Thursday, October 11, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - Asako I & II / Lizzie / Petra

Asako I & II (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's 2015 film Happy Hour won well-deserved plaudits for its complex examination of female relationships and its collection of wonderful performances, but the film's five-hour running time unfortunately meant its presence outside of film festivals was severely restricted. Asako I & II comes in at a much more conventional two hours, which should hopefully increase its commercial prospects, but there's little that is conventional about the film itself. After a beguiling meet-cute – an instant connection amid exploding firecrackers – timid Asako (Erika Karata) falls completely in love with the mysterious Baku (Masahiro Higashide), but when he abruptly disappears (something he apparently makes a habit of) she is bereft. Two years later, she runs into his doppelgänger Ryôhei (also played by Higashide), and a tentative romance begins between them, but is she in love with Ryôhei or is she still dreaming of the one that got away? Questions of fate and second chances run throughout Asako I & II, which Hamaguchi has adapted from Tomoka Shibasaki's novel, and it's easy to imagine some viewers being put off by its serendipitous storytelling or the characters' quirks; particularly Asako's chronic indecisiveness and introspection. But it's just as easy to imagine viewers falling in love with this film, as I did, and being thrilled by the way it keeps spinning off in unexpected directions. Although I adored much of Happy Hour, I felt that Hamaguchi's focus on performance and character dynamics sometimes came at the expense of his direction, resulting in a number of poorly constructed and flatly lit scenes, and Asako I & II is a real advance in this respect. His blocking and composition is masterful, his touch with actors is as sure as ever, and he handles the film's numerous tonal shifts with impressive grace. I'd have been happy to spend three more hours in the company of these characters.

Asako I & II currently has no UK distribution.

Lizzie (Craig William Macneill)
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.” That's the Lizzie Borden story neatly wrapped up in a folk rhyme, although it's not exactly accurate. Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother, was struck around 18 times and her father a mere 11. The rest of what happened in the Borden household on August 4th, 1892 is open to speculation. Lizzie was cleared of the crime but in Craig William Macneill's Lizzie there'sno question who wielded the axe, with the film attempting to explain why Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) took this drastic step. Both women were dominated and oppressed by Lizzie's father (Jamey Sheridan) and Lizzie's inheritance and freedom was threatened by her shady uncle (Denis O'Hare). They took solace in each other, escaping to the woodshed for sex, and when their covert relationship was rumbled they saw no other solution to their predicament than to smash The Patriarchy in the face with an axe. This is a story of love, hatred, thwarted passions and revenge – so why does it feel so staid? Macneill has a good eye but his careful crafting of every frame leaches all sense of life out of the movie. The characters stalk around their creaky old house as if in fear of upsetting the mise-en-scène. The movie is a chronic drag. This might not be such a problem if we felt fully immersed in this time and place, but Lizzie never convinces. Sevigny and Stewart are strikingly modern performers (perhaps intentionally, to put them at odds with the world around them) and all of the characters and relationships are sketchily realised by Bryce Kass' uneven screenplay. The film finally explodes into life with the murders themselves, which are staged with a conviction that the movie never exhibits elsewhere, but this late flurry aside, I never got the impression that the filmmakers had a clear sense of how or why they wanted to tell this story.

Lizzie is distributed by Bulldog Distribution and is in UK cinemas on December 14.

Petra (Jaime Rosales)
I knew nothing of Petra before I walked into the screening, having not even glanced at the film's synopsis, and that was a wonderful way to experience Jaime Rosales' film. This is a movie that likes to withhold its secrets; in fact, Rosales withholds the whole opening chapter, beginning his film with “Chapter II” and saving the first instalment for much later in the film, when its dramatic import will be far greater. Rosales relishes dropping these revelatory bombs  - arguably overdoing it in the final act – and another filmmaker could easily have dialled this material up into ripe melodrama, but instead the director dials it down. Petra is leisurely in its pacing and unfolds in long takes, with Hélène Louvart's camera (the film is gorgeously shot on 35mm) stalking around the characters and through the spaces they inhabit. Petra is a film about the legacy of secrets, the destructive power of men and the resilience of the women who are forced to withstand that power, and Rosales uses his exceptional ensemble to explore these ideas from a variety of angles. Bárbara Lennie is quietly superb as the title character – an artist attempting to unlock a mystery that has haunted her whole life – while Carme Pla has a small but heartbreaking turn as the maid who sacrifices everything for her family. But the film is dominated by Joan Botey as Jaume, the artist around whom all of these lives revolve. Jaume – an artist driven by acclaim and financial success rather than integrity and truth – takes evident delight in controlling and manipulating the lives of others, and Botey gives a magnificently loathsome portrayal of unchecked male ego and aggression.

