Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Wings of the Dove screening + Q&A at the Prince Charles Cinema

I’ve long been a fan of Iain Softley and Hossein Amini’s adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, which intelligently dissects Henry James’s dense novel and refashions it into a riveting and passionate tale of love and duplicity. Released in 1997 – a boom time for James adaptations – the film earned Oscar nominations for Amini’s screenplay, Sandy Powell’s costumes, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography and a Best Actress nomination for Helena Bonham Carter, whose performance as the manipulative Kate Croy still ranks as her finest work. I’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to see this film on 35mm, so I was excited to see it appearing in the Prince Charles Cinema’s upcoming programme, and I was even more thrilled when I was asked to moderate the post-screening discussion with Softley and Amini. This is an extremely rare chance to see this superb film projected from a print and to hear its creators talk about the daunting task of adapting Henry James for the screen. The screening takes place on November 1st at 20:35 and tickets are available from the Prince Charles Cinema website now.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 Podcast - Widows / Ash is Purest White / Joy

I appeared on the Sight & Sound podcast to discuss this year's opening night film Widows, Jia Zhangke's Ash is Purest White and Sudabeh Mortezai's Joy. You can listen to it here:

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - Styx / Sunset / Vox Lux

Styx (Wolfgang Fischer)
A woman sets out alone on a sailing trip in Styx, and for much of the movie you might be thinking that you’ve seen this story too many times recently. Rieke (Susanne Wolff) is sailing from Gibraltar, where she works as a paramedic, to Ascension Island, and Wolfgang Fischer’s film calmly observes her as she dutifully prepares for her trip, and enjoys the solitude and freedom of the open sea once she has reached open water. Soon she gets hit by a violent storm, but this is no mere survival thriller in the vein of All is Lost or Adrift. When the storm clouds have cleared, Rieke spots a nearby vessel in some distress. She calls it in to the coastguard, but as the people on board the sinking ship are refugees nobody wants to touch it, and Rieke is warned to keep her distance. Fischer and his co-writer Ika Künzel place their protagonist in an impossible quandary, one that’s only exacerbated when a teenage boy named Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa) swims to her boat. She can’t save all of the refugees with her small boat, but how can she sail away and leave them to their grim fate, particularly when Kingsley is imploring her to go back for his family? Styx pits one woman’s compassion against a society’s widespread indifference to migrant deaths at sea, with the coldly bureaucratic voices Rieke encounters on the other end of her emergency calls having a chilling effect. Susanne Wolff brilliantly charts her character’s thought process with almost no dialogue, going about her business with efficiency and attempting to keep her emotions in check as she considers her options, and The film gives us plenty of time and space to consider this situation while offering no easy answers. It's a taut and riveting piece of filmmaking, brilliantly shot by Benedict Neuenfels, with night scenes often being lit by Rieke's small torches and breathtaking aerial photography reminding us just how alone these lost souls really are.

Styx currently has no UK distribution

Sunset (László Nemes)
László Nemes has found his directorial signature and he's sticking to it. Sunset is the director's second film and it follows the template of his attention-grabbing debut Son of Saul. Once again, we have a character on an ambiguous quest, and the film sticks closely to their point-of-view, placing the protagonist in the centre of the frame and allowing us to see little of their surroundings as they venture into the unknown. As a central character, Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is just as haunted as driven as the lead in Son of Saul, and we are propelled along as she in investigates a mystery surrounding the famed hat store that her late parents used to run in fin-de-siècle Budapest. Details of what happened to her parents and the brother she didn't know existed are dropped sporadically and often in hushed, frantic conversations, and for much of the film's opening half-hour I was a little confounded by its opaque storytelling. Still, the film exerts a powerful grip. Nemes has an uncanny gift for creating an immersive environment through his dynamic camerawork and richly layered sound design, and I was completely drawn into the nightmarish, twist-laden, often perplexing narrative that he has crafted. He stages a number of exhilarating and terrifying set-pieces that are executed in a single, propulsive take, and Mátyás Erdély's lighting throughout is breathtakingly beautiful and atmospheric. Nemes has certainly delivered a worthy follow-up to Son of Saul, which must have been an intimidating act to follow, but I wonder how much further he can take this aesthetic? He has proven his ability to create compelling, subjective narratives defined by disorientation and obfuscation, and I'd love to see what he could do with a more expansive view of his characters and their world.

