LIFF 2013 Part 9

Yesterday there were no films.  I was in Leeds, but watching the excellent Mark Thomas, doing his '100 Acts of Minor Descent' tour.  He's been away from his traditional calling of social activism mixed with amusing mischief for too long, and it's good to see him back to it.  It's hilarious and on until April next year.  If you can manage to find a ticket, go see it!

If it wasn't for someone screwing things up at work I'd have been into Leeds to see Harlem Street Singer, but they did, so I couldn't.  It's just this one today:

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (US) (wiki)

Originally produced as a two-part straight to DVD release, this film stuck them together and put it on the big screen.  Set sometime towards the end of the Batman canon, Bruce Wayne has been in retirement for ten years, and Commissioner Gordon is about to join him.  Robin died somewhere along the way, and The Joker is in the loony bin.  And the city has gone to crap and is overrun with 'mutants' who just commit crimes and violence for fun.  Bruce cannae take the TV coverage of all the crime no more and dusts the cape off, but no sooner does he start laying down the smack than the public begin chiming in with their evenly split opinions.  As well as the criminals, this also gets the newer members of the law and some pretty high-up political line-toers on his back as well.  It's all a pretty big mess, but Batters keeps charging through as long as his ticker will allow.

So, what about the film that got it's own documentary then?  Well, it was interesting to see someone pick up the baton and see what could be done with a 'reboot' of sorts of the canon, giving old Wayne the weakness of advancing years had a lot of potential peril, much of it realised in it's 2 and a half hour length.  A new, female Robin mixed things up a bit as well. 

But it never felt as 'epic' as one might expect from the buildup.  (Disclaimer: I haven't read a single batman comic)  From the opening scenes, where Bruce tries to relive his kicks post retirement with some Gotham Racing (see how they tied that in?) - the lazy use of computer models, poor perspective and view changes and some shoddy cell animation showed that the producers were aiming no higher than your average saturday morning cartoon.  In fact, I recall the batman cartoons from the nineties being slicker and more stylish.  It 'improves' - if that's the right word - by bringing in some pretty violent and well choreographed fight scenes later on, but the damage was done from an aesthetic point of view far earlier.

And this criticism is not just superficially aimed at the animation either; the film seemed desperate to cram as many things in from all sorts of angles; as you might expect you get The Joker and Two Face (who seemed to just disappear halfway through), but then.. Superman? Green Arrow?  It seemed like they just wanted to cram as many things from the DC comics, then glaze it with some heavy handed gloop about morality or media saturation or whatever. 

Beyond the distractingly poor animation, it was also difficult to take seriously.  Examples: in the middle of a rioting Gotham, Batman rides in - on a fricking horse no less - and tells everyone to stop fighting and looting and help each other out, because 'community' - which they then do as one unit with no questions asked.  And the mutants - I thought we had moved past one-dimensional villans who are just villans to fill in a space on the screen.  What about the bit where Robin uses her tiny slingshot to knock a doll the size of a 5-year old off a rollercoaster from about 300 feet away - the puny pebble sends the doll flying into the air! 

It's this childish slapstick cartoon notion of reality that is likely to put off adults, and the bloody violence and dark scenes later on make it unsuitable for kids, that makes the film unsure exactly who it exists for. 

When the film introduced us to Boris - the topless woman with swastikas taped to her boobs - fighting batman who is dressed as an old woman, the audience just giggles with mild disbelief.

You need to realise the expectations of the audience here - many of us grew up on Batman in his various guises - the camp 60's TV series and cartoons, Tim Burtons superior 80's reboot and the cartoons off the back of them, (lets sidestep the return to campness that was Arnie), and finally the 'prequels' with Christian Bale.  The punters wanted to see Bruce Wayne rise again in a high-quality, dark and moody animation that you could show to people and go: there - this is what it's all about.  This is what people read comics for.  What we got instead was low production values, unintentional mirth and a rushed through script that just threw in whatever was going in the hope something would stick.

If Frank Miller's original graphic novels were anything like this, then my from-afar respect for the artists of the canon has just dropped somewhat; However I suspect they have been betrayed by a scrimping budget and the wrong motivations about getting a film out there.  Masterpiece, this certainly isn't. 5/10

LIFF 2013 Part 8

Secret City (UK) (site)

Writer, producer and just about everything-er Lee Salter was present for this zero-budget documentary about the City of London, and how it relates to the rest of London.  Beginning as a history lesson, the film tells - using as much uncopyrighted film and music as possible mixed with talking heads interviews with political, financial, religious and revolutionary representitives in the know, informing us of some of the less-well known aspects of how the City of London - backed by the Corporation of London - operates.  I was not aware that the Lord Mayor of the City was not elected by the people, but by representitives of corporations, for example, or that each corporation within London that is part of the boys club, are awarded votes according to their employee size to use in elections (but their employees don't get to use them, and most aren't even aware they exist).

