Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bill In London - Raindance Wrap Up (movies)

By the time I get to Raindance, the festival is almost over. I have missed most of the films. The original plan, hatched over a year ago, was that I would come to the festival and probably be on the jury and teach my class a week after the fest. During the fest, I would do three two hour classes.... when I was on the jury in 2004, I did a couple of 2 hour classes during the festival that were sold out - standing room only. These classes were cheap (L10) but still managed to make enough money for the festival to cover the bulk (if not *all*) of my expenses...

And in 2004 I was probably pretty expensive. The festival had a deal with the Lancaster Hotel near Russell Square, and I ended up in a huge suite (more on that in the next post). They had several rooms at the hotel and were rotating guests through them - so a director might be there for 2 days while his film was screening, and then the star of another film might show up to take that room for a couple of days while their film was screening. I even did a room shift in 2004, from a standard room up to the big suite. Some huge name star had been there before me.

The three classes this year would probably completely cover the cost of flying me in and putting me up for the entire festival...

But somewhere along the way, things changed. I would only be teaching two short classes and they could only put me up for the tail end of the fest. I would arrive the final Thursday, and be there for the last weekend of the festival (including closing night). I didn’t know if I would be on the jury or not at this point - most jurors watched the films on DVD anyway... I was the only guy who ever saw every single film on the big screen.

I show up and I'm *not* on the jury - but I get to see movies with no responsibility at all... and no chance that Saffron Burrows will try to throw me out a 2nd storey window again (jury duty in 2001).

Less than four days of the festival... and jet lag. How many movies could I see?

After my nap on Thursday, I managed to make one of the special programs. Raindance was doing a special tribute to Stanley Kubrick - showing two of his films with special guests afterwards plus a documentary on the director. Kubrick is kind of an interesting director - sort of a lightning rod. You can love him *and* hate him. I do. He’s made some great films and some frustrating films. But, like Hitchcock, every one of his films has *something* in it - maybe only one great moment, but that moment may be worth the ticket price. I own some Kubrick films on DVD. My favorite Kubrick films are PATHS OF GLORY and THE KILLING (both written by Jim Thompson). The two films Raindance was screening: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Not too shabby.

I’d missed CLOCKWORK and the doc, but 2001 was screening Thursday night, followed by Q&A with the camera operator, Kelvin Pike (also DR. STRANGELOVE and THE SHINING). I managed to use my all access pass to snag one of the last tickets and squeezed into the sold out cinema...

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

I actually saw this film when it was first released... I was a kid. It was playing at the Century 21 Dome in Pleasant Hill, CA (a theater I would later be a projectionist at... and eventually become acting manager of). As a kid I was impressed by the special effects and the cold, frightening idea that a computer could turn against us. I didn’t understand the end at all - and later in life I was told that if you’re stoned or have just dropped acid, the whole thing makes sense.

Seeing it again, almost 40 years later (I *am* old), the ending still doesn’t make any sense. Sure, everyone has a theory about it - death and rebirth and all that - but no one is really 100% sure of their theory. It’s not like some movies that have an ambiguous end that has you debating the film with others afterwards, 2001 leaves you confused and trying to understand the end afterwards. Kubrick thought the confusing end was a great idea, leaving mystery... I think it’s the part of the film that you *must* be stoned to understand, making it more light show than story. Hey, that’s okay.... but I’m the guy who likes story. The most amazing thing about seeing it again on the big screen - those special effects are still the best I’ve ever seen. A million times better than the current crop of digital effects. You see one of the new STAR WARS movies and it’s obvious that those are effects of some sort... but 2001 is *real*. Those space ships are the real thing, not some effect. And that’s something missing in today’s CGI heavy films - the look of reality. The film is slow, “deliberately paced” as they say, but that works. It makes it seem real. By the time we get to the HAL9000 going haywire, the deliberate pacing makes the death of one crew member seem like just another event on HAL’s big checklist. Frightening because it’s so low key.

Mr. Pike spoke afterwards, and told the usual tales of Kubrick’s never-ending takes (usually with little or no difference between the first and last take) and creating everything in England. There were takes of Dr. STRANGELOVE and THE SHINING, too... but I don’t remember any actual stories (I was still zonked from over 24 hours of travel). One thing he talked about is the problem with effects back then - because they were done using combined elements of film, it was impossible to know how anything was going to turn out until *months* after you’ve shot the footage. Other things mentioned were the practical effects - the weightlessness was a challenge in a world before wire removal.

SELL OUT CROWDS

One major problem for me this year was that the festival was crowded again. When I first attended the festival, you could easily find an empty seat for any film before 7pm - most of them were empty! A couple of years ago, they moved to a new cinema and began selling out showings... even daytime shows. I was surprised to be in a crowded cinema at 2 in the afternoon to see a prison film from Poland. This year they are still at the Trocadero Cinemas, and still selling out.

