Tuesday, October 18, 2016

LFF 2016 - Strange Journeys

Staying Vertical (directed by Alain Guiraudie)
Given the prominent erections that featured in Alain Guiraudie's The Stranger by the Lake, the title of his new film Staying Vertical might suggest more of the same, an impression that is strengthened when Léo (Damien Bonnard) stops his car in the opening scene and attempts to pick up a sullen youth. But Léo is in fact cruising in another direction, wandering aimlessly through the French countryside until he meets a shepherd (India Hair) with whom he abruptly decides to settle down and start a family, despite repeatedly calling on the teen on whom he apparently still harbours a crush. Guiraudie doesn't give us much context for his characters' behaviour and Staying Vertical unfolds as an elliptical series of incidents that grow increasingly strange as Léo finds himself trapped in a nightmarish and apparently inexorable downward spiral. Léo is a screenwriter trying and failing to make progress on a script that was apparently due months ago, but his every attempt to run away from his responsibilities only leads him further into trouble. There is no escape.

In fact, Staying Vertical feels like Guiraudie's own spin on a Charlie Kaufman-esque creative crisis film. No matter where he turns, Léo remains trapped by the same handful of characters – people he seemed determined to milk for inspiration, who subsequently appear to be conspiring against him – and he is incapable of working himself out of whatever tight spot he writes himself into. The curious tone that Guiraudie strikes throughout makes it impossible to pin down the exact meaning or purpose of Staying Vertical, but as strange and discombobulating as it all is, there is a sense that the film is working to its own consistent internal logic, and even if it's hard to grasp what Guiraudie is trying to say here, his film is so peculiar and mordantly funny on a scene-by-scene basis it remains entirely absorbing. Damien Bonnard makes for a terrific protagonist, his deadpan expression registering a Keaton-like bemusement and dismay as a series of misfortunes befall him, and the film boasts some of the most startling moments you'll find in any film this year – from a very close look at a baby being born to an extraordinary assisted suicide scene that is largely baffling to comprehend but, in the context of this film, makes a weird kind of sense.

Further Beyond (directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor)
Ambrose O’Higgins was born in 1720 in County Sligo. When he died 81 years later, he was known as Ambrosio O'Higgins, having made his way to Chile, risen through the military ranks to become the Captain General of Chile and subsequently the Viceroy of Peru. There's surely ripe material in this eventful life for a biopic, you might think, and filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor thought so too. But Further Beyond is not their screen depiction of O’Higgins' life and times; in fact, by the end the film they have barely made a start on telling that story. Instead, Further Beyond is all prologue, with the filmmakers exploring all of the questions that must be tackled before telling somebody's life story on screen; questions of historical accuracy versus storytelling necessity, history versus memory, and the questions of what must be included and what can be left out. The filmmakers take an oblique approach to all of this, hiring two voiceover artists to read their scripted thoughts and muse on the pluses and minuses of any particular approach without settling on one.

As I watched Further Beyond, I was reminded of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, in which the narrator's attempts to tell his own life story are continually stalled by tangents and digressions. The most fascinating and unexpected sidetrack Molloy and Lawlor take here is a diversion into the life of Helen Dowling, Joe Lawlor's mother, who appeared in a theatre piece they made 18 years ago and – more pertinently to the film's theme – had the course of her life altered by journeys between America and Ireland. As an essay film on the nature of cinematic storytelling and the history of Irish emigration, Further Beyond is stimulating, playful and propelled by a genuine sense of curiosity. I don't know if Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor will ever get to make their Ambrose O’Higgins film, but this meandering yet compelling investigation is a decent start.

Nocturama (directed by Bertrand Bonello)
There's a disconnect between how I felt as I watched Nocturama and how I feel about it afterwards. As a cinema experience, Bertrand Bonello's film is something to behold. The long opening section of the film gives us little context or characterisation to grip onto, but we are swept along by the film's rhythm as a group of French youths criss-cross Paris in a way that reminded me a little of Out 1, but also had echoes of Elephant. Bonello plays tricks with time and perspective as he teases out the this set-piece, and it takes some time for us to realise that this is a coordinated terror campaign, with bombs being planted across the city and timed to detonate simultaneously. The opening hour of Nocturama is exhilarating in its fluid, kinetic thrust, but the second half of the film is more deliberately paced and composed, with the young insurgents taking refuge in a department store overnight, waiting for the panic on the streets and the city-wide manhunt to subside before returning to their homes.

Aside from brief forays outside by the antsy David (Finnegan Oldfield), the film remains locked inside this multi-level building for the rest of its duration, a potentially inert scenario rendered hypnotic by Bonello’s astounding formal precision and the brilliant production design. There’s something eerily dreamlike about this location, with the characters cut off from the chaos outside and with little sense of time passing, playing loud music to avoid being left alone with only their own thoughts and consciences to contend with. They eat and drink, they play in the toy aisle, they raid the clothing ranges, and they do what they can to allay their fears. (What happened to the one member of the group of failed to arrive at the rendezvous point? Was he captured? Is he dead?) At some point, however, I started to wonder what it is that these freedom fighters were fighting for. Bonello begins to give us flashbacks showing them plotting the attack but stops short of going back to the point where their ideological identities were formed, and all we get are statements like “We did what we had to do.” The director has said that he conceived this film over five years ago and was in production before the attacks in Paris, but the film’s attempt to depict these acts as the inevitable reaction of a disenfranchised youth feels off. Perhaps recent events have simply created a context that we can’t help but apply to this film, a weight that it cannot bear, but Bonello doesn’t help himself by having one of his darker-skinned characters talking about going to heaven when they die. These are the questions that troubled me after I’d finished watching Nocturama and left me wanting more, although none of these queries crossed my mind as I watched it. As a piece of pure filmmaking I’ve seen little to match this in 2016, and the climactic twenty minutes had me holding my breath, but the plaintive cry of one character just before the end credits strikes me as an expression of a glib vagueness that undermines Bonello’s undeniable artistry.

