Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 - The Alleys / Memory Box / The Outlaws / See for Me

The Alleys (Bassel Ghandour)
“Enough with the stories,” one character tells another towards the end of The Alleys. First-time director Bassel Ghandour certainly has plenty of stories to tell, and at the start of the film his camera moves through the intertwined back alleys of the Jordanian capital Amman. This is, the narrator tells us, a place where “a story spreads like wildfire,” and The Alleys is one of those movies where multiple narrative threads cross paths, and where a series of fateful decisions set into motion a chain of events that has tragic consequences for almost everybody. The plot is kick-started by two young lovers, Ali (Emad Azmi) and Lana (Baraka Rahmani), who have to meet in secret – with Ali climbing into her bedroom – to avoid Lana’s stern mother Aseel (Nadira Omran). When Aseel discovers that their nocturnal trysts have been recorded by an unknown voyeur, who attempts to blackmail her, she turns to the widely feared local gangster Abbas (Munther Rayahnah) to find the blackmailer and warn off Ali. In many respects, the characters are stock archetypes, but Ghandour – who co-wrote Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb in 2014 – has a knack for swiftly introducing and defining character details, and he has cast his film well. Munther Rayahnah is a commanding presence as Abbas, and Maisa Abd Elhadi comes into her own as the film progresses, being the beneficiary of a flashback that shows Hanadi to be just as vicious as her boss. Ghandour has clearly constructed his narrative meticulously, but he also gives himself a lot of loose end-tying to do in the final act, which is is the one part of The Alleys that feels sluggish and labouriously contrived, and the late reveal of our omniscient narrator as a peripheral player in the drama feels like a too-cute trick that doesn’t come off at all. As a director Ghandour shows little visual flair, and while he undoubtedly has gifts as a storyteller, perhaps he could have used a more experienced director at the helm to bring such an ambitious screenplay to life with a little more finesse.

Memory Box (Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas)
There's something very appealing about the tactile nature of the photographs, journals and cassette tapes that teenager Alex (Paloma Vauthier) studies to illuminate her mother's past in this film. In stark contrast, the digital 'memory box' of her generation – the mobile phones that she uses to share her mother’s story with her friends – seems so ephemeral. The directors of this film, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, employ some neat visual trickery to bring these items to life: photographs run together creating a kind of flipbook effects that leads into a flashback; when a character in a photograph is shown firing a gun, the muzzle flare appears to burn a whole in the corner of the frame. Through these techniques the filmmakers create something that exists somewhere between the lived experience of Maia (played as an adult by Rim Turki, as a teen by Manal Issa) and Alex’s own projections of the past, which have been evoked by the recollections she is poring over. The scene that best exemplifies this is a beautiful shot of Maia and her lover on a motorbike, serenely gliding down the street, unperturbed by the explosions that illuminate the sky around them. Khalil Joreige and Hadjithomas don’t quite quite do enough to illuminate these characters – it feels like we’re just getting scraps – and the film spends a lot of time developing a sense of mystery around Maia’s broken relationship with her one-time best friend Liza, before just letting it fizzle out. Memory Box is at its best in the way it evokes a sense of what it was like to grow up in Beirut in the 1980s, and the film has a genuinely moving ending, that depicts the catharsis and reconciliation that’s achievable for those who engage with the past instead of burying it out of sight.

The Outlaws (Henrik Martin Dahlsbakke)
The Outlaws begins at the end, with the two fugitives having apparently reached the point of no return. Mikael (Filip Berg) and Johannes (Åsmund Høeg) are at the wheel of a car, both stunned and wounded, and a line of police are standing in front of them, with guns drawn. From here, writer-director Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken flashes back to see how they got to this point, but their journey doesn’t follow a straight road. Dahlsbakken has chopped his narrative up into fragments, and he has pieced them together out of order, creating an impressionist portrait of two men on the run. We see how they got together, with the more sophisticated and focused Mikael picking up the softer Johannes by the side of the road, and we get further flashbacks to Johannes’ own past before their meeting. These scenes focus on his days logging in the Norwegian wilderness, when he developed a homoerotic longing for workmate Peder (Benjamin Helstad), which leads to a burgeoning affection for Mikael. But I don’t think we really get much of a sense of these two men beyond this, and I can’t see the benefit in presenting the film in this way. The Outlaws can’t develop any forward momentum or sustain any tension as it leaps – seemingly at random – back and forth between time periods. Dahlsbakken is clearly trying to capture fleeting moments and sensations, and he is aided in this attempt by some lovely cinematography from Oskar Dahlsbakken, but the film is hazy on details and it’s even weirdly fuzzy on point-of-view. Johannes appears to be or protagonist, with his character being given marginally more shading, but the intermittent voiceover narration is provided by Mikael, who remains a cipher in most request. In its surprisingly skimpy 79 minutes, I never felt that The Outlaws was giving me anything to hold on to.

See for Me (Randall Okita)
See for Me is a solid thriller in the Wait Until Dark mould, which is distinguished from other entries in the 'blind woman in peril' genre by the casting of a real blind woman the lead role. Skyler Davenport is very good as Sophie, who stubbornly resists the help of others and tries to find ways to use her blindness to her advantage, but who comes to rely on the telephone guidance from Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) when three crooks break into the house where she's cat-sitting. The script by Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue follows a familiar template and the characters are thin – the crooks are cut wholesale from the Panic Room template – but I welcomed the way they tried to complicate Sophie's character, and in fact the film is at its most compelling when it briefly suggests that she might join the crooks for a cut of the loot. Part of me wishes See for Me had gone further down that road instead of going where I always thought it was going to go. Still, Randall Okita manages to sustain a certain degree of tension as Sophie is pursued around this apparently labyrinthine home, with Kelly – first seen guiding her online colleagues through a shoot-em-up video game – pointing the way and helping her turn the tables. The camerawork is efficient, particularly the use of wide shots to show cat and mouse in different parts of the house, and the score by Joseph Murray and Lodewijk Vos has a propulsive effect. I don’t think Okita quite has the chops to generate the kind of nail-biting ride this premise may have engendered in more accomplished hands – I kept waiting for him to really turn the screw and ramp up the tension and excitement – but it’s an engaging and accomplished 90-minute thriller that finds a few new wrinkles in familiar material.