The Tillman Story
Like his last film My Kid Could Paint That, Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story is a documentary about truth and deceit, but this time the deception is on a far greater scale. Pat Tillman was a celebrated football player who gave up his lucrative career to sign up for the Army and serve in Afghanistan, where he was killed in 2004. Initially, the Tillman family and the media were told that he had been killed by enemy fire in an ambush, and he was posthumously honoured with the Silver Star and Purple Heart, but the reality was that Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, a fact that was quickly swept under the carpet. The US government used the death of Pat Tillman as propaganda, and The Tillman Story follows the tireless efforts of Pat's family – particularly his determined mother – to set the record straight, and Bar-Lev's skilfully structured storytelling exposes the cover-up while also painting a moving portrait of a decent, honest family standing up against the government that has betrayed them. The film is compelling, shocking and infuriating; a damning indictment of the government and a mass media that is complicit with their lies. As a piece of filmmaking, The Tillman Story is a significant improvement over Bar-Lev's last film, piecing together the various strands of the story with intelligence and clarity, and its climactic scenes – that show us a group of four-star generals squirming and weaselling their way off the hook – are utterly enraging.
A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, 1991)
The BFI's archive section in the LFF programme is not just for revivals of classics from cinema's earliest decades, as this restoration of a 90's masterwork proves. Edward Yang's four-hour drama A Brighter Summer Day has rarely been seen in its complete form since its original release in 1991, and its long-neglected print required significant work before being presented at the festival, but watching it in its entirety really is a wonderful experience. Set in the early 1960's, the film tells the story of Taiwanese teens searching for an identity by joining street gangs, and Yang sets this narrative against the backdrop of a country coming to terms with a politically uncertain future. He paces A Brighter Summer Day perfectly over the course of his epic running time, gently guiding the film forward through a series of events which gradually accumulate in emotional power without ever seeming forced. There are fine performances throughout from the young cast, with Zhen Zhang giving a confident turn in the lead role and Wang Qizan stealing many scenes as Elvis fan Cat, and the violence that these characters become embroiled in occurs suddenly, being all the more effective for the director's understatement. With Yang's careful compositions and outstanding use of lighting, A Brighter Summer Day is a pleasure to watch, and not a single scene seems extraneous as the director flawlessly unifies the personal, historical and political elements of his film with the elegance of a master storyteller.
The First Grader
This is conventional, tick-the-boxes filmmaking and you can predict its narrative arc from frame one, but The First Grader is a solid crowd-pleaser nonetheless. It's based on the true story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 84 year-old who turned up at a local school one day when the new Kenyan government announced free education for all. Undeterred by the teachers' insistence that the offer is aimed only at children, Maruge stubbornly turns up at the school gates every day, dressed in uniform and clutching his pad and pencil, until sympathetic teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) final relents and allows him to join her class. What follows is a fairly standard tale of inspirational uplift and the desire for education, but director Justin Chadwick also includes some surprisingly dark and violent scenes from Maruge's freedom fighter past, which are jarring against the generally upbeat images of happy African kids running around in slow motion. The First Grader certainly looks smart thanks to Rob Hardy's strong cinematography, but the film is really grounded by its two leads. Naomie Harris gives a sensitive and appealing performance, while Oliver Litondo brings a rheumy-eyed dignity to the role of this unlikely hero.
Is there something in the water in Greece? For the second year running, that country has provided one of the LFF's oddest films. Attenberg is very similar in style and tone to Dogtooth, and there are connections between the two films, as Athina Rachel Tsangari produced Giorgios Lanthimos' brilliant movie, and Lanthimos himself shows up here in a key role. The film also reminded me of Celine and Julie Go Boating, with its focus on two childlike young women cocooned in their own little world. Marina (the amazing Ariane Labed) lives with her dying father and after watching recordings of Sir David Attenborough's documentaries together (the title is a mispronunciation of his name) they like to impersonate animals; at other times, she and her only friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) practise their increasingly outlandish silly walks up and down the garden path. There is a risk that all of this might come off as weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and the major failing of Attenberg is that, unlike Dogtooth, it never gives us a context for its characters' strange behaviour. The film therefore seems to lack a sense of purpose, and only towards the end, as Marina comes to terms with her father's passing, does it feel like Tsangari is trying to give this strange movie some sort of focus. Having said that, every sequence in Attenberg is fascinating to watch, with the performers attacking their roles with relish and the director's use of her actors' bodies being particularly impressive. It might not add up to much in retrospect, but Attenberg is certainly an absorbingly strange piece of filmmaking.
