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.

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 tears...in...rain. 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.