Tuesday, October 13, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Acting Their Age

Benjamin August's screenplay for Remember must have seemed tailor-made for Atom Egoyan. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by characters who face a reckoning with the past, and has continually returned to the themes of obsession, memory and the search for truth. Egoyan's standing has fallen somewhat over the past two decades, however, and while it's tantalising to imagine the filmmaker telling this story when he was on peak form and constructing his complex narrative structures with elegance and precision, those qualities have largely deserted him in recent times. Remember is stodgy in its direction and visually flat, with Paul Sarossy's harsh and overly bright lighting making the whole thing look very cheap, but it's a film that still exerted an unexpected pull on my attention.

A strong lead performance from Christopher Plummer certainly helps in that regard. He plays Zev, an ageing nursing home resident suffering from dementia whose wife recently passed away. Remember follows Zev on an unlikely mission of revenge, as he sets off across the United States and Canada to find the SS officer responsible for killing both his family and those belonging to Max (Martin Landau), the wheelchair-bound friend who has planned Zev's mission. As incongruous as Zev appears in his avenging angel guise – he has to re-read Max's detailed instructions every day to remember the purpose of his journey – Plummer invests the character with a dignity that makes him an utterly compelling protagonist. While the film's pacing is uneven, the individual encounters that Zev has with each 'Rudy Kurlander' (the assumed name his Nazi is living under) has a haunting power, with Egoyan still proving to be adept at teasing out the conflicting emotions that strike when the past pours into the present.

The most gripping scene in the film actually occurs between Zev and a younger Kurlander, with Dean Norris making a disturbing impression as the son of a target who recently passed away. This whole unbearably tense and creepy sequence is masterfully handled and played, and while nothing else in the film can quite match up to it, Remember does possess a very strong and surprising closing scene. In these moments we can see flashes of the younger Egoyan, a director who is only 55 years old and still hopefully has plenty of time to rediscover the keen insight and distinctive touch that made his films in the 1980s and '90s such transfixing and provocative experiences. Until then, enjoyably off-kilter potboilers like this will have to do.
If one geriatric killer isn't enough for you, how about eight of them? The latest film from Takeshi Kitano presents us with a gang of ageing yakuza, reunited and ready to teach today's hoodlums how the streets should be run. The main tension here exists between the old-school code of ethics that the yakuza lives by and the more unscrupulous younger generation of crooks, who think nothing of running scams and extortion schemes aimed at swindling pensioners out of their money – but essentially the premise is nothing more than an excuse for a series of very silly gags. Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen is often very funny, particularly at the start of the film when each gangster is introduced with a reference to their fearsome past before we see them in their current state. Ichizo (Ben Hiura), for example, was once notorious for the damage he could do with the sword concealed in his walking stick, but he now uses that stick to pick up cigarette butts.

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen's narrative is too flimsy to sustain its running time and the momentum stalls badly about halfway through, but it has enough flashes of humour and invention to keep the picture alive. There are a couple of very good jokes involving Ryuzo's (Tatsuya Fuji) missing fingers, a daft cross-dressing scene, and a Weekend at Bernie's-style climactic battle that significantly ups the tempo after the mid-film sag. On the whole the film is extremely broad and puerile and far from Takeshi Kitano's most accomplished work, but it delivers pretty much what its director set out to do. The only slight disappointment is that Takeshi himself doesn't make more of an impression. He has a supporting role as a policeman and he does get to punch somebody in the face, but I was expecting a bit more than that from one of cinema's unique screen presences. Maybe he's just getting too old for this shit.
Jerzy Skolimowski is 77 years old but 11 Minutes is the kind of film that usually has critics marvelling that it 'feels like a young man's film'. That's not to say it's any good, unfortunately. For all of its dynamic camerawork and frenetic cutting, the film is a baffling and stupendously dull high-concept thriller in which multiple characters from across Warsaw are brought together in the specific time frame indicated by the title. The film itself runs for 80 minutes, and Skolimowski spends that duration repeatedly cutting back in time to replay scenes from different perspectives, as every character gradually inches towards a climax that will presumably involve them all. Hints are dropped throughout that there is some kind of grand plan at work here, some sort of divine will that is drawing these characters together, but all of these indicators are apparently red herrings, or simply threads left dangling by a catastrophically inept screenplay.