Mascots (directed by Christopher Guest)
A decade has passed since Christopher Guest's last film as a director, but very little has changed about the filmmaking itself. You might wonder why anyone would advocate tinkering with a winning formula, but the Guest house style was starting to look a little creaky in 2006's For Your Consideration and there's a definite sense that the formula needs shaking up in Mascots. Guest's latest film sticks to the template established by Best in Show, following a disparate group of oddballs and obsessives as they prepare to compete at a major tournament, in this case the 8th World Mascot Association Championships (or The Fluffies), and finding comedy in their delusions and insecurities. Some of these characters are nicely drawn and played; for example, Tom Bennett's Owen Golly, Jr., proudly continuing the family tradition of being the mascot for their local football team, and there's a touching sense of broken dreams being partially fulfilled in the relationship between Parker Posey and Susan Yeagley as cheerleading sisters.

Bennett and Yeagley are newcomers who impress here, but others – such as Chris O'Dowd and Zach Woods – fail to make an impression, and the bigger disappointment is how uninspired the returning members of Guest's regular ensemble feel. Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and Fred Willard play characters barely distinguishable from those they have appeared as before, while Guest himself underlines the lack of freshness with his inexplicable decision to reappear as Corky St. Clair, last seen twenty years ago in Waiting for Guffman. Of the Guest regulars who don't figure here, I wonder if Eugene Levy is the most notable absentee, as he has had a screenplay credits on their previous collaborations and might have helped to give this film a greater sense of shape and identity, or helped establish a stronger narrative through-line. It's not like Mascots is completely devoid of laughs – there are too many funny people involved for that to be the case – but everything here feels secondhand. Even the faux-documentary conceit, always shakily applied in Guest's work, feels completely half-assed here. More often than not, Mascots just comes across as another badly shot comedy, with the uniqueness and element of surprise that we anticipate from Christopher Guest sorely lacking.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

LFF 2016 - Found Footage

Dawson City: Frozen Time (directed by Bill Morrison)
Dawson City: Frozen Time opens with the statistic that 80% of silent films are estimated to have been lost forever, a number that makes the films we do have feel even more precious than they are, and makes the discovery of any long-lost films feel like stumbling across buried treasure. In this case, the treasure was literally buried – 1500 reels of film were dug up from the frozen ground in Dawson City, Canada in 1978, of which 522 were salvageable. These reels form the backbone of Dawson City: Frozen Time, a film that tells the story of how so much nitrate film stock wound up in the Yukon. It's a complex story and Morrison doesn't stint on details, with the onslaught of information feeling a little overwhelming at the start of the film, but as Dawson City: Frozen Time progresses, and as we are drawn into the film by the the haunting soundscape crafted by Alex Somers and John Somers, the facts coalesce into an astonishingly vivid portrait of a particular time and place, simultaneously telling us the story of the birth of Dawson City, and the birth of cinema itself.

When the film begins it appears to be a conventional documentary, but Morrison quickly abandons that idea. As in his astonishing 2002 feature Decasia - which turned the decay of film stock into an aesthetic virtue – Morrison allows the images to tell the story, and so the history of Dawson City is told through photographs and through excerpts from the films that were dug up almost forty years ago. Images take us through the town's rise and fall as fortunes gleamed in the gold rush fluctuated, through the violent miners' strike of 1914, and it introduces us to figures who passed through the town, often on their way to making a name for themselves elsewhere, such as Jack London or Sid Grauman. The film is enlightening and evocative through the sense of history alone, but what really dazzles is the imagery – sometimes showing signs of damage, but always fascinating and often entrancing. From an educational film showing the birth of frogs to a montage of the films that played in local cinemas before being dumped there, Dawson City being the end of the distribution line and with the film companys reluctant to cover the cost of shipping them back; films such as The Unpardonable Sin, The Female of the Species, Barriers of Society, The Hidden Scar, The Marriage Lie, A Sagebrush Hamlet. There's something overwhelmingly moving about seeing these images, once assumed lost forever, flickering back into life once more. Dawson City: Frozen Time might begin with a lament for what has been lost, but the film itself is an act of resurrection, and it is glorious to behold.

