Memories of Live Events

Today the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021 started… Online. The pandemic has been going on for nearly a year now and live festivals have become a distant memory. It’s not that I don’t appreciate their online efforts, but unfortunately it’s impossible to capture the unique atmosphere the festival normally generates. Therefore, I don’t cover this years’ festival (sorry folks at the IFFR) but instead turn back to clock and return to the past, a time when pandemics and lock-downs were still only products of the imagination and Hollywood movies. Let’s hope that next year we can return to a sustainable new normal, including live film festivals.

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2008

Day 1

26-01-2008 by Jeppe Kleyngeld

The annual Rotterdam Film Festival. I have been looking forward to this. A little too much maybe. I dreamed last night that I missed half the programme. Not a very likely scenario. I got two days in which I hope to see at least ten movies/short film programmes. Let the cinema frenzy begin.

Lot’s of coffee and ready to see film number 1. The Egyptian drama Le chaos, directed by maestro Youssef Chahine. I haven’t seen many Egyptian films (not one). Nor was I aware of the existence of ‘popular Egyptian cinema’, as the festival catalogue describes it. Curious I entered the dark screening room of the Pathé cinema.

It was all right. A well-crafted combination of a romance and a political story. It revolves around the brutal police chief Hatem, who rules the Choubra district in Cairo with an iron fist. His only weakness is the passion he feels for his neighbour girl Nour, who in her turn is smitten by district attorney Cherif. A series of events unfold leading to a riot, the blossoming love between Nour and Cherif, and a showdown with tyrant Hatem.

Up to the next film, or rather event. Robert Breer: Image by Images 3, one of the compilation programmes of filmmaker in focus Robert Breer’s shorts. His background as a painter becomes immediately apparent with the first one; BANG!. It consists of animated drawings and real footage. Recently transferred to 35mm it looks pretty sharp. The following two shorts FUJI and SWISS ARMY KNIFE WITH RATS AND PIGEONS are very similar; no story, just images. And technically pretty neat.

Then follows STOCKHAUSEN’S ORIGINALE: DOUBLTAKES, a 32-minute documentary of some sort of performance in Germany (?). As Breer basically said himself in the Q&A afterwards; ‘what an underexposed, incoherent and hardly comprehensible mess. The programme finishes with two more animated short: TRIAL BALLOONS and TIME FLIES.

After an excellent lunch in Turkish eatery Bazar, it was time for something more commercial. In Rotterdam that usually means the latest American indie. I managed to get a ticket for Jason Reitman’s Juno. The much discussed and Oscar nominated comedy/drama that Roger Ebert describes as ‘one of the best movies of the year’.

And justly so. The audience obviously loved it and so did I. What is not to love about this movie? The razor-sharp script from first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody and the completely disarming performance from Ellen Page as the pregnant teenager Juno suck you into this movie and won’t let you go till the end. This is also due to the contribution of all the great supporting players. Some Oscars would be well deserved.

After a short break I headed for another venue. I was going to see a short film compilation called Short Stories 8: Crime Stories. The four shorts shown were a mixed bag. The first one PLOT POINT (2007, Nicolas Provost) was a pretty cool, atmospheric short from Belgium. About a hypnotic New York where the police force is acting strange. Through sound effects and well-shot and edited imagery, Provost creates a very cinematic and suspenseful little no-budget film. The second film was FOREST MURMURS (2006, Jonathan Hodgson). A beautifully animated short about a mysterious forest in Great-Britain where murders have taken place throughout history.

Then came LE PEAU DURE (2008, Benoit Rambourgh, Jean Barnard-Marlin). A French short about a juvenile kid and the relationship between him and his scumbag father. It was not as intense as it could have been. The final film was WAY OUT (2006, Chen Tao). About a Chinese peasant who starts to pick pockets to satisfy his wife. Beautiful cinematography but as regards content not very interesting.

As a midnight snack I selected a film from the Rotterdämmerung programme; genre films on a late hour. I saw nothing less then George A. Romero’s latest zombie shocker Diary of the Dead. In his fifth ‘Dead’ movie, Romero follows a group of film students who stumble upon a zombie outbreak and decide to cover it.

All in all not a bad day. Now get ready for the sequel.

