Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The 59th BFI London Film Festival 2015: Part Two

The first part of my London Film Festival wrap-up is here. Six down, six to go...

The Witch
“Think on thy sins!”. Subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, set in the 1630s and in the fine tradition of Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, A Field in England and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with dialogue culled from real diaries and court records of the era, Robert Eggers’ The Witch did something to me in a cinema that has never happened before. Now, I like to think that I’m a hardened horror buff, but this one really burrowed under my skin in a way that I wasn’t expecting. With a devastating sustained control of mood and tone, The Witch was so deeply and oppressively unsettling throughout that my fight-or-flight response kicked in and I almost wanted to get up and leave. I kept feeling that I needed to escape. The discordant sounds, the prowling, unflinching gaze of the camera...The Witch is chilly, bleak, hugely impressive, incredibly effective and I’m pretty sure that I never want to watch it again.

Cemetery of Splendour
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s melancholy, hypnotic film doesn’t lend itself easily to a pithy, ultimately reductive synopsis. Not strictly magical realism, yet delicately touched with fabulism, Cemetery of Splendour primarily focuses on a makeshift rural hospital ward of soldiers struck down with an intermittent sleeping sickness, fighting in their collective dreams of the past. Layers of reality are piled on top of one another, and spirits wander between each realm without fanfare. Lights and colours shift subtly, and time and space, past and present, life and death, gods, mortals and spirits are revealed to be useless definitions and meaningless constructs. An understated, beautiful waking dream of a film.

The End of the Tour begins in 2008 with the breaking news of the “pleasantly unpleasant” David Foster Wallace’s suicide, before spiraling backwards to David Lipsky’s recollections of the five days he spent interviewing him in 1996, first at Wallace’s home in Bloomington, Illinois and then on the final date of a book tour in Minneapolis. I should note that I’m not overly familiar with Wallace's written work, so I didn’t come to the film with any pro- or anti- opinions about the man or his writings - but I don’t think that matters very much. Whilst I don’t think the film is as revealing or profound as it thinks it is, what it does do very well is examine the spiky, combative and competitive relationship between an interviewer and his subject. Jason Segel plays Wallace as a TV addicted, shambling bear of a man - guarded and somewhat socially awkward but always quick with a quip or a well-turned phrase. It’s fun to just watch the two men shooting the shit with digressions on everything from Alanis Morissette to just how amazing Die Hard is, the simmering, ambiguous undercurrent behind every exchange never far from the surface. Do “brothers of the lung” Wallace and Lipsky genuinely like each other? Or is this just a professional transaction, using each other for their own ends? The End of the Tour also gently prods at insecurity and imposter syndrome, isolation, loneliness, ego (and id), with fine performances from both leads (although it isn’t hard to tell that Jesse Eisenberg probably isn’t a real smoker…). That said, my favourite sequence in the film remains the one where Wallace sits rapt in awe at a screening of John Woo’s Broken Arrow.

A Tale of Three Cities
Check that Dickens allusion in the title - it’s no coincidence. Starting in 1951 before returning to the 30s and 40s to tell the wartime romance of Jackie Chan’s parents - his father a former spy; his mother a former opium smuggler, A Tale of Three Cities is an intimate epic preoccupied with time. The film opens with the carnage resulting from an exploding clocktower, and from there it moves through good and bad times; right and wrong times; victims of the time(s) and a loss of time with loved ones. Soldiers on covert maneuvers are unable to synchronise their watches...because they don’t have them. A car explodes in a shower of black-market watches. It’s a moving love story that looks at immigration and displacement and the toll they take on separated lovers and, whilst the film has one too many subplots that detracts from our central star-crossed couple, this is a thrilling, touching, quietly powerful melodrama.

Some Victoria statistics for you. Duration: 134 minutes. Shot in one continuous take. The film is the third and final (and reportedly, the only successful) take. Based on a twelve page script. Shot over 22 locations. And, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gets the first credit over the end titles, as he should. Taking place between 4.30 and 7am in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighbourhoods of Berlin, Victoria shows us the hour before a heist and the hour after the heist, with the bank job itself taking place just off-screen in between. There’s an incredible piano rendition of Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, there are car chases and running gun battles, and then, as the dark angel at the heart of it all, there’s Laia Costa as Victoria. A compelling, extraordinary presence, the camera never leaves her, no matter where it goes, in this euphoric, exhilarating sunrise flit through the streets of Berlin, and it never feels like merely a formal experiment with a single uninterrupted take (in stark contrast to the pyrotechnic artificiality of similar in Birdman). Astonishing.

Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s stage production Design for Living, Johnnie To gets his Verfremdungseffekt on with this ambitious 3D musical comic satire on the 2008 financial crisis. Harnessing every trick in the Brechtian Alienation Playbook, To conjures with space and artifice utilising his remarkable multi-level set, from the Huge Clocks (because, of course, Time Is Money) to the way the frame is divided and the characters are separated into distinct areas of the screen, to the symbolic elevators denoting status via movement, this is a bravura piece of work showing a side of To rarely seen.

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