Thursday, October 26, 2017

Interview with Thelma director Joachim Trier and star Eili Harboe

It’s the penultimate day of the London Film Festival and everyone is tired. Cinephiles across the capital have the drawn expressions and thousand-yard stares that come from spending weeks devouring dozens of movies, while Joachim Trier is in the middle of an extensive festival tour, having presented his new film in Toronto and New York before arriving in London. Fortunately, Thelma is the kind of shot-in-the-arm movie that we all need at the end of a long festival.

A gripping psychological horror focused on a troubled teenage girl, Thelma owes more of a debt to directors like De Palma, Polanski and Hitchcock than you might expect from a filmmaker whose previous work was notable for its quiet introspection. Reprise; Oslo, August 31st and Louder than Bombs displayed Trier’s facility for layering sound and image to create an impressionistic, subjective experience, allowing us to explore his characters’ inner lives, so the outlandish visual spectacle of Thelma, which involved over 200 CGI shots, initially seems like quite a departure.

“I am primarily interested in the interior of the character, and mental images,” Trier tells us, before suggesting that Thelma might not be as different as it seems. “There is still that curiosity about making an intimate film, but in this case it’s an intimate horror film, so I will have the dynamic of the bigger pictures and a cinematic view on the character that goes beyond what they know, which is quite rare for me. Usually I'm very eye-to-eye, but here I'm between the claustrophobic view and a more paranoid gaze on the character.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Skinny's Best Films of the 2017 London Film Festival

I contributed capsules for Princess Cyd and 24 Frames in The Skinny's round up of the best films at this year's London Film Festival.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

