Friday, October 04, 2019

London Film Festival 2019 - Colour Out of Space / I Lost My Body / Matthias & Maxime / The Report

Colour Out of Space (directed by Richard Stanley)
Maybe a mad Nicolas Cage freakout movie is going to become an LFF tradition? In the past couple of years we've had Cage going off the deep end in Dog Eat Dog and Mandy, and this year he is lending his distinctive line readings to Richard Stanley's long-gestating HP Lovecraft adaptation Colour Out of Space. I'm glad to see Stanley finally making his way back to the director's chair, more than two decades after the fiasco of The Island of Dr Moreau, but sadly this is not a very good film at all. Colour Out of Space is the story of the Gardner family, which has relocated from the city to rural Massachusetts, where they now run an alpaca farm. If you think that Nicolas Cage shouting about alpacas is inherently funny, then this may be the movie for you! The problem with Cage these days is that audiences are primed to laugh as soon as he appears on screen, which gives Stanley a tonal problem that he never really overcomes.

Colour Out of Space is amusing and goofy, but it never amounts to more than that, and it feels like a key ingredient is missing: dread. When a meteor crash-lands on the Gardners' farm and begins warping time and matter, making Cage's Nathan Gardner and his family (wife Joely Richardson, kids Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard) behave in inexplicable ways, it never feels like we're watching a family genuinely fall apart, and instead we're just seeing a bunch of disconnected random incidents punctuated by Nicolas Cage attacking tomatoes or putting on a sneering voice. The second half of the film primarily consists of a lot of tedious and incoherent noise, and after all that the ending feels like a shrug. There are some appealingly trippy colours on display and a few fun practical effects that briefly reminded me of early Carpenter and Cronenberg films, but that's where such comparisons end.

I Lost My Body (directed by Jérémy Clapin)
If Thing from The Addams Family had ever earned his own spin-off movie, it might have looked something like I Lost My Body, the bizarre French animation directed by Jérémy Clapin. The film follows a severed hand as it escapes from cold storage and embarks on a perilous journey across Paris in an attempt to be reunited with its owner Naoufel, with this odyssey being interrupted by flashbacks to the time when The Hand and Naoufel were one and the same. I Lost My Body has been adapted from Guillaume Laurant's book Happy Hand, but the change of title is appropriate, as there is little happiness in this melancholy tale.  Even before he loses his hand, Naoufel is a despondent teen, orphaned as a child and now living in cramped conditions in Paris, where he works as a (perpetually late) pizza delivery man. It's during one of these deliveries that he meets Gabrielle – or rather, he doesn't meet her, instead just having a conversation with her over the building's intercom. Nevertheless, this encounter is enough for Naoufel to try and change his fortunes, ditching his job and attempting to engineer a face-to-face meeting with Gabrielle.

There are three strands to I Lost My Body's structure. As well as The Hand's adventures and the flashbacks to Naoufel's story, we have further black-and-white flashbacks to Naoufel's idyllic childhood before the loss of his parents, but Clapin weaves through these narrative threads with great dexterity, orchestrating some beautiful and imaginative transitions. The animation throughout the film is incredibly expressive, particularly in the way it makes The Hand such an empathetic character. It becomes a determined and courageous protagonist worth getting behind, and you might feel genuine fear and excitement as it engages in a series of life-and-death struggles, notably a vertiginous encounter with a pigeon or a fight with a gang of subway rats. These are some of the most inventive action sequences I've seen in a movie this year, directed and edited with a thrilling sense of dynamism and fluidity, but the overall mood of I Lost My Body is more melancholy and ruminative. It's a film about the moments that change our lives, the choices we have to live with, and the mysterious hand of fate or destiny that's guiding us all. It's a one-of-a-kind picture, and at the start of the film it's hard to see how its disparate elements will cohere, but it comes together beautifully and a lot of credit for that must go to composer Dan Levy, whose soaring score is among the year's best.

Matthias & Maxime (directed by Xavier Dolan)
It has been ten years since Xavier Dolan made his debut as a precocious 20 year-old with I Killed My Mother, and the general consensus on him seems to have cooled considerably in that period. I hated It's Only the End of the World and have yet to see the still-unreleased The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, but I'm still on board with Dolan because when he's good he's really good, and he's often very good in Matthias & Maxime, on both sides of the camera. He plays Maxime whose decades-long friendship with Matthias (Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas) is sent into a tailspin after they share an ill-advised kiss in a student film. The two suddenly stop talking and hanging out, with Matthias becoming sullen and aggressive, as he begins to question his sexuality and masculinity. The problem is, I just didn't entirely believe in this central conflict, and Dolan is guilty of letting a lot of morose sulking take the place of the real psychological specificity that a story like this is calling for. Dolan has skimped on this in the past, pushing past psychological depth to go straight for the big emotional peaks, but in this case the dramatic meat of the movie starts to feel a little overextended and thin at two hours.

