Phil on Film Index

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.