Monday, October 12, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Cheap Thrills

Deepa Mehta came to prominence in the 1990s with her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water; three films that explored taboo issues and challenged complex traditions in Indian culture. The director seems to think that she is making the same kind of penetrative commentary with her new film Beeba Boys, which closes with an onscreen graphic that states: “We did not make this maelstrom up. There have been 173 gang-related deaths in British Columbia in the past 10 years.” This line might have carried a little more weight if what we had watched for the preceding 90 minutes hadn’t been such a ludicrously unconvincing, incompetently staged and dismally acted cartoon. The Beeba Boys of the title are a gang of Indian Sikhs in Vancouver led by the reputedly fearsome Jeet Johar (Randeep Hooda), who we first meet as he gets his chest waxed and boasts about his crimes live on TV. He and his flamboyantly dressed boys are engaged in a turf war with a rival gang led by kingpin Grewal (Gulshan Grover). All of the gangster movie clichés are here – an undercover cop with divided loyalties; a mobster struggling to balance work and family life; gang members with colourful nicknames; money, drugs, guns and girls – but all of it is botched in the execution.

Beeba Boys opens with a cold-blooded murder but even as people are frequently despatched there’s never a sense that any of this matters. The characters strut around in their sharp suits and talk tough but only the recognisable Waris Ahluwalia and a bizarrely coiffed Paul Gross make any impression at all, with the quality of acting among the large cast being one of the film’s biggest problems (Ali Momen struggles most notably in the pivotal role of Nep). Mehta’s direction is brash and energised but consistently clumsy. In a courtroom scene she swings the camera from one side of the room to the other for no apparent reason other than to try and spice the scene up visually, but it only serves to distract, and the loud score also feels oppressive more often than it serves the action. I just have no idea what story Mehta is trying to tell here, she veers wildly from one plot point to another without ever digging into any of them, and I don’t know what tone she’s trying to establish either; the film almost feels like some kind of Goodness Gracious Me-style spoof, but then any attempts to make us grieve for murdered characters fall embarrassingly flat. Any hopes that Mehta might allow her female characters to have a bit more depth than the average gangster film are also doomed  Sarah Allen is excruciating as Jeet's girlfriend, who seems to be transformed into a drug addict after one line of coke – while the cultural specificity that might have been a fresh angle on the genre amounts to nothing (and is bizarrely blended with frequent references to Transformers). In a recent interview, Deepa Mehta described Beeba Boys as "ultra-tragic". I guess we can agree on that, at least.
Most of the time, Beeba Boys just reminds us of the films that it is trying and failing to emulate – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Casino, etc. – and it was probably a mistake to give the film a name that can be loosely translated as “Good Fellas”. Of course, a genre film always runs the risk of bringing to mind previous and superior films and suffering in comparison, but all a film can do is tell its own story while embracing and having a little fun with its influences. The Ones Below opens with the sonogram image of a baby while an unsettling distorted lullaby theme plays on the soundtrack, and we immediately suspect that we are in for a Rosemary’s Baby-style horror, but that’s not what we get. The Polanski comparison is appropriate, though, as the film plays out almost entirely within the confines of a London flat and focuses on a woman’s fragile sanity. Kate and Justin (Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore) are a young couple expecting a baby who discover that their new neighbours in the downstairs flat are in the same situation. They become friends with Jon and Theresa (David Morrissey and Laura Birn), even though something about them seems a When an unkind twist of fate destroys their new friendship, Kate soon becomes convinced that the couple downstairs poses a threat to her and her new baby.

