Friday, 27 March 2009

Belfast Film Festival Day 1 :: Ditching & Synecdoche New York

Well ladies and gents it's that time of the year again, if you're living in Belfast with a complete obsession for movies such as myself, then the Belfast Film Festival is for you. Shamefully this critic actually missed the opening première due to other commitments so onto the second day and I am pleased to have had the opportunity witness a world première and an advanced preview within succession. Two very different films with one similarity, both feature directors giving their début productions. So enough arsing about and onto the reviews!

Starting off in the Movie House on the Dublin Road in Belfast I sit tentatively waiting, surrounded by cast and crew alike for the premiere of...


It isn't often in my life I will get the chance to witness a world première of a film and knowing my luck I will probably never get the chance again so for now I'm out to enjoy this. For anyone who is not in the know, and frankly you would be totally forgiven for going "what?!" Ditching is as fiercely independent as movies come, produced by one of the biggest contributors to the arts in Belfast for many years, Factotum, which has brought the people of Belfast the completely delightful, very insightful and equally pretentious newspaper (it makes The Guardian look like The Daily Star), The Vacuum. The movie itself is probably one of the more original concepts I have encountered in recent years it sets itself around Northern Ireland in the future, which is a post apocalyptic landscape of decaying towns and primitive technology, and centres around two people setting out on a journey, which we're never fully as to where or why they are going. Ulster has become a depopulated, feudal and dangerous wilderness where people have forgotten the past and are confused about the ruins that surround them. They distract themselves with improvised ceremonies and games but feel threatened by a world they do not understand.

Truly unique is the only way I can describe this movie, which is why I'm really disappointed to say it didn't fill me with as much joy and spell-binding wonder as I wanted it to. Possibly being around the cast and directors of the film, who laughed and cheered at all the inside jokes and tiny bits that the audience weren't to know of, left me feeling a little left out, as if to watch it was to be part of an exclusive club. Slight bitterness aside however, the actors of the film were absolutely top class Mary Lindsay and Lalor Roddy (who appears in the 2008 indie/arthouse hit Hunger) as the curious leads who wonder the Northern Irish landscape with nothing more than a shopping cart of their belongings and a simple minded soul named Dave, fill the screen with a beautiful mixture of serious drama and endearing light heartedness, however the star of the show for me was an absolutely eccentric/wise elderly man, living in complete isolation with seemingly exclusive knowledge into how life was before N.I was reduced to this haggered, decaying landscape. Being a former student of archaeology all the sets of this film felt all too familiar to me which is probably why I didn't feel for the bleak surroundings as I probably should have, that said Paddy Bloomer does an immense job with the set interiors and should be commended invoking an extremely Terry Gilliam-esque feel at times. Overall though Ditching is a very intimate film with visions of grandeur that it never quite achieves, maybe that's due to lack of experience from the director's stand point (being their début feature after all) or possibly because of the lack of a significant budget. One of the high points of the background production was the soundtrack produced primarily by a series of acoustic/ambient jam sessions by Deadman, Kinnego Flux, BEW, Stuart Watson & Allan Hughes, as well as a local favourite of mine RL/VL (aka Jack Hamill) and internationally renown Belfast composer David Holmes. In this film the creators have constructed a world where so much is unexplored, like why was our wee country reduced to the state it has become or even why Belfast is never mentioned, is it gone, is it a restricted zone?! Why is there a king of Armagh?!!? WHY I SAY!?! Ahem...

To round up Ditching is a very enjoyable piece of local cinema that demonstrates the sheer natural talent and creativeness booming throughout Northern Ireland and its art sector and if it had more support pumped into it could achieve something really special, unfortunately for Ditching though we're not quite there yet.


Being slightly behind schedule from the late start of Ditching, I had to ditch the end credits for a quick jaunt up the road on a windy night to the QFT for...

Synecdoche, New York

After watching a low budget local production, I move onto a distinctly different film with a much bigger budget and a much more well known cast and director. Though this is his debut feature in the director's chair, Charlie Kaufman has made his name already from scripting some of the most mind bending pieces of cinema that has appeared in front of general audiences in the past 20 years, from his Oscar and BAFTA winning screenplay Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (a personal favourite of mine) to being the source of Spike Jonze inspiration for such classics as Adaptation (Nick Cage's last good movie. Seriously.) and the darkly, head frying experience that is Being John Malkovich. Synecdoche New York was originally meant to be yet another Jonze/Kaufman collaboration however Spike Jonze wanted to delay the production as he opted to direct, his upcoming adaptation of, Where The Wild Things Are instead (which is in my top 10 most anticipated films of this year and look forward to it immensely). Not content with sitting there waiting, Kaufman decided to direct the feature himself. And boy, he did a rather amazing job.

The film opens with Caden Cotard (played by one of the blog's favourite leading men, Philip Semour Hoffman), a theatre director who after the production of his latest work, an adaptation of Death Of A Salesman finds his life unravelling. Suffering from numerous physical ailments, he is depressed and alienated from his wife Adele (Catherine Keener, playing opposite Hoffman for the second time since the 2006 Oscar winning movie Capote) and starts having an unconsummated flirtation with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the woman who works in the box office. As events unfold Caden unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Genius grant that gives him unlimited wealth to pursue his own artistic interests. He is determined to use the money to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can pour his whole self, and so he gathers an ensemble cast into an impossibly huge warehouse in Manhattan's theatre district. Completely conflicted and with fear of his life dwindling into obscurity he starts to create his entire existence around the characters he creates within his play, slowly becoming a biographical tale of himself watching his own life from afar through other actors portraying actual people in his own life. In true Kaufman fashion the viewer of the tale will start to question what's real and what isn't, wondering if it is all subject to the worries and aliments within Cotard's own mind or is it something more. Stripped down to its bare basic bones however SNY is a film about life, death, love and loss acting in complete synch with each other from beginning to end. To commend Kaufman for this film by the sheer basis that it is his first movie would be an utter insult to him as this is a really special film, that mixes everything from drama, real life horror, light hearted comedy that frankly blows the majority of the films that won big at the Oscars this year out of the water.

SNY is an absolutely beautiful tale, and will have the audience talking for weeks after their first viewing, it may be confusing to follow at times but its not the least bit pretentious (well...maybe a little bit...). Hoffman once again shows the world why he is one of Hollywood's most capable and talented leading men, and a leading man is only as good as his support cast in which the likes of Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne West amongst many other steller performers. The stand out of the cast outside of Hoffman was Tom Noonan who essentially also plays Hoffman's character on the stage and steals the show any time he walks on, with his sheer presence that captivates as well as demonstrates the array of talent before you. On the technical side the production was excellent from a touching minimal piano score by Jon Brion, to frequent Lynch collaborator Fredrick Elmes with the epic grand cinematography. Charlie Kaufamn has performed an amazing achievement in modern cinema, and I urge everyone to witness this film for the sheer size and ambition of the project on hand, mimicking the film's story itself. An over used word at times I know but this was simply: Beautiful.


No release date is currently set for Ditching, however Synecdoche New York is out 8th May.

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