But even when shows have a few available seats, the way cinemas are designed in the UK makes it impossible to get to those seats.

In the USA fire regulations requires that auditoriums are built with exits at the 4 corners and a wide aisle intersecting the room. If there's a fire, there are 4 ways out and you don't have to climb over every seat to get to an exit - you just have to get to the wide aisle. This makes it easy to get to almost any seat in the house - there are usually two entrances and an aisle that cuts across the back of the house and one in the middle.

The Troc cinemas all have *one* entry and exit and no aisle at all. So if that entry is on the right side of the house, all of the seats are packed on the right side and the empty seats will be on the left side... but there's no way to get to them (other than doing the "excuse-me, pardon-me" down a row of seats... and the seats are so close together that it's almost impossible). Once the film has begun, you're screwed. You may be able to see an empty seat on the other side of the cinema, but you can't get there. So a few times when I was a minute late due to some other screening or getting grabbed in the lobby by someone who wanted to talk, I missed a movie. Just no way to get to the seat.

Anyway - a bunch of movies I wanted to see - some I even had tickets for - I didn’t get a chance to see. Here’s what I did see....

BAL-CAN-CAN

The best feature I saw at Raindance this year was a really twisted black comedy from Macedonia, BAL-CAN-CAN, written and directed by Darko Mitrevski; about a draft dodger, his wife and mother-in-law trying to escape the country (and the civil war). When the mother-in-law is shot in the cross-fire and dies, the only way to smuggle her body across the border is to wrap her in a rug. But when the rug is stolen by black marketeers, our hero must become a man of action and find his mother-in-law’s corpse so that she can be properly buried. He calls his father’s best friend’s son, a slick Italian minor-mobster, to help him out. The two are opposites - and working together creates some funny situations.

To give you an idea of the tone of this film, there’s a scene where the husband and wife have the mother-in-law’s body in a tub full of ice, trying to figure out what to do with it. The husband reaches into the tub... and pulls out a beer! The wife grabs a beer from the tub, too, and they come up with the carpet scheme.

Another scene has two factions of the civil war in close quarters fight... but when our hero and his Italian “blood brother” show up, they stop the war for dinner. Both sides sit at the same table and eat... until someone says the wrong thing and they begin shooting each other. Everybody is killed... except our pair. The film is often too dark for its own good - but when people go through hell and make you laugh about it, that’s a skill. It’s kind of Coen Brothers with a lot more blood.

ALICE

Marco Martins’ film about a father’s obsessive search for his missing little girl. In the heartbreaking film from Portugal, the protagonist’s four year old daughter disappears from her day care, and he spends every waking hour searching for her. He places dozens of video cameras on rooftops overlooking the streets of Lisbon and collects the tapes every day. Watches hours of security camera videos... looking for some sign of his child. At one point he thinks he my have spotted her... but the missing girl is never found. By the end of the film he gives up his search... Accepting that he will never find her. Ultimately unsatisfying - the film just ends. I also had some questions about how one loses a four year old - someone should have been watching this kid!

CORPORATE

A Bollywood film... but, as the director and producer pointed out to me - the *new* socially conscious Bollywood. Gritty. Realistic. With only couple of musical numbers... and only two and a half hours long! The story of a woman executive climbing the corporate ladder who thinks nothing of using anyone to get what she wants. Lots of company politics, lots of war between major soft drink corporations. When corporate espionage exposes that a rival soft drink company is about to market a *mint* flavored soft drink, our “hero company” scrambles to get their mint soft drink released first... even if it means using contaminated water and bribing a bunch of government officials. We see all kinds of back stabbing behind the scenes, and at the center of the film there’s this love story between our climbing female executive and the brother-in-law of her boss (who has the most soulful eyes of any actor I’ve ever seen... so it’s no surprise when he gets back-stabbed in the deal and spends the last half of the film crying or trying not to cry). When the secret of the contaminated water gets out, heads roll, sticks fall, and mean American investors scream into their phones.

The film was shown *without* subtitles... and it surprised me how much I could figure out without dialogue... to the point of two labor characters introduced who I knew would be comic relief... and the (mostly Indian) audience laughed at everything they said. Though it’s nice that they made a Bollywood movie that isn’t just another three-plus hour all-singing, all-dancing heroic action movie, the end result was kind of unemotional (despite the crying dude) and bland. Shot “flat” and boring. Characters we didn’t care much about. Concept that’s kind of boring. Afterwards the writer-director talked about his brilliant ability to find great concepts... but his next film is about beggers at a major intersection called TRAFFIC LIGHT. Would you pay $10 to see that?

SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE

Closing night film was an all star cast movie about seven couples in the same London park on the same day, all dealing with relationship issues. Ewan McGregor, Gina McKee (yum), Adrian Lester (HUSTLE), Sophie Okonedo, etc. The director won the Raindance pitchfest 2 years ago... when I was one of the judges. The film? Well, it’s all *scenes* - as in, sketches. And the “sexual nature”? Well, the closest we get is a long shot of a young woman’s underpants. The rest is just talk.

The big problem with the film is that after it’s over we have no greater understanding of relationships. The scenes don’t really connect... and none of them are resolved. The best of the lot is an older couple reluctantly sharing a park bench who, in the course of conversation, discover that they were once lovers. That’s such a great moment - so powerful and amazing - that the rest of the film suffers from blandness. And they aren’t even smart enough to end this scene with the big moment... it drags on for the rest of the film, even though there really is nothing that can top that moment. The other scenes (intercut throughout the movie) are either too short or too long - nothing is just right. Ewan McGregor is a gay guy who wants to have kids, but his boyfriend isn’t interested. They keep cutting back to their bickering, but no progress is ever made and we really don’t learn anything about the characters (other than surface stuff) even though this section goes on *forever*. Meanwhile, a husband is caught looking at that young woman’s underpants by his wife... who (after a very funny scene where she forces her husband to apologize for peeping) storms off. The husband chases after her and... we never find out what happens. I wanted *more* of this sequence. Gina McKee (CROUPIER) plays a woman on a blind date who admits to a ticking biological clock and thinks she blows the date... so she storms off. Again, not enough material here to learn anything about the characters (other than the surface) and the conflict is never resolved (or purposely unresolved) - the scene just ends. Another sketch has Adrian Lester and his wife and daughter taking a stroll as they discuss their divorce. This one was pretty good - but needed a stronger end... it just kind of meanders off. A sketch about a businessman who just *talks* to a call girl - they have a relationship that has never entered the bedroom - goes on too long then ends abruptly. It seems like the script was rough first draft that needed some serious rewriting... and didn’t get it.

SHORTS

I only saw one program of shorts this year - I usually see all of them. This selection was called Urban Scapes and was much weaker than past shorts programs. Two years ago, even the stranger selections were mostly solid little films. The worst of the lot was a thing called LIAR that was an actor saying he was a liar over-and-over again in different costumes, until you wanted to find out where this actor lived and go strangle him. 10 minutes, but seemed like hours.

The very best was TALES OF TIME SQUARE, also 10 minutes... but it just breezed by. This was a doc about a guy who lived and worked in the pre-Disney Times Square in NY. His rise and fall. The love of his life... murdered. His descent into drugs and homelessness. A quick lesson on how to find a place to sleep for the night. And the eventual death of our protagonist. Heartbreaking. And the guy is so witty and interesting - the perfect interview subject. You really get to know this guy in 10 minutes - know him better than any of the characters in SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE. It reminded me of a film I saw at Raindance 2 years ago (DEAD PEOPLE - about an old man who tells great stories), and I talked to Jamie (Mr. Raindance Shorts) at the closing night screening about it - but we couldn’t remember if it was the same director or not. Seems it wasn’t - Paul Stone directed TIMES and Roger Deutsch directed DEAD PEOPLE. Both have the same amazing ability to take a normal guy and get the most mazing stories out of him.

Another pretty good short was GAS - about a woman being chased by guys with *huge* Busey-like teeth. Had a funny punchline. Also, ATTACK was a good one - a MEMENTO style backwards story that completely changes our perception of the situation with every segment. Story starts out with some nice black guys fighting a skin head. By the time we get all the way back, we find out this guy *isn’t* a skin head... and everything has been the result of a misunderstanding. Great little film that makes you realize how quick we are to judge any situation (because *we* jump to conclusions again and again).

Too long at 10 minutes, but still fun was SHANTELL TOWN, and I met the writer-director Paulette James before the screening. The story of a non-fashionable black girl who gets teased by the other girls and ends up showing her inner-style and finding love... and it’s a *musical*. Would have been better at half the length, but the film is clever and has regular laughs (even if it’s just a funny hair style).

BUSKER was somewhere in the middle - but starred Dominique Pinon from DELICATESSEN as a mime who is losing business due to a guitar player... so he grabs his air guitar and wows the crowd. Only 6 minutes long... but could have been cut in half and been much better. Also somewhere between good and bad was CUBS about gang kids who go fox hunting... and our hero-kid’s first kill. There was symbolism at work, here, but the film went on too long (at 10 minutes).