As the film goes on, it switches focus from the history of how the corporation (and these days, the financial and business institutions that as much as own it) operate, and onto the shadowy relationships between the financial takeovers and the business deals generating massive profits that seem to conveniently precede them, before ending up looking at the movements trying to bring the less agreeable aspects of the corporation to account, or to overthrow it entirely.  Some of the topics as you might expect overlapped with The Tax Free Tour from earlier in the festival.

You can tell it's a zero-budget film; little use of computer graphics, grainy, wobbly handheld camerawork and as many copyright-free versions of 'The bells of St. Clemens' play throughout as they could lay their hands on.  Because the filmmakers couldn't be too picky about the source of a lot of the footage, the film tends not to have very well established topics, instead pretty much squashing as much information in as it could, rather than perhaps taking a few of them out and dwelling a little longer on those that remain; monologues from interview questions come thick and fast in a roughly related order and before you know it the topic has moved on without some breather between. 

What is here is pretty important, especially for the citizens of the UK to take on board, but chopping out some detail and dwelling more on other bits would have probably helped in getting the messages through.  7/10

BTW If you are interested in the differences between London, it's city and corporations, the ever-interesting CGPGrey did a nice little primer some time ago.

Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury (Bra) (site)

I was originally planning on seeing Masterpiece: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a documentary of the film, but since I'm seeing the actual film on Wednesday and I'm not that much of a Batfan, I fancied the look of Rio instead.  Brazil is not known for it's animation output, so I was curious to see what this award-winning film had to offer. 

At the start of Rio's history in the 1500's, a tribesman of the pre-brazillian Tupinamba learns the hard way that has has been chosen as an immortal by the Gods, and to fight Ahnaga - evil in it's many forms - wherever he encounters it.  Blessed with the ability to become a bird and fly from unwinnable situations, he assumes human form again and again over the centuries, searching for the reincarnations of his true love Janaina, that bring him to earth and again into inevitable confrontation with the authoritarians and dictatorships of the time that seem to carry out Ahnaga's wishes.

Rio 2096 clearly displays the fledgeling status of it's mother countries' maturity as a producer of feature-length animation.  It is little more advanced than saturday morning cartoons such as Avatar, which looks pretty choppy in the face of some of the higher-end output from America or Japan.  However it is functional enough to convey the feel of the places and the action, that succeeds pretty well in weaving a fantasy story through the difficult centuries of oppression and poverty that has pock-marked the history of Brazil.  In this, it's a little heavy handed, and the repeated model of find Janaina, encounter oppression, fight and win/lose, then fly on for a few years doesn't change much throughout, but that doesn't stop it being an enjoyable watch.

It's a pretty good start to a potential new industry in Brazil, whose economy could certainly do with another potential feather to it's bow, but it needs to mature somewhat before it can produce the sock-knocking epics coming out of the more established animation houses. 7/10

LIFF 2013 Part 7

Garden of Words (Jpn) (wiki)

The latest Makoto Shinkai film is not even a feature-length effort.  Fifteen year old Akizuki tires of his schooldays and when it rains, skips class to go sketching in the park.  One day he finds a woman sat on the bench, and over a series of encounters they become closer.  It's just a shame she is one of his teachers at school, and getting on for twice his age.

Shinkai's latest is undeniably beautiful, but it shares that same airy melodrama feel that plagued Children Who Chase Lost Voices that I saw a couple of years ago and brings with it those clever but ultimately unnecessary sweeping shots of birds flying and quick scene changes.  It has moments where it touches on some genuine emotional oomph but never quite makes it, and you always have at the back of your mind - 'wait, this kid wants to design womens shoes for a living?!'. 6/10

Hal (Jpn) (wiki)

Sometime in the near future, not much has changed in the version of the world.  One thing that has is that artificial intelligence has reached the point where humanoid beings behave as close to humans as makes no difference.  Though this might set the scene for an I:Robot-style thriller, this one is far gentler, concentrating on a benign 'helper' robot.  One that is made to resemble a person who has somehow died, to take their place and help their relatives cope.

Unit 001 is changed to resemble Hal, a young man whose partner Kurumi is having serious emotional problems coping without him, refusing to leave her cramped bed.  Hal makes as best a job he can of seeing to her wishes but Hal soon learns that his original self had another life outside the cozy brief he was given, and apparent childhood friend Ryu reappearing out of nowhere in pursuit for a debt they both owe clouds the water further.

For a sub-hour film, Hal packs a lot in, and does some very clever plot inverting to keep things fresh.  A diverse range of secondary characters gives it more depth and was definitely the better of the two films.  7.5/10

Patema Inverted (Jpn) (wiki)

In 2067 - yet again - the world we know has been razed to the ground after some fool decided to try and solve the energy crisis by messing around with gravity.  The world suffered as the earths' gravitational pull was voided and buildings and people floated off the planet into nothingness.

Somehow, a small portion of the people were unaffected by this (yes, I know - bear with me here) and its these who have risen up to be the new world order of Aiga.  The tales of the original incident have been twisted over time, and now schoolkids are taught that those who perished were snatched into the sky for their sins.  Rumours abound of 'Inverts' living under the earth are as yet no more than that.

