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.