This might not matter so much if the characters in question were worth spending time with but they barely exist as anything more than pawns in Skolimowski's confounding game. An aspiring actress finds herself locked in a hotel room with a sleazy producer (a terrible Richard Dormer), resulting in the world's slowest and most badly acted seduction, while her husband angrily paces around outside. A couple watches porn together until a bird flies through their window (an incident Skolimowski deems worthy of multiple depictions), and a motorbike courier delivers drugs to some mysterious figures. Elsewhere, a girl walks her dog – which results in a series of pointless dog POV shots – and buys a hotdog from a vendor who we understand to be a paedophile. This revelation made me think that we were watching characters who were going to be punished for their past sins, but no, the paedophile aspect of the story is dumped as summarily as everything else. It's hard to know how Skolimowski could produce a film that is so nihilistic, incomprehensible and amateurish – his last feature Essential Killing wasn't perfect, but it had a sense of purpose and integrity that is entirely absent here. The last five minutes of the film are astonishing, and not in a good way, as any hopes we might have of a conclusion that makes sense of it all go (literally) out of the window. A young man's film? Perhaps that's true, but I never imagined Skolimowski would produce something so juvenile.

Monday, October 12, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Cheap Thrills

Deepa Mehta came to prominence in the 1990s with her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water; three films that explored taboo issues and challenged complex traditions in Indian culture. The director seems to think that she is making the same kind of penetrative commentary with her new film Beeba Boys, which closes with an onscreen graphic that states: “We did not make this maelstrom up. There have been 173 gang-related deaths in British Columbia in the past 10 years.” This line might have carried a little more weight if what we had watched for the preceding 90 minutes hadn’t been such a ludicrously unconvincing, incompetently staged and dismally acted cartoon. The Beeba Boys of the title are a gang of Indian Sikhs in Vancouver led by the reputedly fearsome Jeet Johar (Randeep Hooda), who we first meet as he gets his chest waxed and boasts about his crimes live on TV. He and his flamboyantly dressed boys are engaged in a turf war with a rival gang led by kingpin Grewal (Gulshan Grover). All of the gangster movie clichés are here – an undercover cop with divided loyalties; a mobster struggling to balance work and family life; gang members with colourful nicknames; money, drugs, guns and girls – but all of it is botched in the execution.

Beeba Boys opens with a cold-blooded murder but even as people are frequently despatched there’s never a sense that any of this matters. The characters strut around in their sharp suits and talk tough but only the recognisable Waris Ahluwalia and a bizarrely coiffed Paul Gross make any impression at all, with the quality of acting among the large cast being one of the film’s biggest problems (Ali Momen struggles most notably in the pivotal role of Nep). Mehta’s direction is brash and energised but consistently clumsy. In a courtroom scene she swings the camera from one side of the room to the other for no apparent reason other than to try and spice the scene up visually, but it only serves to distract, and the loud score also feels oppressive more often than it serves the action. I just have no idea what story Mehta is trying to tell here, she veers wildly from one plot point to another without ever digging into any of them, and I don’t know what tone she’s trying to establish either; the film almost feels like some kind of Goodness Gracious Me-style spoof, but then any attempts to make us grieve for murdered characters fall embarrassingly flat. Any hopes that Mehta might allow her female characters to have a bit more depth than the average gangster film are also doomed  Sarah Allen is excruciating as Jeet's girlfriend, who seems to be transformed into a drug addict after one line of coke – while the cultural specificity that might have been a fresh angle on the genre amounts to nothing (and is bizarrely blended with frequent references to Transformers). In a recent interview, Deepa Mehta described Beeba Boys as "ultra-tragic". I guess we can agree on that, at least.
Most of the time, Beeba Boys just reminds us of the films that it is trying and failing to emulate – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Casino, etc. – and it was probably a mistake to give the film a name that can be loosely translated as “Good Fellas”. Of course, a genre film always runs the risk of bringing to mind previous and superior films and suffering in comparison, but all a film can do is tell its own story while embracing and having a little fun with its influences. The Ones Below opens with the sonogram image of a baby while an unsettling distorted lullaby theme plays on the soundtrack, and we immediately suspect that we are in for a Rosemary’s Baby-style horror, but that’s not what we get. The Polanski comparison is appropriate, though, as the film plays out almost entirely within the confines of a London flat and focuses on a woman’s fragile sanity. Kate and Justin (Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore) are a young couple expecting a baby who discover that their new neighbours in the downstairs flat are in the same situation. They become friends with Jon and Theresa (David Morrissey and Laura Birn), even though something about them seems a little...off. When an unkind twist of fate destroys their new friendship, Kate soon becomes convinced that the couple downstairs poses a threat to her and her new baby.

