will be its unrepentant Serbian nationalism – most obviously expressed by the singing of the Serbian national anthem Bože Pravde, after a friendly victory against Bulgaria.

Uspomene 677 (Minko Pincelli, 2011)

Minko Pincelli’s documentary about the aftermath of the Bosnian war, unlike Montevideo, is painstakingly even-handed, honouring the testimony of survivors and post-war youth from the Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak communities. 677 is the number of war camps that were found to have been established during the war: detention camps, torture camps, death camps, rape camps. Pincelli gathers testimony from representatives of all three ethnic groups who were detained in such camps, often by people who had lately been their neighbours, and from teenagers from all three groups, embarking on the long journey to a world where they can trust each other again.

This is an honourable and decent piece of work, that gives deserved voice to some harrowing testimony, but a slightly dutiful and dull one. And there’s a big gap in it. When a Serbian man and a Croatian man, each of whom had been captured, held and tortured by the other side, confront each other angrily over which ethnic group had been truly wronged in Bosnia, I felt the absence in the film of those men, Serbian, Bosniak and Croat, who had been dishing out that treatment, and their testimony. And the second strand of the film, about the teenagers birthed by the war, gives itself over to banalities. One can understand the impulse behind that, but it doesn’t make for interesting viewing. Uspomene 677 has good intentions, but not much more than that.

Youth H2 – Come as You Are (Kota Yoshida, 2011)

This is a deeply peculiar sex-dramedy about an ageing slacker, who calls himself an actor but is in reality a video rental store manager, humiliated by an episode of premature ejaculation while seducing a nubile new trainee. He talks his attractive female flatmate into helping him to overcome his problem by subjecting his johnson to a punishing regimen of endurance masturbation (it won’t work if he does it himself, he claims to have been told by the internet), so that he can become a man whose virility is worthy of the youngster, who shows every sign of being equally infatuated by him. To start with, the flatmate uses a thick woolly sock to cover her hand. I don’t think that’s making it more fun for anyone.

Emotional complications, of course, ensue – but play out in pleasingly unpredictable ways, with palpable pain and emotion, and with absolutely no pandering Sundance winsomemess. I can’t decide how much credit to give Kota for that, though, as I can’t decide whether his grasp on the film’s tone is shaky (that first seduction, with the teenaged girl passed out from alcohol beneath the much older protagonist, is pretty much an attempted date rape) or fearless. Still, if your life will be incomplete until you’ve seen an endurance masturbation training montage, you need to see this film.

A note on the visuals. Either this was projected badly or it was shot in a different aspect ratio to the final presentation, and then digitally unevenly stretched out to widescreen proportions, with the result that the heads of the characters varied in shape depending on where they were in the frame. Sort it out! If I want to watch a bizarre Japanese wanking movie as if it was being shown on a badly set-up widescreen telly, I can go to my mum’s house, thanks.

Mesocafé (Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid, 2011)

Another demonstration that good intentions are not enough. It would be unfair to unload disproportionately on Mesocafé – the story of an Iraqi blogger who travels to London in 2003 in the runup to war to lobby the UN to drop the sanctions that are killing his country – it never attained the basic level of craft or storytelling competence that would justify it being shown to a paying audience and I left after half an hour, but it’s not the fault of the film makers that it was put in that position. However, I didn’t walk out because of the amateurish script and performances, or the fact that, although filmed on 16mm film, it looked like it had been filmed by a blind man on a decade-old mobile phone. I left for the same reason I turned off David Hare’s Page Eight on TV after half an hour recently: because there is nothing deadlier to political film making than assuming that your audience already agrees with you about everything and will, in the absence of any of the conventional dramatic or cinematic virtues, pay for the privilege of sitting there for the duration of your film agreeing with you and each other, while you parade a series of strawman rhetorical opponents in front of them. (And yes, I know that the career of David Hare proves that they will, but I won’t.)

