Friday, June 19, 2009

Day Two - “ As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer.”

Featured review of the day: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Modern Love Is Automatic

Low-budget black comedy about a terminally apathetic nurse (Melodie Sisk) who becomes a dominatrix.

Directed by Zach Clark, Modern Love Is Automatic plays like a low-budget version of Belle de Jour with a dash of Russ Meyer. Melodie Sisk (who is, let's be clear about this, smoking hot) plays Lorraine, a terminally apathetic nurse who even reacts to walking in on her cheating boyfriend with a disinterested stare. Dumping the boyfriend, she continues to ignore co-workers and potentially interested new doctors alike, until an opportunity for some S&M sex work suggests itself and she begins a potentially liberating sideline as a dominatrix. Meanwhile, Lorraine's super-perky new roommate (Maggie Ross), fresh from graduating top of her modelling class, struggles to deal with the seedy realities of her chosen profession and also fails to notice that her boyfriend Mitch (Carlos Bustamante) is becoming increasingly obsessed with Lorraine. Despite its low budget and its occasionally dodgy production values (which means that it's unfortunately unlikely to receive a theatrical release), I really enjoyed this and found myself thinking more and more about it as the day went on. Sisk is simply sensational, despite having minimal dialogue and presenting the same blank-faced stare throughout the majority of the film. Of course, this means that when she finally takes even the slightest step towards a normal human reaction (such as silently gripping the hands of a distraught blonde colleague), it's surprisingly moving. On a similar note, I'm tempted not to reveal the film's best scene (so look away now if you're spoiler-averse), but it concludes with a beautifully directed and superbly acted karaoke scene that's both heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time. The film's also shot through with jet-black humour (X's job as a mattress-saleswoman is as funny as it is depressing) and Clark uses a neat device of using want ads as occasional onscreen captions. Also, Lorraine's latex catsuit will stay with me for a very long time. Speaking of which, the programme warns of sexually explicit imagery, but that's not really the case – there's no nudity and the S&M imagery (including a rapid-fire montage that should be popular on DVD) didn't seem to merit the warning, unless you're very easily offended. Anyway, I was initially going with three stars, but having slept on it and thought about it, I'm upgrading to four. Worth seeking out. I'll also be keeping a close eye on Sisk's career in future, as she's something of a cult actress in the making.

Black Dynamite

Note-perfect Blaxploitation pastiche, starring Michael Jai White as a superbad Shaft-alike sticking it to The Man in revenge for the murder of his brother.

Directed by Scott Saunders, Black Dynamite stars Michael Jai White (who co-wrote the script) as superbad Shaft-alike Black Dynamite, who takes to the streets and sticks it to The Man in revenge for the murder of his younger brother. The jokes come thick and fast and the attention to detail is so good that if you didn't know better, you'd swear this was a recently unearthed 1970s film. Clearly Saunders loves him some 1970s Blaxploitation – the funk score is perfect and the fight scenes (complete with wildly over-the-top sound effects) are fabulous. It's also packed with brilliantly quotable lines (“Now who the HELL interruptin' my kung fu?”) and the absurdly ripped White is superb as Black Dynamite – hopefully he'll be back for Black Dynamite 2. However, that said, the film drags horribly in the middle section where the plot gets hopelessly confused and the jokes all start to repeat themselves. I sat with a row full of fellow film reviewers and we all laughed uproariously for the first 30 minutes or so, then sat in mute silence for another 40 minutes before the film rallied for an admittedly hilarious finale. Favourite exchange: “We didn't tell you about your brother, because we didn't want you to cause rivers of blood in the streets” / “So just tell me who did it and I'll only make a little puddle”. Three stars.

Coming soon:

Fish Tank

British drama from Red Road director Andrea Arnold, starring Katie Jarvis as an angry young teenager whose life changes when her mother (Kierston Wareing) brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).