As well as the Polanski vibes, The Ones Below recalls daft-but-fun '90s domestic thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and there's more than a hint of Gaslight in the suggestion that all of the things making Kate suspicious of her neighbours may the product of her frazzled mind. Writer-director David Farr touches on notions of maternal instinct and the pressures that a new mother faces as well as the jealousy that pregnancy can inspire in others, but the film doesn't do a lot with these ideas and it works best as a straightforward thriller. Farr's filmmaking is unambitious but satisfyingly lean and unfussy, and he orchestrates a couple of tense moments as well as being smart enough to acknowledge some of the film's more credulity-stretching moments with a humorous touch (one picture-swapping bit here had me unexpectedly in stitches). The film works fine as a solid thriller, but what really elevates it and lends it vital nuance and depth is the quality of the two female performances. The imaginatively cast Poesy gives a superbly understated portrayal of a woman gradually cracking under the strain while Laura Birn's revelatory work hints at levels of cunning and malevolence behind an open, innocent demeanour. There's real heat in the interactions between these two, which occasionally gives this entertaining 90 minutes a welcome edge.
Single-location thrillers have an inbuilt sense of tension, particularly when you're trapped with a bunch of people that you have absolutely no desire to be with. The Invitation begins with characters arriving at a secluded house high in the Hollywood hills for a reunion that is fraught with anxiety for a couple of them in particular. It will be the first time that Will (Logan Marshall-Green) will have seen his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) in two years, the pair having separated after the death of their son, a grief that Will is still struggling to cope with. Things feel suspect for Will from the start, but the alarm bells really start to go off when Eden and her new man David (Michiel Huisman) begin telling their guests all about The Invitation; a healing process that has helped them turn their lives around, but which looks and sounds suspiciously like a cult to everyone else – is this dinner a cover for some kind of induction? Things go downhill rapidly when David’s mysterious pal Pruitt (a supremely creepy John Carroll Lynch) shows up and at this point most of the audience will find themselves sharing Will’s belief that, like most dinner parties, there’s no way this night can end well.