Have You Seen My Movie? (directed by Paul Anton Smith)
Paul Anton Smith doesn't have any credits on his IMDb page prior to Have You Seen My Movie? but he did serve his time working on Christian Marclay's The Clock, which was an editing job like no other. That film collected images from cinema and television that either showed a clock face or mentioned the time of day and assembled them in chronological order, creating a unique 24-hour cinematic experience, with the time on screen always reflecting the time at which audiences were watching it. Have You Seen My Movie? is not dissimilar in its construction, but here the act of watching films is the focus. Smith has collected clips of characters watching films, projecting films or engaging in some activity related to being in or around a cinema, and he has stitched them together in a loose narrative shape aimed at reflecting the act of cinemagoing.

So we have Marcello Mastroianni collecting tickets, Woody Allen frustratedly waiting in line, Brad Pitt splicing film reels together, Gene Kelly turning up for a premiere, and Jean-Pierre Léaud on an awkward date. The film moves through these themed passages sequentially, which sometimes makes it feel like little more than a clip reel, but there are also moments when Smith lets scenes from different movies speak to each other, which was one of the key factors in The Clock's mesmerising quality. Michael Jackson is enjoying munching on his popcorn while watching Scream 2, and Christopher Lloyd is distracted in his projection room by a man masturbating in black-and-white amid reels of film (nonplussed, he turns back to his food). Have You Seen My Movie? is a little uneven in its pacing and some segments, like a focus on propaganda films or religious icons, feel out of place amid the general theme of the public act of filmgoing, but for the most part the film is a treat for cinephiles ready to wallow in nostalgia. In fact, it's striking just how many of the contemporary films shown take place in the past. Going to the movies ain't what it used to be.

Voyage of Time: Life's Journey (directed by Terrence Malick)
People often seem to ask what happened to Terrence Malick, but perhaps we'd be better off asking what happened to us. Just five years ago Malick seemed to reach a career peak, with The Tree of Life being hailed as a masterpiece, winning the Palme d'Or and earning major Oscar nominations. Since then, however, the fall in Malick's public standing has been stunningly precipitous. To the Wonder and Knight of Cups were barely released and earned largely dismissive reviews, and the reaction to the director's long-gestating passion project Voyage of Time: Life's Journey has been lukewarm at best. What happened? As far as I can see, Malick remains one of the most vital filmmaker, and you can draw a clear line through his work, with each film building on the previous one in some ways while pushing into completely new territory in others. The one consistent factor in Malick's work is that they are visually singular experiences, with Malick's dedication to seeking out beautiful images, and to present the world to us in a way we've never seen it before, never wavering.

We've seen some of the images in Voyage of Time before. The film is essentially an augmented and reworked adaptation of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life, being expanded to 45 minutes for IMAX screens and to 90 minutes for regular cinemas, which is the cut I saw. In many respects, the film is exactly what you'd expect, as myriad gorgeous sights appear on screen under a voiceover from Cate Blanchett in which she calls beseechingly for “Mother”, but describing what happens in Voyage of Time is not the same thing as experiencing it. Many will accuse Voyage of Time of being little more than a glossier take on a TV nature documentary, but to do so is to overlook both the extraordinary imagination and elegance of these intoxicating images, and to ignore the film's rhythm, which exerts a mesmeric pull as it flows in step with the powerful orchestral score to depict the creation of the universe and the evolution of the species. As if to lament for our inability to appreciate such things, the film sometimes cuts to low-resolution footage of people in contemporary societies, as if to remind us how small we are in the grand scheme of things. People find it very easy to mock Malick now, but I can't think of any other filmmaker who is so sincere in his dedication to reaching for the stars, and is so dedicated in his pursuit of a language that can express the ineffable. Far from indicating a decline, I think his post-Tree of Life work confirms his status as one of the most radical artists in American cinema. We don't deserve him.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

LFF 2016 - Duets

Barakah Meets Barakah (directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh)
Barakah Meets Barakah is an entirely conventional romantic comedy, but the film's setting makes it feel very unconventional. Mahmoud Sabbagh's film is set in Saudi Arabia, where the usual 'boy meets girl' ritual is complicated by the fact that boys and girls can't meet alone without risk of causing a scandal and receiving a harsh reprimand. As such, a young man like Barakah (Hisham Fageeh), a meek civil servant, is drastically uninformed when it comes to the dating game, having never even held a girl's hand before. He's particularly flummoxed when he meets Bibi (a particularly good Fatima Al-Banawi), a model and budding Instagram star, whose much more worldly perspective feels illat ease in these oppressive surroundings. Fageeh and Al-Banawi are certainly an endearing pair, but what draws us into their relationship is the necessarily covert manner of it. A montage shows them considering a variety of potential first dates – an art gallery, a restaurant, etc. - each of them is quickly interrupted by the ever-vigilant religious police.

Barakah Meets Barakah opens with a disclaimer: “Note: The pixelization you will experience during this film is totally normal. It is not a commentary on censorship. We repeat, it is not a commentary on censorship.” That repetition seems a little pointed, particularly as the way in which the the pixels are deployed underlines the absurdity of such censorship – for example, we are allowed to see a man pouring alcohol into a glass but not see him holding the full glass – and they allow Sabbagh to make a neat visual gag involving an advertising billboard. Even as it follows Barakah's confused pursuit of Bibi, the film frequently finds space for moments that highlight the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of Saudi Arabia's moral strictures, often giving them voice through Da'ash (Sami Hifny), Barakah's heavy-drinking neighbour, who rails against the enforcers with lines like “I taught these little shits how to wear diapers. Now they're preaching to me about morality?” Later, a montage of photos from before 1979 reminds us that it wasn't always this way – men and women once socialised, they visited cinemas – with Barakah accusing his father's generation of giving up their freedoms and condemning those that followed to a life of religious intolerance. The political jabs make Barakah Meets Barakah a much more fascinating and potent proposition than its familiar template might make it seem, and the very existence of a film like this – plus its nomination as the country's official Oscar entry – suggests that things might be slowly changing in Saudi Arabia.