This is actually going to be the featured review on Day Eight, so I'll keep this relatively short, but this is currently my Film of the Festival so far, in joint first place with Mary and Max. Newcomer Katie Jarvis stars as 15 year-old Mia, who's warring with the girls on her estate (she delivers one of them a vicious headbutt in the opening five minutes so you know not to mess with her) and doesn't get on with either her constantly partying mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) or her bratty, foul-mouthed younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Her only passion is dancing, which she practices in secret in an empty flat on the top floor, although in a spot of early SYMBOLISM she's also slightly obsessed with freeing a hungry-looking horse she encounters tethered to a lump of concrete on a patch of wasteland. However, things begin to change when her mother brings home charming, charismatic new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor's likeable presence actually begins to draw the family closer together, but is he everything that he seems? This is a stunningly well directed film, with scenes so beautiful that it's almost painful to watch them. Arnold's style recalls the Dardennes Brothers' films, in that we spend the entire movie following one character around, semi-documentary style, except that Arnold's camera is subjective, reflecting Mia's inner life – for example, the scene where Connor picks up a pretending-to-be-asleep Mia and puts her to bed is filmed with tight close-ups and with the action slowed down (telling us everything we need to know about how Mia feels about Connor at that point) and then she has her arm over her face, so the camera only half sees as he gently undresses her for bed. This scene is also a neat encapsulation of the entire film: Connor removes Mia's shoes and then there's a tense moment where he slides off her trousers and you suddenly doubt his intentions...only for him to quietly fold her trousers, cover her with a blanket and tip-toe out of the room. As for Katie Jarvis, she ought to be a shoo-in for every acting award going – it's easy to see why she was the sensation of Cannes this year, and why Hollywood have already signed her up. Aside from being a great dancer (her little routines are a joy to watch and Arnold films them against the bright blue paint of the abandoned flat, giving the scenes a happy, colourful feel), she's tough, funny, and, at times, genuinely heart-breaking to watch. There's also strong support from the ubiquitous Fassbender (giving an equally extraordinary, complex performance – like Mia, we like him and want to trust him, though unlike Mia, we're never entirely sure if we can) and from Wareing, while Griffiths steals almost every scene she's in by coming out with some brilliant lines (“I like you – I'll kill you last”) and Harry Treadaway shines in a low-key role as Mia's “pikey” sort-of boyfriend. Arnold includes several wonderful scenes, but highlights include: the entire day-trip sequence, but particularly the fishing scene and Joanne interrupting Mia showing Connor her dancing skills; Mia visiting Connor at work; the audition sequence; and a heart-stopping sequence towards the end of the film that it would be churlish to spoil any further. Hmmm. Okay, so that wasn't as relatively short as I'd hoped, but that only goes to show how wonderful a film it was. Frankly, it's a masterpiece and, I would think, a shoo-in for the Michael Powell award. Five stars.

High Life

Comedy about a group of mostly ex-con junkies planning a heist.