Even if the denouement may feel inevitable, the most refreshing thing about The Invitation is the patience that the filmmakers show in taking us there. The screenplay by co-authors Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi contains plenty of red herrings, which are deployed in a timely fashion to continually upend our expectations of how the film is going to develop, and I appreciated how long we spent just experiencing the awkward silences, the strain and the weirdness of the party, with the sense of discomfort building with every passing minute. It has been a long time since I saw a film that was so efficient and skilful in the way it gradually bumped up the tension and sneakily exerted its grip over the audience, and Karyn Kusama’s direction never allows that process to stall. There are some terrific heart-stopping and sweat-inducing scenes dotted throughout, and when things eventually do go haywire, Kusama proves to be just as adept at handling the bloodshed in a clever and gripping way. From the unsettling prologue to the clever punchline, this is a stunningly effective exercise in thriller filmmaking.
While The Invitation had me in its grip from start to finish, I can pinpoint the exact moment when Thierry Poiraud's dismal horror Don't Grow Up started to lose me. It happens early in the film, as a group of six teenagers explore a seemingly abandoned town, and one of them discovers a little girl in the arms of her bloodied mother. Just as he beckons the girl to come to him, she mutters “The grown-ups...they're all bad” before the mother awakens and snaps the girl's neck. Frankly, if you're going start to killing children like that in a movie then you need to justify it more than Don't Grow Up ever comes close to doing. This is an appallingly half-assed piece of shit that runs for a shade over 80 minutes but still feels padded with an awful lot of extraneous material. The idea is that all of the grown-ups on this particular island have been infected by some kind of virus that turns them into bloodthirsty zombies, but we never learn (a) what caused this (b) why it only affects adults and (c) why a couple of our non-adult leads arbitrarily start to turn during the course of the film. Without such rules in place the whole film feels as if it is being made up by the filmmakers as they go along, and it's impossible to care about any of the teens getting gruesomely murdered as only one of them is given any kind of character development, in the form of hackneyed flashbacks to a traumatic childhood. The quality of the acting is largely very poor, it's full of dumb and predictable plotting, and the whole thing feels significantly longer than it is. I see plenty of bad films in the London Film Festival, but it's not often I see something that would feel like a rip-off it was released straight to DVD.

Friday, October 09, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Short Cuts

There is a clear hierarchy to films in the London Film Festival. The features chosen as the main galas are shown to press in the biggest screens, which are usually filled to capacity, while others are slotted into smaller screens according to the expected interest. This week we had a morning screening of the very high-profile Suffragette in the Odeon Leicester Square, which was unsurprisingly very well-attended, but later that afternoon when two programmes of short films were scheduled in a comparatively small screen at the BFI Southbank, both screenings were shockingly underpopulated. There were no competing screenings at the same time, and the shorts being shown were the twelve that have been nominated for the festival's Short Film Award, so we could expect the quality to be high. So what happened?

Someone suggested to me that the fact that these shorts are available on the Festival's online viewing platform affected the attendance, but as the vast majority of people who have mentioned Cinando (the festival's online platform of choice) have commented on how utterly useless it is, I don't know if that's true. In any case, shorts work in the same way as features, with great filmmaking always benefiting from being experienced on a big screen and with an audience  and there really is some great filmmaking evident in this collection.

They aren't all winners by any means, and there are some pretty awful shorts here – the less said about unbearable Red Moon Rising and the polished but tiresome Dissonance the better – but I found five that I would recommend as exemplary pieces of economic storytelling that can stand alongside anything in the festival.
For example, Caroline Bartleet's Operator manages to create an incredible amount of drama in six minutes with just two actors, only one of whom is seen on screen. Kate Dickie is Laura, a London Fire Service operator who answers a 999 call from Gemma (Vicky McClure), a mother calling from a burning house with her son trapped upstairs. The camera stays tightly on Laura's face as she gets the information required to despatch engines and then does everything within her power to calm the panicked Gemma and ensure she does nothing to put herself or her son in danger. Dickie's controlled delivery is perfectly pitched and Bartleet uses the sounds on the other end of the phone line to ratchet up the tension. But the writer-director's real masterstroke comes right at the end when, in contrast to last year's sentimental and undeservedly Oscar-winning short The Phone Call, she makes it clear that these isolated instances of high drama and unbearable tension are faced by emergency services operators every single day.

Another British film that packs unexpected layers of depth and emotion into a scant running time is Nina Gantz's remarkable Edmond. This nine-minute animation begins with a man dragging a rock towards a lake, and then taking a moment to sit and reflect upon key moments in his life thus far. He dives into his memories as Gantz takes us further back in time and locates instances of great pain, embarrassment and confusion that have left their mark on Edmond ever since he was a child. There's a wonderful tactility about Gantz's puppets, which have been made out of felt with 2D facial expressions being animated onto them, and she has has an appealingly dark and bizarre sense of humour. Each of the stops on Edmond's journey made me laugh out loud and gasp in surprise, while I was also deeply affected by the melancholy undertones that grow stronger throughout. It's a beautifully crafted piece of work.

