Thursday, 15 November 2012

HIFF2012: On the Side of the Angels

 It's about time I finished off this year's reporting on the Love & Anarchy Festival. It was swell and all, but I've got other festivals to write about too. On this last look at the festival's films, I've selected several feel-good films, all of them about underdogs of sorts who strive to enjoy their lives and to greatness by doing whatever it is they love. Kind of a good life lesson, and one that encapsulates Love & Anarchy within it. So, until next year, Helsinki International Film Festival!

The Angels' Share (UK/France/Belgium/Italy)
Director: Ken Loach

The acclaimed director Ken Loach tries out a more comedic approach to his latest film. Make no mistake, it is still about the hardships of lowe-class Scots in a society that can't really fit them anywhere. The ensuing adventure or heist may not be very believable, but the film lives and dies by its cast of characters.

The young Robbie (Paul Brannigan) tries to walk the line, leaving his brawling past behind him to become a good husband and a father to his girlfriend Leonie (Siobham Reilly) and his newborn son. But he has problems with both an old family enemy and Leonie's father, who both attack him constantly. Robbie, along with a group of other minor offenders, are given community service renovating a house. During the job they start to bond with each other and their supervisor Harry (John Henshaw). Harry may be the only authority figure to treat these people with any sort of respect.

The film shifts gear when Harry takes the crew to a whisky tasting, where Robbie learns of a highly expensive old whisky being auctioned soon. A caper to earn money to get out of his rat race of a life starts to form in his life. As funny it is to follow the story, it relies in a few too many happy coincidences. One of them is Robbie's almost supernatural born gift of tasting various whiskys.

But as said, the film is as good as its characters, and the cast here is quite well-rounded with memorable characters and good actors. Stealing scenes is the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers Albert (Gary Maitland). Loach himself may have figured this out, too, since he gives him all the funniest lines, and even the opening scene of the movie. In that Albert is too dumb to realize he's being asked to move from railroad tracks due to an upcoming train. Such is the problem of many of the individuals on display here. They don't have the capacity to deal with the hostile world around them and consequently they don't realize how self-destructive they are. Only when they figure out a way to pull together and learn to cheat the system for their own ends, does a happy ending arrive (although it's almost sickeningly happy in this case).

Loach is hard-pressed to prove how big a humanist he is, understanding everyone around. The bone-crunching, sickeningly violent fight scenes contarst the happy-go-lucky fairy tale adventure of the rest of the movie, but don't always hit well together. If consequences are real, then the plot hinges on becoming totally unbelievable.


Gimme the Loot (USA)
Director: Adam Leon

Sold-out screenings sometimes open one's schedule for something else, something totally new. That was the case when I walked totally oblivious to see Adam Leon's independent teen movie about low-class kids hanging out in New York. It's a clever piece of work, selling that it's story is going to be about something in the very beginning when it's more about loitering, hanging around, plotting, and lusting. Really nothing much happens or even advances. Such is life and matched to a good perception of the poorer neighbourhoods in NYC we have a fun, breezy summer flick for the kids. And adults find plenty to enjoy, too.

Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are wannabe graffiti artists who dream of gaining massive street respect, and to get back to their rivals who cover all their best work. They aim to achieve this by bombing the NY Mets Apple, a mascot that is raised every time there's a home run on a baseball game. No one has previously succeeded in this, and Malcolm and Sofia would need some money to successfully complete the job. Malcolm plans to do this by wooing a rich, idle teenager Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze) and stealing money from her parents' apartement.

Leon makes his hard-luck protagonists likeable, even if they are thieving and conning little losers. Such is the might of featuring good bullshitting scenes, and believable street-level transitional scenes. The characters feel real and like they belong to the environment. Leon also has a few brief scenes of underground parties and graffiti-making but these are by no means emphasized and are just there to give a better idea of the life the main characters are living.

The downside of the film is that it features very little in particular in terms of content, so the viewers thoughts about this are in the end kind of a breeze. But the film helps one pass the time until the next screening in a very pleasurable way. You feel as if you had just spent some time with some good friends.

★★★ 1/2

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (USA)
Director: Alex Stapleton

This documentary chronicles the incredible career of a true Hollywood rebel and an individual. Roger Corman has shaped so much of how movies have developed from the 50's to the 70's that it's almost impossible to overestimate his influence on American Movie industry in general. He's most beloved by people such as me, who enjoy schlock and exploitation, the films that tend to our most primal needs. But he has also funded and given a much-needed film-school in action to a number of auteurs so large, it's pointless to list them all here. Plus, Corman's own directions, such as his delightfully far-fetched adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's novellas, are quite good in themselves.

We also get to see Corman on the set of his latest movie, going straight-to-DVD or worse, to be a SyFy channel original. It's another cheapo killer crocodile movie, featuring babes, carnage and rubber beasts just like in the good old days. Old clips make even the most tedious films of Corman's back catalogue seem exciting.

The biggest problem with the documentary is that Corman is such a larger-than-life character with such an amazing career full of twists and turns that it's almost impossible to fit it all comfrotably into 100 minutes. As such, it skips over lengthy creative periods I would've enjoyed hearing a lot more about. This project would have worked better as a television series than just a short biopic.

The strength of the film is that Corman is a very rare breed of person in Hollywood, in that you can say whatever's on your mind about him. He won't sue or even mind, because most of the stories are true anyway, and at the core he's always had a big heart. A large cast of Hollywood's whos-who has participated, including Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Pam Grier, Eli Roth and Robert De Niro. Bonus points for leaving motor-mouthed walking film encyclopedia Quentin Tarantino merely to a cameo role as Corman's Oscar presenter. There's plenty of story available here otherwise, as the end credits featuring a large list of interviewees cut out for time, prove.

Jack Nicholson is the most fun interviewee on display here. Thinking about his past with Corman he in turn is laughing, bitching, giving a "fuck you" or two to Roger and seemingly seething with joy over the good old days of youth, drugs and innovative filmmaking. Most surprisingly, he starts crying spontaneously. It doesn't feel staged, and wisely Stapleton directing won't linger or underline the importance of the scene. It really seems like the old actor is moved to tears while thinking about his old friend and mentor.

★★★ 1/2

Shut Up and Play the Hits (UK)
Directors: Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern

Somehow a major portion of rock documentaries these days seem to deal with midlife crises of rock stars. Case in point is the film chronicling the final concert of LCD Soundsystem, the electronic project by James Murphy. The film leaves it unclear as to why Murphy has suddenly grown tired of his stardom, but hints its all due other problems concerning him feeling himself too old to be in the middle of a scene or an idol to millions of hipsters (or, granted, fans of good music in general). And leaving his popular band behind doesn't seem like a solution to these problems anyway.

While a lot of the first act of the film deals on the identity crisis the recluctant rock star Murphy lives with, the real meat of the film is of course on the high-def concert footage of the band's final show in Madison Square Garden. It takes strangely long to get that far, given that the film opens on the day after, seeing Murphy going through mundane everyday things just like any one of us. But when we finally get the flashback of the night before, he's an angel, singing from all his heart and more perfectly than ever. The music doesn't feel melancholic, mechanic or forced, but as one big happy jam, created only through a close collaboration with a big band filled with talented musicians.

While shooting the gig, cameras swoop and swoosh, showing both incredibly close footage of Murphy and his minstrels playing, and the grandiose hall filled with an audience and drowning in light, confetti and the overwhelming emotions. The selection of muisc is a good one, emphasizing songs from the band's best album Sound of Silver.

So with a grandiose ending that leaves a good taste on everyone's mouth, and perhaps a tear or two, it was more than fitting to close this festival. Good show. Very good.


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