But, as I said, when Dolan's good he's really good. He's typically excellent with actors, and he draws fine work from his cast here, especially in the group scenes where he generates a compelling energy as he pinballs between the various participants. Dolan himself gives one of his most impressive performances – delivering a phone call scene towards the end that's genuinely heart-rending – but it's the supporting actors who really shine; I particularly enjoyed Marilyn Castonguay, Harris Dickinson and Micheline Bernard. It's also directed with great confidence and intelligence, with beautiful 35mm cinematography by André Turpin, and ultimately there's always a clear sincerity at the heart of Dolan's work that I find hard to resist. Although some of his writing can feel a little glib, the key moments of confrontation and reconciliation do pack an emotional punch. I might not have been entirely convinced by Matthias & Maxime, but I was moved by it, and that's what keeps me coming back to Xavier Dolan time after time.

The Report (directed by Scott Z. Burns)
Did The Report really have to be delivered like a report? This dramatisation of the years-long attempts to investigate the CIA's use of 'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques' (or torture, in other words) in the War on Terror, and then the subsequent fight to release the findings, is a dry and dutiful drag. Scott Z. Burns is a talented writer, and he has done a fine job of laying this complicated story out in a straightforward and digestible manner, but he brings little to the movie as a director. The film consists of a series of flat scenes in grey rooms in which dialogue consists of nothing more than stodgy exposition, and Burns can't energise these static encounters in a cinematic way. He relies on the actors, primarily Adam Driver as Dan Jones, who loses countless days and nights to the report – sticking with it even long after his team quit – and then grows increasingly frustrated as it looks like the fruits of his labour won't see the light of day, at least not in a form that isn't heavily redacted. In the second half of the film we often see Jones ranting at Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) as she stares at him over the rim of her glasses, and then registers shock at his revelations before leaving the room. That's about the extent of what Bening gets to do; none of the fine actors in this cast are given the space or the material to create a real performance or a three-dimensional characterisation. They're just delivery systems for information and outrage. Of course the substance of The Report is enraging, but Burns seems to be relying on the inherent emotive quality of his subject matter to grab the audience, and it's not enough. This film is so didactic and lifeless. I found nothing to connect with.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

London Film Festival 2019 - The Antenna / Axone / Beanpole / Öndög

The Antenna (directed by Orçun Behram)
The installation of a state-sponsored television antenna in a crumbling tower block is the catalyst for all manner of strange and disturbing occurrences in this slow-burning Turkish horror film. When the man hired to install the dish plunges from the roof to his death, it's a bad enough omen, but soon a mysterious black substance is emanating from the antenna and oozing its way into the residents' apartments. Initially I admired the way writer/director Orçun Behram was unfolding his narrative at a steady pace, but that pace never wavers, and given the way The Antenna is allowed to bloat to a two-hour running time, it's astonishing how little we learn about these characters. Our protagonist is Mehmet (Ihsan Önal), the passive and morose building superintendent who – in a move viewers may empathise with – keeps falling asleep on the job. The only person who gives Mehmet the time of day and treats him as more than an underling is Yasemin (Gül Arici), a teenage resident, whom Mehmet has encouraged to leave and start a new life elsewhere, even going so far as to buy a train ticket for her. What she is supposed to do after leaving her family is never fleshed out, and this relationship feel like nothing more than a narrative seed planted so Mehmet will have somebody to care about when things go awry.

The Antenna is obviously intended as a commentary on the pervasive power of authoritarian control, with the aerial in question being installed expressly for the function of government announcements, but this metaphor is obvious and feels tired long before Behram bluntly hammers it home in the third act. As a horror movie, The Antenna is a total bust. Behram sets up a few set-pieces that feel like classic genre death traps – such as the ooze seeping into a woman's bathtub shortly before she steps into it – but the staging and editing is way too slack to generate any suspense, and Behram leans too heavily on musical stings, pumping the score up to an ear-splitting crescendo every time something supposedly shocking is taking place. There's simply nothing to cling onto with this collection of paper-thin characters and haphazard threats, and while Behram does serve up some of his more interesting imagery in the last twenty minutes, most viewers will surely have checked out by then.