LFF 2017 - Breathe, Stronger, Song of Granite & Redoubtable

In the almost three years since I saw The Theory of Everything, I've thought about it precisely twice. The first occasion was when Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar (Yes, that really did happen!), and the second time was last week, when I sat through a screening of Breathe. In fact, the cunning critic could easily dust off an old review, change a few names and details, and present it as a fair examination of this thoroughly predictable and anodyne effort from first-time director Andy Serkis. Breathe tells the story of Robin Cavendish, who contracted polio at the age of 28 and was subsequently paralysed from the neck down. Expected to live for no more than three months, Cavendish eventually died at the age of 64, having revolutionised widely held beliefs of how the severely disabled could live. An inspiring story, sure, but as a movie this thing is dramatically dead. William Nicholson's screenplay possesses no depth or complexity; it simply plods through the events of Cavendish's life as they happened, with any setbacks and complications being swiftly overcome with a stiff upper lip and a smile. Serkis initially seems comfortable with the swoony romantic style of the film's opening section, as Robin (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) and sweeps her off her feet, but he can't do anything with the inert drama that follows, or with characters who have no inner life. Foy is given a single note to play as the caring, unfussy wife – her own pain is never explored – while Garfield just keeps waggling his eyebrows and pulling faces to try and convey some kind of emotion. It's the first truly bad performance I've seen from this actor. What is the purpose of a film like this? There is no imagination in Breathe, no attempt to illuminate something greater or wrestle with the material's complications. It is just easy, safe, saccharine bullshit, and it deserves to be swiftly forgotten.
The one thing Breathe did achieve was to make me think rather more fondly of Stronger, which I had seen a few days earlier. This is another film about a man learning to live with his disability, another film built around a love story, another film dedicated to emotional uplift, but this one has a sense of authenticity and two lead actors capable of adding shades to the characters and their relationship. The protagonist here is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had both of his legs amputated below the knee after being caught up in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. He was waiting at the finish line to greet Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), his on-off girlfriend, who was nearing the end of the race when the explosion occurred. Rather than devoted lovers resolved to fight adversity together, these are two characters with a difficult past who find themselves thrown together by circumstances, and both Gyllenhaal and the particularly excellent Maslany give us a sense of their frustration, exhaustion and fear rather than resting on the characters' noble perseverance. Stronger is at its best when it focuses on this relationship and blocks out the surrounding noise, which largely consists of a lot of shouting, with the Bauman clan coming across as crude Boston stereotypes, permanently drinking, joking, yelling and fighting; Miranda Richardson's performance as Jeff's permanently soused mother is particularly embarrassing. As a piece of filmmaking, Stronger is fine. It was directed by the wayward David Gordon Green, who finds some striking angles on the drama and is aided by Sean Bobbitt's textured, atmospheric cinematography, but the film can't escape the confines of its prescribed narrative. While it admirably avoids sentimentality for many of its key scenes, Stronger gradually gives in to the inevitable, and its disappointing that the ending of the film also coming packaged with an uncomfortable streak of nationalism – the importance placed on flag-waving at sporting events sitting awkwardly after recent images in the US.