It was a strong showing all round for UK-based filmmakers in this collection. Jörn Threlfall's Over is a film that takes a long time to reveal its purpose, but it gets its hooks into the viewer almost imperceptibly and when Threlfall played his hand the impact knocked the wind out of me. It begins in a quiet London residential street at 11:45pm and then it gradually takes us back through time, stopping every couple of hours to watch what is happening in the same spot. We realise that we are being shown unfolding of a crime scene in reverse, with the clean-up operation occurring first, and then the police cordoning off the area to investigate, before we finally see the body lying motionless in the street at 6:45am. But how did it get there? The answer to that is surprising and brilliantly staged, and Threlfall's clinical approach adds to its power. I was left contemplating just how quickly a shocking incident can be pushed out of our minds to allow life to go on as normal, and how a person's entire existence can be reduced to just a few items in police evidence bags.
Looking further afield, the French short Maman(s) also had an incredible emotional impact on me. This is the story of a divided family told from the perspective of 8 year-old Aida, who doesn't fully understand what is happening inside her home when her father returns from a visit to Dakar with a second wife and a new baby in tow. All Aida knows is that she can't sit idly by while her mother is heartbroken – one shot of Aifa crying silently as she listens to her mother's sobs is devastating – and she begins rebelling against this new presence in their lives. Maïmouna Doucouré creates a real sense of a family in a few brief strokes before she begins turning the emotional screw, and her storytelling is consistently sensitive, perceptive and involving. The film quietly accumulates a power that culminates in a twist that had me holding my breath and fighting back the tears. A hugely accomplished film on multiple levels.

While these films are all examples of bold and skilful storytelling there was only one short in this selection that genuinely felt like something I've never seen before. Peter Tscherkassky's The Exquisite Corpus is an exhilarating 19 minutes that begins in a deceptively sedate way, with a naked couple taking a small boat out to some kind of naturist island, but when they disembark and find an unconscious woman on the beach the film suddenly begins to splinter, flipping between positive and negative images and suddenly incorporating different types of sexual images. Tscherkassky has taken all of the footage in The Exquisite Corpus from a variety of adult films through the ages, and he has cut them together in a way that is thrilling to behold – a dazzling piece of visual and aural montage that plays like a feverish erotic dream. The way pulls all of these disparate elements into a cohesive and satisfying whole is nothing short of astonishing, and he caps it with a quiet punchline that is as inspired and affecting as Chris Marker's La Jetée. On a brilliance-per-minute basis, there's probably not much in the London Film Festival programme that can match The Exquisite Corpus.
How many people will see it, though? How many people will see any of these films? The apparent lack of interest from the press corps was particularly disheartening, and I've long felt that the London Film Festival doesn't do these films any favours by ghettoising them in a separate short film programme apart from the main features. Wouldn't it be better to show one of these shorts before each feature film screening in addition to having the shorts programmes? It would instantly increase the number of viewers that these films can expect to receive and, when a tickets are expensive as they are at the LFF, I think people deserve a little added value. Of course, I can only pity the feature that has to follow The Exquisite Corpus, but there is some wonderful work being done here that demands greater exposure.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Three Divisive Auteurs

Sometimes a film festival recommendation comes with a qualification attached. I often want to push people towards movies that I've seen and loved, but the distinctive style of the filmmakers behind them gives me pause, as a person's enjoyment of the film will probably depend on their fondness/tolerance for that filmmaker's particular idiosyncrasies. In the case of The Forbidden Room, anyone who has yet to experience the singular vision of Guy Maddin may find this a particularly challenging place to start. In some ways it feels like the most Guy Maddin-ish film that Maddin has ever made, with every wild idea in the Canadian auteur's head finding its way into a very antic and eventful two hours. It's the longest and most densely packed feature film of his career, and watching it is an exhausting experience, but if you are on Maddin's wavelength then it's also a truly exhilarating one.