On the worst list is MEAT, a film that manages to not tell a story. The story is there, the film just can’t figure out how to get the info to the audience. So you spend 13 *looooong* minutes completely confused, and eventually figure out what the movie was trying to say. PROVIDENCE was another movie that had no idea how to tell its story - you end up scratching your head. This one was about a father with a dead daughter, or maybe a daughter with a dead father. Worst of all - because it not only didn’t communicate its story, after it was over I still had no idea what the danged story even *was* was this movie about a train conductor vs. soccer hooligans. Don’t know the title, it was a replacement film for something else that didn’t show. Here’s the thing - you have a movie with all kinds of *trains* and a *train station* and lots of other expenseive stuff... and the story is so incompetent I still don’t know what it was about.

HISTORY BOYS

After the fest I saw a few movies, including some American films I’m not going to mention, plus this film which had great reviews and was written by Alan Bennet. If you don’t know who that is, he’s probably to blame for Monty Python. Bennet was a member of the comedy group known as Beyond The Fringe which kind of set the stage for the Pythons a few years later. When I was a drama-geek in high school, I did a few of Bennet’s sketches - one became my audition piece. So I had some pretty high expectations...

Which were not met. The film is the story of a group of high school kids who have good enough grades to *maybe* get into Oxford/Cambridge on history scholarships. One major problem is - they don’t care about Oxford as much as their Principal does. He thinks it would be great for the school if these kids all got in. Then we get a scattershot plot - because the whole Oxford thing gets sidetracked by a new teacher story - and the crush one of the boys has on the teacher. Oh, and then *that* story gets sidetracked by the old teacher story - Richard Griffiths (the Muggle Uncle in the Harry Potter films) plays a teacher with unorthodox methods who is being squeezed out of the system... who then touches one of the boys inappropriately... leading to him getting fired... leading to him eventually getting killed in a motorcycle wreck... leading to a big funeral where everyone wishes they would have appreciated his unique teaching style more. Actually, that may be the real pot of the story - hard to tell *what* is. There’s also this major major subplot comparing the teaching theories of the new teacher and the old teacher - and *that* may be the real plot, too. I’m leaving out a bunch of major plot threads - and that’s the problem with this film: no focus. The kids don’t care if they go to Oxford, so we really don’t care if they pass the interviews or not.. And we don’t even get to see those interviews! We getkind of a montage - but considering this thing starts out being about how hard it is to get through that interview, they spend almost no time on it. The best part of the film - Bennet is still funny as hell. The story may be all over the place, but the dialogue was funny. These kids had an arsenal of zingers.

MAN PUSH CART

Another post-fest film I saw was MAN PUSH CART written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. It was distributed by ex-Raindance guy Oliver, whose company DogWoof specializes in indie films. The film is about a Pakistani immigrant in New York City who is very close to paying off his breakfast service cart. It's a large cart, and he serves coffee and food items from *inside* the cart. This is not a motorized “roach coach”, it has a trailer hitch and is designed to be pulled behind a truck.

Except our protagonist doesn't own a truck.

Every morning he gets up at 3am, goes to the garage and pulls his cart by hand across Manhattan to his corner. The street is uneven, bad pavement. There are taxis and buses and cars honking at him the entire way. The cart is very heavy. At one point, he trips, the cart goes out of control, and he has to chase it down and catch it before it crashes. This is a huge cart - not designed for a man to pull by hand.

Once he gets the cart to his corner, he sets up shop and his work day begins. He works all day... then drags the cart back to the garage at night, fighting auto traffic and pot holes the entire way. After he puts his cart to bed in the garage, he's still carrying around the propane tank that keeps the stove going. Propane is expensive and he can't just leave the tank in the garage. So he carries it home with him on the bus every night.

The film is a real heart-breaker, and manages to keep giving us more and more information about our hero - making his story even more tragic. His wife has died. And once he pays off his cart, he can start putting away money so that he can move into a larger apartment and send for his son. Then there’s this great twist where a wealthy businessman who stops by his cart recognizes him from the old country... where he was a famous rock star who moved to America to find fame and fortune. There’s a newspaper stand girl from Spain who provides the romantic interest... but this film is ultimately very sad. You see the world through different eyes after this film.

Those were the films I saw this year (with the exception of a couple of American films) - next up - what happened at the festival.

Here’s my Raindance Diary from 2004:
Raindance 2004

3 comments:

wcdixon said...

Thanks for the 'trip', Bill. Felt like I was there.

David Wigram said...

Dammit Bill, I saw you after the shorts screening (Busker was mine) but wasn't sure it was you. Should have said hey anyway. British awkwardness, you know. Might you have a more recent photo to help future WCM-spotters?

Good review roundup I thought, and fair comment on my film. Seems ironic the way most shorts struggle to tell their stories quickly.

pws said...

Man Push Cart is an amazing film. No movie has made me simply feel that much in a long, long time.

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