BIFF 2011 - Day 2

Limelight (US) (wiki)

This was Charlie Chaplin's last US film and the one that, thanks to their on-screen chemistry and Chaplins' own personal recommendation, started the long and distinguished career of Claire Bloom, who is being treated to a retrospective of films at this years' festival, starting with this one, 'the story of a ballerina and a clown'.

Chaplin plays Calvero, an ageing music hall clown whose best days are now far behind. These days he survives by his dreams of olden days and as much alcohol as he can get his hands on. One day in a drunken haze, he discovers Teresa (Bloom), a young woman trying to commit suicide in the flat a few floors down. Perhaps fulfilling a need in his life, he takes her in and inspires her with his enthusiasm about the life he knows exists but is beyond his grasp, and his philosophising as to the nature of existence and life, and slowly she returns to health, although psychological damage and a broken heart yearning for a soul mate holds her back from her dreams of ballet.

Chaplin had his hands in the direction, storylines and the choreography, and his hand is present throughout the film, boasting a number of sketches that wouldn't be out of place in his early repertoire. There seemed to be a lot of sentimentality in the script for the old days, and perhaps the underlying desire for Chaplin to recount his life made for a film that was in many ways autobiographical. As well as his character of the sad clown resurrected for one final time, the relationship between his character and Teresa reflected his own marriage to a much younger woman.

Sometimes the sentimentality for his glory days did seep out into the other parts of the film, and it felt a little self-aware; but there was much to enjoy here, and the bitter-sweet theme was made even stronger with the feeling of a personal message from Chaplin himself running through it. A knowingly self-referential sketch duo with fellow silent film star Buster Keaton was an extra bonus. 7.5/10

Vacation (Ger) (review)

Another retrospective going on during the festival is that of Thomas Arslan, Vacation being the first of his films to be shown at BIFF during 2007. Vacation is set in a beautiful German countryside retreat outside of Berlin, run as a guest house by long-divorced Anna, who has decided to invite over her extended family to stay with her, her care-worn partner Robert, and his son Max, currently enjoying his teenage knoodling with tag-along girlfriend Zoe.

Anna's daughter Laura arrives with hubby Paul and two kids, and just to fill out the generations, the grandma of the family arrives, although she has looked better and seems a bit out of sorts. Sophie, who hasn't been much in touch with her sister Laura eventually makes it over as well.

You can probably tell where all this is leading; long repressed issues raise their ugly heads, and more than one family member has something shocking to bring to the table, one of the biggest is Laura's carrying on with another man. Anna's big reunion as you might expect doesn't go according to plan.

However, it's not overplayed, and you shouldn't bother if things unfolding at life's pace is not your bag. It's another slice of life relationship drama. All the principal characters act and react as you might expect them to in real life, without the additional melodramatics that sometimes get used in order to spice up an otherwise drab script. It's a matter of opinion whether that renders this film similarly dull, but I enjoyed getting to know the family, who were convincing enough by the end for me to want them to work things out. 7/10

Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (US) (site)

The screening began with one of the thousands of films that Amos Vogel screened to his audiences over the twenty or so years of Cinema 16: 'Living in a Reversed World' was a short documentary about an experiment in how, when a volunteer has their view of up and down switched, they can be trained to make their brains see the world as the right way up once more. To a modern audience it was probably more humorous than was intended, but symbolised exactly Vogels' view of showing that which would otherwise not be seen.

Vogel grew up in Vienna, but fled to New York to escape the Nazis. There, he fell in love with the people and the vibrancy, but was less than impressed by the film scene at the time, which was very conservative. So he set up the Cinema 16 project, where he would show experimental, avant-garde and generally overlooked films to those who would come and see them, not realising the number of people out there who were after something more than the safe banker-films that were showing in the commercial cinemas. After some legal wranglings with the censorship board, and Cinema 16's graduation into an official film society which fortunately solved them, the project went from strength to strength with Vogel constantly at the helm, his aim at every screening was to show a half-dozen films that were deliberately picked to subvert the expectations of his audience. As Vogel himself points out, it didn't matter whether the people liked the film choices or not, they went out of the cinema that day with plenty of food for thought.

Being a fan of film, and in particular having a similar passion to Vogel in the encouragement of people to give these sorts of films a chance, it really spoke to me; many documentaries have had an effect on me without the subject matter being so close, so this one hit home doubly so. I recommend this film heartily to anyone with a film interest beyond the mainstream, and I'll definitely be on the look-out for his book. 8/10

Calculus of Love (UK) - The first of a long line of short films prepended to several of the screenings during this festival. Keith Allen plays a pompous, self-important mathematics lecturer whose spare time is consumed with finding the proof of the Goldbach Conjecture, giving it out to his students as a project in the hope one of them might get lucky. But then mysterious letters like ransom notes start arriving with the fragments of what might be proof in them. Who is sending them and what are they trying to get out of him? A distracting quarter hour. 7/10

Wonderful Summer (Pol) (imdb)

Kitka's mother suffered a freak death at the hands of a large stone slab in the workyard of the family gravestone business. Since then, Kitka, and occasionally her father Edgar have been visited by her, especially when she wants to warn them of something. Kitka is just approaching full womanhood now, and her life seems stuck. Giving up school and with no job, she cooks and cares for her father who doesn't seem to have got over the death, even after thirteen years. Her over-caring grandfather, who has always been at deaths door seems to be wanting to pair her off, and nudges her in the direction of Konrad, the son of a high-class funeral director. Torn between his advances and her long-held feelings for Rudy, a young man who helps at her dads, she has a lot of decisions left hanging perpetually in the air. But her perceptions of life are thrown even more out when, looking for a job she finds a gypsy fortune teller who is the spit of her mum.

A sharpened wit is present throughout the script, which for the most part is serious, but with a couple of humorous nods now and again (my favourite being the Father Ted-style NarcoExpo with all the latest graveyard technology). But it is also a film with a heart, and the story never becomes dull or predictable, and would stand up well to a second viewing. 8/10

Quarters (US) - A short film about the truth-or-dare game of quarters. Two kids growing up with it are separated as they leave their teens - a girl has come between them, Chris is very much in love, and may or may not be telling the truth when he says he wants marriage, kids and settling down as much as Mary does, or at least he believes himself when he says it. Evan is not so sure, and takes the opportunity at a pre road-trip party to make a dangerous move and get his friend back. Initially confusing, but it all came together at the end (although it leaves you guessing the outcome). 7.5/10

When We Leave (Ger) (imdb)

An uncomfortable and challenging film about the deep roots of religious ritual and dogma that work their way into a family. In this case, we have Umay, whose abusive husband Kemal forces her to leave Istanbul for Germany with Cam, their young son. There, she returns to the family home who are pleased to see her - until she mentions the split. The mother is torn between the love of her eldest daughter and the rules of her oppressive faith. Her father cannot bear the shame brought on the family and strikes out wildly. The other siblings react according to their own circumstances, but Umay cannot rely completely on any of them. It seems she must move on once more.

I found this film a really difficult one to watch. Not because it was bad - far from it - it was a very powerful and brave film to make. Shot in claustrophobic but well-used close-up with a talented cast, and set to a beautiful soundtrack of strings and piano, it is nevertheless the sort of film that will no doubt spark a few heated words in some more fundamental corners of Islam, but you get a picture of the desperation of this woman - and realise that it is not an isolated case. Women especially in many situations and faiths get a bum deal, and the ingrained reaction is to favour the man. How the religious takeup of women is higher than that of men is beyond me. 8/10

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