Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"I just knew that if you point a camera at David and give him an instruction he can process that and be great, and that was my starting point." - An interview with Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer has had an incredibly varied career but the last ten years of his life have been largely focused on Australia's Aboriginal community. Following The Tracker, Ten Canoes and the documentary project Twelve Canoes, the director has returned to this territory with his superb new film Charlie's Country, which tells the story of an old man trying to cling onto his land and culture in changing times. The film was written for David Gulpilil when the actor was at his lowest ebb – suffering from alcoholism and depression, and languishing in jail – and it is clear that the film has proven to be a powerful and rewarding experience for both the director and star. Rolf de Heer came to London recently to present Charlie's Country at the London Film Festival, and I met him to discuss the film, the problems faced by Aboriginal people, and his extraordinary Bad Boy Bubby.

This is the third feature you've made with Aboriginal people. How have you had to adapt your approach to filmmaking to work with them over the course of these films?

Each one has been very different, and how it has come about and why. I haven't sought to create this indigenous body of work but it has happened that way, and it's not something I would have normally chosen to do because it's too hard. Tracker was one thing, it was a very contained shoot, it was a one-on-one property that had this extraordinary variety of locations, and it was a very dry shoot, meaning deserts and so on. Up in Arnhem Land, where David's mob comes from, it's a different question. Ten Canoes was a difficult film to make because I was learning how to make a film with the mob, and there are language difficulties and conditions that are difficult and so on. When Charlie's Country came up it was different because I knew them. I'd had an ongoing relationship over a long period of time, and it was continuous because you can't just walk into a place and then walk out, you create obligations and relationships and you try and maintain those in some way. When this came up they were there waiting because they'd had an extraordinary experience with Ten Canoes and they wanted another one. Quite unexpectedly old Minygululu who walked out of Ten Canoes because it was too much humbug came back and wanted to do it again, so I had to put a part in there for him. So each one has been a very different experience, and each film I make I have to approach very differently. It's about what is the best approach to that film, and I then I try to tailor my thinking and my way of being to what's required for that film. On Ten Canoes I had a mantra of patience – never lose your temper, never behave like a white person who wants it now, try and think of it from their point of view. Without that I would have perished.

One of the things I loved about Ten Canoes is that it felt like they were being given an opportunity to tell their story in their own way.

And that's what I felt. I felt I was the means by which they could tell their story because they were not capable of doing it themselves, but they had a strong idea of what they wanted. When all the really ethnographic stuff started coming into it I said 'We can do that, but if we do it we should do it like this, it should be a television documentary, we could make it beautifully like this, etc'. They talked about it among themselves and said 'No, we want a movie, like David makes, and we want it to work for our mob but we also want it to work for that overseas mob, so they can understand our culture'. That gave me a very clear brief as to how to do it. With this one it was entirely about David and it needed to be because he was at a very low ebb, and he looked like he was going under. To begin with it was created around David, around his strengths and liabilities, to try and somehow give him something of lasting value, which it has done because he hasn't had a drink for three years. It has really changed his life. It's changed his life because he's had this engaged opportunity, which he's never had before. He's never been that involved in a film, he's never had a say, he's simply gone on set and acted. And he's a genius, I mean, he can't articulate himself in English as well as you and I can, but he's a genius no question about that, and this gave him more than it has ever given him on that level.

He has had such an extraordinary life, being plucked from obscurity for Walkabout and then having a career that set him apart from his people in such a way. I guess it's inevitable that such experiences would cause immense strain on him and on his relationship with his community.

Yeah, because his own community can't understand him anymore. And he has gone wild, because on Walkabout John Meillon was a hellraiser and he taught 16 year-old David how to act sober while being drunk, and a couple of films later he does Mad Dog Morgan with Dennis Hopper! David still delights in telling stories of getting locked up with Dennis Hopper, and these were his role models as a young kid so he comes back to his community radically changed. They don't understand him anymore, they don't understand what he does and what he earns, and they don't believe him when he says he only earns this much. They think he's a movie star and they know Mel Gibson is an Australian movie star earning $20m a film, so if David says he doesn't earn $20m a film then either he's lying or he's an idiot getting ripped off by white people. It takes hours of trying to explain and they still don't get why he isn't paid more.

There's a sequence early in the film where Charlie is walking around town and people keep coming up to him for money. Is that directly drawn from David's own experience?

I've been with David when he has $300 in his pocket and he's going out to buy a packet of cigarettes. We walk half a mile to the store and back and he comes back with loose change and three or four cigarettes, the rest is gone, and that's normal for him. I spent an hour with him in Darwin recently, and he's learned not to carry money – he usually doesn't have any, apart from anything else – but 10-12 people asked him for money. That happens to him every day.

When you went to see him in prison and he asked you to make this film with him, did you have doubts about the project? As he was in a bad way, did you fear he would be unable to get through it?