A Dark Song (directed by Liam Gavin)
Much of A Dark Song is spent in the company of just two people. A few other hands appear at the start of the film to help set the story in motion, but for the bulk of its running time Liam Gavin's debut feature is a two-hander, which is when it the film is at its most compelling. It opens with a woman buying an isolated country house, in cash, under very specific conditions. This is Sophia (Catherine Walker), still mourning for the loss of her child and very determined to do something about it, which is where Joseph (Steve Oram) comes in. He is an occultist whom she has enlisted to help her perform an invocation that will open a portal to another world, through which...well, who knows how this will turn out. Whatever lies in store for Sophia and Steve, they are both in it for the long haul, holing up inside the house and prepared to spend many months abstaining from alcohol, sex and drugs and following the rituals laid out in ancient texts to the letter. This is where A Dark Song grips, with the arduous, repetitive and frustrating process of invoking dark magic being depicted in a way that quickly convinces us of both the characters' and the filmmakers' dedication to making this feel as real as possible.

But how seriously should we take them? The most fascinating aspect of A Dark Song is the ambiguity of Steve Oram's Joseph, who certainly seems knowledgeable and fastidious in his pursuit of dark magic, but whose behaviour raises questions about his veracity. The relationship between Joseph and Sofia often feels abusive, with Joseph increasingly finding new lines to cross and angrily accusing her of lacking faith is she dares to question his methods, and this angle of the film is best exemplified by a queasily effective scene in which he insists they need to have ritualistic sex, before taking control of the situation in a horribly exploitative way. This ambiguity is sustained both by Gavin's clever orchestration of the situation and the strength of the two actors, who both convincingly portray the physical and mental strain their characters are under as they both start to inevitably go stir crazy, but unfortunately Gavin can't sustain it all the way to the finish line. When he needs to bring his film to a conclusion, he goes big, and while I applaud his ambition and desire to push beyond the chamber piece that he has skilfully executed, this final segment of the film just fell flat for me. The climactic sequence feels like it has come from a different movie and the final lesson that is learned from all of this is dismayingly trite. Still, for about an hour A Dark Song is a singularly unusual, compelling and unsettling film featuring two perfectly matched performances, and a special mention is due to production designer Conor Dennison, whose exceptional work is more evocative and impressive that anything coming through that portal.

Lost in Paris (directed by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon)
Who could have guessed that the next time we saw Emmanuelle Riva after her shattering performance in Michael Haneke's Amour she would be swigging from a bottle of champagne, climbing the Eiffel Tower and making love inside a tent? I guess getting that Oscar nomination must have had some kind of rejuvenating effect. She's the unexpected bonus in Lost in Paris, the new film from Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, which is otherwise largely what you'd expect it to be. Abel and Gordon's distinctive comic style is couched in old-school traditions of slapstick and visual comedy, with their films being less a flowing narrative than a series of scenarios in which the pair can perform deadpan and often very graceful gags. Their films are colourful, whimsical, largely inconsequential and – depending on your mood – likely to leave you charmed and entertained or baffled and stony-faced.

As a fan of their previous features Iceberg, Rumba and The Fairy, I was already predisposed to enjoying Lost in Paris, which hardly attempts to break new ground but does have a few subtle differences to distinguish it from their prior films. First of all, their usual co-director Bruno Romy is nowhere to be seen here, although his absence doesn't make much appreciable difference to the filmmaking style, and there is much more dialogue in this film than we might expect. Otherwise, this is standard Abel and Gordon fare, with Gordon playing the hopelessly clumsy Canadian tourist who visits Paris to find her lost aunt and keeps falling into the Seine, while Abel is a homeless chancer who ends up following her from one disaster to another. Lost in Paris is rarely hysterical but it did provoke a constant stream of giggles from me, from small gags like the way a desktop globe reacts to a door being opened in the first scene, to a terrific set-piece in a restaurant involving giant speakers, a lovely graveyard dance, and a scattering of the ashes mishap at the film's climax. Emmanuelle Riva's appearance is brief but fun, which is a decent summary of the film as a whole, which gets its business done in a shade over 80 minutes and possesses an eager charm that's pretty hard to resist.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

LFF 2016 - Women's Lives

The Bacchus Lady (directed by E J-yong)
She seems innocent enough, the old lady sitting in a doctor's office at the start of The Bacchus Lady, but the pointedly named So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) has an unconventional trade, which has led to her embarrassing medical complaint. “The fucker. I should have made him wear a condom,” she complains as the doctor confirms her fear of gonorrhoea. The Bacchus Lady initially looks set to take a comic approach to its subject matter, finding awkward laughs in the incongruity of a 65 year-old prostitute, who subsequently finds herself being forced to take care of a young child, but writer-director E J-yong has more serious things on his mind. “South Korea has the 11th biggest economy in the world but the highest senior poverty rate among OECD countries,” a journalist tells So-young early in the film, and the plight of Korea's elderly citizens is a theme that is explored with piercing insight here. The hundreds of women who patrol Seoul's Jongno Park making eyes at the men who wander by are a sad emblem of a society that fails to take care of its ageing population, and in many ways So-young is an outcast, just like the transgender cabaret singer (An A-zu) and the one-legged artist (Yoon Kye-sang) with whom she forms a kind of makeshift family.

