Friday, November 06, 2015

The 59th BFI London Film Festival 2015: Part One

Better late than never. The 59th BFI London Film Festival wrapped up on 18th October and so I thought I better slap some virtual ink down before those big screen moments were lost in time, like Time to write…

I watched a total of twelve films at this year’s festival, so I’m splitting this free-wheeling canter through my dirty dozen into two separate posts. I’m only thinking of you and your limited attention span and your precious, precious eyes. Let’s get on with it before I waste more of your time than the interminable ad-and-trailer slurry you have to suffer through at your local shitplex. Here we go:

Mountains May Depart
Opening night at the BFI Southbank and the festival kicked off in fine style with Zhangke Jia’s time-tossed tale of love, loss, globalisation, dumplings and the unalloyed joy of dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. As the film progresses and widens its perspective, Jia utilises form to great effect - from the tightly-packed, dense 1:33:1 frame of 1999 to the wide open, spare 2:39:1 frame of 2025, where lone characters wander, adrift and isolated. As technology connects us more and more, are we actually further away from everyone? Or is it that the further we travel, the closer we are to where we started out? Over the course of the 131 minute running time, Jia covers a lot of ground: temporally, emotionally, geographically and thematically, touching deftly and sometimes almost imperceptibly on ideas of alienation, memory, identity, language, communication, belonging, family, freedom, infrastructure and the ebb and flow that exists between all of them, but if I had to take away one abiding thought from the film (and the film is fluid enough that there are many, many different ways to read it) it’s this: Everybody leaves...but you’ll be OK. Astonishingly good stuff.

“We both have the right to be wrong”. The most important thing to know upfront about Trumbo is that it is funny. Very funny. I laughed a lot and smiled consistently, and that’s not what I expected at all from a film about the insidious effect of McCarthyism’s toxic scaremongering on America, the Hollywood Ten and, in particular, Dalton Trumbo. And yet Trumbo uncoils with simmering fury in all the right places without ceasing to be thoroughly entertaining at the same time.

Other Really Positive Things About Trumbo: It’s not a hagiography. For all of Dalton Trumbo’s righteous ideals, the movie doesn’t go easy on him and shows him with all his contradictions and intransigence laid bare (and not just in the bath). Also: this is very much a Writer’s Film (and kudos for making screenwriter John McNamara’s name so prominent over the end credits) - not so much because it documents a writer’s life, but because it captures so well what it means to live with one - hat-tip here to sterling supporting turns from Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s wife Cleo and daughter Niki, who are just the cream on the top of a very strong ensemble cast, in particular Louis C.K., and Michael Stuhlbarg’s take on Edward G. Robinson

He Named Me Malala
Crucially, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is not called I Am Malala, after Malala Yousafzai’s memoir. The “he” denotes a significant shift in emphasis, and Malala’s relationship with her father (and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai himself) is the core of the story covered here. Unfortunately, it’s an ultimately frustrating film. Malala is a fascinating person who leads a fascinating life, and yet this is an awfully pedestrian glimpse into it. The filmmaking just isn’t compelling or illuminating enough. It’s a disparate melange of elements that don’t quite cohere, with an over-reliance on (admittedly impressive) stylised animated sequences, archival footage of Pakistan and Malala’s notable public appearances, and scrappy handheld footage of the Yousafzai family’s daily life in Birmingham. The documentary is at its best when it reminds us that, for all her accomplishments, Malala is still just a young girl - studying for her GCSEs, slightly nervous around her classmates, teasing her little brothers and looking up handsome celebrities on Google Image Search.

Grandma plays like a distaff Nebraska, with Lily Tomlin’s terrific central performance as the dyspeptic Elle Reid proving what I’ve been saying for years - foul-mouthed short-tempered bastards can be lovely people too. Grandma passes the Bechdel Test early and often - there are only four male speaking parts in the whole film, and each one fills a distinct role: a mechanic (functional tool); a secretary (subservient peon); an ex-boyfriend (slacker, loser asshole); and Sam Elliott’s judgmental manipulator - and all four of them are, one way or another, totally pwned by one of the three female leads. Shout out to what amounts to the fourth lead character - the 1955 Dodge Royal car (that Lily Tomlin herself owns, having bought it in 1975 for $1,500).

A Bigger Splash
About halfway through A Bigger Splash, I thought: “Hold on a second...this is just a rip-off of La Piscine!”. I didn’t realise until the end credits that this was entirely intentional. It’s a thin line between remake and rip-off…

As much fun as it is to see Ralph Fiennes dancing to the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue (and that is a lot of fun), A Bigger Splash is a little bit too On The Nose for my tastes: You see this guy Harry (Fiennes) he’s a STONE thrown into the tranquil POOL of their lives with a SPLASH which results in RIPPLES. See what they did there? And then there are the SNAKES (both literal and figurative)...

There’s a clunky point about the relationship between the idle rich and refugees late in the film that doesn’t really work either, but the film succeeds in the moments when it embraces ambiguity with miscommunication, ellipses, language barriers and lies. Tilda Swinton is glorious (that’s a general statement, obviously, and doesn’t just apply to this film) with an expressive, almost entirely mute performance, surrounded as she is on all sides by the noise of others and her own legacy of the noise she made as a rockstar.

Bone Tomahawk
At the post screening Q&A, director S. Craig Zahler cited a slew of influences on his grisly, horror-inflected Western: Takeshi Kitano, John Cassavetes, Wong Kar Wai, Larry Clark and Lars von Trier. Interestingly, I didn’t detect traces of any of them in there. Instead, I picked up strong notes of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (in particular, the banter between Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins echoing the grouchy camaraderie between John Wayne and Walter Brennan) and Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse, (tellingly, one of the songs on the soundtrack is entitled Four Doomed Men Ride Out) via John Carpenter’s own riff on Rio Bravo: Assault on Precinct 13 (particularly in the first act) as well as Predator. For all the grit and splatter, this is an incredibly strong character piece hidden within the folds of an H. Rider Haggard “lost race” tale, with magnificent turns from Russell, Jenkins, Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson. Exhilarating, visceral and one of my favourite films of the year so far.

That’s all for now. Part Two of my LFF round-up will appear as soon as I get around to actually writing it.

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