Monday, October 19, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Distinctive Voices

Even if you didn’t know that Steve Jobs has been scripted by Aaron Sorkin, it wouldn’t take you long to figure it out. Danny Boyle’s film features a number of hyper-articulate and intelligent characters trading zingers and cultural (both classical and pop) references as they race against various looming deadlines, with characters usually walking as they talk. The film could also be seen as a loose sequel to The Social Network, the film David Fincher directed from Sorkin’s screenplay in 2010, as it focuses on the other genius asshole whose innovations have changed the way we live today. The difference is that The Social Network felt like a David Fincher film, with the director maintaining a firm sense of control on the material, while Steve Jobs feels like a much more explicitly written film. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place on the stage, with the drama unfolding in a very theatrical three-act structure that takes us behind the scenes of three product launches presented by its subject.

It’s a refreshingly non-traditional approach to a film biopic, and the first third of the film is exhilarating. The rat-a-tat verbosity is at fever pitch as Jobs and his team attempt to iron out flaws ahead of the public launch of the Macintosh in 1984, with his engineer Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg) being on the receiving end of his anger when the machine refuses to say "Hello" on command. Fassbender's charismatic, shark-like performance as Jobs details his obsession with dominating every aspect of his environment, from making a last-minute demand of his long-suffering assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet) to conjure a white shirt with a breast pocket to insisting that the Exit lights all be switched off to facilitate a blackout ahead of the product reveal. It's dizzying stuff, tightly scripted and perfectly played, and only a few lulls in momentum occur: Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) begs Jobs to give his team the credit they deserve, John Scully (Jeff Daniels) turns up to discuss Steve's adopted parents, and Steve's daughter - whom he refuses to recognise as his own - is present as a constant reminder of his personal failings.

All of this is fine, but when Wozniak, Scully and young Lisa return in the subsequent two chapters - set in the countdown to the 1988 NeXT Cube (the what?) and the 1998 iMac launch events - to do and say the exactly the same things, the contrivances of Sorkin's structure start to look a bit rickety, and attempts at psychoanalysis begin to grate by the time Winslet's Joanna tearfully calls Jobs out on his poor parenting. Steve Jobs is so much more engaging, imaginative and alive when it is simply focusing on the products and the business that went into developing and promoting them, and I'd argue that those portions of the film paint a more revealing portrait of the man than any of Sorkin's attempts to make Daddy Issues the real story here. Sorkin drops the ball badly in the climactic stretch of the film, which labours in an ungainly fashion to give the drama a pat redemptive ending.

Still, there are frequent flashes of greatness within the film. Boyle doesn't have Fincher's mastery but he's a whizz at developing and sustaining momentum, and he orchestrates a number of dialogue-heavy sequences brilliantly here. It's also a hard to pick a weak link among the cast, all of whom relish the opportunity to deliver Sorkin's sharp dialogue. The film offers so many pleasures and such grandstanding entertainment, the more poorly judged moments stand out even more starkly, and on the whole Steve Jobs encapsulates Sorkin at both his best and his worst. By the time it's over I was left wondering if I'd been sold anything more than a empty box that doesn't serve any real purpose. Maybe, but it is a really nice-looking box.
Anomalisa is another film in which the voice of the filmmaker is immediately apparent. Charlie Kaufman has been away from cinema for seven years and Anomalisa finds him working in the medium of stop-motion animation for the first time, but this is still unmistakably a Kaufman film, as he again explores the neuroses of an insecure and miserable character whose experience takes on surreal qualities even as it remains rooted in everyday mundanities. Anomalisa begins on a plane descending towards Cincinnati, which is where Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) – a customer service guru – is going to give a speech on the importance of treating every customer as an individual. The joke here is that Michael can't see individuals, and everybody he comes into contact with – man, woman or child – bears the same facial features and speaks in the same voice (Tom Noonan). Kaufman's development of the idea that Michael's complete lack of empathy has turned the world around him into an amorphous mass is inspired and brilliantly realised, but a glimmer of hope appears in the guise of Lisa, a fan who has come to Cincinnati to attend his conference and miraculously speaks with the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Michael clings to Lisa like a drowning man clinging to a raft and there is a powerful sense of unresolved pain in their interactions, with Lisa suffering from unexplained scarring on her face and admitting that her last sexual encounter was eight years ago. The stop-motion sex in Anomalisa is certainly a lot more intimate and touching than it was in Team America: World Police, and the animation work in general, created by co-director Duke Johnson and his team, is attentive to the hesitant gestures and awkwardness of lonely middle-aged people reaching out for each other. After they go to bed together, Anomalisa begins its most inspired sequence, but that also proves to be the high point of the whole film, which subsequently starts to narrow towards an ending that I anticipated in advance – how often can you say that about a Charlie Kaufman script?