Initially I ignored the question, which came at the end of the first time I went to see him in jail, and I asked if I could come to see him tomorrow. I went into my hotel room and began to work, not on things that went into the film but just thinking about how to make a film with David that had a chance of working, because he looked like all the life had gone out of him and I didn't know if he was still capable of acting at all. I just knew that if you point a camera at David and give him an instruction he can process that and be great, and that was my starting point. I thought we had better make it in whatever language he wants – because he has trouble learning lines in English, which is about his sixth language – and we'd better make it contemporary, about stuff that he knows, so he doesn't have to create a character but can draw on his own experiences in life. These things were all structured in to take into account that he may not have it anymore, but as it turned out he was simply depressed in jail and that's why the life had gone out of him. As he got rehabilitated, and I took him to the bush and back to his own community when he was out on parole, he got stronger and stronger, and he still has it in spades.

And so many of the film's most powerful moments consist of you simply putting the camera on his face and holding the shot.

He's remarkable in that way. I don't know of another actor that I've worked with who can pull that off to the extent that he does.

So I assume your directing style must have been quite loose and open to incorporating things as they happen?

To an extent, but there's still a story that has to be told and if you diverge you've got to be very careful. I can be extremely tight or I can be loose-tight, and this is a loose-tight one. David tends to like it that way anyway; he likes to know where the boundaries are and where to go with it.

One of the key themes of the film is the impact of The Intervention, and there's a lot of anger in the film about the marginalisation of this community and culture. Was it important for you to address that issue through this film?

I don't think about anything except telling the story, I don't think about making points. I'm sure in the back of my brain I do think about that, but I don't think about it consciously because the moment I think about it consciously I started to manipulate the material to get that, and then it becomes contrived and it's no longer authentic. I've spent a lot of time in Ramingining over the years and I've thought about it a lot, and I know David's politics because he rages sometimes, so it's there naturally. If you're going to make a film set in that milieu then you'll see the frustrations that they have. They talk about the law and they say 'We have laws that we've been following for 10,000 years, you white fellas change the bloody law every week! That's not law'. They get so frustrated about that and inevitably that stuff gets in the film because it's part of the whole way of being up there, and it's part of the way the police and Aboriginal people interact. It's unbelievable. They're universes apart.

There's a great line in the film where the police officer says to Charlie "We'll put you down as a recreational shooter" and with that one line he is being casually dismissive of a whole aspect of their ancient culture.

Yeah, and he's well-meaning. He's helping him get his license, he doesn't have to do it but he's trying to be a mate, trying to be friendly, and he completely fucks it up!

So what is the current status of the ongoing debate in Australia regarding the Aboriginal community? Is there any sign of a way forward on this issue?

The culture up there is changing, though we don't quite know what into. It's a difficult area because these are issues that are as much white issues as black issues, and people tend to talk about the black Aboriginal problem but it's a white fucking problem, that's what it is. It's going to take much longer than people think to sort these problems out, hundreds of years, unless the political parties decide to go bipartisan on it, which is what they should do. Otherwise it works on three-year election cycles and every bloody three years it changes again, but you have to have such long-term plans in place. It's about salvaging language and respecting that and finding ways for people to learn language so we are meeting them equally, rather than this dominant culture that they have to follow. You can't do that when there are three-year election cycles and it becomes a political football.

Towards the end of the film we see Charlie agreeing to teach the children to dance, which is his own way of sustaining that culture for another generation, but you wonder how long it can last.

One of the problems of course is that we are right now talking about Aboriginal Australia as if it's one thing, when it's many, many different things. What happens in one community is very different to what happens in another community, and it's a complete range things to consider. The notion of ceremonies and things is still very strong, but there will be a lot lost, there's no doubt it. However, those ceremonies can adapt and change like ours have, you know, our Christmas now is completely different to our Christmas 50 years ago and we don't mourn the loss of those traditions, though I guess some people do. It's okay for us to lose those traditions and they will need to adapt some of their traditions to a new situation.

It's interesting that you mention the many different Aboriginal communities because there's a scene in the film when Charlie is hanging around and drinking with a woman he meets, and his friends say she's the wrong colour for him. So he even falls afoul of rules within his own people.

Yeah, she's "the wrong skin". Their whole universe is set up quite differently than ours is. Everything is divided into these 'moieties' and there are subsections to the moieties, and everything in the universe is classified according to those things, and you have a relationship with every object in the universe and every person in the universe depending on what kinship you are. That is a law that they live to and that is one of the difficulties, living to that law and living to white law. We can do anything and they see that we can do anything, but can they? So they're damned if they don't follow our law and they're damned if they don't follow their own law, and it's a very difficult way to live.

Just before finishing I want to ask you about Bad Boy Bubby. It was a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it. I think I was around 12 years old.

Oh no! [laughs] I am sorry.

It was certainly a formative experience. But when you look back at that film, do you think 'How on earth did I get away with that?'

