There's something about New York that lends the familiar an air of surprise. Whether it's the sound of a well-known track being played on some bizarre instrument in the Subway, with the accompanying thunder of the trains rolling by or the sight of a famous building somehow rendered different or more striking because you suddenly happen upon it as you turn the corner of a block. During the first day of screenings at this year's festival, almost all the films I saw were surprising in one way or another... and only one of those for all the wrong reasons.
The Bang Bang Club is based on the true story of a group of photojournalists who used to go out to the South African townships as a sort of pictorial posse during the last days of Apartheid. It took on an extra resonance watching it just hours after the news that Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington was slain in Misrata, along with Getty photographer Chris Hondros, as they filmed a battle for the control of a bridge.
The film, which marks the narrative directorial debut of documentarian Steven Silver, asks some uncomfortable questions both about what photographers go through to get the shots that sell and whether, in some contexts, their role as 'observer' could be morally dubious. "Forget the long lens," Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillipe) is told on the first day he joins the Bang Bang Club out 'in the field' "this shit only looks good up close." And up close is exactly where these guys get - so close in fact that they are virtually in the firing line, although their white faces mark them out as non-combatants in the eyes of the battling Inkatha Zulus and ANC.
Silver creates an impressively realistic feel as he gives a vibrant sense of the adrenaline rush experienced by these image hunters while still finding space to show the inevitable fallout that comes with watching a man be immolated from four feet away and being able to do nothing about it.
Point Blank (A Bout Portant), also offers something of an adrenaline hit, as this French thriller by Anything For Her director Fred Cavayé barely lets you catch your breath. Gilles Lellouche (whose international profile is surely on the rise courtesy of roles in current UK releases Little White Lies and The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec) plays nurse's aid Samuel happily married to Nadia (Elena Anaya), who is heavily pregnant with their first child.
Their lives are shattered when Samuel unwittingly saves the life of criminal Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem) and finds himself having to break the law if he ever wants to see his wife again. The plot is thickened by police corruption and the scene is set for lots of racing around Paris, much of it on foot, as Sartet and Samuel end up forging an uneasy alliance to expose the crooked cops. Although periodically laying on the exposition uncomfortably thick because a key incident that happened prior to the start of the action in the film is so complex it must be explained in detail, the action scenes come so thick and fast you barely have time to care.
If it's action you're looking for, however, you would be advised to stay well away from Keira Knightley/Sam Worthington vehicle Last Night. The latest in what seems to be a recent trend for relationship dilemma/break-up indie dramas, it suffers from exactly the same problem as last year's Blue Valentine and this year's Sundance winner Like Crazy, in that the characters and their relationship are not set up strongly enough before their torment begins, so that we are insufficiently invested to really care whether they make it through together or not.
Point Blank creates a much more believable marital relationship in less frames than those used introduced to Joanna and Michael Reed but that is probably because Massy Tadjedin (who wrote The Jacket) chooses to introduce them on the cusp of an argument, so we never really get a sense of their 'normality'. They attend a party at which Joanna sees Michael looking a little too cosy with work colleague Laura (Eva Mendes). They have a dust up about it after getting home. The next day Michael is due to go away on a business trip, so will he be tempted to stray? Meanwhile, back at home, will the sudden appearance of old flame Alex (Guillame Canet) be enough to prompt Joanna to tumble herself?
In addition to the problem of initial character depth, the film also suffers because Worthington is surprisingly wooden. When he should look tender, he just looks bewildered and the spark between he and Eva Mendes has all the wattage of a tealight. The Joanna/Alex story is more interesting but fails to break any new ground and some of the scripting is utterly woeful. "You smell the same," says she. "So do you," says he. Oh, the depth of the insight. Plus, all four of these characters seem prepared to bare their souls to one another at the drop of a hat, which means there is no proper build up to key emotional moments. Throw in the fact that Knightley seems to have been contracted to strip to her vest and pants once every 15 minutes for no particular reason and this is the sort of night you'll just want to forget.