The Forbidden Room has grown out of Maddin's Séances project, in which he reimagines a number of lost silent films using only their titles as inspiration. As a result, the film is an eclectic compendium of ideas, subplots and incidents with actors reappearing in multiple roles and one tale rapidly blurring into another as Maddin sets up an intricate structure of stories within stories and dreams within dreams. From an instructional video detailing the correct method of taking a bath we quickly find ourselves trapped in a submarine (with characters gaining sustenance from the air pockets in flapjacks), before the action movies to a forest, a volcano, a nightclub and other locations that involve poisonous skeleton leotards, Geraldine Chaplin wielding a whip and Udo Kier getting a lobotomy to cure his obsession with female derrieres.

All of this is depicted in Maddin's trademark frenzied silent-film style with some hilariously daft intertitles (“FEMALE SKELETONS! ASWANG BANANA!”) and personalised introduction cards for every cast member, and you're never more than a few minutes from something hilarious, beautiful or mind-boggling. As well as being an extraordinarily sustained feat of invention and wit, the film is a visual feast, with Maddin utilising digital techniques to bring the aesthetic of aged celluloid to the fore like never before – the textures and colours of every shot are seared onto the eyeballs. Is it all too much? For some people it surely will be, but I found it to be consistently hilarious, stimulating and beautiful, and a film I was more than happy to be overwhelmed by.
The Forbidden Room's London Film Festival screening takes place in the BFI IMAX and the very idea of Maddin's delirious images filling that vast screen is a tantalising one. Another filmmaker whose work might reach a wider audience than ever before in this festival is Yorgos Lanthimos, who is working with a bigger budget and a much higher-profile cast than ever before in The Lobster, but who hasn't allowed this elevated status to blunt his edge or change his style. This film is certainly recognisable as being the same work of the man who directed Dogtooth and Alps, with the actors' performances adhering to his favoured deadpan, affectless delivery and expressive body language, and with the blend of arch comedy and outbursts of violence being as potent as ever. It's also another film set in a world defined by its rules and codes of behaviour, where the drama arises from the consequences faced by those who dare to step outside the lines.

In this case, the Logan's Run-style twist is that nobody is allowed to be single, and any person who finds themselves alone and fails to find a date within 45 days will be transformed into the animal of their choice. “A wolf and a penguin can't be together, or a camel and a hippo. That would be absurd,” Colin Farrell's David is told near the start of the film, but ruling things out on the basis of absurdity seems incongruous in the context of this picture. The first half of The Lobster finds Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou devising a series of very funny interactions in the hotel that hosts these lonely hearts, as desperation pushes some of them to drastic measures – one bashes his face against a wall to attract a girl who suffers from nosebleeds, while Farrell's attempt to feign heartlessness to win over an apparently emotionless woman (a tremendous Angeliki Papoulia) is a brilliant comic interlude with a tragic punchline.

The Lobster is a film of two halves and when Lanthimos moves into that second half the film almost loses its way. Escaping this world of rigid rules only leads David into another community controlled by a very different – but equally strange and restrictive – set of rules, and there's a worrying sag right in the middle of the film as we have to sit through even more exposition and get used to a whole new environment and group of characters. However, what emerges from this portion of the film is a surprisingly sincere and poignant love story, and even if the allegorical intention gradually gets a little fuzzier over the course of the film, it still feels like a film with a lot of intriguing and perceptive ideas about contemporary relationships and society, and like everything this director has made, it stays with you.
Your appreciation for Entertainment might rest not only on your reaction to the films of Rick Alverson – whose 2012 film The Comedy seemed to be admired and loathed in equal measure – but also on how you react to the comedy style of Neil Hamburger. He's the alter-ego of Gregg Turkington and he takes centre stage in Alverson's new film; a movie about a comedian that is described in the LFF programme as an “anti-comedy” – you have been warned. We follow Turkington as he performs in a series of miserable bars and clubs through the Mojave Desert, with jokes like “Why does E.T. The Extra Terrestrial like Reese's Pieces so much? Because they have the same taste that cum has on his home planet” delivered in his rasping, strained voice and prompting a mixture of embarrassed chuckles, uncomfortable silences and outright hostility. As his audiences dwindle the comedian starts to lose his grip, leaving a series of unreturned phone messages for his daughter and wandering around his desolate surroundings, where he has a number of strange and unsettling encounters.