Day 2

27-01-2008

Another day in Rotterdam. What to watch? I could go for the nine-hour lasting epos Death in the Land of Encantos by Filipino director Lav Diaz. On previous editions of the festival, Diaz had film screenings of similar length. In 2005 Evolution of a Filipino Family (10 hrs) and in 2007 Heremias (9 hrs). I haven’t seen those, so this is my chance to finally have a Diaz experience.

Nah. Lack of patience. I rather go for five quick rushes than one quiet and meditative experience. Exactly the point Diaz is making with his immensely long films. Perhaps next year I’ll go for the new Diaz. Yeah right, who are you kidding?

So of to the first gig. El Asaltante is part of the Sturm und Drang programme. This programme features films by young filmmakers that are still developing their own style. First time Argentinean director Pablo Fendrik made a film about an ageing mugger who commits three robberies in the course of the movie. The action is registered with a steadycam in primarily close-up and medium shots leading to an uncomfortable tension. Pretty good debut by Fendrik

During my break I saw an installation in the NEW DRAGON INNS exhibition. No time to stay for the upcoming screening though. The downside of viewing five films in one day is that the breaks are so damn short. So I rushed back to the cinema.

The second film was a low-budget Iraq movie. Directed by Brian De Palma! Redacted is about the rape of a fifteen year old Iraqi girl at the hands of a squad of US soldiers. The film is based on true events, and shot in very realistically looking staged footage. Not a very happy subject. But it is skilfully directed by De Palma and features strong acting from a completely unknown cast.

Afterwards, having observed this authentic horror, I felt pretty much like a drone. And I still had three movies to go. A double espresso helped me through the next movie. The Japanese manga-film Appleseed: Ex Machina.

This sequel to the 2004 manga-hit Appleseed was a good wake-up call as it started with some ass-kicking action scenes. The story revolves around a high-tech futuristic world in which constant conflicts are taking place between humans and various types of cyborgs. The excitement level of the beginning is not matched later in the movie, but it was still an enjoyable screening.

Now I was going to see my first Tiger film of the year (one of the fifteen films nominated for a Tiger Award), namely Shanghai Trance. A Chinese film directed by young Dutch director David Verbeek. It is made up of three love stories edited together, all playing in the fast growing metropolis Shanghai. In every story, the characters have trouble dealing with the rapid change of their country, as well as dealing with their personal relationships.

Unfortunatly for Verbeek his film didn’t secure an award as I learned later in the evening. The three Tiger Awards went to Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat, Thailand), Flower in the Pocket (Liew Seng Tat, Malaysia) and Go With Peace Jamil (Omar Shargawi, Denmark).

I booked a surprise film to close of the day. And I got to see…Lars and the Real Girl, the debut from American director Craig Gillespie. The story revolves around the solitary bachelor Lars, who orders a silicone doll from the internet who looks very real (and hot!). It turns out that Lars suffers from a delusional disorder making him believe that Bianca (the doll) is a real person. It wasn’t as silly as this sounds, but it still wasn’t my brand of Vodka. The audience liked it, but I thought this is the kind of movie they show on airplanes. A disappointing surprise festival organisation! Next year I want something better.

I headed back to my car and found my passenger window smashed! Some junkie had been going through my car. My only relief was that I had left nothing in it to steal. I still felt frustrated and angry. I knew I should have gone for that Diaz film. I bet I would have felt more relaxed about things then. Oh well, next year I’ll have another shot at Buddhist enlightenment.

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2009

26-01-2009

International Film festival Rotterdam 2009 opened with the international premiere of The Hungry Ghosts, the directorial debut of Michael Imperioli, best known for portraying Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos. Imperioli was present, along with his whole entourage, including main actor Steve Schirripa (Bobby Bacala in The Sopranos).

Imperioli proves to be a talented director, besides an actor and a writer. In a mosaic way of storytelling, the film follows the lives of several characters in New York, all searching for something. Off course, the stories come together in the end. Not cinematically revolutionary, but well crafted and featuring some good acting. It reminded me of Scorsese, probably because of the typical New York scene.

Next was L’ange by Patrick Bokanowski, a rediscovered gem from Rotterdam’s regained programme. It’s not exactly a date movie, believe me. It has no story, but solely consists of images, edited in a bizarre and fascinating way. A pure trip movie. It surely put me in a trance for 70 minutes. The beautiful painting-like images would stay in my head for days after the film.

