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.