Alverson is clearly a filmmaking who wants to provoke any kind of reaction from his viewers, and Entertainment is rife with moments of discomfort and awkwardness, but I also found it to be an involving and unexpectedly moving film, which boasts some brilliant images. Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman use the 2:35 frame superbly, frequently isolating Turkington in the centre of the shot against an unusual backdrop, and they begin the film working with a very washed-out palette, so when they do introduce colour later on the images pop in a very effective way. Cameos from John C. Reilly, Michael Cera and Amy Seimetz slip right into Alverson’s bleak world while Tye Sheridan is superb as Hamburger's support act, but it's Turkington who commands our attention. As Entertainment peels back the layers of its protagonist’s lonely existence, Turkington brings a tangible sense of despair to his performance, making this not only a more formally accomplished piece of work than The Comedy, but also a more powerful and resonant one.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Opening Night

I'm used to films warping my perception of time, but even so I was taken aback when the words “A Film by Jia Zhang-ke – Mountains May Depart” appeared on screen after what had felt like half an hour of the Chinese director's new film. It turned out to be a very late title card rather than a very early cut to the end credits, and it only brought an end to the first segment of Jia's triptych, with the director again taking a structurally bold approaching to exploring life in contemporary China. While A Touch of Sin told three distinct stories, Mountains May Depart tells one story over the course of three decades, beginning in 1999 and focusing on a love triangle between singer Tao Shen (Zhao Tao), wealthy and arrogant capitalist Jinsheng (Yi Zhang) and humble mine worker Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). The second segment picks up the story in 2014, when we see that Tao's choice of husband hasn't worked out very well for anyone, and then Jia jumps ahead to Australia in 2025, where the narrative shifts to her son.

As the years go by the screen gets wider, from 1.33 in 1999 to 1.85 in 2014 and finally 2.35 for the futuristic third segment, an aesthetic approach that reflects the gradual widening of the film's scope and the growing distance (emotional and literal) between the characters. It's a daring approach that will prove to be a stumbling block for some viewers, as the film definitely loses something the further it gets from the intimacy of the love triangle that it starts with. There is a lot in Mountains May Depart that the viewer could find fault with, from the way Liangzi is abruptly written out of the film, leaving it feeling frustratingly lopsided, to the climactic section of the film, which admittedly suffers from some stiff performances and clumsy line readings that betray Jia's inexperience at directing in English.

It would be easy to focus on these flaws, but instead I was struck by the ambition and sweep of Jia’s vision. This is a film about family and freedom, about culture and capital, about history and the future, and he doesn’t let the allegorical nature of his story structure overwhelm the personal stakes for the characters. As ever, his filmmaking is elegant and full of resonant images – a wedding invite left on a table; a mother sharing a bittersweet meal with her son; an angry man isolated behind a language barrier of his own making who owns dozens of guns but “has nobody to fire them at.” Above all else, the film is a fantastic showcase for Jia’s wife Zhao Tao, who gives her finest performance here. She is the film’s emotional anchor, and while her absence from the third act is disappointing (despite a good performance from Sylvia Chang in a kind of surrogate role), her return contributes to a deeply moving closing scene that is every bit as memorable as the dazzling opening. Go West, indeed.