Time for some Asian cinema. Rotterdam always has plenty of that. Takeshi Kitano is one of the Asian directors that contributes a feature to the programme annually. His Zatôichi even opened the festival in 2004. His latest work is Achilles and the Tortois, the last instalment in a loose trilogy about the figure of the artist. The previous entries were Takeshi’s and Glory to the Filmmaker.

Takeshi is – besides a filmmaker – a painter. This film tells about that part of his life. A young boy who only wants to paint grows up to be…Takeshi. An artists who never sold a painting and is always ridiculed. He has some brilliant ideas for paintings though. Overlong, but occasionally very funny film. It is also warmer than most of Takeshi’s works. It might even be his most moving film so far, now that I think about it.

Besides the title of Michael Imperioli’s film, ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ is also a film programme, consisting of Asian ghost movies. Thai horror The Body is one of them. A scary movie it is! A young student starts having nightmarish visions that are só scary that it is almost unbearable. Feature debut of Thai director Paween Purijitpanya. He still has to learn to cut more rigorously, but his talent is evident and fantastic film lovers will undoubtedly hear more from him in coming years.

Mock Up on Mu is the latest creation of found footage director Craig Baldwin. It’s another weird collage of campy sci-fi flicks narrated together. Thematically it revolves around human evolution, space colonisation and military power. Pretty funny. Unfortunately it goes on and on, becoming too much nonsense to handle in one go.

Rotterdam traditionally puts two or three filmmakers in the spotlight at each festival. Not the usual suspects, but unknown talents. This year the honour befalls on Polish Jerzy Skolimowski, Italian Paolo Benvenuti and Swiss experimental filmmaker Peter Liechti, of whom I went to see his latest work, The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy.

Based on a true Japanese story, it tells the intriguing – if somewhat morbid – tale of a man who chooses to die of starvation. He retreats to the abandoned woods and waits for nearly 60 (!) days before his soul finally leaves his body. In voice-over, the man records his dying observations. Liechti chooses not to film the man himself, but merely the images the man sees and the sounds (of insects) that he hears. There isn’t much more to it. A curious experience.

British director Pat Holden presented his movie Awaydays, for which screenwriter Kevin Sampson adapted his own cult novel. Against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, it tells the story of the rocky friendship between the two young thugs Carty and Elvis, who live between the hooligan gangs and primitive violence. With a fantastic post-punk soundtrack.

Followed up by stylish Mexican thriller Los Bastardos. Two outlaws keep a drug addicted mother hostage in her own house. The build-up is slow, but the story eventually heads towards an acts of stomach turning violence. The movie is directed by Amat Escalante, who made an impression at the festival a few years back with Sangre. In the Q&A after the film, Escalante says to have been inspired by the films of James Benning and For a Few Dollars More by Sergio Leone. Not by the more obvious Funny Games that is somewhat similar.

The final film for me is the Canadian comedy The Baby Formula, something like The L-Word with a sci-fi twist. Definitely one for the ladies. Two lesbians impregnate each other through medical innovation. Their very different families respond to the situation in their own way. A feel-good comedy that will undoubtedly score high with the audience.

Originally published on FilmDungeon.com

Images a courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

George Lucas, Not Guilty

Today, on the premiere of ‘The Last Jedi’ – the eighth official episode in the Star Wars saga, creator of Star Wars – Mr. George Lucas – stands trial. He is accused of being a hack.

The prosecution (The internet)
Of the many things that catch blame for ‘ruining’ the Star Wars prequels – Jar Jar Binks, midi-chlorians, almost every line of dialogue George Lucas wrote for Padme and Anakin – there is one moment that makes almost every fan cringe, no matter how dedicated. We’re talking about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, literally the jumping-off point of the entire Star Wars saga.

In this moment, Vader learns that he has lost his wife and unborn children…and has been transformed into, like, a Space Robocop. So, what does he do? He breaks free from his shackles and lets out the now infamous, “NOOOOOOO!” that felt like it had a Kanye-level of autotune to it. It felt ridiculous when it should have been the defining moment of the prequels. What the hell was Lucas thinking?