So how do you explore a man's life through cinema? Perhaps the trick is to simply use that man as a conduit to dig into something deeper and more expansive. Pat Collins' Song of Granite is ostensibly a film about Joe Heaney, the legendary Irish sean-nós singer who achieved fame in New York in the 1950s, and was said to have a repertoire of over 500 songs stored in his head. But what do we learn about Heaney from this film? We get a sense of the overall arc of his life through the three-act structure that depicts him at three ages of his life, but at the end of the film Heaney remains something of an enigma. Instead, Collins explores the society he grew up in, the changing times he lived through, and the nature of Irish song itself. This angle shouldn't be a surprise, as Collins' previous work has always been deeply concerned with questions of landscape, culture and history, and his previous feature – the excellent Silence – took a similarly unconventional, semi-fictional approach to its subject. What really took me aback with Song of Granite was the level of Collins' craft, which feels like a huge step forward from his previous work. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Richard Kendrick, the first third of the film consists of handsomely composed shots and unfolds at a steady rhythm, allowing us to adjust to the pace of life in 1930s Connemara. The middle section follows Heaney as he leaves Ireland to seek work in the UK and then achieves success in the US, with the handheld camerawork and more fragmented editing reflects his more rootless existence. The final segment of the film takes on a more haunted, contemplative quality, as the elderly Healey, settled into his life as an anonymous doorman in New York, reflects on the path he has travelled and the life he has lived. Song of Granite is not an easy film for audiences to connect with, as it offers little context or assistance for anyone unfamiliar with Healey or this milieu, but patient viewers willing to engage with the images and sound will find it richly rewarding. This is particularly true of the songs. Mostly performed in Gaelic, they are included in the film with no subtitles, forcing us to listen to their innate musicality, their life, their emotion. Song of Granite certainly isn't a standard film biopic. It gives us so much more than that.
Why make a film about Jean-Luc Godard? He has put so much of himself – his ideas, his passions, his politics, his lovers – into the films he has made over the past six decades, so I found it hard to see the point of a film like Redoubtable when I first heard about the project last year. Having now seen the film, I still have no idea why it exists. Michel Hazanavicius has adapted it from Un an après, the roman à clef written by Anne Wiazemsky about her relationship with Godard in the late 1960s, but he has cast Stacey Martin in the lead female role and he styles her to look more like Anna Karina or Chantal Goya than Wiazemsky throughout. Godard is played by Louis Garrel, who overdoes the lisp and plays the director as a bumbling, needy dope who can't go five minutes without having his glasses stepped on – this is genuinely a running gag. The film is set in 1967 and '68, as Godard made La Chinoise, became increasingly drawn towards political struggle, and gave up on conventional cinema techniques to begin a new phase of his career working with the Dziga Vertov group. (There is no mention of his fin de cinéma Weekend.) Hazanavicius has nothing of interest to say about Godard's art (people keep asking him why he doesn't make the early, funny ones anymore), but as a director most comfortable in pastiche mode he makes lazy references throughout. Domestic scenes are shot like Le mépris, a sex scene is filmed in the style of Une femme mariée, we see Wiazemsky crying in front of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but everything is shallow and trite. Redoubtable is a one-joke sketch stretched to feature length, with its most intriguing scene taking place right at the end, on the set of Le Vent d'est, but that scene just made me wish the whole film had been about the Dziga Vertov Group instead of wasting two hours on Godard being an asshole and Wiazemsky being a doormat. Godard himself reportedly dismissed this film as a “stupid, stupid idea.” He's not wrong.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