Well, I haven't seen it for a long time. I've had occasion to have the script open a couple of times and I see things in it, and I go 'Where the hell did that come from?' That's the thing that intrigues me. I know where it came from – inside me, I made it up – but it feels completely disconnected from who I am and I wonder how I thought of it, so that intrigues me. It wasn't a question of getting away with anything because basically the film read as if it was going to speak powerfully, and when it was made it did speak powerfully, that's all. But it was a journey and the kind of film you walk out of feeling like you've been in a washing machine for two hours, I felt like that and I know other people did, and it was never meant to be loved by everybody.

There are aspects of it, like the different cinematographers for each scene, that sound like they really shouldn't work, but the effect it creates is remarkable.

It's because it was so integrated into the way I was going to make the film. Initially I was going to make it over two years, and I thought I wouldn't be able to have the same cinematographer for all that time because he won't be available. The script was structured in a certain way and that's why I locked him up in the first place, so he would have no exposure to anything outside and the world outside could look like anything. I mean, we're sitting in this restaurant here, and we cut to Piccadilly out there, it's such a radical visual cut but we don't realise it, and there's nothing a cinematographer can do that's anything like as radical as what we do cutting between different locations. You stick a character like Bubby in there and you are looking at these different worlds that he's in, but it's our world.

Well it's certainly a film that anyone who's seen it will never forget, and not every director can claim a picture like that.

It's just extraordinary, and I've been so privileged in my lifetime of making films that I've had some that have broken through so hard and in such extraordinary ways, and this is yet another one. I think 'My God, where does it stop? It's another fluke', and that's what it feels like a bit. The privilege of having had a film like Bad Boy Bubby, you're right, you wish once in your life to have a film that gets that kind of response and breaks through in the way that it does. I'm not much one for demanding a $200m box office; it's not about that, it's about how people respond to it. I know that not everyone is going to like Bad Boy Bubby and not everyone is going to like Charlie's Country, but those that see it and do like it tend to like it immensely.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The 2014 BFI London Film Festival - Third Despatch

Altman (Ron Mann)

Robert Altman's life and work contained enough stories to fill a dozen documentaries, so attempting to give us a full picture of the artist in one 90-minute film is impossible. Realising this, filmmaker Ron Mann has chosen to narrow his focus in his new documentary Altman by letting the late director himself narrate through snippets of interview footage and by restricting himself to a single question when interviewing Altman's many collaborators – "How do you define Altmanesque?" The answers he receives from the likes of Michael Murphy, Robin Williams and Philip Baker Hall – "Fearless" "Expect the unexpected" "Making your own rules" – immediately paint an image of an iconoclastic figure, an outsider who delighted in forging his own path, and the film contains a number of very entertaining anecdotes to support that portrait. Altman's uncanny knack for doing things his way behind the backs of unsuspecting producers and financiers is a recurring theme.

Inevitably, Altman is a cursory look at a complex and incident-packed life, and it touches on all the expected areas – his early innovations and firing from TV; The unexpected success of M*A*S*H; the disaster of Popeye; the outcast years of the '80s; the return to Hollywood and late career resurgence. What really adds texture to this journey is the fascinating selection of footage, with some great behind-the-scenes shots and the Altman family's home videos, provided by his widow Kathryn who is a big presence in the film. Altman never pretends to be anything more than a loving tribute to a great artist, and that's ok because it works superbly on that level, reminding you of just how special this filmmaker was and reigniting your passion to watch as much of his work as possible. It's also very touching at times, especially towards the end of the film when Kathryn recalls her husband's emotional reaction to seeing Brief Encounter and saying "It wasn't just a movie" – a line that sums up much of Altman's own work quite nicely.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)

One of the most disheartening experiences in cinema is watching a film blow the opportunity to do justice to a great story, even more so when we can sense the cynical reasons behind those storytelling choices. The Imitation Game squeezes the complex and fascinating life of Alan Turing – a man already hard done by in 2001's risible Enigma – into a bland formula designed to simplify the narrative at every turn and appeal to Oscar voters in particular. Graham Moore's screenplay works on three different decades, with the main thrust of the drama following Turing's role in cracking the German Enigma code, while additional scenes deal with his arrest for indecency in 1952 and flashbacks to his schooldays look at a formative relationship with fellow pupil. Director Morten Tyldum – who previously showed himself capable of more energetic work with the daft but fun Headhunters – cuts from one period to another with a clockwork efficiency but a chronic lack of imagination or flair. "I bet you were popular at school" somebody sneers at Turing; cue a scene in which young Turing is being unpopular at school.

Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose performance resembles his work in Sherlock – a programme I don't care for – and whose one-note portrayal here grows tiresome. Matthew Goode is his caddish colleague, Keira Knightley is the sole female presence (and a welcome one), Mark Strong is the shady MI6 operative (literally introduced lurking unnoticed in a corner) and Charles Dance is the old-school soldier who wants to shut Turing's operation down. Every character is an archetype, and the actors playing them seem incapable of doing something surprising or imaginative with their roles. The film just goes through the motions, with one laughably blunt scene leading to another. A moral dilemma is heightened by one member of the team having a brother in the firing line; a spy is uncovered through leaving a bible bookmarked on the page containing his code on his desk; Turing has a war-turning epiphany while listening to some idle chatter in a pub. When it comes to Turing's homosexuality, the film is predictably coy and utterly fails to get across the horror of his ultimate fate – one of the most shameful episodes in British history. The line "Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects" is repeated three times in the film – as if it will achieve profundity through repetition – but The Imitation Game is everything you expect it to be, and less.

