Festival Time Looms

It won't be long before the festival circuit comes alive once more. Usually, Bradford is out of the blocks by now but this year it's moved ahead by a month. My tickets are booked, and there are plenty of potentially great films to see.

So I've been keeping the film intake to a steady trickle so far, just a few to whet my whistle in among the other work that never seems to go away. These are a few that I have managed to catch so far:

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (wiki)

After hearing that this had won the Grand Prize at Cannes last year, I decided to put my reservations about it's length to one side and see it while I could. Anatolia is a huge section of Turkey, but the film concentrates in one unnamed and sparsely populated region, full of dusty back roads and rolling hills and valleys between small towns and villages.

Following a small group of cars not quite up to the job of negotiating this terrain through the night, the film chronicles the attempts of an increasingly frustrated local police sergeant to get some sense out of Kenan, a drunken waster, and his terrified brother, who have confessed to the killing of a stranger passing through their village, but can't remember where they hurriedly buried them, since they were very, very drunk. Along with them are a few labourers with shovels, a couple of equally out of their depth officers, and the prosecutor, Nusret - a professional-looking middle-aged man with an air of responsibility about him, who aims to get through the formalities as soon as possible and move onto his next job.

It sounds like a comedy, but it isn't. Though there are some semi-comedic touches to the story, such as the low-level incompetence suffered by Nusret by the men around him, the story is played mostly straight. Though the murder forms the backbone of the narrative, much of it is spent learning about the lives of the other characters through dialogue when others are off seeing if Kenan's latest guess is anywhere near the body.

There were some nice things about the film; the acting was believable and the settings, though often shrouded in night were authentic and beautifully rural, hinting at what sights may be visible just beyond the headlights. One of the best bits was a dialogue that ran through the film about one of Nusret's old murder cases, which he thought he had long since put to rest but his verdict is put in doubt after casually bringing it into conversation.

Though the film had these nice parts, they were not enough to keep the clock hands whizzing around at a satisfactory pace; at over two and a half hours, the film runs out of things to say halfway through, and at several points approaching the 2-hour mark you expect the long staring shot you are seeing to mark the end. Once the body is found there aren't many other loose ends to tie, but the director made a point of showing the paperwork and autopsy the next morning in clinical detail, though it added little. The long, quiet moments were joined by the shifting of bottoms on cinema seats.

It was nice. There was an entertaining and well-thought story, but it was stuffed with unnecessary filler. It could have been cut by a half-hour quite easily which would have tightened the script and stopped the clock-watching. A shame. 6/10

Le Havre (site)

Designed to tug at the heartstrings from the off, La Havre introduces us to Marcel, a poor shoe-shiner in the north-western French city, looked down on by those whose shoes he shines, he works alongside the immigrants and the poor of his neighbourhood. Tolerated by his wife, whose life would be much simpler if she didn't have to do all his housework as well as hers. One day he meets Idrissa, a young African boy who has escaped the French border guards on his way through to meet with his parents in London. Childless and feeling an immediate need to protect, Marcel takes time to feed and hide the boy from the pursuing authorities, and just as he has his hands full with that, has to cope with his wife collapsing with a mystery illness.

Le Havre is filmed in a deliberately old-fashioned style. Aside from a few pointers to modern comforts, the washed-out colours, static dialogue shots and a wardrobe of antiquated clothes would fool the casual viewer into thinking it was a digital restoration of a 70's flick but it was in fact made last year. This gives the film a quaint charm, but may be off-putting for some. Personally, I liked it, even though being French it had to have a bit of the philosophizing, but it was minimal and it instead concentrated on tying up the loose ends of a poor-man-doing-good-deeds plot in a delightfully Amelie-style far-fetched sort of way. 7/10

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (site)

A new Aardman film is almost as welcome an event as a new Pixar or Ghibli offering, especially when they ditch their computer-machines for good old plasticine once more. Flushed Away, though pleasant enough can never match Wallace and Gromit or Chicken Run.

They are taking a risk with this one though; America will be the territory where they stand to make the big money and science.. well, isn't exactly high on the list of people's interests over there, being as it is increasingly marginalized by redneck legislature and shunned by the presidential hopefuls. You can get round some of that with a name change (which Aardman have done, disappointingly but understandably - the US get 'Band of Misfits' as a subtitle) but the film itself will always have those pesky scientists at it's core.

Not content with a general ruffling of feathers, Aardman decided to prod the prudish in the ribs a little further; The Pirates! features a dashing but not very successful pirate captain (voiced by Hugh Grant, who fits surprisingly well into the hat and beard combo) trying to win Pirate of the Year after failing so many times. On his plundering expeditions to prove his place, he runs into Charles Darwin - yes, that hero of the American churchgoers - who points out that the parrot on his shoulder is actually a Dodo and might be worth quite a bit, if taken to the science exhibition in London, that place he can't go since Queen Victoria hates his guts so much for being all piratey.

So as you can imagine, it's going to be a hard sell. Pirates! may mitigate this slightly by setting it in an alternate history where Darwin is a hormonally unfulfilled and slightly slimy man with a devious streak and a monkey butler, and Queen Victoria is an unstoppable fighting machine. This might loosen the collars somewhat but I wouldn't want to be Columbia's PR people.

It's a shame because it's a great film. Almost too full of little plasticine touches, and references to films, places and people, the likes of which you won't catch on a single viewing. Plenty of goofy gags for kids and some more adult references that fortunately stay just the acceptable side of risqué to not require you to cover the ears of the nearest child.

There are even elements in the film that could have been expanded on but aren't - in a good way - such as the curiously feminine-looking pirate amongst his crew, whose name we don't even learn - perhaps leaving enough room to grow the character in a sequel.

It's funny, it's unpredictable and it doesn't feel like an animation too far for the studio; the stop-motion technique is alive and well and looking better than ever, because you know what you're looking at is 'real', rather than conjured up on a computer. The sets are authentic W+G cobbled streets and English pubs and it all hangs together very well indeed. I'd easily watch it again, and probably will.

Oh, and look out for an unexpected inclusion of a Flight of the Conchords song midway through as well which made me smile at least 10% more when I heard it. 8/10

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