Petra currently has no UK distribution.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - After the Screaming Stops / The Guilty / A Paris Education

After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman, David Soutar)
“I think the letters H-O-M-E are very important,” Matt Goss explains, “because they personify the word home.” Matt is showing us around his American abode (complete with energy crystals, his ‘conversation corner’, and a painting of his beloved bulldog holding a beer), but his thoughts keep drifting back the city he grew up in. “I’m a London boy. Big Ben. Embankment. Cab Drivers.” He’s about to return to London for a reunion with his brother Luke – with whom he formed the pop sensation Bros in the late 1980s – for a series of reunion concerts, and After the Screaming Stops follows a fractious few weeks before they appear together at the O2 for the first time in almost thirty years. Co-directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar mine plenty of awkward comedy from the brothers’ idiosyncrasies and primarily from Matt’s overreaching metaphors and cod-philosophical statements (“I made a conscious decision, because of Stevie Wonder, to not be superstitious.”), but there’s also real pathos here. Both men come close to cracking under the pressure of trying to recapture something they had three decades earlier, and simmering, long-buried resentments (Luke feeling overshadowed by his brother, Matt feeling like he’s not being take seriously) keep bubbling to the surface. The filmmakers skilfully craft the film towards a cathartic, triumphant climax at the O2, although there’s an undeniable suspicion that intriguing and complicated parts of the story have been cleaved off in order to facilitate this narrative trajectory; for example, the London gig is presented as a one-off show, when in fact a number of UK dates were announced before being abruptly cancelled. Still, the film packs a lot of laughs and some surprisingly poignant insights into its 98-minute running time, and as Matt so sagely puts it, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Fuck me, that’s true…but we don’t have the time that Rome had.”

After the Screaming Stops currently has no UK distribution.

The Guilty (Gustav Möller)
A few years ago at the London Film Festival, one of the major highlights was Caroline Bartleet's short film Operator. This six-minute drama starred Kate Dickie as an emergency services phone operator who receives a 999 call from a woman trapped in a burning building. All we had was Dickie on screen and the frantic sounds on the other end of the line, but with these elements in place, Bartleet generated a heart-stopping tension. (It was certainly superior to the mawkish The Phone Call, which won an Oscar in the same year.) Gustav Möller's The Guilty proceeds in a similar fashion – the camera never leaving the call centre – and at times it churns up a comparably clammy atmosphere of anxiety and dread. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop demoted to the emergency services night shift while a disciplinary investigation takes place. He picks up a call from a woman who has been kidnapped and immediately sets about solving the case, but there's an interesting twist here. In Operator, the drama revolved around the protagonist's ability to remain unflappable and professional in a crisis, whereas Asger quickly proves he is no stickler for the rules. He begins ignoring protocols and launches his own attempts to bring the kidnapper to justice, possibly doing more harm than good in the process. With the film being confined to this one drab location, we are forced to share Asger's frustration, receiving only fragments of the narrative and waiting on offscreen voices to fill in the gaps. This is very much a debut feature, with Möller setting himself achievable parameters and hitting the marks he needs to hit. To his credit, he doesn't strain too hard to juice the film up visually with extravagant angles and cuts; he trusts that his leading man and his intriguing narrative will be enough to hold viewers rapt, and for the most part, he's right. Cedergren gives a commanding performance, as Asger's arrogance bleeds into doubt and desperation with every new revelation, but it's those revelations that cause the film to stumble slightly. In an attempt to stretch this plot to feature length, Möller and his co-screenwriter Emil Nygaard Albertsen pile on the twists in the film's third act, with some being clumsily handled and straining credibility. Less is often more in the world of the single-location thriller, but a few missteps aside, this is an impressively slick, tight and gripping effort.