As well as the Polanski vibes, The Ones Below recalls daft-but-fun '90s domestic thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and there's more than a hint of Gaslight in the suggestion that all of the things making Kate suspicious of her neighbours may the product of her frazzled mind. Writer-director David Farr touches on notions of maternal instinct and the pressures that a new mother faces as well as the jealousy that pregnancy can inspire in others, but the film doesn't do a lot with these ideas and it works best as a straightforward thriller. Farr's filmmaking is unambitious but satisfyingly lean and unfussy, and he orchestrates a couple of tense moments as well as being smart enough to acknowledge some of the film's more credulity-stretching moments with a humorous touch (one picture-swapping bit here had me unexpectedly in stitches). The film works fine as a solid thriller, but what really elevates it and lends it vital nuance and depth is the quality of the two female performances. The imaginatively cast Poesy gives a superbly understated portrayal of a woman gradually cracking under the strain while Laura Birn's revelatory work hints at levels of cunning and malevolence behind an open, innocent demeanour. There's real heat in the interactions between these two, which occasionally gives this entertaining 90 minutes a welcome edge.
Single-location thrillers have an inbuilt sense of tension, particularly when you're trapped with a bunch of people that you have absolutely no desire to be with. The Invitation begins with characters arriving at a secluded house high in the Hollywood hills for a reunion that is fraught with anxiety for a couple of them in particular. It will be the first time that Will (Logan Marshall-Green) will have seen his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) in two years, the pair having separated after the death of their son, a grief that Will is still struggling to cope with. Things feel suspect for Will from the start, but the alarm bells really start to go off when Eden and her new man David (Michiel Huisman) begin telling their guests all about The Invitation; a healing process that has helped them turn their lives around, but which looks and sounds suspiciously like a cult to everyone else – is this dinner a cover for some kind of induction? Things go downhill rapidly when David’s mysterious pal Pruitt (a supremely creepy John Carroll Lynch) shows up and at this point most of the audience will find themselves sharing Will’s belief that, like most dinner parties, there’s no way this night can end well.

Even if the denouement may feel inevitable, the most refreshing thing about The Invitation is the patience that the filmmakers show in taking us there. The screenplay by co-authors Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi contains plenty of red herrings, which are deployed in a timely fashion to continually upend our expectations of how the film is going to develop, and I appreciated how long we spent just experiencing the awkward silences, the strain and the weirdness of the party, with the sense of discomfort building with every passing minute. It has been a long time since I saw a film that was so efficient and skilful in the way it gradually bumped up the tension and sneakily exerted its grip over the audience, and Karyn Kusama’s direction never allows that process to stall. There are some terrific heart-stopping and sweat-inducing scenes dotted throughout, and when things eventually do go haywire, Kusama proves to be just as adept at handling the bloodshed in a clever and gripping way. From the unsettling prologue to the clever punchline, this is a stunningly effective exercise in thriller filmmaking.
While The Invitation had me in its grip from start to finish, I can pinpoint the exact moment when Thierry Poiraud's dismal horror Don't Grow Up started to lose me. It happens early in the film, as a group of six teenagers explore a seemingly abandoned town, and one of them discovers a little girl in the arms of her bloodied mother. Just as he beckons the girl to come to him, she mutters “The grown-ups...they're all bad” before the mother awakens and snaps the girl's neck. Frankly, if you're going start to killing children like that in a movie then you need to justify it more than Don't Grow Up ever comes close to doing. This is an appallingly half-assed piece of shit that runs for a shade over 80 minutes but still feels padded with an awful lot of extraneous material. The idea is that all of the grown-ups on this particular island have been infected by some kind of virus that turns them into bloodthirsty zombies, but we never learn (a) what caused this (b) why it only affects adults and (c) why a couple of our non-adult leads arbitrarily start to turn during the course of the film. Without such rules in place the whole film feels as if it is being made up by the filmmakers as they go along, and it's impossible to care about any of the teens getting gruesomely murdered as only one of them is given any kind of character development, in the form of hackneyed flashbacks to a traumatic childhood. The quality of the acting is largely very poor, it's full of dumb and predictable plotting, and the whole thing feels significantly longer than it is. I see plenty of bad films in the London Film Festival, but it's not often I see something that would feel like a rip-off it was released straight to DVD.