Patema is one such invert, and her torchlit searching of the outer extremities of her subterranean world bring her dangerously to the surface where she encounters Age, a disillusioned boy who can't bring himself to see the sky as a forbidden place.  Their meeting brings fresh focus to their desired eradication by Aiga's totalitarian leader.

Though the whole race supremacy angle is pushed a little heavily, Patema Inverted is a fine film with high-quality visuals and animation, and little to perceive as computer graphics.  It doesn't get too serious and regularly makes inventive use of the gravity mechanic, which if you can suspend disbelief for a moment about how two people can be affected by gravity in opposite directions for a moment, makes for an enjoyable experience.  8/10

Steins;Gate: The Movie (Jpn) (wiki)

I've not seen any of the popular Steins;Gate anime or manga yet (primer) - it appears to reside around self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe and his quirky compadres doing time travel and Sliders-style world leaping, the 'gates' of the title representing portals between the worlds using all sorts of scientific license.  This movie uses the main characters, but appears to take place in an alternate universe not present in the series, where the main characters take on slightly altered roles; the idea being that Okabe has just leapt into this place after a lot of time spent trying to undo some pretty messed up situations elsewhere in the multiverse.

But it isn't long before Okabe starts having headaches and flashbacks to his previous worlds.  They become longer and more vivid until he disappears completely, leaving his friends not remembering him at all, yet feeling that something is missing from their lives.

Steins;Gate newcomers like myself may well find the comprehension of the series an uphill struggle at first, although I would recommend persevering through this as the middle of the film is particularly strong in it's character development.  One-dimensional, forgettable comedy characters start to take shape and be people in their own right, and an interest begins to form in their fate.  If you can see some of the original series first it is probably a bonus, but it's a pretty good film in it's own right. 7/10

Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo (Jpn) (wiki)

Unfortunately LIFF has not been as consistent as it could have with regard to successive sequels to films.  In 2010, it screened the second Evangelion remake, but didn't bother to screen the first one before that (I also note that Berzerk 3 isn't present this year either - come on LIFF!)

Anyway, my mind a little fusty over seeing the last film three years ago, I was quite unprepared for the visual onslaught that comes with it.  Shinji is rescued from an Angel and wakes up fourteen years after the second film, having not aged one bit.  Somehow, Ayunami survived and is now piloting her Eva unit alone, since Rei has also disappeared.  Nerv seems to have been erased off the earth, and it's successor, Wille, is manned by a desperate group of the remains of humanity, most of which perished in the Third Impact, dedicated to removing all trace of Nerv; Shinji is thus not accepted well.

Trying to follow what happens in most of Evangelion without familiarity with the considerable canon behind it, and I have to confess, I was horribly lost during the battling scenes, where not only do lots of things get exploded, ripped apart of blasted to bits, but also lots of people say lots of things constantly.  Fortunately, it's Evangelion, and so I would be interested in going back to the first two films and then watching this again with a better sense of what I'm watching.  I'm going to trust the makers and say that my diligence will be rewarded.  7.5/10

How We Played the Revolution (Lit/Fra) (review)

How strange it was to end the Anime day with a distinctly non-Japanese documentary.  I could have seen a print of Akira to celebrate it's 25 years, which was tempting, but I've seen it a few times already so passed in favour of an unknown.  As it turns out, the unknown happened to be the story of Lithuanian independance, gained through jeans and rock music.

Back in the 80's, Lithuania (and Latvia and Estonia) were part of Russia, and that's how Russia liked it.  Unable to fly their own flags of even sing their anthems, the Lithuanians were getting pretty sick of it.  Rumours of the Soviet economy being on it's knees offered hope that something would budge.

Enter Antis - a rock band made up of.. architects?  They started off as a joke show as an alternative to traditional new years' celebrations and became popular in their own right.  Their style of singing was mocking of authority and they struck a chord, much of it down to the lead singer, Algirdas Kaušpėdas, a kind of arrogant Freddie Mercury, who strutted around on stage slagging off those who needed their pomposity bubbles pricked.

As their popularity grew, the revolutionary leanings of the members began to surface, and while touring, they encouraged the local Lithuanians to exercise their long-forgotten right to celebrate their country.  At the same time of Gorbachevs Perestroika, they also claimed to have sided with the government, something that the powers that be approved of greatly for popularity and party funds, but also made them at Antis' mercy as they could undermine what the government was saying without recrimination.

Told through found footage and the testimonies of those around at the time (though strangely we only briefly see a modern-day Kaušpėdas and hear nothing of his opinions), it is reminiscent of Gnarr, as a visual record of a genuine political upheaval thanks to passionate individuals standing up for their passions and against corruption and incompetence, and as such shares much of the satisfying sense that given the right ingredients, long-ingrained corrupt entities can be toppled and something genuinely new and better can be put in it's place. 7.5/10

LIFF 2013 Part 6

The Rocket (Australia) (site)

Somewhere deep in the wooded plains of Laos, Ahlo, a cursed boy whose twin died at birth is about to bring more trouble on his family.  His village forceably evacuated thanks to the building of a new dam, his loving mother is tragically killed in an accident on the way, leaving Ahlo only with his supersititous gran, convinced of his curse, and his unconfrontational father who just gets on with the job at hand.