Lonely, obese and stuck in a deadening job on a hospital's terminal ward, all it takes is a name from the past to stir Piroska (Éva Gábor) out of her inaction. When a patient appears on her ward with the name Adrienn Pál, Piroska is reminded of her childhood friend, whom she lost contact with abruptly twenty years ago. Piroska remembers them as being inseparable as children, but as she speaks to fellow classmates and teachers in a bid to track her companion down, conflicting accounts emerge, and we begin to suspect that Piroska has idealised this relationship as a way of escaping the dreariness of her real life. Adrienn Pál is an odd kind of detective story, with director Ágnès Kocsis following her protagonist as she clumps around in her wooden shoes, and the outstanding camerawork gives us a kind of visual representation of the character's inner journey. Kocsis plays around with repetitive rhythms, such as Piroska sitting in front of her bank of monitors, taking a corpse down to the morgue, or idly munching on a slice of cake, and her film is often mordantly funny. There's a terrific running gag in the way diegetic music is utilised, and many scenes are small masterclasses in staging and execution. If I wanted to pick holes in Adrienn Pál I might say that it's a little too long for the story it tells, but this is such an accomplished piece of work, and Gábor's quietly affecting performance is so impressive, it feels churlish to criticise.
Life, Above All
Life, Above All is a powerful but flawed study of an African family torn apart by AIDS as well as a wider examination of the ignorance that many Africans still have when it comes to dealing with the disease. Despite being slight in stature, Khomotso Manyaka gives a commanding performance as Chanda, the young girl who has to hold together a family already reeling at the start of the film from the death of her infant sister. As both her mother and alcoholic father succumb to the disease, Chanda's family begins to be viewed with suspicion by the rest of the community, particularly as she remains close friends with Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a child prostitute. Director Oliver Schmitz is tough enough to address these issues in a clear-eyed fashion, but he also has a weakness for melodrama, and Life, Above All's storytelling sometimes comes off as preachy and unlikely. The film's strengths lie in its excellent cinematography and its very strong performances, with Harriet Lenabe bringing some welcome fire and conviction to her role as Chanda's no-nonsense neighbour. Life, Above All is a commendable and quite touching attempt to address a serious issue in an accessible manner, but it's let down by its climax, which feels a little easy and weak.
Sofia Coppola's latest wallow in ennui and alienation caused some controversy when it picked up the top prize at this year's Venice Film Festival, and now I've seen Somewhere, it's easy to see why its victory provoked complaints. The film is empty and aimless, and not even up to the level of the director's own Lost in Translation, which is broadly resembles. As the movie star drifting through hotel rooms and having sex with models every night (the poor guy!), Stephen Dorff gives a faintly monotonous performance, and it's left to Elle Fanning, as his 11 year-old daughter, to bring some natural vitality to the picture. She has been foisted on him by her mother to take care of until she leaves for summer camp, and while they have fun in each other's company, the relationship between the pair doesn't really develop in any interesting way. The film just floats along with a few nice scenes and a few flat ones; Coppola is capable of capturing the odd graceful moment, but she's just as likely to leave a scene hanging with no discernible purpose or direction, and in Somewhere her success rate is about 50/50. Even the film's better moments weren't strong enough to leave a lasting impression on me, and this vapid film started to escape my memory almost as soon as the credits rolled. One thing did stick with me, however, and that's the film's ending, which is laughable.