This might be a film concerned with tackling a social issue, but E J-yong does so through character and incident rather than making his film a polemic. He takes a non-judgemental approach to his characters; most notably, when So-young is asked to perform one last service for the elderly men she has been in service to her entire adult life. The tonal shifts that occur during the course of The Bacchus Lady might have been whiplash-inducing in less confident hands, but the film's balance of sharp humour and piercing emotional depth is a high-wire act that never falters. Much of this is down to the astonishing central performance from Youn Yuh-jung, who frequently communicates her character's internal turmoil, her memories and regrets, without even saying a word, as in one the film's most resonant moments, when So-young stands on a street corner at night and watches a stooped old woman pushing a cart full of trash past her, her gaze speaking volumes about their respective positions in life. “Don't call me Granny. My vagina is still young,” she snaps at one man early in the film, but that combative vitality seeps out of her over the course of the narrative, being replaced by a weariness as the weight of her actions and a lifetime of hardship catches up with her. It's a performance that allows us to feel like we know this selfless, unfortunate character, and invites us to form a bond with her that makes the starkness of the film's final scenes so devastating.

A Woman's Life (directed by Stéphane Brizé)
A Woman's Life is the new film from Stéphane Brizé, a French director whose impressive but unassuming films had largely flown under the radar until Vincent Lindon's performance in The Measure of a Man earned him the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2015. Brizé's latest film is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's first novel Une vie, and as the book covers almost three decades in the life of its central character, Brizé and his frequent co-writer Florence Vignon have taken an elliptical approach to telling the story. The film is constructed of short, disconnected scenes that give us a brief glimpse of how Jeanne (Judith Chemla) lives, with the early scenes in particular – such as Jeanne tending the garden with her father (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) or being bathed by the family's maid (Nina Meurisse) possessing a touching intimacy. These ellipses can also carry a powerful emotional charge. When Jeanne catches her husband (Swann Arlaud) in bed with another women, the moment is skipped over by Brizé's editor Anne Klotz – we just see the buildup as she opens the bedroom door and then cut straight to her running from her husband is dismay at his betrayal. Likewise, a harsh cut to the ultimate consequences of his serial infidelity is chilling.

Antoine Héberlé's handheld camerawork can be aggravating with its jerky misframing, but he also uses the Academy ratio to find some striking compositions, and at its best, A Woman's Life is nimble and perceptive. There's a lovely moment later in the film when Jeanne discovers her late mother's secret stash of love letters, opening a window on a whole life that she never knew existed, but these moments grow more scarce as Brizé's deft touch seems to desert him in the film's second half. Jeanne faces a catalogue of misfortune, from family bereavement to the financial strain of supporting her feckless son, and a bleak torpor settles on the film as the fleeting joys of previous years become a distant memory. Jeanne's whole world often seems to be crumbling around her, as she sits in her once-grand home, now hearing the rainwater dribble in through the cracks in the roof and shivering against the cold. The funereal pacing of this section of this film eventually takes its toll, though, and while Chemla works hard in the lead role, the script doesn't afford her much in the way of development or the means to express an inner life, which makes it hard to stick with her as she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the dire state of her affairs. It's easy to see what Brizé was aiming for with A Woman's Life, but the one-note nature of the film's storytelling makes it feel too often like a dreary slog.

Ma' Rosa (directed by Brillante Mendoza)
Jaclyn Jose was the surprise winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes for her turn in the latest film from Brillante Mendoza, and she's certainly the Ma' Rosa's trump card, giving a fierce and affecting performance as the matriarch trying to hold her drug-dealing family together under immense police pressure. Rosa and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) run a small grocery store in a poor district of Manila, but their real income lies in the distribution of crystal meth, which leads to them both being detained in the police station overnight after a raid. They try to plea their way out of their predicament, but the police are after a bigger score, and it soon becomes clear that a specific amount of money will satisfy the cops, and they don't care where it comes from. Mendoza flips the script here by making the drug dealers the sympathetic protagonists against a corrupt police force and, it is implied, a corrupt society.

Mendoza and his screenwriter Troy Espiritu set the film up efficiently and skilfully. The raid on the family's store has a terrifying immediacy, captured by the director's handheld digital cameras, and while the film is often ugly to look at, it does at its best evoke the dangerous vibrancy of rainswept Manila streets at night. The threat is tangible inside the police station too, where the officers are laid-back and jovial until the time comes to intimidate Rosa and her husband, or the supplier whom they are forced to give up. But the air goes out of the picture when the focus shifts away from Rosa, which is a surprising move – despite the acting plaudits she received in Cannes, she's offscreen for a large chunk of Ma' Rosa. Instead, the story is picked up by her children, who are forced to try and raise the cash required to free their parents by any means possible. They sell their possessions and one sells his body, but the limited performances of the younger actors and the lack of context Mendoza provides (is this the first time he's had sex for cash? He doesn't seem particularly perturbed by the idea) ensures this section of the film lacks tension and direction. Only towards the very end, when Rosa drives the narrative once more, does Ma' Rosa spark again. The final close-up of her sweat-drenched face – tired, anxious, defiant – makes you wish Mendoza had trusted it more.