Victim (Alex Pillai, 2011)

I walked out of Mesocafé into Victim – a DSLR-shot microbudget entry into the current cycle of grime-soundtracked British urban youth flicks. It’s the story of bookish Tia (Secret Diary of a Call Girl’s Ashley Madekwe) who moves in with her cousin Davina (Anna Nightingale) when she comes to London to attend college. What she doesn’t know is that Davina and her friends are violent criminals – the girls chat up, and then inveigle themselves into the flats of, gullible, sex-struck yuppie men and then the boys come steaming in to rob the places. When Tia gets close to one of the gang (Tyson – who is of course the sensitive one who wants to leave the life – played by Ashley Chin, who co-wrote the screenplay), the dynamic of the group changes, and trouble looms.

Victim is well-made (director Alex Pillai is a TV drama veteran and his style is direct, unfussy and clean – the print we were shown was ungraded, but otherwise visually slick) and has conviction, a vivid sense of place, and strong performances; particularly from Nightingale and from Letitia Wright as Tyson’s younger sister. And sitting in the crowd, I couldn’t deny it spoke to its audience. But the film’s sentimental assertion of ethnic and class victimhood is a little tiresome. It’s hard to take seriously the film makers’ claim (expressed in the Q&A afterwards) to speak for the summer riots generation, when they’re perpetuating resentful fantasies of flat-sharing City boys having safes full of cash and diamonds, just waiting to be knocked off by someone who has the gumption.

Children of the Green Dragon (Bence Miklauzic, 2010)

A likeable, if second-rate, Kaurismaki knock-off from Hungary about a sad-sack divorcé estate agent who has to sell a warehouse extra-fast for some unconvincing and contrived reason, but is frustrated in this by the Chinese warehouseman who needs to ensure, for some unconvincing and contrived reason imposed upon him by a threatening Chinese businessman/gangster, that the warehouse isn’t sold for a few weeks. Note, not “not sold at all”, just “not sold for another couple of weeks”. Into the mix of this comically low-stakes standoff, is thrown a manic pixie pizza delivery dream girl, who’s only ever going to fall for the estate agent. The scene is, then, adequately set for everyone to teach everyone else a little about the humanity they’ve lost sight of, in a pleasingly quirky and low-key way that might make even an old cynic like me shed a tear or two.

Black Pond (Will Sharpe, Tom Kingsley, 2011)

Black Pond got orders of magnitude more press coverage than anything else at Raindance, but most of that was because it marks the return to the screen of Chris Langham after his recent conviction and imprisonment for possession of child pornography. In a uncomfortable echo of this history, a significant proportion of the film is comprised of talking-head interviews with the film’s characters, who have themselves been subjected to a degree of public notoriety for a crime they are alleged to have committed, and who do talk (among other things) about how that has affected them. I will say that, watching the film, my first instinct was not that writer/directors Sharpe and Kingsley had deliberately chosen to play upon Langham’s profile and history in this way, but rather that the talking heads were there to bulk out the running time of what would otherwise be an extended short. The film makers averred as much in the post film Q&A, saying that a significant amount of what they wrote and filmed during their very brief shoot just hadn’t worked, and that they had needed to completely re-engineer their story.

In any event, that’s a sideshow to what was easily the most distinctive and entertaining film I saw at the festival. And the story really isn’t primarily about the notoriety that is visited upon the family at its centre – rather, it’s about the softly spoken, timorous stranger who interposes himself into that family for reasons best known to himself, and the effect that strange act has on both him and them. There are laughs here, but also a curious (as in strange, and questioning) tenderness, and a distinct, poetic, gently surreal, very English sensibility: the pastoral Englishness of it is like the gentle flipside of the psycho-archaeological horror of Ben Wheatley’s recent Kill List. My internal recommendation engine says, if you liked last year’s Skeletons (and if you didn’t, what the hell is wrong with you?), you might find something to admire in this, if you can look past the controversy and the occasional microbudget visual rough edges (which is not to say that the film is not visually ambitious – mixing animation with dramatic scenes, talking heads, heightened Lynchiam dream sequences).

I should also mention the cameo appearance by Simon Amstell as a possibly fraudulent psychoanalyst, which did give me my single biggest laugh of the festival, but which will annoy the living piss out of many.