Sunset will be released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye

Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)
A star is born in the aftermath of a school shooting in Brady Corbet's Vox Lux. As Corbet traces the rise to pop stardom of Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a 13 year-old injured when a classmate massacred her fellow students in 1999, he attempts to tie her loss of innocence and life marked with tragedy with that of the United States (even implying the loss of her virginity coincides with 9/11) – after all, as the film's subtitle states, this is “a 21st-century portrait.” This director certainly doesn't lack ambition or ideas, and he has the technique and confidence required to pull most of them off, but bringing them all together into a single film that doesn't feel overreaching, pompous and half-baked seems to be beyond him. Vox Lux's considerations of celebrity, violence and The Way We Live Now feel facile, with Willem Dafoe's wry and detached narration filling in the gaps in Corbet's sketchy screenplay. Lol Crawley's 35mm cinematography is less dynamic and expressive here than it was in Corbet's similarly audacious and flawed debut The Childhood of a Leader, and the director's creative flourishes generally fall flat; a speeded-up tour of Europe is less effective than the one staged in The Rules of Attraction, while the climactic musical performance is a dud. Having said that, Vox Lux is unusual enough and bold enough to command the attention, and Natalie Portman has a lot to do with that. Playing the adult Celeste (with Cassidy now playing her daughter), Portman arrives in the second half of the movie as a diva worn down by life and viewing the circus that surrounds her, through jaded, cynical eyes, having long passed the stage when she gave a fuck about what people think of her. “I’ve got more hits than an AK-47,” she unwisely says at a press conference when a terrorist attack is linked to her music, and the sight of Portman throwing everything she has at the role – almost carrying the film to the finish line through sheer force of will – is one of the more galvanising experiences I've had at this year's festival.

Vox Lux currently has no UK distribution

Thursday, October 11, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - Asako I & II / Lizzie / Petra

Asako I & II (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's 2015 film Happy Hour won well-deserved plaudits for its complex examination of female relationships and its collection of wonderful performances, but the film's five-hour running time unfortunately meant its presence outside of film festivals was severely restricted. Asako I & II comes in at a much more conventional two hours, which should hopefully increase its commercial prospects, but there's little that is conventional about the film itself. After a beguiling meet-cute – an instant connection amid exploding firecrackers – timid Asako (Erika Karata) falls completely in love with the mysterious Baku (Masahiro Higashide), but when he abruptly disappears (something he apparently makes a habit of) she is bereft. Two years later, she runs into his doppelgänger Ryôhei (also played by Higashide), and a tentative romance begins between them, but is she in love with Ryôhei or is she still dreaming of the one that got away? Questions of fate and second chances run throughout Asako I & II, which Hamaguchi has adapted from Tomoka Shibasaki's novel, and it's easy to imagine some viewers being put off by its serendipitous storytelling or the characters' quirks; particularly Asako's chronic indecisiveness and introspection. But it's just as easy to imagine viewers falling in love with this film, as I did, and being thrilled by the way it keeps spinning off in unexpected directions. Although I adored much of Happy Hour, I felt that Hamaguchi's focus on performance and character dynamics sometimes came at the expense of his direction, resulting in a number of poorly constructed and flatly lit scenes, and Asako I & II is a real advance in this respect. His blocking and composition is masterful, his touch with actors is as sure as ever, and he handles the film's numerous tonal shifts with impressive grace. I'd have been happy to spend three more hours in the company of these characters.

Asako I & II currently has no UK distribution.