Anomalisa started life as a staged radio play for Carter Burwell's Theatre of the New Ear, and it sometimes feels a little stretched at feature length, without the gravity of Kaufman's Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Synecdoche, New York. He remains a unique and invaluable voice, however, and the film is full of cherishable details – the way the hotel clerk maintains eye contact while typing, the constant chatter of the cab driver, Michael's ill-advised visit to a 'toy store'. In a year with a variety of extraordinary animation films, it's also another reminder of how rich, ambitious and adult animated films can be, and how they can be a showcase for outstanding acting. The performance David Thewlis gives here is probably his best since Naked, Jennifer Jason Leigh's vocal work is deeply affecting, while Tom Noonan's delivery as 'Everyone Else' is amusing, unsettling and perfect. It is good to have Charlie Kaufman back, even if it is only a slight return.
Athina Rachel Tsangari may not be as recognisable a name yet as Sorkin or Kaufman, but she has already established a distinctive filmmaking identity. In her feature debut Attenberg and her short The Capsule, she revealed a fascination with games, rituals, group psychology and the movement of female bodies, but in Chevalier she shifts that gaze towards men – and the gaze is withering. A group of six men are on a boating holiday together and, bored one evening, some games are suggested. Instantly, the ultra-competitiveness of the men begins to be glimpsed, as they start to argue over the most trivial points of order. A kind of ultimate game is proposed, to decide who is “the best in general” and should therefore get to wear the Chevalier ring. They each agree to award or subtract points from each other based on everything: the way they look, how physically fit they are, the way they dress, sleep, eat; the ring tone on their phones.

The stakes and the challenges quickly escalate, encompassing an erection-measuring competition that puts enormous pressure on a couple of the men in particular, to a race to build some (very phallic) IKEA bookshelves as quickly as possible. The characters all strive to affect a carefree attitude towards this competition but their hunger for victory and their deep-rooted insecurity of being somehow seen as a 'lesser' man is increasingly evident. Chevalier is essentially Fragile Masculinity: The Movie and Tsangari's detached observation of this behaviour highlights the absurdity of their posturing, with the film undoubtedly proving to be the most frequently hilarious entry in the festival. Her actors are tremendous, particularly Efthymis Papadimitriou as the most apparently vulnerable member of the group who is in attendance with his older brother and really wants nothing more than to collect pebbles and sing karaoke.

Chevalier escalates up to a point but the ending of the film is played in a quiet register, without any sense of an epiphany or satisfying conclusion to be drawn from all of these ridiculous games. Perhaps that's the point; are any of these men likely to have a moment of introspection, and to question their competitive natures or their burning need to prove their masculinity and to maintain status as the Alpha in the pack? Probably not.
Finally, any random five minutes of Cemetery of Splendour would surely be enough to reveal that it is a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His films look and sound like nothing else, and for me at least, they feel like nothing else too. Watching Cemetery of Splendour almost felt like having an out-of-body experience, as the stillness and the steady rhythms of Joe's filmmaking calmed my body and transported my soul. It's hard to describe in words just what the experience of watching this film is like, but I should say it's also beautifully crafted, very involving and funny, and movingly performed by the director's regular actress Jenjira Pongpas. She plays a Jen, a nurse tending to soldiers afflicted by some kind of sleeping sickness, who forms a particularly close bond with one of them, played by Banlop Lomnoi. We are told that this makeshift hospital is built upon the site of a graveyard, allowing the dead to draw upon the spirits of these sleeping soldiers and make them fight battles in the afterlife.

As usual with Apichatpong's films, such announcements are delivered straight and taken at face value. We are invited to believe, just as Jen does when her psychic colleague,while inhabited by another spirit, takes her through the forest to describe the glorious palace that once stood on this site, when two women appear to her and calmly explain that they are long-dead princesses come back to life.  Apichatpong's films create a sense of the magic in the everyday and through the most simple means he can create a genuine sense of enchantment and wonder. Some sequences in Cemetery of Splendour reminded me of previous Apichatpong films – notably Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady – but every one of his films also offers a unique experience, and the use of colour therapy in treating the sleeping soldiers almost lulls the audience into a state of somnambulance.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has suggested that Cemetery of Splendour will be the last film that he makes in Thailand, at least for the foreseeable future. His films have frequently been denied a release in his home country and he has spoken out about his frustration at Thai artists having to self-censor their work, so it looks like he will be bringing his unique perspective to South America or elsewhere. I hope this doesn't mean it's the last we'll see of  Jenjira Pongpas, whose performance here is her best and most emotionally wrenching yet, with the leg injury that has left her with a lopsided gait taking centre stage in one of the film's many unforgettable sequences. If this is to be the last film this director makes at home, and this is to be our last sighting of his favourite actress, then they have said goodbye with a masterpiece.