When their fancy-sounding 'relocation village' turns out to be a load of tents around a building site, Ahlo's inquisitive nature ends up getting the whole family under threat from angry torch-wielding villagers, alongside 'Uncle Purple', a drunk and dropout James Brown wannabe and his young niece Kia.

Seemingly doomed to failure wherever they go, Ahlo latches onto a local rocket festival, whose generous prize money gives him a chance to provide for his family and get them out of the mess.    Problem is, he has no rocket, and the only source of explosive charge are the numerous unexploded bombs half-buried all over the landscape.  Not such a good idea to tamper with when cursed.

Whether this is a childrens film or not is up to the parent; numerous kids were present with their parents, who may have got a shock with the subtitling, occasional nakedness, dismembered cattle heads and a peppering of swearies in the dialogue.  But aside from that it was fine, and would probably count as one of those films you see as a kid that stays with you til adulthood even though your dad frowns on you watching it.  So depending on your own personal standards of parenthood both adults and kids will find a funny, interesting and enjoyable film that will stick in the mind. 8/10

Samurai Rebellion (Jpn) (wiki)

A classic of Japanese Samurai cinema, this is unfortunately the only retrospective film I'll be catching this year.  SAmurai Rebellion is considered the best film by Masaki Kobayashi who is the subject of a retrospective at this year's LIFF.  Isaburo is a middle aged samurai living a peaceful existence in quiet times, preferring to toe the line to his henpecking wife of twenty years rather than make waves.  So when his son Yogoro is selected against the family's will to marry Ichi, a young woman with a child of the shogunate Lord who has made trouble and needs to be moved on, he reluctantly accepts when his son steps in and honorably agrees.

Incredibly, the pair fall in love and have a child of their own, so when the Lord gets itchy feet and realises that his illigitamate son can't be installed as a Lord whilst also having a wife promised to another, the orders come in for her to return.  Sick of the injustice and gutlessness of his peers, Isaburo defends the love of his son and refuses to budge this time.  As the undeclinable requests filter down the hierarchy from the upper levels, and their inevitable declines are returned, diplomacy and respect begin to break down and a confrontation brews.

Even though the print was new, it was showing the battlescars of a thousand projections or perhaps samurai cuts throughout.  Though the swordfight scenes looked far less polished by todays standards (read: more realistically conveying what happens when a load of people come at each other with swords) the film slowly increased the heat on the bubbling tensions to a final, honourable conclusion. 7.5/10

The Strange Little Cat (Ger) (imdb)

The billing makes clear before you go in - this film isn't for the action nuts.  A perhaps typical German family living in an apartment somewhere goes about their daily business.  Dad goes off shopping with young daughter, mother and older daughter attempt to keep order.  An ex and his son come in and fix the washer, Gran and brother spend a lot of time sleep, and they all get together with friends for evening dinner.  The dog and cat interact with them all.  Little things happen.  Some gently amusing, some inconsequential, none of them result in tragedies to overcome or enemies to vanquish.  Occasionally one character will tell a short tale about something that happened to them earlier, providing the only view of the world outside the apartment.

I had to leave about 10 minutes before the end to catch the bus as - again - the HPPH was tardy with it's start time, but I would summise that the conclusion of the film was much like the rest of it.  (Gran might have died, she was looking a bit peaky when I left.) 

It was pleasant enough, a gentle observance of a (crowded) family life and a meditation on the small things within normal life.  The only thing that grated was the dialogue which sounded utterly detached from anything a family might say to each other - cold and scripted rather than natural and loose. 7/10

How We Live (UK) - A short film about how the decisions made about our energy policies in the European Union have consequences in the regions they affect and the opposition they face.  Residents in Wales are objecting to wind farm plans; the government of Georgia is being sued for misrepresenting the environmental impact of their hydro plant, and in Serbia, the Kolubara mine is wiping out the landscape and the communities along with it.  Though the film doesn't attempt to pick sides, it does give an appreciation of just what a task those in power have to make as few people unhappy as possible and keep the lights on. 7/10

The Tax Free Tour (Ned/UK) (watch the film)

In the style of one of those video tourism guides you might watch on your way to another country, the Tax Free Tour takes us on a virtual trip across the most popular tax havens used by the big companies these days.  The basic knack to getting away without paying much (or any) tax?  Plow your capital into tax free havens and declare your profits there.  If you have intellectual property, hold them in low corporation tax countries such as the Netherlands, and then arrange to have your actual companies pay them patent royalties - that then no longer count as profits and are taxed at a very low rate. 

This is what Starbucks does (as just one example).  It holds patents for all it's coffee types.  When you buy a Frappuchino, part of your cash is paid to their Netherlands subsiduary as a patent tax.  The UK doesn't see the money because it's an outgoing not a profit any more.  It's above board, lawful, and therefore COMPLETELY FAIR.