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman)

I love the films of Frederick Wiseman and I love The National Gallery, so my positive response to his latest film National Gallery is perhaps the most predictable rave in the whole festival. Nevertheless, I was still taken aback by just how great this documentary is, and my only regret is that Wiseman falls an hour short of last year's 244-minute At Berkeley. Like that film, National Gallery has a heavy focus on education, and as he tours the building Wiseman keeps landing on scenes of people sharing their knowledge of art and trying to inspire listeners with their infectious enthusiasm. We get to sit in on fascinating lectures about Rubens' Samson and Delilah or Holbein's The Ambassadors, we see a group of young children captivated by a curator's storytelling, we see a life drawing class in session, and we even see a roomful of visually impaired people appreciating art through touch. As ever with Wiseman, all of these sequences are given plenty of space to play out, with the clean and fluid editing allowing us to feel as if we have been given a privileged position in the room to observe events as they unfold.

This is never truer than when he takes his camera away from the public sphere to look at what happens behind the scenes. Wiseman can always make administrative meetings seem gripping and there are intriguing discussions here over how the gallery should reach out to a wider public, how involved it should be in Sport Relief, and how it should cope with a £3.2 million budget cut from our philistine, rapacious government. We are also invited to watch the gallery's restoration team carrying out painstaking work to touch up ageing masterpieces, with one of the most revelatory moments in the film being the admission that every cleaning removes all of those restorations, meaning they have to be done all over again. You couldn't do that if you didn't love what you do, and throughout National Gallery we meet people who really love art – people who love viewing it, love preserving it, and love sharing it with others. Wiseman's films always have a rhythm that's all their own, but I was struck by how nimble this picture feels, with the cutaways to great works hanging on the wall ensuring that even what we might call 'filler' material has a stimulating effect. The other thing that Wiseman understands so well is that people-watching is one of the joys of visiting a gallery, and he creates a wonderful interplay between the images on the wall and the wide variety of people who look at them every day. National Gallery is illuminating, inspiring and entrancing, and in its final minutes it achieves a state of transcendence that elevates it into the top tier of Wiseman's peerless body of work. Magnificent.

Pasolini (Abel Ferrara)

Pier Paolo Pasolini died on November 2nd 1975, with his final film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom yet to be released and with both a screenplay and a novel in various stages of development. Abel Ferrara has used these basic facts to make Pasolini, a boldly unconventional portrait of the director that focuses on his final 24 hours and attempts to bring those unfinished works to life. I was excited to see what would come from this meeting of two of two of cinema's most independent and adventurous figures, but I have no idea what anyone without prior knowledge of Pasolini's life will make of this picture, which offers no contextualisation for neophytes and simply plunges us into this person's world. In fact, much of Pasolini's opening half-hour consists of us watching him do vey mundane things – he has breakfast, he reads the paper, he meets with Laura Betti, he prepares for some meetings. Ferrara seems determined to de-mystify his subject in every way possible and to present us with Pasolini the man, played here by Willem Dafoe, an actor who certainly looks the part and whose magnetic presence is crucial to the film.

I slowly warmed to Pasolini as it progressed but I remain a little perplexed by it, and I can't shake the feeling that there are a couple of crucial pieces missing that would bring the whole film together more satisfyingly. The film stalls badly during the short interlude in which Ferrara dramatises snippets from Pasolini's novel Petrolio, but the longer recreations of scenes from his screenplay Porno-Teo-Kolossal feel more fully realised and integrated into the overall picture, with the appearance of Ninetto Davoli in this section an affectionate nod to his association with Pasolini. These scenes are fascinating as they feel torn between the very different styles of two filmmakers, and I almost wish that Ferrara had gone all the way and simply filmed Pasolini's script as a tribute. Such a project would have probably resulted in something entirely more effective and coherent than Pasolini, but that's not to say that this film is worthy of being dismissed. There is great beauty and tangible passion in Ferrara's direction, and the climactic stretch of the film, in which Pasolini picks up a rent boy before suffering a violent death on a cold beach, is mesmerising and very powerful, but ultimately I have to say that I admire the idea behind Ferrara's approach more than its execution.

Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)

It takes a long time for Spring to reveal what it's really about, and that is one of its biggest strengths. The film begins with Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) at his dying mother's bedside, watching her slip away. Unmoored, Evan starts drinking, gets into a bar fight and briefly hooks up with an old girlfriend, before deciding that it's time to get away – to get anywhere but here. He flies from the US to Italy, tagging along with a couple of British tourists until he arrives in a small town, and falls in love. We immediately suspect that there's something not quite right about this beautiful, seductive woman in a red dress, but Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead – co-directing from Benson's screenplay – keep us in the dark for as long as possible. The first half of the movie largely focuses on the burgeoning love between Evan and Louise (Nadia Hilker), which is a smart move because the two leads have a wonderful chemistry and it's a pleasure just to see watch getting to know each other.