Zoology (directed by Ivan Tverdovskiy)
A tall tale about a long tail, Zoology is an offbeat fable about the way our differences define us, and the way people treat those who refuse to conform, particularly potent message in contemporary Russia. At the start of Ivan Tverdovskiy's film, Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) is unpopular and unhappy, cruelly mocked – both in and out of earshot – by her colleagues at the zoo for being a dowdy, introverted middle-aged woman with no prospects. Everything swiftly and inexplicably changes for Natasha when she collapses at work and complains of a pain in her lower back. The next day she visits her doctor, and he seems remarkably unflappable in the face of the fleshy tail that has suddenly materialised at the base of her spine, sending her for an x-ray where she forms an unlikely bond with a hunky radiologist (Dmitri Groshev). Soon the erstwhile wallflower is getting a new haircut, wearing fashionable clothes, drinking, dancing and being emboldened rather than oppressed by the secret that she has hidden under her skirt.

It's fun to see Natasha come out of her shell, particularly as Pavlenkova is such a delightful screen presence, her face bearing an impish grin as she overhears the town gossips spreading rumours about a cursed woman in the vicinity, but it doesn't take long for the tide to turn. Her boss rounds on her for the way she now dresses and acts at work, her accidental revelation of her appendage at a club causes mass panic, and we suspect her new boyfriend's attraction may be a case of fetishisation rather than love. That final point is made in a startling scene towards the end of the film, but at other times Tverdovskiy seems uncertain of where he wants to take his unusual premise. The film touches on notions of religion and new age mysticism in sequences that are funny but don't have much evident purpose, and ultimately the meaning of it all feels frustratingly out of reach, with a sense of inevitability hovering over the film's climactic image.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

"As I've evolved as a filmmaker I've become a realist, but trying to do that as cinematically as possible." - An Interview with David Mackenzie

Hell or High Water might seem at first glance like a familiar cops-and-robbers tale, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before, but a genre film doesn’t have to be generic, and this is a thriller that has been brought to the screen with rare skill. In fact, the virtues evident in the film are rare enough in contemporary American filmmaking to feel like very something special. Hell or High Water boasts an intelligent, witty screenplay by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, an excellent quartet of performances that bring nuance and emotional weigh to the central relationships, and direction by David Mackenzie that ensures the film feels simultaneously loose enough to allow the characters to breathe and taut enough to be the year’s most gripping thriller. It’s a reminder of how good American genre filmmaking can be, and I met David Mackenzie recently to discuss it.

Looking back at your career before this interview, I was struck by how different each film has been to the one that preceded it. Has that been a conscious decision when choosing projects or is that just how things have turned out?

I've always been trying to avoid making the same film twice, so it is definitely a plan, although I just tend to find the projects that appeal to me at the time, so there is that as well. I find with some elements of filmmaking you can get caught up in the process of it, and so if you can find something different each time it helps it stay alive, fresh and interesting, and hopefully that's reflected in the work.

I always wonder how much a director can control that because you're also at the mercy of the market, what's offered to you, the need to work, etc.

There's an element of taking the opportunities that come your way, but in terms of the things that appeal, that's what I'm looking for, something that's sufficiently different or surprising, or something that feels like it's got an opportunity to explore a world that I don't know. It's one of the great things on both sides of the camera, actors and directors. you get to learn about things that you don't know and spend a bit of time under the skin of an area or subculture or whatever it is, and begin to understand it. That's a real privilege.

So when you received the script for Hell or High Water, what was it that you connected with?

I really loved the script. The script was a kind of revelation for me because it starts off like you think it's a straight genre thing and then you start seeing resonance, poetry and humour and all those things, and then it becomes something else. You realise it's about dispossession and these antagonistic characters who are feeling their way through their relationships and unpeeling the layers of that antagonism to reveal affection, and a lot of it is about the land and themes of contemporary America. As I read it I'm going, "Wow, it's a genre movie but it's all this too" and then just as I'm getting bored of one flavour another flavour comes in, so as a narrative journey for me it's exactly the kind of thing I'm interested in.

I think when looking back at cinema history, it's often the genre films that feel like the best reflection of a particular time or place. I'm thinking of the noir films of the '50s or westerns of the '70s, in which the thematic concerns and anxieties of that era come through, either consciously or subconsciously.

I've been talking a lot about the '70s, and if you look at Robert Altman in terms of what you just said, Altman doing McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye. His '70s interpretation of a western and a noir are totally of the time they were made and reflect the concerns of the time that they were made, and another western I like is Dead Man, Jarmusch's film from the '90s, which seemed to reflect some of the themes of then. I guess that's the advantage of visiting particularly those two genres, both kind of tough guy genres and about American history, gangsterism and the west, looking at those things through each generation or each decade and through the different concerns of those times, that feels like an interesting thing to do.