The Guilty is distributed by Signature Entertainment and is in UK cinemas on October 26

A Paris Education (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)
I guess I'm predisposed to like a black-and-white film about a pretentious cinephile in Paris, falling in and out of love with a series of gorgeous French women, but even when I started the screening so firmly in its corner, Jean-Paul Civeyrac's A Paris Education tried my patience. Étienne (Andranic Manet) is the aspiring film director who has left behind his provincial home (and his long-term girlfriend) to begin his life as a film student in the French capital. He has ambitions and ideals but not yet much life experience or a clearly defined voice, and A Paris Education is partly about the need to look outside oneself and open up to new people and new experiences. Étienne gets called out for his solipsism and navel-gazing more than once, which can make him a frustrating protagonist to spend time with. I saw shades of Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore in this film, but Manet has none of Jean-Pierre Léaud's vitality or dexterity. It's left to the supporting actors to breathe life into the movie, which they frequently do. Some of the best scenes in the film focus on his friendly and flirtatious relationships with two roommates – Valentina (Jenna Thiam) and Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck) – while the most intriguing character in the whole movie is Mathias (Corentin Fila), who everyone in the film seems to be obsessed with. It's easy to see why; Fila is a confident, charismatic performer and his character – who remains shrouded in mystery – seems to bring the narrative into focus whenever he appears. The rest of the time, A Paris Education meanders through monotonous scenes of Étienne sulking, brief romantic trysts, and characters arguing about the merits of contemporary cinema. “I’ve had enough of whiny French films,” one student complains, and I wondered if Civeyrac was attempting some kind of autocritique.  Also wondered what these students, who rhapsodise about the works of Vigo and Ford, would make of A Paris Education's images. It shouldn't be hard to make a beautiful black-and-white film in Paris, but Pierre-Hubert Martin's digital cinematography is shockingly drab, casting everything in a washed-out hue, and Civeyrac does little of interest with his framing. It's one of the drabbest-looking films I've seen in some time.

A Paris Education currently has no UK distribution.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Elaine May on The BBC Radio 4 Film Programme

With just one week to go until The Badlands Collective's 35mm Elaine May retrospective, I was invited to discuss Elaine May's work on BBC Radio 4's The Film Programme. I enjoyed talking about A New Leaf and the rest of May's work with host Antonia Quirke and producer Caitlin Benedict, and you can listen to our conversation here.

After five years of dreaming about this retrospective, it almost feels surreal that it is finally upon us. The opportunity to see all four of Elaine May's films as a director in one place, and all projected on incredibly rare 35mm prints, is probably not going to come around again, so don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime event and buy your tickets now!

Full Season Infohttps://www.badlands-collective.com/painfully-funny-the-complete-directorial-works-of-elaine-may/

Ticketshttps://www.ica.art/films/painfully-funny-the-films-of-elaine-may

Season Trailerhttps://vimeo.com/289500344

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May

When I joined Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams to form The Badlands Collective in 2013, our goal was to celebrate films that had been overlooked and filmmakers whose work was in need of reappraisal. At our first meeting we made a list of directors who fit the bill, and one of the first names on that list was Elaine May. We believed that May was one of the most distinctive, brilliant and influential artists to emerge from that celebrated New Hollywood wave of the 1970s, and yet her films seemed to have slipped through the cracks as her contemporaries have been integrated into the canon. Nobody on the rep circuit was screening Elaine May’s films, nobody was releasing them on DVD and blu-ray, and nobody was talking about her as a great American director. We resolved to do something about it.

Doing something about it turned out to be a lot easier said than done, however. Elaine May’s work has been so neglected over the past four decades, viable prints have become incredibly scarce and the rights to them have become very complicated. For many years it seemed that our plan to present all four of her films together as a director on 35mm was going to prove to be a pipe dream, but now – five years later – we are finally ready to bring Elaine May back to the big screen.

The Badlands Collective is proud to present Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May at the ICA in London on the weekend of September 21-23. We are screening A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey & Nicky (1976) and Ishtar (1987) and we have secured some rarely seen 35mm prints for this special event. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Elaine May’s small but remarkable body of work presented on film, so book your tickets now and join us at the ICA to discover and celebrate a comic genius.

Full details are available on the Badlands Collective website

Tickets for each individual film are available from the ICA website – £12 for each film (£11 concessions) or £35 for a pass to all four features (£8.75 per film).



Saturday, August 25, 2018

BlacKkKlansman

The central characters in Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman are two police officers, one black and one Jewish, who work together to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. That’s a juicy hook right there, and one that’s perfectly aligned to Spike Lee’s filmmaking sensibilities, with the fact that it’s based (however loosely) on real events making it an even more intriguing proposition. So why does the film feel so tepid? Perhaps that sounds like an odd way to describe a movie that left me feeling shaken, angry and tearful as the closing credits rolled, but the undeniable impact of the closing five minutes just left me wondering where that fire and fury had been in the preceding two hours.