In the Dark Half (Alastair Siddons, 2011)

A suburban ghost story, set on the edge of Bristol, this has a weak script, founded on a central gimmick that is too predictable in advance and too tenuous in retrospect, but benefits from lushly beautiful cinematography (cinematographer Neus Ollé-Soronellas, working with the Red One camera, one of the first of the new breed of digital cine-cameras that have revolutionised what can be achieved on very small budgets) that contributes hugely to the film’s emotionally sombre, autumnal mood.

The film’s other notable contribution is the first straight dramatic performance on film from Jessica Barden, who has shown herself to be a film-stealer in comic roles in the likes of Tamara Drewe and Hanna (someone put her in a grownup romcom as soon as she’s old enough, she’ll kill), and who is equally likeable, credible and effective here.

Flutter (Giles Borg, 2010)

Ten years from script to screen, we were told at the post-film, Q&A, which made me wonder why it was that nobody in a decade had noticed that the script was terrible. Handsome widescreen lensing and a credible name cast (including Laura Fraser, Anton Lesser, Mark Williams, Luke Evans and Billy Zane) can’t save this astonishingly idiotic and pointless farrago, which the film makers risibly consider to be a penetrating parable about the greed of modern society.

I may be jaundiced, because it starts out in one of my least favourite microgenres (“A mysterious stranger challenges our protagonist to a mysterious game. The prize is covetable, but the stakes are high. But how high?” – yes, I’m calling this a microgenre now, what?) and manages to go uniformly and speedily downhill from there. The entire story is comprised of the protagonist making inexplicable decisions that seem entirely arbitrary when measured against whatever meagre characterisation the script has afforded him, and at every step, you’re just thinking, “hey, or, you know, you could do something less stupid.”

The mysterious stranger, by the way is a glamorous female bookie who mysteriously appears at the dog track one night to snare our pro-gambler protagionist. She’s played by Anna Anassimova in one of the least watchable screen performances I can remember, and she’s called Stan. That name again, in case you didn’t get the hidden meaning: Stan.

State of Emergency (Turner Clay, 2010)

Like In the Dark Half, Turner Clay’s zombie outbreak thriller shows that cameras like the Red One mean that blockbuster quality visuals are now well within the reach of savvy low budget film makers. There’s a scene here where a survivor of the outbreak is confronted by a zombie in a Kentucky wild flower meadow at magic hour that you could use to sell zombie perfume. And generally, the suspense film-making is nicely done. The problem is, as is so often the case, the script. Every moment that isn’t about running away from zombies, hiding from zombies or fighting zombies is absolutely deadly, and I can’t help feeling that if you’re making a zombie film you shouldn’t be allowed to get away with settling for the plot: some survivors hole up overnight in a building while zombies lay siege to it.

As many horror films now do, State of Emergency starts in medias res, showing our plucky band making their last stand, before flashing back to 28 Days Earlier (the actual time period was different). The zombie outbreak in this film is limited to a “zone of emergency” and they’re waiting to be rescued by the military. For a while, I thought that the film was going to pull a clever reversal and show the military bursting in on that last stand to kill everyone and decontaminate the zone. The actual ending was hella lame.

Like Another Earth, this film feels very much like a calling card for Hollywood, though, and I expect we’ll see more of Turner Clay, just hopefully not as a writer.

Q (Laurent Bouhnik, 2011)

Utterly ridiculous, abominably pretentious, comprehensively empty French mashup of multicharacter slacker drama with hardcore sex scenes, some of which are handled with a degree of realism, and some of which looks like outtakes from the Red Shoe Diaries TV show. I’ve just remembered that my biggest laugh at the festival was not, in fact, at one of Simon Amstell’s lines in Black Pond, but at the bit in this where Cécile (Déborah Révy) demands to be vigorously fucked from every angle by, er, one of the interchangeable male characters, I honestly couldn’t tell you which one a few days later, only to break off mid-fuck sobbing and wailing, ”I can’t feel anything!”.

It makes you think and it makes you horny.

Raindance Film Festival Website

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