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.