Tuesday, October 13, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Acting Their Age

Benjamin August's screenplay for Remember must have seemed tailor-made for Atom Egoyan. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by characters who face a reckoning with the past, and has continually returned to the themes of obsession, memory and the search for truth. Egoyan's standing has fallen somewhat over the past two decades, however, and while it's tantalising to imagine the filmmaker telling this story when he was on peak form and constructing his complex narrative structures with elegance and precision, those qualities have largely deserted him in recent times. Remember is stodgy in its direction and visually flat, with Paul Sarossy's harsh and overly bright lighting making the whole thing look very cheap, but it's a film that still exerted an unexpected pull on my attention.

A strong lead performance from Christopher Plummer certainly helps in that regard. He plays Zev, an ageing nursing home resident suffering from dementia whose wife recently passed away. Remember follows Zev on an unlikely mission of revenge, as he sets off across the United States and Canada to find the SS officer responsible for killing both his family and those belonging to Max (Martin Landau), the wheelchair-bound friend who has planned Zev's mission. As incongruous as Zev appears in his avenging angel guise – he has to re-read Max's detailed instructions every day to remember the purpose of his journey – Plummer invests the character with a dignity that makes him an utterly compelling protagonist. While the film's pacing is uneven, the individual encounters that Zev has with each 'Rudy Kurlander' (the assumed name his Nazi is living under) has a haunting power, with Egoyan still proving to be adept at teasing out the conflicting emotions that strike when the past pours into the present.

The most gripping scene in the film actually occurs between Zev and a younger Kurlander, with Dean Norris making a disturbing impression as the son of a target who recently passed away. This whole unbearably tense and creepy sequence is masterfully handled and played, and while nothing else in the film can quite match up to it, Remember does possess a very strong and surprising closing scene. In these moments we can see flashes of the younger Egoyan, a director who is only 55 years old and still hopefully has plenty of time to rediscover the keen insight and distinctive touch that made his films in the 1980s and '90s such transfixing and provocative experiences. Until then, enjoyably off-kilter potboilers like this will have to do.
If one geriatric killer isn't enough for you, how about eight of them? The latest film from Takeshi Kitano presents us with a gang of ageing yakuza, reunited and ready to teach today's hoodlums how the streets should be run. The main tension here exists between the old-school code of ethics that the yakuza lives by and the more unscrupulous younger generation of crooks, who think nothing of running scams and extortion schemes aimed at swindling pensioners out of their money – but essentially the premise is nothing more than an excuse for a series of very silly gags. Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen is often very funny, particularly at the start of the film when each gangster is introduced with a reference to their fearsome past before we see them in their current state. Ichizo (Ben Hiura), for example, was once notorious for the damage he could do with the sword concealed in his walking stick, but he now uses that stick to pick up cigarette butts.

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen's narrative is too flimsy to sustain its running time and the momentum stalls badly about halfway through, but it has enough flashes of humour and invention to keep the picture alive. There are a couple of very good jokes involving Ryuzo's (Tatsuya Fuji) missing fingers, a daft cross-dressing scene, and a Weekend at Bernie's-style climactic battle that significantly ups the tempo after the mid-film sag. On the whole the film is extremely broad and puerile and far from Takeshi Kitano's most accomplished work, but it delivers pretty much what its director set out to do. The only slight disappointment is that Takeshi himself doesn't make more of an impression. He has a supporting role as a policeman and he does get to punch somebody in the face, but I was expecting a bit more than that from one of cinema's unique screen presences. Maybe he's just getting too old for this shit.
Jerzy Skolimowski is 77 years old but 11 Minutes is the kind of film that usually has critics marvelling that it 'feels like a young man's film'. That's not to say it's any good, unfortunately. For all of its dynamic camerawork and frenetic cutting, the film is a baffling and stupendously dull high-concept thriller in which multiple characters from across Warsaw are brought together in the specific time frame indicated by the title. The film itself runs for 80 minutes, and Skolimowski spends that duration repeatedly cutting back in time to replay scenes from different perspectives, as every character gradually inches towards a climax that will presumably involve them all. Hints are dropped throughout that there is some kind of grand plan at work here, some sort of divine will that is drawing these characters together, but all of these indicators are apparently red herrings, or simply threads left dangling by a catastrophically inept screenplay.

This might not matter so much if the characters in question were worth spending time with but they barely exist as anything more than pawns in Skolimowski's confounding game. An aspiring actress finds herself locked in a hotel room with a sleazy producer (a terrible Richard Dormer), resulting in the world's slowest and most badly acted seduction, while her husband angrily paces around outside. A couple watches porn together until a bird flies through their window (an incident Skolimowski deems worthy of multiple depictions), and a motorbike courier delivers drugs to some mysterious figures. Elsewhere, a girl walks her dog – which results in a series of pointless dog POV shots – and buys a hotdog from a vendor who we understand to be a paedophile. This revelation made me think that we were watching characters who were going to be punished for their past sins, but no, the paedophile aspect of the story is dumped as summarily as everything else. It's hard to know how Skolimowski could produce a film that is so nihilistic, incomprehensible and amateurish – his last feature Essential Killing wasn't perfect, but it had a sense of purpose and integrity that is entirely absent here. The last five minutes of the film are astonishing, and not in a good way, as any hopes we might have of a conclusion that makes sense of it all go (literally) out of the window. A young man's film? Perhaps that's true, but I never imagined Skolimowski would produce something so juvenile.