Of course, the dark secret must eventually reveal itself but at least it's an interesting and unexpected one. "Are you a vampire, werewolf, witch, zombie, or alien?" Evan asks her when he realises that she is not entirely of this world, but the correct answer is "none of the above" as her complicated backstory traverses thousands of years and involves mutations and regenerations. In truth, the film never satisfactorily explains all of this and attempts to do so feel like they've been shoehorned inelegantly; it might have been better to keep things vague and just trust that we will be emotionally involved enough at this point to follow whatever happens. As in The Fly, the horror movie element of Spring is used as a metaphor for the nature of relationships, commitment and our finite lives together. Benson and Moorhead occasionally have difficulty switching tones, but for the most part they direct with a sure hand, expertly creating an atmosphere of unease through close-up shots of insects, striking aerial photography and carefully judged pacing, and when the time comes to incorporate gross visual effects, they are utilised judiciously.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The 2014 BFI London Film Festival - Second Despatch

Charlie's Country (Rolf de Heer)

Charlie's Country is the third film Rolf de Heer has made with Australia's indigenous community, and it might well be the director's finest picture to date. One thing is for certain; the film provides a wonderful, career-defining role for David Gulpilil, whose emotional investment in the story is absolute. Charlie is an ageing aboriginal man living in a ramshackle home in a small Australian town, which has been demarcated as an alcohol-free community. Charlie is a well-known figure in this region, enjoying some regular banter with the police officers, but the laws of the white authorities are gradually eroding Charlie's own way of life. When his gun is confiscated for the lack of a license, Charlie reaches breaking point and decides to retreat into the bush, where he can live by the ancient laws of his own people, free from the modern world. But adapting to this new way of life is easier said than done for a man of Charlie's advancing years.

This is a beautifully composed film – the landscape brilliantly captured by Ian Jones' breathtaking widescreen cinematography – that unfolds at a leisurely pace, but it has a real anger behind it too. Charlie's Country is a film about the marginalised indigenous people of Australia and the slow but steady eradication of an culture, but de Heer's approach is not didactic, he expresses it through the simple story of a man trying to cling on to what's his and find some sense of peace in a world that appears to have no place for him. David Gulpilil co-wrote Charlie's Country with de Heer after going through a particularly tumultuous period in his personal life, and it's obvious that much of what we see on screen is related to his own life experience. He gives a performance of that is both endearingly cheeky and heartbreakingly dignified, and de Heer gets the most out of his leading man by often just letting the camera rest on his face, allowing us to see the pain, sadness and anger in his eyes. A single medium shot of Gulpilil's face in particular constitutes one of the most powerful images I've seen at this festival.

Dear White People (Justin Simien)

During the closing credits of Dear White People we see recent photographs of white Americans who have chosen to dress up in blackface for parties. It's an instant riposte to anyone who might suggest that the blackface sequence in Justin Simien's film is too much, while reminding us that the best satire always exists at one remove from reality. And Dear White People is an excellent satire; a film that takes aim at multiple targets and scores a remarkably high number of direct hits. Set on the campus of the fictional Winchester University, the film follows a handful of characters as they negotiate issues of prejudice, class and racial identity, with the title being the name of a radio show presented by firebrand Samantha (Tessa Thompson). She uses her platform to highlight uncomfortable truths about black-white relations in what is, we are told, a "post-racial" society. One character describes Sam as being what would happen if "Spike Lee and Oprah had a really pissed-off baby", and Simien's film certainly bears comparison with punchy, provocative energy of Lee's early work.

Simien's script is clearly the work of an intelligent mind that has a lot to say, and it's to his credit that Dear White People never collapses into an issue movie in which characters become mouthpieces hurling opinions at each other. Each of the principle figures we follow in Dear White People – including high achiever Troy (Brandon P Bell), reality TV wannabe Coco (Teyonah Parris) and gay outsider Lionel (Tyler James Williams) – find themselves in conflict about who they are and where they are going, and Simien manages to raise points without sacrificing forward momentum. One of the smartest details in the film is the relationship between the university dean (Dennis Haysbert) and the president (Peter Syvertsen), which reflects a power dynamic that they are handing down to their sons ("Racism is over in America" the president says, "the only people thinking about it are...Mexicans, probably"). Simien is a stronger writer than director, and some of his stylistic choices can come off as a little too cute, but he deserves a lot of credit for creating such a sharp, hilarious and pointed film that has the right ideas and the right questions at, crucially, the right time. At one point in Dear White People, the black characters bemoan the fact that their cinematic offerings consist solely of Tyler Perry movies. Simien's film will help fill that void, but there is a lot to appreciate and ponder here for white audiences too.

