The LA Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday night with the closing gala of Ponyo, Miyazaki Hayao’s latest. Not being a great fan of animation, Miyazaki, or twee children’s dross I gave it a miss, although I may just be a curmudgeonly old cinephile with no soul. But if I’d seen that I’d have missed the sole screening of United Red Army, which was well worth the effort: a three-hour docudrama about the paramilitary student radical movement in Japan in the sixties and first two years of the seventies, culminating in a recreation of the Asama-Sanso Incident police siege for which the director used and destroyed his own house.
I caught a handful of other heavy-hitters from the European festival circuit: the Portuguese Our Beloved Month Of August (fascinating concept – documentary footage on the region and people that will be used for the fictional narrative of the second half – but for the most part flatly executed); The Silence Before Bach (poetic rumination on the music of Bach in various contexts that floats hypnotically here and there and succeeds on the strength of the music); Still Walking (deceptively masterful Japanese family reunion film); and 35 Shots of Rum (slightly disappointingly slight Claire Denis father-daughter celebration).
Los Bastardos had also played in Europe (official selection for un certain regard at Cannes) and turned out to be less the promised pulp crime thriller than a formal long-take art-house experiment – not entirely successful but viscerally affecting. Seen at Sundance and San Francisco, on the other hand, Unmade Beds was a pretty good portrait of the East London diaspora with an admitted debt to Nan Goldin, slight and a little affected but such a firm grasp of milieu it made me a little homesick. Less so I Sell The Dead, a loving homage to Hammer Horror with grave-robbers, zombies and grinning proles; fun and imaginative, but more in concept than execution. There was more horror with Embodiment Of Evil, the long-overdue return of Coffin Joe: still insane, but rather slickly unpleasant, with the raggedy low-budget character of the sixties installments sorely missed.
Amongst the retrospectives, I had time only for Curtis Harrington’s intriguing debut Night Tide (1961) – nice air of Poe-ish mystery with young Dennis Hopper falling for a mermaid on Venice pier, but the ending lets it down with a prosaic bump – and one of the three hot rod movies on offer, Hot Rods To Hell (1967), which was a terrible movie but hugely enjoyable.
I also caught the fine but unadventurous Stella, an autobiographical portrait tale set in the 70′s, which was winningly carried by its 11 year-old lead and notable for one of Guillaume Dépardieu’s last roles (sadly insubstantial); and Born Without, an intimate and perhaps thereby un-incisive documentary that was riveting thanks to the subject matter – a Mexican dwarf street musician born without arms who had a lengthy film career (thanks to his debut in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain), married his niece and saw his seventh child born during the making of the film. For some idiotic reason it won the Best International Feature audience award, despite being a documentary.
One of the most interesting evenings of the festival for me was the Ford Amphitheatre event 13 Most Beautiful. This comprises 13 of the Andy Warhol screen tests with live accompaniment from Dean and Britta: like a lot of Warhol’s work, the screen tests are ostensibly very dull but actually fascinating if accepted on their own terms; the music was hit and miss, but when the hits perfectly evoke Galaxie 500 and obscure Velvet Underground then that’s good enough for me.
Our Festival Winner:
My favourite film of the festival was the splendid Extraordinary Stories Mariana Llinás. It’s Argentinian, four hours long, and narrated almost entirely in voice-over. But the interweaving of three main story strands, and the numerous subsidiary tales within, is carried off so deftly that it’s a pleasure to follow the dead-end mysteries and shaggy dog digressions in the company of such an engaging and amusing yarn-spinner.