LFF 2017 - Good Time, Racer and the Jailbird, Spoor & 1%

Although it opens with a smooth helicopter shot zooming in towards New York skyscrapers, Good Time is another film by the Safdie brothers that takes us on a tour of the city at street level, moving with the same anxious energy as its protagonist. Robert Pattinson already showed a willingness to disappear into a role in James Gray's The Lost City of Z earlier this year, and he does something similar here, giving a performance that's rich in observed details – the look, the voice, the movements all feel right – but one that's also built on a leading man magnetism that's crucial for getting us to empathise with this selfish anti-hero. Pattinson's Connie is the kind of character who lives by his wits; brilliant at thinking on his feet, but with no concept of how each decision will impact on himself and others. His actions have already landed his brother (co-director Benny Safdie, superb) in jail and now he needs to raise $10,000 in one night to bail him out, which is the jumping-off point for an anxiety-inducing nocturnal odyssey that keeps escalating and twisting in absurd ways. The Safdies' control of tone is sensational. Their film has an electric energy but they can shift moods fluidly; consider, for example, the slow-burning tension of the interlude in which Connie forms a bond with a 16 year-old girl (Taliah Webster), a scene that suddenly explodes into frantic comedy with a case of mistaken identity. They can also take us down unexpected sidetracks without losing the film's propulsive drive – the yarn told by Buddy Duress, as he recounts his first day out of jail, is a mini-masterpiece nested neatly inside the drama. Good Time's intoxicating effect is accentuated by the urgent score and by Sean Price Williams' gorgeously textured, neon-soaked 35mm cinematography. It's one of the most invigorating and surprising films you'll see this year, but at its core it retains a crucial emotional weight, as Connie leaves a number of altered and destroyed lives in his wake; a toll that he appears to be finally reckoning with in the film's haunting final scenes.
Sudden changes of tone are tricky things to pull off. Done well, they can have an exhilarating impact, but handled poorly they can leave viewer dumbfounded, thrown out of the movie and wondering what the hell just happened. Racer and the Jailbird will undoubtedly lose large chunks of its audience with its increasingly ludicrous plot twists, which occur with head-spinning velocity towards the film's end, but I think it had built up enough goodwill by that point to keep me on board even as the narrative spun out of control. The biggest thing Racer and the Jailbird has in its favour is sheer star power, with Matthias Schoenaerts (in his third feature with director Michaël R. Roskam) and Adèle Exarchopoulos sharing an instant, tangible chemistry that powers the film through its rougher patches. She's the racer, he's the jailbird, although she's under the impression that he's a successful car exporter when he first woos her at the racetrack. In fact, he and his gang are highly proficient bank robbers, with a couple of their heists being brilliantly choreographed by Roskam, including a superb sequence in which they take down an armoured car. The whole film is directed with a sleek confidence but the storytelling keeps getting in its own way. It's a thriller, a love story, a weepy melodrama, a parable about fate, and prison break movie; and while it might have been possible to navigate a less bumpy path through this variety of registers, Roskam and his co-screenwriters (Noé Debré and frequent Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain) can't find the right rhythm, and too much plot feels stockpiled into the climactic third. Your reaction to the film as the credits roll will depend on how much slack you're willing to give it, and I'd contend that there is a lot to appreciate here. Schoenaerts remains one of the most charismatic leading men in the business, able to project toughness and tenderness so beautifully, while the radiantly beautiful Exarchopoulos shines in her best role since Blue is the Warmest Colour; and I admire the way the film goes for broke, risking ridicule as it throws everything at the screen to see what sticks. You'll either respond to that kind of filmmaking or you won't, but I wasn't bored for a minute.
Spoor is kind of a serial killer thriller, I suppose, although it certainly doesn't follow the standard template of one. Dead bodies start turning up in the forest around the remote cabin where schoolteacher Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) resides, and as all of the deceased were hunters, she suggests that the animals are taking their revenge. (There are even cutaways to suspicious-looking deer.) The truth is, unfortunately, rather more prosaic, but it takes us an awful long time to get there as Agnieszka Holland stuffs her film with sub-plots and secondary characters, making the main narrative bewilderingly hard to make sense of. At heart, Spoor seems to be making a statement on the absurdity and cruelty of hunting, and occasionally it is effective. The film's chapters are divided by pages from a hunting calendar, showing which animals are in season – “So you can kill it on February 28th but on March 1st you can't?” Duszejko complains as she marches into the police station to report a murder (of an animal). There are just too many absurd and disconnected elements to swallow here – such as Duszejko's inexplicable ability to see past traumas from certain characters' lives, or the hilariously inept payoff to one character's involvement in modernising the town's lighting system – and at over two hours, the film's lack of narrative thrust makes it feel unbelievably sluggish. Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski's spectacular cinematography and Antoni Lazarkiewicz's impressive score is wasted on this film, as is a fine leading performance from Mandat-Grabka. She's an appealing presence and she gives it her all, but she's playing a character who just doesn't add up.
What do you expect from a movie about motorcycle gangs? Some racing? Maybe a chase sequence? Well, you won't get any of that in 1%. As far as I could tell, these bikers just use their vehicles to get from A to B, which doesn't make for particularly exciting viewing. Other things notably absent here include any details on how exactly the Copperheads Motorcycle Club makes the large amounts of cash that they need laundered – it's possibly drug-dealing, but maybe not – and there's no sign of the police aside from some tape strapped across the door of a house after a suburban shoot-out. Instead, 1% largely consists of various hairy men drinking, fighting and shouting at each other. Most of the shouting is done by the fearsome club president Knuck (Matt Nable) and Paddo (Ryan Corr), our sympathetic protagonist, who was the stand-in leader while Knuck was behind bars and now feels he can take the gang further than the old-fashioned and brutish kingpin, but Nable, who also wrote the screenplay, just doesn't give these characters enough shading to make them interesting, and his supporting characters are little more than thin plot devices, with Paddo's mentally challenged brother Skink (Josh McConville) constantly stumbling into trouble, and his Lady Macbeth-ish girlfriend Katrina (Abbey Lee) having little to do aside from glowering from the sidelines and telling her man that he should be top dog. To be fair, Abbey Lee does deliver a good glower, and her face is often the most compelling thing in the movie. As we've seen in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Neon Demon, this young woman has an innate movie star presence, which makes her stand out like a beacon amid Stephen McCallum's flat, televisual style of direction here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