When you're working in a genre tradition...

I've always hated genre. I mean, I spent the first six or seven films of my career trying to avoid genre, and I really got angry when people try to put films into a genre box. I had to get over it with Starred Up because I couldn't escape it. It was always going to be a prison drama, you know what I mean?

But does it give you a certain freedom to be following this kind of narrative and be working with characters that are archetypes of the genre? I mean, the audience meets you halfway because we connect with certain tropes and have certain expectations, and then you can do something different with them.

Yeah, and also because you've got those archetypes you can be free to completely humanise them, and there's still something that you can hang on to. That's what seems interesting to me. You've got those genre kicks and you've got the genre threats, but that gives you a real opportunity to go where the heck you like within that, and that's what seems so nice about this film. There are things that can connect with an audience in a very obvious way, and then there are things that can be brought in. I talked on Starred Up about smuggling in stuff. You're making something that has a built-in connection so then you can mess with it.

The thing that really struck me after watching this film is how this is a very tight and lean movie, but there is so much downtime in it. There are so many scenes that consist of the the characters just sitting and talking, but it never feels static.

It's a real juggle to try and do that. Some of those scenes are people not even talking, they're just breathing in the atmosphere. They're really important to the flavour of the film but you don't want the thing to lag. I've worked with my editor Jake [Roberts], who's a very talented man, on five films, and a lot of what we're trying to do is keep the flow and feel the different flavours of the film. The two brothers have a different energy to the two rangers, and you're trying to keep a flow that allows you to move forward, giving these things the space to do what they need to do.

You're essentially telling two different, parallel stories that you have to weave between.

And they are very different in flavour, even though they're part of the same thing. In a way one of the things I'm most proud of with the film is the way we managed to keep all those things in there and make sure the film is tight enough to be a genre movie.

Did you do any test screenings with this film to help find that balance?

I did testing for the first time ever. Jake had done testing on a couple of pictures. I was a little bit disturbed by it, but I got into it. We tested it three times and each time you feel the audience, you know, the audiences write down these score sheets but that wasn't relevant to me and I didn't really read them, to be honest. Just watching the film with an audience and feeling that's where it's lagging or that's where they're disengaged was very informative, and after each test we shaped the film a bit more. Showing the film for the first time in Cannes is a terrifying thing to do, because if they hate a film it's very public and they're very vociferous about it, so knowing you've put it before a test audience before its world premiere is quite a good thing.

I understand you had a very limited amount of time with Chris Pine before he had to leave for Star Trek.

I think it was two and a half weeks.

How does a tight schedule like that affect your process?

In this case it was a distinct advantage, because if we hadn't had that pressure we would have probably shot whatever bank Chris and Ben [Foster] were robbing and then we would shoot Jeff [Bridges] and Gil [Birmingham] following them, but instead we had to shoot Chris in his entirety first. I spent two and a half weeks living with the outlaws and we were able to shoot that sequentially because the schedule didn't have to bother about anything else. The opening shot of the film was the first thing we shot, and progressing through  a film like that, as I did on Starred Up too, is great for a director because the last thing you did informs the next thing you do, and you don't have to think about it in some weird logical way. It becomes very intuitive. Actors absolutely love it because they can do the same thing.

It's a rare opportunity for them.

It's pretty rare, yeah. I know Chris just loved the freedom that we had, the 'jazz filmmaking' as he called it, and so the lack of time was actually a great benefit. It gave them an energy and we were a great team - Just bang bang bang, we went through it. The biggest challenge was the final scene, Chris's last scene and Jeff's first scene, and I had quite a lot to do in one day. It worked out alright and I was happy with the scene, but it was a pressurised moment. And then after that it was a different pace, we didn't have so much schedule pressure so it was like a normal film, and we slowed down and enjoyed it. As a result those guys have a different energy, more laid-back, and it really works in terms of those different flavours.

But in that Chris Pine half of the movie you have some very complicated bank robberies and shootouts to choreograph. How do you approach that? Did you do a lot of pre-planning and rehearsal?

Not really, As a director I've developed a sense that the less I pre-plan the better. Obviously if you're doing a stunt thing then you do have to work through it, but the more that you're open to the opportunities of what's really cooking on the day, and the less you lock that down in your head with preconcenption, then for me the better results you get. There's more freewheeling joy in that, and it gives you a better connection to the material than anything you can pre-plan. It's going to be interesting to see what happens if I do a bigger movie or something where there has to be some logistical pre-planning, but my attitude is to do as little of that stuff as possible. The important thing is what happens when the cameras are turning and everything before then is just the run-up, it's all pre-race stuff.

Did you shoot in real banks?

Half of them were real banks and the other half of them were ex-banks, because obviously quite a lot of banks have closed down, so they were all built for the purpose of being banks anyway. There was a real struggle to begin with to get some banks to let us in, because they didn't quite get it at first, but the big shootout scene was a real bank and the bank tellers are the real tellers. The weird thing was, a week after we finished shooting one of the banks we filmed in was robbed for real, so they sort of knew what to do!

That must have a great impact on the actors, to be doing it in the real location.