Hard to Be a God (Aleksey German)

Great films immerse us in the world they depict, although sometimes it's a place you don't necessarily want to be. Hard to Be a God is set on a planet that resembles medieval earth, and I have never seen a film that depicts life in a pre-Renaissance age with such tactile immediacy.  The closest antecedent I can think of for Hard to Be a God is Frantisek Vlácil's Marketa Lazarová, which I found similarly mesmerising despite its being so disorienting and hard to follow. There is a narrative here somewhere. A lump of expository voiceover at the start introduces us to Aleksey German's adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's science-fiction novel, but the storytelling is so murky, and German is so content to meander through endless scenes of miserable-looking people having oblique conversations, I pretty much gave up trying to grasp events less an hour into the film's 170 minutes. Instead, I simply tried to take in as much of this extraordinary spectacle as possible.

Hard to Be a God was a long-held passion project for German. He shot the film between 2000 and 2006 and was in post-production for the next seven years, right up to his death at the start of 2013 (his wife and son are credited with helping finish the film). It's easy to see how a man can spend almost a fifth of his life on a film like this. The production is a staggering achievement – a 360-degree universe caked in mud, water and blood, and every single scene is alive with background activity and incident. It's a world so fully realised we can almost smell it, although thank God we can't, given how much of the film is rife with spitting, shitting, rotting food and corpses (both human and animal – it's hard to be a dog), madness, innards being spilled and the constant squelching of the soft ground underfoot (the sound design is incredible). Shooting in black-and-white, German and his cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko roam freely through their setting, capturing remarkable images that are sometimes grisly and sometimes comic (I'm not sure which category the giant donkey cock close-up falls into), and the camera itself often seems to be a character in the drama, with the actors turning towards it and addressing us directly.  These actors don't seem to be performers at all, but people who have lived in this world and who have breathed the fetid air. Hard to Be a God is confounding and exhausting, but essential. It is a singular, visionary work, and while I'd like a second viewing to try and make more sense of it – perhaps after reading the novel – I don't think I'll be ready for it for some time. It's hard to believe this film exists, and watching it is an experience that's hard to shake.

El Niño (Daniel Monzón)

There are a couple of shots in El Niño that are so Michael Mann-ish, they only had the effect of making me wish that I was watching a Michael Mann film instead. Perhaps that's a little unfair on Daniel Monzón's drug-smuggling thriller, which is an entirely competent and mostly engaging piece of work, but a little bit of directorial flair and imaginative storytelling could have elevated this beyond the merely generic. There are a couple of sequences where the film does get the pulse racing, with two stand-offs between a helicopter and a speedboat being exhilaratingly well-staged and edited, but a later car chase is laughably lacking in tension and is hobbled by a musical score that sounds like it was ripped from a 1990s straight-to-video thriller. For the most part, Monzón seems a lot less sure-footed than he did behind the camera on the more claustrophobic Cell 211.

At least he has Cell 211's star to call upon again. Luis Tosar is one of the great screen presences in modern movies, with his brooding intensity – not to mention those magnificent eyebrows – instantly commanding the viewers' attention when he's on screen. He plays a cop obsessed with cracking a smuggling organisation that's operating out of the straits of Gibraltar, and the film cuts between his investigation of both the drug movements and his own colleagues (suspecting a mole) and the adventures of the smugglers, three young men in well over their heads. El Niño is a pretty slick piece of work and I didn't resent the time spent watching it, but it started to drift from my memory the minute the credits started to roll as I've just seen too many films that cover this territory in a more accomplished fashion. The one thing that did keep nagging at me afterwards was the cameo from Ian McShane, who plays a character known only as "The Englishman" and who is clearly a key figure in the criminal organisation Tosar is determined to smash. As I watched McShane saunter around dressed like The Man from Del Monte and Tosar closely tracked him, I eagerly anticipated the climactic face-off (or eyebrow-off) between these two actors – but no! We are denied that pleasure, and it appears that McShane's entire involvement in this production consisted of strolling around Gibraltar for a few days, cashing his cheque, and going home. Nice work if you can get it.

Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono)

It's probably safe to assume that Sion Sono will never make another film that I adore as much as Love Exposure, but I was happy to see him churning out his spectacular, bloody and often very funny films at such a consistent rate because they always offered some degree of entertainment. The guy is clearly a sensationally talented filmmaker, but Tokyo Tribe is an example of what can happen when everything goes wrong, when all of his worst excesses are indulged, and the resulting film felt much longer for me than the four-hour Love Exposure ever did. This is a hip-hop musical with a very large portion of the film consisting of characters rapping, but they all seem to do it to the same monotonous beat and the effect is like watching a Parappa the Rapper challenge being repeated ad nauseum for two hours. You've seen everything Tokyo Tribe has to offer within the first 15 minutes – in fact, the long tracking shot that opens it is the best in the film – and 90 minutes later the joke has worn very thin indeed.