Missed corporation tax has until recently not been calculated, mainly due to it's controversial nature that keeps giving the IMF cold feet.  Private individuals interviewed in this film have had a go, and the amount runs into the trillions.  Though the viewer gets a small degree of satisfaction from seeing representatives of Google, Amazon and Starbucks squirming at last Novembers' public hearing on the subject, most of what this film describes will likely get your back up, and that's a good thing I guess.  The more you know and all that.  The only thing wrong with the film is that it gives little of the last minute optimistic side that most of these films give where they say 'hey, it sounds pretty bleak, but heres what you can do to help stop it..'.  There is little of that; instead you just have to suck up the situation and hope the governments remain powerful enough to do something about it.  7.5/10

Miniyamba (Den/Fra) - A beautiful animated film using chalk drawings, repeatedly smudged and redrawn to give a sense of movement.  A musician quits the heated plains of Mali in search of a better life in distant Spain.  With a last minute addition of Bakan, a young man with similar dreams.  The path through Morocco is harsh with border guards and freezing night deserts and will take prisoners along the way.  Falling in with a crowd of like-minded travelers to a better place, they take their chances.  8/10

Music is the Weapon (Fra) (fela site)

Feature documentaries prior to the late nineties were pretty scarce; now they are all over the shop (the documentaries section in LIFF 13 is at least as big as the other strands).  But trying to find them from the early eighties and you will have far fewer hits.  This 1983 biopic of African beats artist turned political activist and revolutionary Fela Kalakuta (nee Fela Kuti) gets a rare screening.

Fela and his 'Queens' - a band of 27 female backing singers that he also married in one act - played the boards in Lagos - then the most dangerous part of Africa in relative safety, because everybody loved them.  Thieves and murderers sat down with shopkeepers to take in his smooth grooves and his occasional political speeches.  He was liked by all, and the lawlessness of the area effectively turned the suburb of Kalakuta into his own republic - which the people in power did not enjoy.

Watching footage from the age in a documentary from the age is confusing at first, as you half expect the film to bring you up to date with his aspirations of a return to Africans observing traditional religions (eschewing 'artificial' western ones) and a unified Africa under his presidency.  Though it's pretty obvious that hasn't happened we still have to wiki him to find out the rest of the story - unusually for a biopic this just stops as Fela rails against yet another police raid and trumped up assault charges, rather than celebrating the life of a victim of an assassination.  Still, it was interesting to see the Africa of 30 years previous and gain a little of the state of the nation then, versus how they are now.  Maybe the upcoming films will fill in the blanks. 7/10

LIFF 2013 Part 5

Today's films have an African theme,.

Godka Cirka (Spa/US/Fra) - before the main film, an unassuming but ultimately powerful look at the fate of young African girls from the perspective of a one such individuals' story growing up and reaching puberty, and the traditional practices dealt out by her mother and her relatives, shackled by tradition and religion.  As she wearily whispers during preparation for the imminent act - it is Gods will. 7.5/10

Finding Hillywood (US) (site)

On a much more positive note - a rarity for films about this part of the world, Hillywood is the name given to a small but popular filmmaking movement in Rwanda, led by filmmaker, actor and director Ayuub Kasasa Mago, whose mother was one of the thousands massacred in the 1994 genocides.  A country with understandably many stories to tell, he uses a chance posting as a helper on The Last King of Scotland to find his calling in the country's embryonic film business.  Now, Hillywood (despite recent funding cuts - they need help to survive) is a popular filmmakers society, training men and women in all of it's aspects.  Once a year they tour Rwanda to show locally grown films in a festival - to the surprise of many viewers of the open-air screenings who have no knowledge that Rwanda was capable of making them.  Indeed, quite often, the rain-soaked evening screenings during the rainy season are their first taste of film. 

And no, the films are far from the craziness exhibited by 2016,  They may not be quite up to hollywood potential just yet, but the film played excerpts of several of them, and they looked like they would be perfectly at home on a festival circuit - some of them have already been screened internationally, such as Ayuub's short film Fora.

To see such a positive film about Rwanda is refreshing, especially as it is peppered with smiling people in often beautiful settings, and the message is one of hope.  Film can be a powerful tool in affecting social change and the altering of opinions.  But it is not a gerbil-faced film that tries to deny the history of the region - the dark subjects are never far away from the narration, but it is always framed in a way that suggests that it's citizens, with the help of cultural injections such as this, are starting to move past it.  7.5/10

William and the Windmill (US/Mal/SA) (site)

At the age of fourteen, William Kamkwamba decided to do something about the situation his family had found themselves in. After a particularly bad drought, they had little money for anything beyond food, and William had dropped out of school.  With time on his hands he went to the modest library and picked up a book on energy.  Inside was an explanation of how a turbine can be powered by the wind and how it can be used to generate electricity.  Seeing a solution to their problems, he set out to make one of his own from scrap metal and wood.  He was able to find a crude generator, and to the astonishment of the bemused naysayers that rubbernecked over his parent's fence, he turned on the lights to his house once more, a 30ft tower windmill stood proudly clattering away.