The defense (Johnny Cochran)

This defense will be short and easy. This is the man who gave us Star Wars after all. The original Star Wars films still form the best trilogy ever created hands down. Even the third part – which is never the best in any series – is in case of Star Wars nearly perfect: ‘Return of the Jedi’ contains some of the best stuff of the series. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013) gave each of the three original films the maximum rating of four stars (read his awesome reviews here, here, and here).

So why is Lucas so hated despite being the man who gave us Darth Vader, Yoda, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker amongst many others? Because he also gave us Jar Jar Binks? Because he writes remarkably terrible love scenes? So what? Didn’t the other great filmmakers of his generation make similar mistakes? Francis Ford Coppola cast his daughter in ‘The Godfather: Part III’ and it nearly ruined the film. Yet, he is never criticized in the way Lucas is.

Statistically, after sunshine comes rain. Lucas gave us the best trilogy ever made, so the prequels were never going to top that. Still, that is no excuse for not making better movies. But are they really so terrible?

Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the worst, most will agree. But look at what it does have: the pod race, Darth Maul (IMDb-poll names him the second greatest SW villain after Vader), and the return of many great characters: Palpatine, Yoda and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor is perfect casting as a young Alec Guinness). There is also fun foreshadowing going on of all that is to come. Finally, the world building is spectacular and unforgettable.

Roger Ebert – who gave ‘The Phantom Menace’ 3,5 stars out of 4 – concluded: “Mostly I was happy to drink in the sights on the screen, in the same spirit that I might enjoy ‘Metropolis’, ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘Dark City’ or ‘The Matrix’. The difference is that Lucas’ visuals are more fanciful and his film’s energy level is more cheerful; he doesn’t share the prevailing view that the future is a dark and lonely place.”

Episode II: Attack of the Clones – The greatest weakness is the love story, we can be clear about this. But it would be a shame to let that ruin the whole movie experience, because episode II has a lot going for it. First of all, it has a terrific Raymond Chandler-style mystery plot. Also, there is a great sense of urgency; the battle for the galaxy has now really begun. And the filmmaking in general – the editing, sound, production design, music, etc – are all A-grade. There are few filmmakers with such imagination, and with the ability to bring it to the screen, like Lucas.

As for villains, usually the best thing about a Star Wars-film, I don’t like Jango Fett so much, but Count Dooku – played the uncanny Christopher Lee – is terrific, and so is his lightsaber duel with Yoda. The dark side is really prevailing now and Lucas effectively uses the principles of Eastern Philosophy to craft the story development. People may not like Hayden Christensen, but what is actually accomplished by his performance is that we get an uneasy feeling about Anakin. The air gets thick in the confrontational scenes. Unlike Obi-Wan – who was the perfect Jedi-student in episode I – Anakin is the pupil you always have to worry about. And these foreshadowing shots with Palpatine are grand. His quest to the dark side is thus very well handled.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith  Episode III is a return to the classic space opera style that launched the series, and many agree that Lucas really approaches old trilogy greatness here. In the saga’s darkest chapter, Anakin really journeys to the dark side under the influence of the demonic Palpatine. Aside from the infamous ‘Noooo’-moment, episode III is a thoroughly exciting and enjoyable film with some of the best action sequences in the series.

And so, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if George Lucas is a hack, then Chewbacca lives on Endor, and therefore you must acquit! The defense rests.

So let us all shut the hell up and enjoy Lucas’ legacy.

5 Reasons ‘Scarface’ Rarely Makes it to Critics’ Favorite Lists

Me, I want what's coming to me.

‘Me, I want what’s coming to me.’

Although Brian De Palma’s 1983 gangster movie ‘Scarface’ is legendary within the popular culture domain, it is hardly considered a masterpiece, such as ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Godfather Part II’ and ‘GoodFellas’. Should it?

Yes, I definitely think so. There is no other movie that shows the rise and fall of a gangster more effectively than Scarface. Okay, the high is pretty brief – and consists mostly of a musical number (‘Push it to the limit’), during which Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is buying tigers and snorting lot’s of cocaine. But I guess that is what a gangster’s high would ultimately feel like; empty, shallow and unsatisfying. Even the kick of having the desirable Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t last more than five minutes screentime.