Axone (directed by Nicholas Kharkongor)
Axone (pronounced as akhuni) is an ingredient created from fermented soyabeans and is most readily associated with Naga people of northeastern India, and Wikipedia also tells me that it is judged to be ready when it “smells right”. The smell of axone is a running theme in Nicholas Kharkongor's film, with a group of friends trying to make a special dish for a wedding, only to be run off from one location to the next when the pungent aroma of their food becomes too much for the neighbours to handle. That's about all the plot there is to speak of in this low-stakes comedy, which trundles along amiably enough without ever being particularly funny or exciting. Given the race-against-time narrative – with the wedding set to take place that evening – it's strange how lacking in energy and forward momentum Axone is. The film has a stop-start, episodic rhythm that involves the central group running from one location to the next before some new obstacle drops in their path. There is comic potential in some of these situations – such as the attempts to deceive an old woman who keeps a keen eye on all all comings and goings – but the central narrative keeps getting disrupted by soapy theatrics, including attempts to explore the racism experienced in Delhi by those from other regions of the country. The writing is too trite and the acting too uncertain (although Sayani Gupta is an attractive and charming lead) for these dramatic scenes to have any weight; consider the late scene when one character is angrily called a “fucking Indian” only for the two people involved to apparently be on cordial terms a couple of scenes later. It all feels a little too slapdash and glib.

Beanpole (directed by Kantemir Balagov)
Beanpole is an unnerving experience before any images have even appeared on screen. Under the opening credits we what sounds like a person choking and gasping for breath, and our imaginations might immediately leap to worst-case scenarios, but when we the film opens on Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko) we see that she is standing alone in a catatonic stupor. These PTSD-related episodes got Iya sent home from the frontlines of WWII and now, with the war a painful recent memory, she works in a hospital in Leningrad, where her lapses are so common her colleagues just let them play out and continue to work around her. Strikingly tall, blonde and pale, Iya also goes by the nickname Beanpole, and she is one of two central characters in Kantemir Balagov's astonishing film, the other being her close friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who is still at the front when the film begins. Both of these women bear visible scars, and Beanpole is a film primarily about the scars of war  the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds  and an exploration of what it means to survive and live in the aftermath of an immense trauma.

It's a bleak film and often hard to watch, and one might be tempted to dismiss Beanpole as a grim exercise in Russian miserabilism; but this is a film made with a disarming sense of tenderness and compassion, and a stunning level of artistry. The long takes expertly choreographed by Balagov and his brilliant director of photography Ksenia Sereda draw us into the world inhabited by these characters, and almost every scene of this film is visually striking, particularly the interiors in which the muted colour palette of the décor is offset by the flash of a green dress or a red jumper. He also uses his actors brilliantly, contrasting Iya's awkward and introspective demeanour with Masha's more vibrant and passionate approach, and the performances he draws from the whole cast are flawless. Aside from the two wonderful leads, I loved Kseniya Kutepova as the wealthy mother of a young man infatuated with Masha, who shares one brilliant scene with Perelygina that gets to the heart of one of the film's central themes. This is a film about women in a time of war – the roles they are expected to play, the things they have to do to survive – and the men in Beanpole primarily exist for what these female characters can get from them. Beanpole is a stirring examination of grief, guilt and solidarity, and an exceptional achievement from a very exciting young filmmaker.

Öndög (directed by Wang Quan'an)
Öndög begins with a startling discovery. As a jeep speeds through the Mongolian wilderness at night, with its headlights illuminating the treacherous path, a naked corpse suddenly appears in view. If this sounds like the beginning of a thriller, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. In the build-up to this discovery, we listen to two of the occupants of the vehicle as they have a rambling conversation about hunting, and it is this discursive chat rather than the discovery of the dead body that sets the tone for Wang Quan'an's film. The film gradually shifts its gaze away from the body and from the culprit (who is quickly apprehended) to give us more of an overview of the characters and their way of life. Much of the first half of the picture tales place at night, with a naïve young police deputy (Norovsambuu Batmunkh) being assigned to stand guard over the corpse until his colleagues return with reinforcements, and a rifle-toting local herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) is ordered to stand by and keep an eye out for wolves. This pair spend one night together before going their separate ways, and Öndög is largely viewed from their disparate perspectives.

Meanwhile, our perspective on the action is usually a distant one. For Quan'an, the barren landscape is as important as the characters, and he often makes them small figures silhouetted against the endless horizon and the ever-changing sky. From that headlight-lit opening sequence, this is a visually hypnotic piece of filmmaking, full of imaginative and witty widescreen compositions, but despite frequently keeping us at a distance from these people, Quan'an allows us some intimate moments with them too. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film consists of Batmunkh and Enkhtaivan (and her camel) keeping watch by a roaring fire, with the utter blackness of the Mongolian night surrounding them. Quan'an lets these scenes run for as long as they need to, and the pacing throughout the film feels attuned more to the characters' way of life than any conventional notions of filmic storytelling, but I was never bored or felt like the film was dragging. Öndög is a beautiful meditation on life, love, death and birth, and aside from all of that it also manages to be unexpectedly hilarious.