What red carpet?
the scruffy delights of the London Film Festival
The London Film Festival is a strange business. On the one hand, it lasts three weeks, dozens of films are shown and a lot of people go to them. On the other, it's a long way down the list of most important film festivals - it's not even Britain's most serious one (that's Edinburgh) and I always have the feeling that most people in London only know it's even going on if they happen to have picked up a copy of Time Out that week. It makes sense that a number of the main film festivals are held in resorts - Cannes, Sundance (at Park City), Deauville, even Venice to an extent - where the occasion takes over the town (although, yes, Toronto and Berlin are major exceptions to that rule). There's often something a little down at heel about the LFF, with films getting shown in National Film Theatre screen 3, which is actually the cinema bit of the abandoned Museum of the Moving Image. Somewhere past the cobwebbed Daleks is a place that resembles nothing so much as a medium-sized school theatre built in the early ´80s - it scarcely tingles with the magic of the movies.

Even some of the big cinemas used don't really do the job. The crammed lobby of the Odeon West End on Leicester Square can't really fit a red carpet, and I practically tripped over Miranda Richardson as she was doing a press photocall before one of the films this year. The folks going to see the films - as opposed to the stray tourists lurking outside drawn by the sight of cameras - tend to be serious film bores who resent being expect to coo over C-list celebs (of course, they will coo over some Iranian director who has made it in). Because despite the valiant efforts of TV showbiz reporters to drum up a bit of excitement, the LFF isn't glamorous. I went to the official closing night party one year (having missed the closing film which, by tradition, is terrible) and the most famous person there was Kyle MacLachlan.

But I think that's what the organisers would say is the secret of the LFF: it's not about the few stars who actually turn up or the dazed journalists shellshocked from too many 10am press screenings, but the punters.

The righteous thing to do is to see lots of films from small countries that almost certainly won't ever get a proper release in Britain. I never manage this: I look at the brochure, start trying make sense of what the assorted African or Tajik films are actually like, give up and go to see some films I've already heard about instead.

It was easy to tell that Lost In Translation was the buzz film of festival because I caught people referring to it as just 'Lost' (as in 'hey, did you make it to the Lost party?'). And that's only right because it is pretty wonderful. Minimal plot - neglected young wife Scarlett Johansson and jaded Hollywood star Bill Murray are stuck in the same beyond-luxury Tokyo hotel and hang out. It's all in the reacting and the details, and Murray is outstanding. There's a great karoake scene, and that's a truly rare thing in a world filled with films like Duets and teen angst dramas where the kids sing in bars. It also gets over the lurking 'ick' factor that comes with raddled late middle-aged bloke and trim young thing having near-romantic scenes together.

Biggest question mark: whether it goes too much for the cheap gags at the expense of the Japanese and their command of English. Best answer to that might be that most of the crew were Japanese.

Not really worth getting excited about: the fact that hippy man mountain Kevin Shields actually got it together to do some bits for the soundtrack, and was happy enough to allow them to be released. They're unobjectionable, but you hardly notice them.

21 Grams was the other film that had people talking. It's directed by Alejandro Gonzalez I°arritu, who made Amores Perros, and it's confusing as hell. The narrative is the most fragmented I've seen since Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, but it's even more baffling because otherwise the film isn't very stylised. You just have to hang in there for twenty minutes or so before it starts to make become clearer what's happening when. To try to explain the plot as it actually emerges would give it away a bit, but it stars Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts and it's very good. My tip: don't try too hard to make the plot work early on - just soak it in.

John Sayles's Casa De Los Babys seems more conventional when you are watching it - it's only when it ends that it becomes clear how much has been left unresolved. This isn't done in a provocative way like Sayles's Limbo, which was a thriller that just stopped at a crucial moment, leaving the audience in, well, limbo. But it fits the story, which is about a group of American women at hotel in Mexico waiting to adopt local babies. Just as they dip into the life of a country and then vanish, the film makes quick visits to their lives, and those of the Mexicans involved one or another in the baby trade, and the kids from the town. It's patient, and very balanced, and although it's not as good as Sayles' last film (Sunshine State) which I really liked, it's still worth seeing.

Daryl Hannah, who is ubiquitous all of sudden, is in both Casa... and in Northfork. She's maybe marginally less annoying than when she was a big star, but not much so. Northfork is made by the Polish brothers, who made a terrific, but little seen, film a couple of years back called Twin Falls Idaho. Saying that they explore marginal lives in the US north-west might make them sound like Gus Van Sant, but there isn't much of a resemblance. Northfork takes place in the early ´50s, in a small Montana town that's about to disappear as a new hydroelectric dam floods a valley. There are two plot strands: one concerns the men assigned to mop up the final people who have refused to leave their homes. The other is a supernatural one about a sickly orphan. The straight bit is excellent, with an excellent muted sense of period. But the fantastical element is cloying, with a dreadful attempt at eccentricity by ER's Anthony Edwards, who truly is no Johnny Depp.

Thirteen has been getting a lot of press, because it's got a good hook: it is co-written by one of its teenage stars. Of course, as anyone who has strayed across Backstreet Boy fan fiction (I was researching an article, honest) knows, real teenagers can turn out the cliches just as efficiently as any hardened hack. Proper teenage (as opposed to 23 year old) stars and digital video ('those cameras that make you sick' as one of my friends calls it) make Thirteen feel urgent and convincing for a while, but it's actually a fairly tired melodrama about a girl whose desire to hang with the in-crowd leads her down a slippery slope. Problem is that slippery slope is a bit fast, and the girl is such an obnoxious little bitch from start to finish it's hard to care. Heathers handled a lot of same themes with so much more bite, or, if you want a non-satirical take, then the superficially glossier Crazy/Beautiful with Kirsten Dunst actually rings a whole lot truer.

There are always a few rock-tinged films in the LFF, and what looked the most intriguing to this year's bunch was Grand Theft Parsons. I'm assuming that most Tangents readers could guess from the title alone that this is about Phil Kaufman stealing Gram Parsons's body and burning it at Joshua Tree. It's a low-budget comedy made by a bunch of Irish blokes and starring Jackass's Johnny Knoxville. There might have been other things you could do with the story, but this opts wisely for the hippy road comedy, with Kaufman and his hapless junkie companion pursued by Gram's irate ex-girlfriend and his dad (who was actually step-dad, as pedants everywhere will enjoy pointing out). It's short and very funny, and only comes apart a bit towards the end. I don't actually know the details of what really happened, and I'm glad, because that would have spoiled my enjoyment of the film. Purists (and me) can get grumpy about the presence of the execrable Starsailor doing 'Hot Burrito No. 1' over the closing credits. Kaufman himself was answering questions after the show: he's a neat little grey haired man, whose rock infamy is only suggested by the extensive tats that cover his arm. And he seemed pretty pleased to have a film made about him.

So that was about it: I didn't get to see Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi or the documentary about the Weather Underground or the new Christopher Guest film or the much-touted Brazilian prison movie Carandiru or what were no doubt some great films from all over the world. But if you start thinking about it like that, it becomes like a duty, and that's no way to treat going to the cinema. And I got to interview Neil LaBute, who turns out to be very affable in person, which makes a good case for the therapeutic effects of being a relentlessly misanthropic writer.

© 2003 Mark Morris