William had plans for more, but his life was about to change completely.  After some modest media coverage, William was invited to TED in 2007 to do a talk (also).  Tom Rielly, an entertainment mogul in the audience had to meet him.  Perhaps recognizing a potential waste of intellectual talent, Tom took William under his wing, promising him seven years mentoring to help him realize his potential.  Trips around the world on speaking tours, a book deal and SAT education sponsorship in America followed.  At the point he was being pursued by a major American university his future was sealed.

The documentary would have quickly lost steam if it was just about the windmill, but the most fascinating bit is never spoken about - the story behind the story that slowly reveals itself to the viewer - showing the intense sense of expectation on this young mans' shoulders, an obligation William seems too polite to address and just goes where his fate - and Toms' overbearing father-like intentions - take him.

This lends the film a satisfying onion-like structure.  The bittersweet nature of a man being given all the opportunities he deserves, in a destiny that has been wrenched from his helpless hands is clear to see in his eyes, that seem to be repeatedly looking through the walls back to his home town, and the projects he has yet to finish.  Director Ben Nabors rarely chips in but is aware from an early point of the internal conflicts behind the smiles and records it silently and carefully for us all to see.  8/10

LIFF 2013 Part 4

Fifi Howls from Happiness (US/Iran/Fra) (review)

Iran is not the place you might normally associate with modern art.  But among those in the know, the paintings and sculptures made by Bahman Mohasses are highly values examples of art from the recent era.  Their value is set high because firstly, many of the hundreds of pieces were destroyed - many by the artist himself, and secondly because in 1979, as Iran entered it's revolutionary period, Mohasses disappeared.

Long after many thought he was dead, Mitra Farahani, a young filmmaker tracked him down to a hotel in Rome, where he has been living ever since.  Perhaps anticipating his end through worsening health, he agrees to an interview to discuss his legacy to the world.  Inbetween the rasping, smoky laughter, we see a man driven to self-isolation by wars and uprisings, and by a changing world that causes him discomfort.  'Scavengers', he rails - referring to those who have attempted to censor his work or have them for themselves, or who did him over with dodgy commissions.

Fifi lets the viewer in at a point where Mohasses' eagerness to make a final masterpiece is vying for what little life the man has left in him, and two very enthusiastic fans have managed to convince him that their commission should be his last great piece of art, as well as being one of many of his surviving exhibits he is willing to let go of.

As a nice touch, Mitra's film is constructed almost as you watch it, with Mohasses suggesting music and set pieces, songs and poems that appear at his command on the screen - it is his biography after all.  Though we hear little about the man himself, and the artwork may not be for everyone, the film stands up better as a treasured record of a likeable old man and the work long thought lost, and a privileged few moments spent in his company, getting a flavour of his life. 7/10

Leviathan (Fra/UK) (wiki)

A small fishing vessel on a dark and stormy sea.  From the helmet cam of a random fisherman, we  struggle to orient ourselves against the undulating waves and the lurching stern of the ship.  As the chains crank deafeningly in around us, the water fizzes and bubbles before transforming into a massive steel fishing cage that clangs against the sides of the ship as it lands, missing an animated raincoat - which we can only guess has a person somewhere inside it - by inches.  The trawlermen carry on their tasks with no reaction.

This is the life of a modern-day fisherman amidst the stormy seas.  Using a succession of long, brooding shots, which in any other film of this type would be static or barely moving, makes use of the swishing of the boat and the undulations of the waves to make the viewer disoriented and seasick.  If the motion doesn't turn the stomach, the exposure of the unpleasant night-to-night tasks may well.  Once the huge nets are emptied on board, the fish are gutted there and then to process and make way for the next dredging - a messy and macabre job if you are constantly bobbing up and down by ten feet or so and the sun is nowhere to be seen. 

Very little of the human aspect is showm in the film, in fact the men aboard the boat seem purposefully drowned out by the other noises, and are portrayed mostly as emotionless aliens come to massacre and return the spoils.  The waste is slooshed overboard - bucketfulls of fish blood, heads and fins, scallop shells in their thousands, and the bodies of fish caught up in the net that don't fit the catch.  An squadron of seagulls are ever present, grabbing what they can get as the camera follows them underwater to dive for scraps.

I would say Leviathan is an effective environmental film - if you can stick with it.  It paints a dark and uncomfortable picture of how the human species has solved the problem of getting a fish on the plates of millions all over the world, and it does this without comment or bias, just compiled footage from a few terrifying trips to sea. 

And even though it manages to convey the stomach-turning ickiness and environmental scarring very well, the film falls into the trap of long, long meditative shots and lots of progression.  The single take shot of undulating sea mixed with a flock of seagulls as the waves take the camera above and below water is impressive to start with, but not after five minutes of the same thing, and definitely not after the third such segment.  It just becomes too repetitive and annoying, and detracts from the power of the film. 5.5/10

LIFF 2013 Part 3

Computer Chess (US) (site)

I had been hoping that this would be a warm-hearted documentary, using found footage from the early days of artificial intelligence in computing.  I figured it could be similar to the excellent chess documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, the delicious Jiro Dreams of Sushi, or perhaps the surprisingly watchable Disco and Atomic War from some years ago.  Even the LIFF blurb intimates that this is a meditation on the subject.