Directed by Gary Yates, High Life is set in 1983 and stars Timothy Olyphant as Dick, a hopeless junkie ex-con who gets fired from his job when his ex-cellmate Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre) visits him on his first day out of prison. For Bug, the 80s present something of a culture shock: there's weird music (New Wave), everyone's doing different drugs (coke is in, LSD is out) and banks have these new-fangled cash machines that he doesn't quite understand. However, Bug's cash machine-based confusion gives Dick an idea for a heist that could solve all their cash flow problems in one fell swoop. In the meantime, Dick sets about recruiting jittery ex-con Donnie (chameleonic British actor Joe Anderson) and smooth-talking, really, really good-looking fellow drug addict Billy (Rossif Sutherland, brother of Kiefer), who's not an ex-con, but that shouldn't be a problem. Should it? Needless to say, with all four characters such hopeless junkies, the heist doesn't go entirely as planned... I enjoyed this very much. Timothy Olyphant's always been one of my favourite actors (although I STILL haven't seen seasons 2 and 3 of Deadwood) and he's on good form as Dick, even if, as the relative straight man, he doesn't have much to do beyond a series of exasperated reaction shots towards the end. As for the supporting cast, McIntyre's Bug is a genuinely terrifying creation: psychotic, unpredictable, treacherous and yet also kind of pathetic. Anderson is good too, but Rossif Sutherland almost steals the film as Billy (he bears an uncanny resemblance to Billy Zane, so the name might not be coincidence), particularly in the post-heist scenes. The script was loosely based on a two-act play (which took place in Dick's apartment and then the car outside the bank – the joke being that they're such bickering fuck-ups that they never even get out of the car), but Yates does a good job of expanding the story and taking it in several delightfully unexpected directions. The dialogue crackles with great lines such as “Just because you hit someone and they die, doesn't mean you killed them” and “Look at you! Like a pink Chuck Norris!” and there are several lovely throwaway gags too, such as a cut to Dick's film society screenings in prison where they're all watching Polanski's The Tenant (“What the fuck is this shit?”), or Donnie expounding on his method of stealing old ladies' purses and returning them afterwards. There's also a brilliant sight gag that's slightly spoiled by the film's publicity stills (see above), though it's still funny even if you know it's coming. Anyway, this was very enjoyable and a good addition to the ranks of blackly comic heist movies such as The Ladykillers (an acknowledged influence) and Palookaville. Four stars. Also, weirdly, it used the exact same New Order song (Age of Consent - I had to ask which song it was in the Q&A) as Modern Love Is Automatic this morning.

Easier With Practice

Drama starring Brian Geraghty as a writer who becomes involved in a strange, entirely phone-based relationship with a woman he's never met.

Absolutely brilliant and my third favourite film of the festival so far. Written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Easier With Practice stars Brian Geraghty as Davy Mitchell, a writer on a promotional tour, with his asshole brother Sean (Kel O'Neill) along for the ride. One night, Davy receives a seemingly random call in his motel room, from a total stranger calling herself Nicole (voiced by Kathryn Aselton), who talks him into an intense bout of phone sex that sparks off a bizarre, erotic but ultimately meaningful relationship. As the tour continues, Davy and Nicole talk to each other every night, sharing their innermost feelings while also continuing their phone sex encounters; both admit that in some way they prefer phone relationships to real relationships. However, Nicole refuses to give Davy her phone number, telling him that she's got a boyfriend, a situation that eventually leads to them fighting, whereupon Nicole stops calling. When his book tour ends, Davy is drawn into a possible relationship with Samantha (Marguerite Moreau), an attractive ex-work colleague he once had a one-night stand with, but he finds that he can't get Nicole out of his head and determines to persuade her to meet him if she ever calls again. This is a superbly written, beautifully directed film with a wonderful central performance from Brian Geraghty (who's also here with The Hurt Locker). It's based on an autobiographical magazine article called “What are you wearing?”by Davy Rothbart, but I'd advise you not to google the article till you've seen the film. There are some brilliant scenes, from the quite hard-to-watch opening phone sex sequence (to the two idiots standing right in front of me at the crucial moment – thanks a lot, you fucking morons), to a superb montage sequence that indicates time passing on the book tour and an excruciating and extremely tense game of “Two truths and a lie”. The dialogue's superb too – lines I've written down include, “I'd hardly call myself an intellectual, sitting here jerking off in a station wagon in the parking lot of a New Mexico motel” and “A conscious asshole is hardly an asshole”. There are also some great sight gags, such as Davy's car unfortunately breaking down next to a massive piece of graffiti that reads “Eat My Asshole” in block capitals. There's also strong support from Moreau and from O'Neill (who's incredibly obnoxious and kind of weird), as well as Jeannette Brox as Sean's what-does-she-see-in-him girlfriend Sarah. However, what really stands out is Geraghty's deeply moving performance and an extraordinarily generous, completely unexpected ending that packs a powerful emotional punch. Highly recommended. Four stars.

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