Lizzie (Craig William Macneill)
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.” That's the Lizzie Borden story neatly wrapped up in a folk rhyme, although it's not exactly accurate. Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother, was struck around 18 times and her father a mere 11. The rest of what happened in the Borden household on August 4th, 1892 is open to speculation. Lizzie was cleared of the crime but in Craig William Macneill's Lizzie there'sno question who wielded the axe, with the film attempting to explain why Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) took this drastic step. Both women were dominated and oppressed by Lizzie's father (Jamey Sheridan) and Lizzie's inheritance and freedom was threatened by her shady uncle (Denis O'Hare). They took solace in each other, escaping to the woodshed for sex, and when their covert relationship was rumbled they saw no other solution to their predicament than to smash The Patriarchy in the face with an axe. This is a story of love, hatred, thwarted passions and revenge – so why does it feel so staid? Macneill has a good eye but his careful crafting of every frame leaches all sense of life out of the movie. The characters stalk around their creaky old house as if in fear of upsetting the mise-en-scène. The movie is a chronic drag. This might not be such a problem if we felt fully immersed in this time and place, but Lizzie never convinces. Sevigny and Stewart are strikingly modern performers (perhaps intentionally, to put them at odds with the world around them) and all of the characters and relationships are sketchily realised by Bryce Kass' uneven screenplay. The film finally explodes into life with the murders themselves, which are staged with a conviction that the movie never exhibits elsewhere, but this late flurry aside, I never got the impression that the filmmakers had a clear sense of how or why they wanted to tell this story.

Lizzie is distributed by Bulldog Distribution and is in UK cinemas on December 14.

Petra (Jaime Rosales)
I knew nothing of Petra before I walked into the screening, having not even glanced at the film's synopsis, and that was a wonderful way to experience Jaime Rosales' film. This is a movie that likes to withhold its secrets; in fact, Rosales withholds the whole opening chapter, beginning his film with “Chapter II” and saving the first instalment for much later in the film, when its dramatic import will be far greater. Rosales relishes dropping these revelatory bombs  - arguably overdoing it in the final act – and another filmmaker could easily have dialled this material up into ripe melodrama, but instead the director dials it down. Petra is leisurely in its pacing and unfolds in long takes, with Hélène Louvart's camera (the film is gorgeously shot on 35mm) stalking around the characters and through the spaces they inhabit. Petra is a film about the legacy of secrets, the destructive power of men and the resilience of the women who are forced to withstand that power, and Rosales uses his exceptional ensemble to explore these ideas from a variety of angles. Bárbara Lennie is quietly superb as the title character – an artist attempting to unlock a mystery that has haunted her whole life – while Carme Pla has a small but heartbreaking turn as the maid who sacrifices everything for her family. But the film is dominated by Joan Botey as Jaume, the artist around whom all of these lives revolve. Jaume – an artist driven by acclaim and financial success rather than integrity and truth – takes evident delight in controlling and manipulating the lives of others, and Botey gives a magnificently loathsome portrayal of unchecked male ego and aggression.

Petra currently has no UK distribution.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - After the Screaming Stops / The Guilty / A Paris Education

After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman, David Soutar)
“I think the letters H-O-M-E are very important,” Matt Goss explains, “because they personify the word home.” Matt is showing us around his American abode (complete with energy crystals, his ‘conversation corner’, and a painting of his beloved bulldog holding a beer), but his thoughts keep drifting back the city he grew up in. “I’m a London boy. Big Ben. Embankment. Cab Drivers.” He’s about to return to London for a reunion with his brother Luke – with whom he formed the pop sensation Bros in the late 1980s – for a series of reunion concerts, and After the Screaming Stops follows a fractious few weeks before they appear together at the O2 for the first time in almost thirty years. Co-directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar mine plenty of awkward comedy from the brothers’ idiosyncrasies and primarily from Matt’s overreaching metaphors and cod-philosophical statements (“I made a conscious decision, because of Stevie Wonder, to not be superstitious.”), but there’s also real pathos here. Both men come close to cracking under the pressure of trying to recapture something they had three decades earlier, and simmering, long-buried resentments (Luke feeling overshadowed by his brother, Matt feeling like he’s not being take seriously) keep bubbling to the surface. The filmmakers skilfully craft the film towards a cathartic, triumphant climax at the O2, although there’s an undeniable suspicion that intriguing and complicated parts of the story have been cleaved off in order to facilitate this narrative trajectory; for example, the London gig is presented as a one-off show, when in fact a number of UK dates were announced before being abruptly cancelled. Still, the film packs a lot of laughs and some surprisingly poignant insights into its 98-minute running time, and as Matt so sagely puts it, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Fuck me, that’s true…but we don’t have the time that Rome had.”