Jia Zhang-ke came to the London Film Festival to present his new film, but he was here for another reason too, being the subject of a documentary by Walter Salles. Jia Zhang-ke: A Guy From Fenyang follows the director as he revisits his old haunts and the places where he shot his films, bumps into old friends and acquaintances and contemplates his career and his fractious relationship with the Chinese authorities. Salles doesn’t bring much of a directorial perspective to the film, but it does benefit from some judiciously chosen clips and an elegant rhythm, as well as a sense of intimacy that distinguishes it from most other recent filmmaker documentaries. It’s a thoroughly engaging picture with Jia proving to be an affable and humble guide, and it occasionally provides some interesting insights. A fascinating portion of the film is devoted to the filming of his remarkable 2006 film Still Life against a backdrop that was changing even as they shot, while the most compelling portion comes late in the film as Jia discusses his father and the devastating legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which meant his father’s pride in his son’s work was always mixed with a fear of the consequences that he might face. A Guy From Fenyang was filmed in the build-up to the release of A Touch of Sin and it ends on a disconsolate note, as the denial of a commercial release for the film in China leaves him wondering if he can even continue. Of course, we’ve already seen his subsequent film, and watching this documentary there’s little doubt that Jia Zhang-ke will continue to make provocative, revealing films about contemporary China and the lives of ordinary people living in it for as long as he possibly can.
Another filmmaker being honoured in documentary form this year is Ousmane Sembène, with Sembene!, a film by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, accompanying the new restoration of the African director’s superb 1966 film Black Girl in the programme. Black Girl is one of three Sembene films that I’ve seen, along with Xala and Moolaadé, and I know very little about his body of work beyond those films, so I was keen to learn more about the father of African cinema. Sembene! mostly sticks to the established director biography template – chronological details, clips, talking heads – and as a result feels a little staid, but it is given a personal slant by being co-directed and narrated by Gadjigo, a friend and collaborator of Sembene's for the last 20 years of his life, who has now taken on the task of looking after the director's legacy. The portrait of Sembene that emerges through the film is a rebellious and independent man who was fiercely devoted to his craft, often to the detriment of his family and friendships. “I would sleep with The Devil to make a film” we see him saying during the film, but the film can only touch upon this aspect of his personality in a shallow and fleeting way. There are some interesting revelations, such as the fact that he was almost blind when he made his great Moolaadé (which I still found deeply upsetting and potent in just the couple of extracts featured here), but my biggest takeaway from Sembene! was an overwhelming desire to see the rest of this man's films. There is currently an major project underway to restore and re-release all of his films – badly needed, as Sembene! opens with the horrifying sight of decaying film cans – and hopefully there will be a full season of his films coming soon. Even better, how about a celebration of African cinema in general? It still feels like an area of the world that I am disappointingly ignorant of in terms of its cinematic output, and I'd love to have the opportunity to change that.

And I suppose I should make some mention of the festival’s official opening night film while I’m here. I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent weeks about how Suffragette is an important film and a story that deserves to be heard – “The Time is Now,” etc. – but I always get a little suspicious when I’m repeatedly told that a film is ‘good for you’ rather than simply: ‘it’s good’.  Suffragette is not a particularly good film or a particularly bad one – it's just determinedly average throughout, and the most frustrating thing about a film telling such an emotive story is that it feels too often like screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron are going through the motions rather than really being driven by a sense of fire and urgency. The film follows the gradual emboldening and political awakening of Maud (Carey Mulligan) as she suffers through increasing degrees of drudgery, misery and pain, but the film's deck-stacking – leading to a dreadful scene involving Maud's son – works against it, and Mulligan's committed but unimaginative work doesn't give us a lot to connect with. Things pick up a little when the film moves the action to Epsom late on and Emily Wilding Davison takes centre stage, not least because she is played by the perennially undervalued Natalie Press, an actress who can't help but bring a sharpness, interest and texture to anything she plays. I sat there wishing that she was our protagonist instead. Suffragette is this year's The Imitation Game; a watered-down and inoffensive film that will elicit a combination of moderately appreciative reviews and shrugs in the build-up to the Oscars. Shouldn't we expect and demand more than this? Something that feels just a little bit dynamic, bold and dangerous? A film that defies convention rather than meekly surrendering to it? Yes, we can take satisfaction that a film written, produced, directed by and starring women is being given a platform like this, but I hope people dig deeper into the London Film Festival programme to discover and celebrate female-directed films with genuine vision and artistry.