It's somewhat disappointing to discover five minutes in (after a few minutes not being able to tell for sure either way) that this isn't the case, so if anything, I'm doing you a favour by telling you this.  Computer Chess is a The Office-style situation comedy presented as some long lost footage found in a dusty trunk, set sometime in the early eighties and using 4:3 ratio and low-resolution cameras to fool you into thinking it's the real thing.  It records the goings-on during and around a mock competition between computer companies at the time, as they pit their limit-pushing intelligence programs to the edge and beat each other at chess.

After the initial disappointment wore off and I adjusted my expectations, I did enjoy the film, but it is an odd trip; part stereotypical computer nerd nostalgia, part drug-induced hallucination, as the sound goes out of synch, frames are lost, and the computers themselves seem to come alive.  It's pretty good stuff but seems unnecessarily 'out there', and to be honest I would have traded the laughs for a more genuine documentary in it's place. 6/10

Cold Eyes (S. Kor) (wiki)

After an impossibly intricate recruitment test, spunky Young-Sook is taken out of the standard Korean police force and into a shadowy spy division, whose agent's specialise in walking through the crowded city streets and using their considerable observational skills to take every little detail in, using the cities extensive CCTV to record every movement.  She's just in time to investigate a bank robbery, the latest in a string of perfectly executed crimes that are keeping the police on their toes.

It's a little like Inception - a group of guys chosen for their abilities and all that; the standard detective movie conventions are followed as the group tracks the leads to their goal, and in a number of improbable situations and coincidences gets closer to the shadowy figure behind it all, But it's too clinical; too clean, making it difficult to look past the superhuman powers of observation and see the human characters behind, and the reliance on cameras to catch the bad guys make it feel like an advert for a surveillance state.

It's not bad with all that considered, but it needed to be a bit more.. human somehow. 7/10

LIFF 2013 Part 2

After Lucia (Mex/Fra) (wiki)

If you want a film to make your heart wrench out of your chest, After Lucia will probably do pretty much the full job for you.  Lucia was a wife to Roberto, an affable but bulky man with a well-respected restaurant.  She was killed in a car crash, in which their daughter Alejandra may have been learning to drive.  She leaves them alone, devastated.

Trying to start anew, Roberto moves them across the country to Mexico, where he attempts to juggle his remote restaurant and support his daughter, who now has to make new friends and a new life at the local school.  Initially falling in with some agreeable friends, a wild night turns bad and she becomes the enemy, and kids can be very cruel.

It is difficult to recommend this film if you had a bad time at school.  Ale goes through some horrendous treatment by her classmates, who due to a lack of a well-developed empathy gland, seem to feel no remorse for their increasingly bitter actions and even the satellite kids in her class quickly abandon someone that becomes a popularity vacuum, or worse still join in.  Be prepared, this is not merely teasing, and as for the teachers, they are absent at the most important times.

But it is an exceptionally powerful study of the cruelty of the teenage social pecking order, and the rules and regulations that evolve around them.  It could have quite easily jettisoned the death of the mother aspect as it sometimes feels like an unnecessary reason to add extra emotional baggage to the story, but even so, it is still a harrowing ride to the end. 7.5/10

Nebraska (US) (wiki)

Having recently travelled across parts of the US, I can appreciate the long, featureless and lonely roads between the cities as the miles stack up.  Old man Woodrow cares not.  All he has to do is walk a thousand miles or so to Lincoln - a mere few states away - where his million dollars sits waiting.

Sons David and Ross know it, and their ageing and not so shy and retiring mother knows it, but Woody is adamant, and will not stop wandering away from the house and down the first highway he sees the first chance he gets.  Exhasperated, David agrees to drive him to Lincoln, if only to convince the senile old man that it's a common postal scam.  Along the way, they happen upon Woody's old town where they grew up, and some of the crusty fossils that come out of the woodwork once rumour of the money slips out.
Cue another low-budget black and white road movie about a family reconnecting.  But there have been plenty of good indie road movies (Blue Bus, Paul, Aaltra, Sawdust City, Ave, Come as you Are...) on the festival circuit before, and again there is so much to enjoy here.  All the characters are played perfectly by locals from their sleepy backwater towns, (bristly mother Kate provides some of the funniest scenes).  It's far from just comedy; the film gently moves between humour of varying shades, strong character development and the glue of beautifully shot landscapes of the rolling hills and wide open plains of central America, their picturesque hues intensified by the use of black and white film throughout.