LFF 2017 - Take Every Wave, Bobbi Jene, A Skin so Soft & Tonsler Park

I see too many documentaries that follow the standard format of talking heads telling a straightforward story, interspersed with montages of photos and archive footage, so I'll admit that my heart sank in the opening moments of Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. When Hamilton began talking about his childhood, I wondered if I could really take a 118-minute portrait of a surfer told in such a mundane way, but against all odds, Rory Kennedy's film won me over. First of all, it was Hamilton himself who chipped away at my defences. He's undeniably a fascinating individual; a man with a huge ego and an insatiable need to be the best in his field. He has always lived slightly apart from the surfing mainstream, refusing to enter into competitions because he rejects the judgement of others and instead deciding to find his own path and seek out his own challenges. Other surfers interviewed here talk with predictable reverence about him, but Take Every Wave is no mere hagiography. The same obsessive drive to dominate that makes him a champion also makes him the kind of man who goes against the grain, alienating friends who were once part of his tight-knit team by dropping them for a more lucrative solo sponsorship deal, and causing friction among surfing purists with his constant innovations. Hamilton's approach to surfing has evolved through tow-surfing, in which a rider is led into a wave by a jet ski, to foilboard surfing, which involves a hydrofoil under the board that allows the surfer to glide above the water. This strand of the film, exploring Hamilton's considerable impact on the sport of surfing, is what elevates it into something more compelling than a standard biographical portrait. Of course, Take Every Wave has all of the spectacular footage that one would expect to find in a surfing documentary – and Hamilton's legendary conquering of the monster wave at Teahupoo in 2000 is indeed jaw-dropping – but Kennedy isn't willing to settle for spectacle. Her film is an illuminating study of recent surfing history, and a compelling look at what it means to be completely consumed by an ambition to be the greatest, and to dedicate your whole life to that goal. Now in his 50s, Laird Hamilton's body has been ravaged by injuries and arthritic joints, giving him a lopsided shuffling gait, but he is still going out every day in search of the biggest waves. If he can walk, he can surf.
An remarkable physical performance is at the heart of Bobbi Jene too. We are first introduced to the dancer Bobbi Jene Smith as she practices naked in a studio, and nakedness – both physical and emotional – becomes a central theme in this strikingly intimate film. Her first question to a colleague after demonstrating a new dance she has choreographed is whether she should perform it naked or not when the time comes to present it to an audience, and it seems that revealing herself completely through her dancing is the key to her art. When she talks about dancing she talks about feeling the need to come or to vomit, as if dancing allows her to purge something from within herself, a full-bodied approach that she developed under the tutelage of Ohad Naharin during her ten years at the Batsheva dance company in Israel. Bobbi Jene captures her at a pivotal moment in her life, having just turned 30 and feeling that it's time to return to the US and to strike out on her own as an independent choreographer. This pursuit is complicated by the fact that she has just fallen in love, with 20 year-old Israeli dancer Or Schraiber, and so Elvira Lind's film tells two stories, with the director attempting to shape them both into a single compelling narrative. Unfortunately, I was much more interested in one of these stories than the other; in fact, I could have used a lot more footage of Bobbi developing her performance, although we do get some intriguing insights, such as the way she presses herself against walls to develop a level of resistance in her performance, or the complete lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment in her work as she masturbates with a sandbag. (This frankness is interestingly contrasted with her mother's awkwardness at watching her perform.) The back-and-forth with Or, as he prevaricates over moving to America with her, just doesn't hold the same intrigue, and the attempt to include both stories often leaves Lind's film feeling shallow and shapeless. Still, Bobbi Jene herself is a engaging, down-to-earth character who is a pleasure to spend time with, and there's something inspiring and moving in watching the physical lengths she'll go to just to try and communicate something through her art. I'd love to see her performing live.
Denis Côté's A Skin so Soft allows us to spend time in the company of half-a-dozen Canadian bodybuilders. Sometimes we watch them doing the things that you'd expect bodybuilders to do – working out, posing in front of a mirror – but often we just watch them do the same everyday things as anyone else. We see them playing with their kids, eating their cereal, watching TV. Côté maintains a certain objective distance as he observes these strangely sculpted creatures in their domestic lives, and it's hard to know what exactly we're supposed to take from these nicely composed but largely uninteresting scenes. A few moments stand out, notably a shot of one muscleman wolfing down his breakfast while he watches something on his laptop, when he suddenly, inexplicably, starts to cry; and there are amusing moments too, like one subject's fumbling attempts to record an aggressive pre-competition message for a team of rival bodybuilders. But we never really get to know much about these men and I found my interest waning a little as the film moved into its final third, although Côté does shift gears late on when all six of these hitherto unconnected men come together for some kind of weekend camping retreat. This part of the film, like a couple of others, left me wondering how much of what we're seeing in the film is pure documentary, and how much has been carefully crafted by the director. That's just one of the nagging questions that this curious project left me with.
In Tonsler Park, the medium dictates the form. On November 8th 2016, Kevin Jerome Everson took his 16mm camera to a number of polling stations around Charlottesville, Virginia and he captured a reel's worth of footage, with the finished film consisting of these single takes. The camera is mostly a static observer, pointed at one of the volunteers or election officials as they sign in voters, hand out ballots, answer questions. Often the image becomes obscured as somebody steps between us and the subject of the camera's gaze, but Everson never shifts for a better angle. He simply invites us to sit patiently and watch the workings of democracy for eighty minutes; to realise that while Clinton and Trump ate up every second of media time, it's these ordinary people doing their civic duty who really matter in an election. It's a simple film, but our own knowledge of what happened in that election and what happened over the subsequent year adds an inescapable poignancy and gravity to its images. Almost all of the volunteers and voters that we see in the film are black, and few could have expected that they would be waking up the following morning to news of a Trump victory; fewer still would have imagined that torch-bearing Nazis would be marching on their own streets within the space of a year, and would receive tacit Presidential endorsement as they did so. In a year when all norms and values in American politics seem to have collapsed, a film like Tonsler Park feels particularly valuable.