Yay! Leeds festival time again. I have high hopes this year, based on Cambridge which (thankfully as I was accompanied by Ms. Plants, the film festival virgin) full of really great films. Not only do I recognise some of the ones we saw then (Comic-con, Wrinkles, Grandma Lo-Fi..) but there are also quite a few (War Witch, Five Broken Cameras, Film to Change 2012) that we missed but really wanted to see. I don't work in Leeds any more so I need to commute in (through the tide of people coming the other way at the end of work!) but that's balanced out by a far more sensible waking time. We'll see how it goes.
Rust and Bone (Fr/Bel) (wiki)
The first film of the festival was not actually the first film of the festival. Rust and Bone was crowbarred in post-release of the brochure and thus precedes the opening gala as an 'unofficial' opening film. Rust and Bone is a film based on a rather dark and disturbing collection of short stories by Craig Davidson. The likeable but irresponsible Ali and his young son Sam appear to be trying to get away from his wife, travelling through France by any means necessary towards his sister Anna, who makes enough room in her meagre flat to accomodate them. Ali's background is not told, but he has a temper on him, and it's clear the jobs in his past have involved roughhousing people back into line.
Lucky enough to get a job as a bouncer, fate lands him in the flat of Stephanie, a shell of a woman going to one nightclub too many and ending up with a beating. A prickly parting is all Ali gets from the night when he takes her home, but fate has much more to play when an accident at work robs Stephanie of everything she has known.
The short stories from the original source are all mushed together to a single narrative. Though I have not read them, they sound to be rather depressing; concentrating on the misfortunes and damage dealt to the unfortunate and the aftermath they leave behind, and the film carries much of that over. Ali and Stephanie become the glue between the fragments and it all happens to them. Stephanies' lowest points are easy to empathise with, and the chemistry with Ali, a simple yet complicated man torn between his animal instincts and his parental responsibilities (with usually the latter losing out) is raw and without judgement of the choices both of them make. Ali's self-destroying irresponsibility land him and the people around him in increasing trouble, and Stephanie feels little guilt in accepting and even encouraging his movements into the world of backyard fist fights to pay the bills. Still, the film does have some beauty for balance, including a truly magical scene midway through which though brief, lifted the experience immensely for me. This was a big relief as, since the opening films of both LIFF 2011 and BIFF 2012 - films used to showcase the festivals - were both disappointing, Rust and Bone made for a strong and encouraging start.
Both characters (excellent performances by both Marion Cottilard and Matthias Schoenaerts), though twisted and broken have an intensity and beauty together that carries the story well and the ending is, ultimately as positive as such a hopeless situation could hope to get. 7.5/10
Argo (US) (site/wiki)
Improbably, in 1980 the Americans sent a CIA agent into Tehran posing as a Canadian filmmaker scouting for locations to make a sci-fi film - complete with posters, screenplays and storyboards, and a film company behind it. The real reason was to rescue six Americans holed up in the Canadian Embassy, who fled in the dying embers of 1979 when the American Embassy was under siege from the Ayatollah Khomeini's incensed militant population. The plan was that they would be smuggled out in plain sight as film staff. The whole thing was named 'The Canadian Caper', and it was not fully told until the whole thing was declassified by the US government in 1997.
Argo is the name of the cheesy sci-fi screenplay - a cash-in on the back of Star Wars - that was chosen from the many abandoned stories lying on the script room floor, and it is also the name of Ben Afflecks' film that attempts to recreate the events. Though I'm sure a certain amount of artistic license was used to ramp up the tension (and it does ramp up significantly), the film does appear to follow the events pretty closely, even including some of the original fake posters from the never-made film. Affleck's Tony Mendez character - based on the actual guy who pulled it off despite the government pulling out at the last minute is an understated and forever calm professional even in the most stressful situations, with the merest hint of alcoholism thrown in just to reduce the predictability a bit.
Argo does play on the absurdity of the situation a bit, and slips playfully into silliness now and then (and I question the 1979 technology available to put low-energy LED's into a robot head) but it's not a subject you can take totally seriously, even though the film does make sure to remind you that the people on both sides are going through some pretty hard times.
Best taken without worrying too much about how accurate it is, Argo is a semi-serious, semi-comic retelling of one of the more unusual jobs the CIA had to do. It's tense, occasionally funny and very very hairy. 8/10
But - again (and this is not the film's fault) - the screening suffered because of the terrible acoustics in the town hall. I missed a third of the dialogue. LIFF, please hear me: Stop putting [English language] films in the Town Hall - the sound goes all to pot and we can't hear what's being said properly! The Carriageworks might have been smaller and more modest, but at least you could hear it right.