I found so much to like about Nebraska, it took me through a whole range of positive movie experiences as it gently wound along it's story.  It's beautiful to look at and hear, satisfying to experience and takes up it's two hour running time without ever feeling bloated.  8/10

LIFF 2013 Part 1

I'm back.  Out of breath and jetlagged, but back.  A quick recap:

The Garden (tm), bane of my life and a relandscaping project that has taken the best part of eight years, has finally been 'finished' for varying values of finished.  A little bit of topsoiling and some turf here and there early next year and the rest is maintanence.  It has been the sponge that has soaked up virtually all my spare time up until the end of October this year when other things took over and the weather turned to crap.  I will do a thorougly boring post about it in due course.

A short break in September, where myself and the lass visited Poland for a friends' wedding and I ended up getting thoroughly lost in the remote fields with nothing but an escaped puppy to keep me company will also appear at some point.

A slightly postponed Leeds Film Festival is down to the other major thing that happened, which is a trans-state trip to America.  A fortnight of sampling both the east and west coasts, the quiet, the loud and the mental, pictures and stories surely will follow.  I got back yesterday.  If it wasn't for my body crying out for mercy, I would have made it to the films I had booked - the first one starting a few hours after the plane touched down into Manchester.  Yes, I need help. 

So anyway, this has resulted in a truncated list of films this year.  I was not present for the UK premiere of Gravity on opening night, so have no idea how that turned out, even though it has Sandra Bullock in it, it appears to be a cracking film so I will have to catch it sometime.  If it was still on in America (the run has just finished) we would have caught it there but instead we saw Captain Phillips.  It's not a festival film, but here it is anyway:

Captain Phillips (US) (site)

Tom Hanks has long been an actor that people want to dislike in the same way you might think of maybe Stallone or Brad Pitt - he's just been in loads of popular films and it's not cool to be a fan; but because his filmography contains everything between the brainless but enjoyable fluff of Big, through Toy Story, Road to Perdition and The Green Mile, and right through to Philadelphia, it's impossible to disrespect the breadth of talent he has spanned.

And again, he adds a little more here.  The real-life Captain of the title was aboard a massive cargo ship in 2009 when it was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.  The following few days became a living hell for his terrified crew, and in particular, Phillips himself.

Rather than portraying the event as an american wet dream, where the nasty old bad guys get their comuppance to a cactus-chinned cowboy, the somalis are portrayed as desperate and brutal yet still three dimensional humans, and Phillips himself as a very ordinary, scared man relying on his training and wits to get through.  The resulting film is much richer for it. 8/10

On with the festival films proper, then:

Grasp the Nettle (UK) (site)

Remember the Democracy Village that appeared in Parliament Square a couple of years ago?  It is easy to look from afar and see it as a smaller-scale pretender to the US Occupy movements, but it was an active protest all of its own.  Filmmaker Dean Puckett gives up his flat and his job for three years and moves in with a group of activists in 2009, brought together on a piece of long-derelict ground in greater London with a shared vision - sustainable living outside the normal framework of society.  Over time, the community grows and flourishes into an 'Eco Village'.  Sustainable living from dumpster diving and later, seed swaps and allotments take the place of simply reusing stuff they find.  Faced with eviction from the landowners, some of the activists scout ahead for a second site, and the Democracy Village is born.

But threats come from all sides, and from within.  Though the Eco Village land was unused for over a decade, the owners are suddenly much more interested in starting work.  Democracy village vies for space with rival protest groups and the government on their doorstep are less than happy about all the tent marks spoiling the tidy lawns.  Worse, both places have attracted more than just passionately-minded alternative lifestylers - drunks and drug addicts come and go and taking advantage of the open arms, bring with them violence and crime.  In-fighting over house rules, relationship breakups and some colourful occupants taking the limelight (including the self-proclaimed Messiah and Transsexual David Shayler last seen in last years' I am Jesus) threaten the stability and quality of life of the residents, not to mention but a sheet of two of tarp between them and six inches of snow.

We knew the result, but we didn't know the people.  Thanks to Pucketts' sacrifice we get a proper flavour of what it meant to live there, and why they gave up the cosy life to do it.  You may not agree with their motives, but you can't deny their heart and dedication in the face of so much going against them.  An enlightening and entertaining film about people genuinely trying to effect change.  8/10

A Touch of Sin (Chi) (wiki)

Apparently received with high regard from those in the know at Cannes this year, A Touch of Sin takes real-life events from the news headlines of the east and creates four narratives; human lives barely touching each others' but joined in the act of brutal murder, acts of retaliation from the oppressiveness of the rapidly changing societies they live in.  A disillusioned police detective; a distant husband with a thrillseeking alter ego; a woman trying to wrestle her lover away from his wife; and a young man fleeing his responsibilities and falling in love.

For a far eastern film with it's share of fight scenes, it's also quite refreshing to have the protagonists in a very messy, unchoreographed skirmish rather than the balletic fights and overreactions we are used to seeing.  It's a film saturated with spiritual symbolism, and not without it's bloody bits, though if you look for this in a film you may find yourself a little impatient in the long waits in between.    Personally I found it enjoyable but the strong cultural elements became made the stories a little foggy and confusing, and at over two hours, I didn't enjoy it enough to go round a second time. 6/10