I also found it pretty hard to sit through a film in which women are being threatened with rape or being stripped every few minutes. One of the first women we see on screen is a cop – dressed in a mini skirt and braless under a soaking wet shirt – who confronts a drug dealer and then finds her breasts being molested and teased with a knife for her trouble. Instead of showing fear, she begins moaning with pleasure, and this early scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie (that cop is never seen again). The whole film feels astonishingly puerile, with one principle female character having "the world's most pristine pussy" and a male character's prime motivation being penis envy, and at no point does Sono display a sense of wit or irony that allows him to pull off these attempts at humour. Tokyo Tribe is loud, chaotic, repetitive, juvenile and interminable, and while I said that Sono may never make another film that I adore as much as Love Exposure, I hope the inverse is true and that he never makes something that I hate watching as much as Tokyo Tribe.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The 2014 BFI London Film Festival - First Despatch

The 2014 BFI London Film Festival begins on Wednesday and I'll be providing regular updates from the festival throughout the next fortnight. Here's the first despatch, which includes a couple of the very best films in the programme.

'71 (Yann Demange)

With his blistering portrayal of a young offender in Starred Up, Jack O'Connell was one of the major discoveries at last year's London Film Festival, and his status as rising star is cemented by his performance in Yann Demange's remarkable thriller '71. He plays Private Gary Hook, a young British soldier sent to Belfast to help quell the unrest in the city, who finds himself stranded and on the run in enemy territory when his unit flees an angry mob and leaves him behind. The premise echoes Carol Reed's thriller Odd Man Out, but Demange – a TV director making an impressive film debut – has a much more visceral approach. He plunges us into the middle of this urban war zone and leaves us feeling as disoriented as the protagonist, who has to race through the backstreets dodging gunfire, and then must figure out how to navigate these unfamiliar surroundings to find his way back to the barracks, in a part of the city where everyone is a potential threat.

As a pure action movie, '71 is mostly executed to perfection. The film is a masterclass in tension-building and the recreation of 1970s Belfast as an urban warzone feels straikingly authentic (the sound design, particularly in the first half, is outstanding). The opening half-hour is astonishingly exciting, but the pace eventually slackens as screenwriter Gregory Burke expands his view beyond Hook's predicament to introduce secondary plots involving a great deal of double-dealing and shaky alliances between IRA generals and British special operatives. This element of the film is handled intelligently by Demange and the acting is strong across the board, but I couldn't help feeling that the increasingly convoluted nature of the plotting got in the way of '71's propulsive forward momentum. In fact, Demange's biggest weakness here is his tendency to stretch out the suspense in ways that feel increasingly artificial towards the end of the film, as the various players move into position. The film also opts for a couple of extraneous final scenes that extend the story beyond what feels like a perfect closing shot, and try to put a neat cap on a complicated situation. Still, the virtues '71 exhibits far outweigh its flaws, and as an exercise in dynamic action filmmaking there is little in recent British cinema to touch it.

10,000km (Carlos Marques-Marcet)

The title refers to the distance that develops between Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer), but when we first meet them they are enjoying a very intimate moment. After having sex, the two go through a familiar post-coital routine – washing, dressing, making breakfast and casually discussing their plans – and director Carlos Marques-Marcet simply observes them with his camera as the scene runs on in a single take that lasts for almost 20 minutes. There's a beautiful fluidity to the filmmaking in this sequence that is in stark contrast to the fragmented nature of the rest of the film. Towards the end of this opening scene, artist Alex receives an email offering her a year-long residency in Los Angeles, creating the first rupture in their relationship, and the rest of 10,000km explores the challenges these two characters face as they try to keep their relationship alive on separate continents.

The subsequent 70-odd minutes of 10,000km is divided into brief snapshots of Alex and Sergi's conversations over Skype, with title cards informing us of how many days have passed since their separation began. Our use of everyday technology is an increasing feature of contemporary films, but few directors have used it with such dramatic potency as Marques-Marcet does here. The initial enthusiasm the two characters try to maintain slowly slips into frustration, loneliness and disillusionment as the distance between them proves too difficult to bridge through a screen. Things this couple used to enjoy together suddenly become mired in awkwardness and confusion. Sergi trying to guide the hapless Alex through a dinner recipe is a highlight, as is an attempt at virtual sex on Skype, and one shot sees them lying in bed with their laptops on the pillow next to them, creating the illusion of togetherness. The pacing is perfectly judged and the performances from the only two actors we see on screen (both of whom are credited with contributing to the script) are charming, complex and emotionally true. Between them, Marques-Marcet, Tena and Verdaguer have created a remarkably intelligent and profound look at long-distance love in the modern age, and 10,000km resonates in a way that belies the minimal scale of its production.

Camp X-Ray (Peter Sattler)

As pleased as I am to see the brilliant Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi appearing in an American film, it's a shame that his route into such a picture is inevitably as a terrorist suspect in Guantanamo Bay. Nevetherless, his performance is by far the best thing about Camp X-Ray, a film that begins with a sense of purpose but then rapidly retreats from any sense of complexity or ambiguity. Kristen Stewart spends a lot of time staring at the floor and biting her lip in the role of Amy Cole, a young soldier sent to Gitmo who finds herself drawn to 'Detainee 471' or Ali (Moaadi) as she soon comes to know him. Any interaction between guard and detainee that doesn't conform to the Standard Operating Procedure is strictly forbidden, but Cole can't help responding to Ali's persuasive charm and obvious intelligence and a tentative bond is formed. Early scenes recall The Silence of the Lambs – even down to an unpleasant substance being thrown in the female lead's direction – with Cole being warned not to "let them get inside your head" and later telling Ali to "cut the Hannibal Lecter shit". We may initially wonder if Ali truly is a good guy or if he is simply a skilled manipulator, but that question falls by the wayside as first-time writer/director Peter Sattler soft-pedals the issues his story raises.