It certainly begins in an attention-grabbing fashion, opening with a clip from Gone With the Wind that segues into a white nationalist recruitment video, with Alec Baldwin (a frequent Donald Trump impersonator, of course) raging against the black and Jewish encroachment besmirching his proud white America. As Baldwin spits invective, images from DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation are projected onto the screen behind him. Griffith’s film becomes a key motif in BlacKkKlansman; this was Hollywood’s ultimate racist epic, a film that led to the rebirth of the KKK, and Lee frequently references it while also subverting its famous cross-cutting technique. Lee also references Tarzan in a speech given by Kwame Ture, to talk about the ways in which black audiences were historically forced to empathise with white heroes, and by extension to hate themselves. Spike Lee’s films have always been keenly aware of America’s past cultural sins, and BlacKkKlansman is attempting to engage with that legacy, while simultaneously telling a story rooted in the 1970s and commenting on America as it stands, or falls, in 2018.

That range of perspectives and layers of meaning isn’t unusual for a Spike Lee film – a sense of overreach, of a film pulling in multiple directions at once, is often what makes his work feel so energetic and alive – but here they are allied to a central narrative that fails in a series of ways. When we first meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) he is starting work at the Colorado Springs Police Department, and he is the only black man in the precinct. He is warned that he may face hostility and resistance, but his path from the records room to undercover work is smooth, with only one overtly racist cop apparently embodying the entirety of the force’s prejudices. This is a truly baffling decision on the part of Lee and his four co-writers, with this one bad cop getting the whole police department off the hook. The scene in which he gets his comeuppance is laughable, sitcom-level nonsense. Just what is Lee playing at here?

The simplicity of BlacKkKlansman and its broad, sketchy characterisations becomes more glaring the deeper Stallworth and his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) get into the Klan. The two lead actors give fine performances, but they are given nothing to play. How does Stallworth feel as a black man, sitting on the phone with David Duke (Topher Grace) and attacking his own race and saying “God bless white America”? He generally seems flippant and chilled, as if it’s water off a duck’s back. Similarly, Zimmerman is a Jewish man making anti-Semitic remarks when he’s in the Klan’s company, and he has to spout racial epithets while his black partner listens in; in one instance he even says it to his face. How does he feel about this? Does it take any psychological toll? The agnostic Zimmerman is given the most intriguing line in the film: “I never used to think about it,” he says of his identity. “Now I think about it all the time.” But the film doesn’t follow this thread and go deeper than that. We have a black man pretending to be white and a Jewish man pretending to be a Gentile, with both men expressing hatred of their own people, and the tension and complexity of this situation is never explored.

But it’s quite clear that Lee isn’t interested in these people as characters, he’s after a bigger story. The Ku Klux Klan exist in BlacKkKlansman as representatives for the white supremacy movement in the United States that has culminated in the Trump administration, and he draws the parallels bluntly and repeatedly. He puts familiar phrases into their mouths – there is talk of “making America great again” and chants of “America first!” – and characters discuss the idea that a man like David Duke may one day ascend to the highest office in the land, a line that provoked knowing chuckles from the viewers I saw the film with. Knowing chuckles isn’t what you sign up for with a Spike Lee film, though, and only in its final moments does it really grab audiences by the throat. The natural endpoint of the KKK/Trump equivalence that Lee has developed throughout the film is the footage from the Nazi march in Charlotesville in August 2017, the murder of Heather Heyer, and Trump’s notorious claim that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which is the footage he uses to bring the film to a close. The images are shocking, enraging and upsetting, and they’re guaranteed to have people leaving the cinema in a sombre mood, but they feel strangely disconnected to what’s gone before.

BlacKkKlansman is still a Spike Lee movie. It still has a “sheeeeeee-it!” from Isiah Whitlock Jr. and a trademark dolly shot, and it still has standout scenes that feel like the kind of moments only this director can conjure. I loved the close-ups on the audience during Kwame Ture's address, their faces spotlit in a beatific light, and a late monologue by Harry Belafonte carries a raw emotional force – like the ending, it’s a moment in which Lee confronts the viewer with the stark reality of racial hatred. But these powerful episodes only serve to highlight how sketchy, cartoonish and banal the rest of the film feels. BlacKkKlansman is consciously a work aimed at appealing to a mass audience, but this attempt to make a more mainstream film seems to have dulled the blade of a director who has done far more audacious work recently in a bunch of films that nobody cared about. A Spike Lee-directed studio release is inevitably going to be more interesting than a regular mainstream movie, but after the immediate impact of the film’s ending had dissipated, I couldn't help wondering what else we were meant to take from it.