Leeds Film Festival Report no. 2

Part two of my Leeds International Film Festival reports is finally here! Read the first post here. There will be a third and final look at the feature films of the festival, and then a look at the best of the short films I saw. Again any Booking Scheme titles will be clearly highlighted below. The Rocket  was announced this weekend as the Audience Award winner and is reviewed below. 

The Rocket | Kim Mourdant | 2013 | Australia | 96 min
(BFFS Booking Scheme title: Available Summer 2014)

Set and filmed in Laos The Rocket has an unexpectedly dark beginning, a woman, Mali, gives birth to twins but only one survives. The Akha people believe twins are cursed and Mali’s mother to convince her to kill the baby before his bad luck ruins the family, but Mali refuses. Some years later the surviving son, Ahlo, draws renewed suspicion when their village is evacuated so a dam can be built at the top of the valley. During the journey to the Nan Dee Relocation Camp Mali dies in a freak accident and the rest of the family struggle to get by in the impoverished camp.

Ahlo befriends an orphan, Kia, and her adoptive father, known only as Uncle Purple, an alcoholic James Brown lover, whose memories of his time in the Vietnam War have left more than a few scars. It is not long before Ahlo inadvertently brings the wrath of the camp’s inhabitants down upon his family after he redirects the electricity to Uncle Purple’s house so he can watch James Brown DVDs. Ahlo’s family is forced on the move again and eventually arrive on the outskirts of a town preparing for the annual Rocket Festival – a tournament of home-made rockets, many of them built from the remains of the unexploded bombs that litter the countryside. Ahlo finally sees an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his family and to win enough money to buy them a house.

Mourdant has previously worked as a documentary film-maker and his background is evident in the way the narrative is shaped by the wider political and economic upheavals of Laos’s recent history. As much as this adds to our understanding of Laos and the troubles that befalls Ahlo’s family The Rocket is also a terrific, sweet, and enjoyable story in its own right. Although it delves into occasionally dark subject matter and deals along the way with alcoholism, poverty and death it is at heart an optimistic and uplifting film. Among the audience I saw it with were numerous families and the children loved every minute of it, even with the subtitles.

The Tenant | Roman Polanski | 1976 | France | 126 min

Another paranoia-infused apartment based thriller after last weeks screening of Possession, Polanski’s thriller is an oblique, occasionally mystifying and wholly engrossing film. Polanski stars as Trelkovsky who arrives at an apartment block and inquires about a free room – the concierge seems surprised and asks how he knew about it: “a friend…no, a relative told me about it”. It turns out that the apartment isn’t quite vacated yet – the previous tenant, Simone, threw herself out of the window (the concierge gleefully points out where she landed) and is in hospital, but, not to worry, she isn’t going to survive her injuries.

Trelkovsky is intrigued by the fate of Simone and visits her in hospital where he meets Stella, a friend of the ex-tenant. While he gradually befriends Stella and tries to woo her he is distracted by the increasingly strange behaviour of the other tenants in his building. From his window he can see into the communal bathroom where he frequently sees people standing stock still for hours at a time. At the cafe across the road the waiter constantly serves him as if he were Simone, giving him hot chocolate instead of coffee and the wrong brand of cigarettes. And then there all the complaints about the noise coming from his flat, even when he isn’t there. Polanski layers on the mystery slowly and as he gets increasingly paranoid Trelkovsky starts to relate more and more to Simone until he starts to impersonate her.

The Tenant is a fantastically twisty thriller of two halves – one eerie and mysterious, the second far more demented – though the transition feels rushed, each half is tremendous.

The Retrieval | Chris Eska | 2013 | USA | 92 min

In the Q&A that followed the film Eska talked about how when he makes a film he sets out with a certain emotional point that he wants to reach and the story follows that goal. It’s an interesting method, and one that can pay dividends, but in the case of The Retrieval in order to reach that ending he has to rely on some slightly questionable decisions from the characters. The set-up works fine but a development about half way through makes the end point a contrivance to reach in the way that it does and I can’t help but wonder if there would have been a better way to reach it.

Aside from this issue though The Retrieval is a very impressive of work and the budgetary limitations that Eska overcame to deliver such an authentic period piece is impressive. The performances, from mostly non-professional or first-time actors, are tremendous and the sense of time and place is beautifully achieved.  The ending itself is powerful, and while I criticise how the film reaches it, on the whole it is a relatively minor problem. It is after all common  for a film to strain credibility in order to wrangle the plot to where the filmmaker wants it to go, and it only troubles me so much in this case because the rest of the film is so good. Its frustrating because it prevents the film from being as great as it could be.

Unfortunately The Retrieval is almost certainly going to be overlooked because of higher profile slavery films like 12 Years A Slave, Lincoln or even Django Unchained with which this shares a few story beats, if nothing of the tone or excess. And that’s a real tragedy because this film has a lot going for it and would play very well with most audiences. Hopefully this is a situation where the community cinema sector can help (when it gets distribution).

Nebraska | Alexander Payne | 2013 | USA | 115 min

Woody Grant, a non-quite recovered alcoholic, believes he has won a million dollars after receiving a sweepstakes letters in the mail, the kind that everyone else knows is a scam and promptly bins. As the film opens Woody is trudging along along the highway as he sets out to collect the money in person and on foot because “you can’t send a million dollars in the mail”, and because his driving licence has been revoked. He’s soon picked up by the police and returned home where his wife Kate, a delightfully cantankerous  June Squibb, berates him for his stupidity. But Woody is relentlessly stubborn and keeps trying until his son David reluctantly offers to drive him the 800-miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money. David sees this as an opportunity to spend some time with his dad, with whom he has never been particularly close to, particularly as it appears Woody doesn’t have too long left. And it just so happens that the road to Nebraska takes them through the town Woody grew up in.