There are a few things to appreciate in Camp X-Ray. Some details jump out – such as the redacting of female pictures in the detainees' papers, or the use of "Alfred Hitchcock" as slang for the prison psychologist – but too much of the film is painted in broad, simplistic strokes. "It's not as black-and-white as they said it was" Cole muses at one point, but that's as much of a statement as the film seems willing to make. Sattler touches on the sexual harassment that Cole faces as one of the few women on the base but then goes no further with it, and returns to his central relationship which eventually strays into ridiculous territory (all Ali really wants is to read the final Harry Potter book!). The few potent moments that Sattler and his actors do manage to conjure have little impact in a film that's badly stretched at almost two hours, and the ending is frankly an insult. 

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)

The opening credits of Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy (complete with notices for "Dress & Lingerie" and "Perfume by...") seem to promise a pastiche of 1970s European erotic pictures such as those made by Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk or Tinto Brass. That notion stays with us when the film's premise is revealed – it concerns two women who are engaged in a series of sadomasochistic sexual fantasies behind the closed doors of an opulent house. But there is so much more to The Duke of Burgundy than this description implies, and while I was impressed by much of what this director accomplished in Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, nothing in his work to date prepared me for impact of The Duke of Burgundy. When we first meet Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), she is the submissive maid for Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), but as we watch them go through with their repetitive rituals we gradually gain a greater understanding of the power dynamic in their relationship and how each woman actually views it.

In The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland creates a whole society of women (there's not a single male in the picture) that appears to be built around lepidoptery and sexual fetishes, and he uses this strange milieu to make one of the most perceptive examinations of a stagnating long-term relationship that I've seen on screen. Evelyn's insistence on being a submissive partner in the relationship is taking its toll on Cynthia, the older woman, who feels as trapped as one of the many pinned butterflies exhibited throughout the film and who yearns for a simpler life without painful corsets or lines to be memorised. As was the case with his Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy is gorgeously designed, with Strickland's production team and cinematographer Nicholas Knowland creating a rich, intoxicating, dreamlike atmosphere, but here it is weighted by a genuine emotional connection with the characters and by a playful sense of humour that teases out the absurdity of the situation without mocking it. The two lead actresses are perfectly attuned to each other and they keep the film grounded when Strickland's more outlandish ideas fail to take off, as they occasionally do, but even the dream sequences that fail to lead anywhere have a dazzling sensory impact. This is an extraordinary work; a sexy, absorbing, surprising and moving film that lingers in the memory, and marks a huge advancement for this talented, idiosyncratic director.

Queen and Country (John Boorman)

For what may well turn out to be his last film, John Boorman has returned to his own past. Queen and Country is a sequel to the director's unexpected 1987 hit Hope and Glory, his account of life as a child in London as the Blitz raged. Now that child has become a man, and Queen and Country re-introduces us to Bill (Callum Turner) just as the 18 year-old is about to start his National Service. Boorman's film unfolds as a loose collection of anecdotal scenes, but a couple of narrative threads emerge – notably Bill's infatuation with a mysterious and troubled blonde (Tamsin Egerton) and, more unusually, the theft of a clock belonging to their Sergeant Major (Brían F. O'Byrne). All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Korean War, which prompts a vivid nightmare for Bill at one point, and a sense of tonal consistency is certainly not one of the film's strong points as it flips from romance to drama to knockabout comedy.

That unevenness extends to the cast, all of whom seem to be attacking the material from a different angle. Figures of authority are played in a broad and stereotypical manner by actors like O'Byrne, Richard E. Grant and David Thewlis (who, startlingly, appears to be morphing into Brian Glover), while Caleb Landry Jones – as Bill's best friend – gives one of the most inexplicably mannered and misguided performances I've seen a film in years. Having said all of that, there is a great deal to like about Queen and Country. It's an extremely funny picture, with a number of very well played comic set-pieces and a scene-stealing turn from Pat Shortt as a man who has mastered the art of skiving, and there's the unmistakable ring of autobiographical truth about many of the vignettes Boorman includes – such as setting up a TV for the Queen's coronation, or the circumstances surrounding Bill's first cigarette. Boorman's direction is elegant and unfussy, and the whole film has an old-fashioned charm that I found pretty hard to resist (were it not for the swearing and nudity, it seems perfect for a Sunday afternoon TV slot). There are also a number of film references for cinephiles to enjoy – including a pointed discussion of Rashomon – and if this is to be Boorman's last feature, then he finds the perfect final shot to end his career on.