The late film critic Roger Ebert – who awarded ‘Scarface’ a maximum of four stars – said it very poignantly. ‘The movie has been borrowed from so often that it’s difficult to understand how original it seemed in 1983, when Latino heroes were rare, when cocaine was not a cliché, when sequences at the pitch of the final gun battle were not commonplace. Just as a generation raised on ‘The Sopranos’ may never understand how original ‘The Godfather’ was, so ‘Scarface’ has been absorbed into its imitators.’

‘Scarface’ is listed in IMDb’s Top 250 (position 117), but that list is put together by users’ votes. On critic lists, such as the AFI 100 Best American Films, the All Time 100 (by Time) or Rotten Tomatoes’ 100 highest ranked films, it doesn’t appear. So what is it about ‘Scarface’ that obstructs it from being seen as a masterpiece, like the before mentioned gangster classics? Here are the five most probable reasons:

1.  The chainsaw scene
Scarface 1 - The chainsaw scene
Gangster films are violent, that is accepted. But Coppola and Scorsese have a way of turning even the most off-putting bit of violence into something really stylish and cinematic. The way De Palma handles the chainsaw scene, 24 minutes within the movie, is just plain ugly. ‘Now the leg huh’, remarks the sadistic Hector as he puts the saw in Tony Montana’s friend. This scene alone puts ‘Scarface’ in the extreme cinema league. And films that are extreme in this sense are rarely considered as Academy Award contenders.

2. The general ugliness
Scarface 2 - Ugly Car
Most of it is done deliberately, but the look and feel of ‘Scarface’ is just ugly dugly. That shirt that Montana is wearing, holy Christ! Also look at the sets. Miami in the eighties is just terrible. From the refugee camp where Montana and his partners murder the communist Rebenga, to the Miami Beach area where they start their careers as drug runners, these locations are just god awful. The language doesn’t help either: ‘Why don’t you try sticking your head up your ass, see if it fits’, Montana tells Hector. Can you hear Vito Corleone utter such a line? Or how about this one: ‘This town is like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.’ That doesn’t sound like ‘Casablanca’ does it? Last but not least: the music. From the cringe worthy synthesizer sounds to eighties hits like ‘She’s on Fire’. It is so wrong, it’s right.

3. The general foulness
Scarface 3 - The Clown
‘Scarface’ is in the end a very cynical movie in which the American Dream can only be achieved through extreme violence and corruption. Tony’s quest for power leads to ton’s of dead bodies: even a clown is whacked for god’s sake! A world in which a vile assassin like Tony Montana is the ultimate hero, is just very hard to accept. And the film gets uglier and uglier as it progresses. Tony’s drunken diner speech is the ultimate example of the repellent worldview on display. ‘Is this it? That’s what it’s all about, Manny? Eating, drinking, fucking, sucking? Snorting? Then what? You’re 50. You got a bag for a belly. You got tits, you need a bra. They got hair on them. You got a liver, they got spots on it, and you’re eating this fucking shit, looking like these rich fucking mummies in here… Look at that. A junkie. I got a fucking junkie for a wife. She don’t eat nothing. Sleeps all day with them black shades on. Wakes up with a Quaalude, and who won’t fuck me ‘cause she’s in a coma. I can’t even have a kid with her, Manny. Her womb is so polluted; I can’t even have a fucking little baby with her!’ It is kind of depressing when he puts it like that.

4. The sister storyline
Scarface 4 - Sister Shooting at Tony
Incest is never a pleasant topic, and even though nothing actually happens sexually between Tony and his sister Gina, it still raises some controversy. It also adds further to the already unpleasant vibe that the movie creates. Tony’s sickening jealousy of every man who even looks at his sister, let alone touches her, leads to aggression and eventually the murder on his best friend Manny. One of the hardest parts to watch involves Gina walking into Tony’s study, undressed, asking him to fuck her while shooting at him.

5. The over-the-top climax
Scarface 5 - Climax
The climax of ‘Scarface’ is so over the top that it is hard to comprehend during the first viewing. Many gangster films end with a massacre, but this is Rambo on cocaine. Fitting how this ending may be, it is so much of everything, that it may affect the judgment of its more critical audience.

None of this really matters though. ‘Scarface’ is a true classic. And though it may not always be appreciated as it should, ‘every dog has its day.’ ‘Scarface’ could go right to the top.