I think it does. I really can't imagine going into a set-based environment again, where you can lean on the walls and they wobble. With Starred Up half the job was done when we turned up to work in the morning, because that location really spoke to you, it was a very powerful atmosphere, so you switched into gear. I guess it's not dissimilar to method acting because you can tap into that reality. Obviously if you're doing a sci-fi set it has to be a set, but if it's a realist thing then you'd be crazy not to try and use the real locations. As I've evolved as a filmmaker I've become a realist, but trying to do that as cinematically as possible. The tradition of British realism is often about making things feel real and not do it in a very widescreen way, as it were, but I'm trying to find a balance of a kind of widescreen realism.

The film is very classically composed with great use of the wide frame. Did you think about the visual style beforehand or does that suggest itself on the day too?

The way you're going to shoot it suggests itself (a) by the environment you're shooting in and (b) by how the actors feel, and obviously some of that is me saying "It's best to do it that way" but some of it is just letting things cook and seeing what happens. The DP I've worked with Giles [Nuttgens], who shot this, we're trying to be in tune with what needs to be done and that has to do with light, weather, the way the frame looks and what the guys are doing.

One of the things I loved about the bank robberies was the notion that it's particularly hazardous to try and rob a bank in Texas where every single customer is carrying a gun.

That's the truth of Texas. I tried very hard not to be an outsider, I tried to be an honorary American while making this, I didn't want to make a film from the outside looking in, but the British don't have the same relationship with guns as Americans, and the gun culture in America is a big part of it. I feel the film is political but not judgementally political, I think it's swimming in those waters and I don't really have the right to do more than that as a Brit there. I was quite conscious of not wanting to glorify or pass judgement on the gun culture, but it is pretty freaky, and the concept of gun ownership is that the good guys can fight the bad guys and it's not just the bad guys that are armed. That's how the mentality of the gun lobby presents its argument.

There is also this sense of frontier justice, with that character who tells Jeff Bridges that he'll find the guys and "string 'em up." They're still holding onto the code of the Old West.

But it's obvious that they're disappearing and I know that Taylor thought of it as the passing of the Old West, and that's nice territory to swim in. There is a little bit of an ache in the overall feel of that, and it obviously ties into the Comanche thing, that 150 years ago that whole area was run by the Comanches. 150 years doesn't seem that long ago when you think about it.

I want to ask you about the casting of the smaller characters, the people we meet in the diners or the banks. They bring so much to the film.

Because much of it is a road movie, it's a kind of picaresque, you're going to bump into characters and never see them again, and that's one of the things I really liked about it. They're very well-drawn characters and I was very conscious of the fact that the film was going to live or die by how well we cast these characters. It is a real challenge to make sure that all the smaller cast, who are in it for one day, are as looked after and respected and made to feel as safe as the people who are in it for longer, and it's much harder because you turns up to a well-oiled machine, and how do you fit in? So I made a real effort to make sure they were feeling good about everything, We tried to make sure we cast as authentically as possible, we cast great faces, great looks, great acting, and it's one of the things I'm most proud of is that these characters all came together in a really nice way and they represent the world we are trying to describe. They give the film a real sense of place.

They don't feel like actors. They just seem like part of the landscape.

That's always an honour. People came up to me after Starred Up and thought some of the people in that were non actors, and they all were. That makes me feel like I'm doing my job, and obviously they're doing their job.

You've spoken about wanting to leave behind the British tradition of realism. Do you think you'll move away from British cinema and do more work in the US?

I have the attitude that it's all about the project and I don't really have a strong sense of where that's going to take place. I'm developing projects in Britain, the United States and Europe so I'm not sure what's going to materialise first, but I don't necessarily feel any antipathy towards British cinema and I'd like to carry on doing it.

This is your second film in America. How is the experience different to working in the UK?

It's exactly the same, but slightly more unionised, slightly bigger crews, a little bit more unwieldy. I guess they make more films so there is that kind of process where you feel like the sort of sausage factory of making films is more embedded in that culture, which I always have to fight, because I hate the idea that the tail wags the dog. I was successful on this film in fighting that and pulling in some of the methods that I use to make films come more alive, and there was a bit of a culture shift for those guys but the battles were won. Essentially, it is the same deal. 

Is it hard to make a film like this? People often talk of American cinema now being divided starkly between the huge blockbusters on one side and the microbudget indies on the other side, with less room for anything in the middle.

I think it's creeping back. This is exactly what this film was, to some extent, and I think people have realised that the hole in the market of quality material that's resourced enough to make properly, and to possibly work with big-name actors and that sort of thing, is something that's worth revitalising. So I have a feeling that's a kind of mood swing in Hollywood to move back towards that, which I think is great because that's where most of the good films come from. Fingers crossed.

You said you are developing a few projects. What are you working on next?

I know what I'm doing from next week because I'm working on a TV pilot in Canada called Damnation, written by a guy called Tony Tost, and it's about strikers and strike breakers in Great Depression Iowa. I think it could be a really strong piece so I'm excited about that. I've never done a pilot before, and as a director a lot of the decisions I would normally be making our being made by other people so it will be an interesting experience, but it's short and luckily I will have Giles the DP and some of the team with me.

There are a lot of filmmakers making that switch to the small screen now.

There are, but no matter what anybody says about the Golden Age of TV, I still think cinema is much better.

Hell or High Water is released in UK cinemas on September 9th