After the Screaming Stops currently has no UK distribution.

The Guilty (Gustav Möller)
A few years ago at the London Film Festival, one of the major highlights was Caroline Bartleet's short film Operator. This six-minute drama starred Kate Dickie as an emergency services phone operator who receives a 999 call from a woman trapped in a burning building. All we had was Dickie on screen and the frantic sounds on the other end of the line, but with these elements in place, Bartleet generated a heart-stopping tension. (It was certainly superior to the mawkish The Phone Call, which won an Oscar in the same year.) Gustav Möller's The Guilty proceeds in a similar fashion – the camera never leaving the call centre – and at times it churns up a comparably clammy atmosphere of anxiety and dread. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop demoted to the emergency services night shift while a disciplinary investigation takes place. He picks up a call from a woman who has been kidnapped and immediately sets about solving the case, but there's an interesting twist here. In Operator, the drama revolved around the protagonist's ability to remain unflappable and professional in a crisis, whereas Asger quickly proves he is no stickler for the rules. He begins ignoring protocols and launches his own attempts to bring the kidnapper to justice, possibly doing more harm than good in the process. With the film being confined to this one drab location, we are forced to share Asger's frustration, receiving only fragments of the narrative and waiting on offscreen voices to fill in the gaps. This is very much a debut feature, with Möller setting himself achievable parameters and hitting the marks he needs to hit. To his credit, he doesn't strain too hard to juice the film up visually with extravagant angles and cuts; he trusts that his leading man and his intriguing narrative will be enough to hold viewers rapt, and for the most part, he's right. Cedergren gives a commanding performance, as Asger's arrogance bleeds into doubt and desperation with every new revelation, but it's those revelations that cause the film to stumble slightly. In an attempt to stretch this plot to feature length, Möller and his co-screenwriter Emil Nygaard Albertsen pile on the twists in the film's third act, with some being clumsily handled and straining credibility. Less is often more in the world of the single-location thriller, but a few missteps aside, this is an impressively slick, tight and gripping effort.

The Guilty is distributed by Signature Entertainment and is in UK cinemas on October 26

A Paris Education (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)
I guess I'm predisposed to like a black-and-white film about a pretentious cinephile in Paris, falling in and out of love with a series of gorgeous French women, but even when I started the screening so firmly in its corner, Jean-Paul Civeyrac's A Paris Education tried my patience. Étienne (Andranic Manet) is the aspiring film director who has left behind his provincial home (and his long-term girlfriend) to begin his life as a film student in the French capital. He has ambitions and ideals but not yet much life experience or a clearly defined voice, and A Paris Education is partly about the need to look outside oneself and open up to new people and new experiences. Étienne gets called out for his solipsism and navel-gazing more than once, which can make him a frustrating protagonist to spend time with. I saw shades of Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore in this film, but Manet has none of Jean-Pierre Léaud's vitality or dexterity. It's left to the supporting actors to breathe life into the movie, which they frequently do. Some of the best scenes in the film focus on his friendly and flirtatious relationships with two roommates – Valentina (Jenna Thiam) and Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck) – while the most intriguing character in the whole movie is Mathias (Corentin Fila), who everyone in the film seems to be obsessed with. It's easy to see why; Fila is a confident, charismatic performer and his character – who remains shrouded in mystery – seems to bring the narrative into focus whenever he appears. The rest of the time, A Paris Education meanders through monotonous scenes of Étienne sulking, brief romantic trysts, and characters arguing about the merits of contemporary cinema. “I’ve had enough of whiny French films,” one student complains, and I wondered if Civeyrac was attempting some kind of autocritique.  Also wondered what these students, who rhapsodise about the works of Vigo and Ford, would make of A Paris Education's images. It shouldn't be hard to make a beautiful black-and-white film in Paris, but Pierre-Hubert Martin's digital cinematography is shockingly drab, casting everything in a washed-out hue, and Civeyrac does little of interest with his framing. It's one of the drabbest-looking films I've seen in some time.

A Paris Education currently has no UK distribution.