Nebraska is a Alexander Payne film through and through, and while that is never a bad thing, apart from the switch to black and white there is no drive to do anything new. Everything happens just as you expect it to in an Alexander Payne film. Fortunately in Woody Payne has given us a truly great character, a bitterly funny and sad old man who has had this family coalesce around him without ever intending it and just wants to have a bit of his own life back. It’s a film that’s hard not to like, but I still can’t help feel a little disappointed that it didn’t hold any surprises.

Le Cercle Rouge | Jean-Pierre Melville | 1970 | France, Italy | 140 min

Le Cercle Rouge opens with an epigraph, reportedly from the Buddha, that talks of the inevitable day when men will come together in ‘the red circle’. Melville invented the passage but it serves to underline the film’s two philosophical themes: fate and guilt.  The Director of Internal Affairs warns Mattei, the police chief in charge of apprehending Vogel, a fugitive who escapes from a prison-bound train at the film’s beginning, that “All men are guilty. They are born innocent but it doesn’t last”. Mattei is inclined to give Vogel the benefit of the doubt but it is not long before the Director is proven right.

After escaping through the woods Vogel hides in the boot of a car in order to pass through the police roadblocks set up to capture him. In a rather absurd coincidence the car belongs to Corey, a thief just released from prison. Absurd, but inevitable. Without explaining why Corey helps Vogel to escape and then convinces him to help out on an audacious theft of  a jewellery store. After recruiting ex-policemen Jansen as their third man, the three of them stage an incredible heist that Melville depicts in real time. It is a tremendous set-piece that takes place without a word of dialogue – 25 wordless, breathless minutes that portray the extraordinary pay-off from exact and meticulous planning. However their failure to find a trustworthy fence to pass the stolen jewels on to allows Mattei to craft a trap around them. A superb piece of film-making that combines philosophical despair and crime thriller.

Cold Eyes | Ui-seok Jo, Byung-seo Kim | 2013 | South Korea | 119 min

A surprisingly rare negative reaction to Cold Eyes that I came across described it as the ‘Korean Spooks‘ (the BBC MI5 series that focused on young attractive spies on implausible investigations that became increasingly far-fetched as the series went on) which is the perfect description provided you didn’t really like Spooks very much. It focuses on a team of crack surveillance experts who are trying to catch a gang of hi-tech bank-robbers led by a predictably sadistic mastermind. Yoon-Jo is the film’s heroine a young and brilliant agent who is recruited at the beginning of the film and is then quickly whisked through all the expected cliches that new team members go through in this sort of films. By the end of the film she has grown as a person and is accepted as an established member of the team and the story culminates in a moment that harks back to a scene earlier in the film which you always knew was going to be important because every beat of the story has been seen before. Cold Eyes is as predictable as they come.
The team have silly code-names like Piglet and Squirrel and there’s a fair few attempts at light humour. The balancing act between these cute elements and the frequent graphic violence  is an unsteady one, and often fails.
If this was made in Hollywood it would be quickly dismissed as ‘yet another action film’, but for some reason Cold Eyes is attracting undue praise for what is, really, just a standard thriller; while some admittedly impressive action sequences elevate it from being completely run of the mill.

Leviathan | Lucian Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | France, UK, USA | 87 min
(BFFS Booking Scheme title from 22 March 2014)

There’s a funny scene halfway through Leviathan where we watch one of the fishermen slowly fall asleep while watching a TV series about trawler-men, depicted as dramatically as possible “Coming up… Pain! Brotherhood!”. It’s a nice dig at the unrealistic depictions of life that are jazzed up and carefully edited to be as exciting as possible. In reality the trawlermen’s life is one of wordless ritual, quiet efficiency and empty hours waiting, watching TV.  When we see the men work in Leviathan it is startling not because of how dangerous it is but because of how skilled they are. We watch as they gut fish and cut oysters open at incredible speed or wordlessly haul in the nets – each man doing exactly what he needs do when he needs to. In its own way its as mesmerising as the more dramatic footage of storms and danger we might otherwise be watching.

But the humans aren’t the real focus of Leviathan (in the credits the fish and other animals, under their Latin names, receive as high a billing as the people) – instead it’s the scenes amongst the sea, piles of fish or flocks of seagulls that are the film’s highlights. Leviathan is filmed on GoPros, small portable, waterproof cameras that are usually used for filming extreme sports. In this they are used to film sequences that no cameraman could ever accomplish. They are tied to the boat and dropped in the sea, attached to nets or poles and cast out to fetch images that beggar belief. There are several stand-out sequences that rank among the most astonishing and jaw-dropping I have ever seen. In one, and I have no idea how it was accomplished, the camera looks up at a flock of seagulls chasing the boat, then rises through the flock, birds nudging the camera, and up above them where it flips over to look down upon the gulls. In another shot the camera is upside down and bounces in and out of the water as the fishermen cast off unwanted fish from the boat. At first it looks like the fish are flying above the waves until you realise the camera is upside down and that this is under the water, it’s night so it’s hard to tell which side is which, and the effect is astonishing. The final sequence, and the one in which the Leviathan of the title is revealed, sent shivers down my spine. I stood up as the credits played, dumbstruck, and stayed there until it had finished.

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