In his first round-up of the Glasgow Film Festival Alistair Harkness finds the big opening event a little too desperate to please
Kicking off tonight with the British premiere of retro French rom-com Populaire (* * *), this year’s Glasgow Film Festival is using Valentine’s Day as the excuse for opening its most high-profile and adventurous programme to date with such a lightweight and frivolous film. A highly designed period pastiche of the sort of frothy comedies that were popular in the 1950s, it’s fairly innocuous, easy-to-watch fluff, recalling the likes of Down With Love and Michel Hazanavicius’s Bond-spoofing OSS 117 movies in the way it uses a soupçon of satirical self-awareness to offset its otherwise gleeful celebration of old-school chauvinistic cads clashing with their proto-feminist underlings.
Playing one of the former, Romain Duris proves likeable enough as Louis, a sharp-dressing, smooth-talking insurance salesman who has made a mess of his love life. But it’s Déborah François – missing-in-action from the international cinema scene since The Child and The Page Turner – who steals the show as Rose, the new secretary whom Louis decides to groom for success in the world of competitive speed typing. The incongruity of this plot development proves surprisingly resilient when it comes to sustaining Populaire through its shallow, predictable rom-com clichés. Between amusingly ludicrous training montages and the sharply edited competition scenes, it’s easy to forget how rote the rest of the film is. In the end, though, Populaire is just a little too desperate to be a crowd pleaser to really satisfy as one.
Still, in terms of pleasing crowds, the GFF’s reputation for doing just that is sure to receive a boost next week with the arrival of Joss Whedon and his new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The film will be reviewed in full next week, but dedicated Whedonites can get a glimpse of their hero in Comic Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope (* * *). He’s one of many famous self-confessed and – in terms of the entertainment industry – all-powerful geeks providing context and commentary in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about the annual San Diego Comic Con (Eli Roth, another of this year’s GFF guests, also turns up). Comic Con itself has undergone a radical transformation over the past decade or so. Where once it was a marginalised event where tribes of comic book fans could geek-out together without fear of mockery, these days it’s also a multibillion-dollar marketing opportunity for Hollywood to showcase its biggest movies. That makes it a phenomenon worth exploring and Spurlock – keeping himself out of the action for once – does a pretty decent job of showing the ins-and-outs of the event by following a veteran comics trader, a couple of aspiring artists looking to get a foothold in the industry and a shy fanboy rather sweetly trying to plan a surprise – and very public – marriage proposal to his infuriatingly clingy girlfriend. What emerges, though, is an interesting examination of the not-always harmonious relationship between pure fandom and the big business that trades on their love.
Indie Game: The Movie (* * * *) does something similar, but in the world of videogames. Playing as part of the GFF’s new gaming strand, Game Cats Go Miaow! (introduced to explore the relationship between movie industry and the videogame industry that now out-grosses it), it follows three sets of programmers over many sleepless, stress-filled nights as they attempt to complete independently produced games for Microsoft’s XBox Live gaming platform. Having poured years into development – sacrificing social lives, friendships, and healthy lifestyles in the process – the stakes are high, though the potential rewards (millions in sales) will, in theory, make it all worthwhile. First-time directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky are great at capturing this. They’ve tapped into the little-explored world of retro-gaming and come up with a story about the future of the entertainment industry. Indeed, just as tales of indie film production in the 1980s and 90s fuelled the current generation of blockbuster directors, the stories here may well be the ones that inspire the next generation of gamers and programmers.
And on the subject of inspirational indie film-makers, Slacker director Richard Linklater makes a return with Bernie (* * * *), another fascinating oddity in what has developed into a wide-ranging and intriguingly unpredictable career. Returning to his Texas roots, he’s uncovered a fascinating true story of unlikely homicidal tendencies. Jack Black does the best work of his career as the titular Bernie Tiede, a fastidious but much-loved assistant funeral director in the sleepy town of Carthage, who one day shocks the residents by confessing to the murder of the local curmudgeon – a mean and nasty old woman played by a mean and nasty Shirley MacLaine. The joy of the film comes from discovering what drives Bernie to do it, but Linklater’s masterstroke is framing the story as a pseudo documentary, with the real residents reflecting on the Bernie they knew and loved.