Monday, October 18, 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 - The Dance / Hit the Road / Munich: The Edge of War / Money Has Four Legs

The Dance (Pat Collins)
A young girl stands on a table, facing an accordion player with the head of a ram. A curtain is pulled back, to reveal the intimidating sight of twelve black-clad figures wearing masks. This is the atmospheric opening to MÁM, the dance work created by choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan that opened at the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin in September 2019. Eight weeks before that opening night, Keegan-Dolan sat in a community hall in Dingle with nothing but twelve dancers and the desire to create something. None of them had any idea what the show that resulted from their work together would be. Pat Collins’ new film The Dance documents that creative process, following the intensive process of collaboration and exploration from which a fully formed show was gradually born. Keegan-Dolan’s practice is to create a space of complete freedom, where every idea has value, and where people can try anything. Their exercises are sometimes reminiscent of the theatre troupe’s games in Rivette’s Out 1, and might appear comical to an outsider, but Keegan-Dolan’s approach is all about encouraging them to experiment with conviction: “Whatever you do, even if it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world, do it as if it’s the most serious thing in the world.” Collins observes the company’s work with a straightforward objectivity that recalls Frederick Wiseman, but he also uses his camera to achieve a real sense of intimacy, and his camera is always alive to the movement of bodies and the electricity of interactions. Where the Wiseman comparison falls down is with The Dance’s brevity, as it runs just over 93 minutes and flows beautifully, with some incisive editing from Keith Walsh, who earns a shared credit block with the director. One thing we don’t get is a sense of the audience reaction – I’d be particularly intrigued to learn what an invited audience thought of their unfinished preview – but that would go against Keegan-Dolan’s ethos, as he tells his dancers to avoid thinking about anything outside of what they’re doing. The act of creation in itself is everything.

Hit the Road (Panah Panahi)
Panah Panahi is the son of the great Iranian film director Jafar Panahi, and on the evidence of Hit the Road, his debut feature, Panahi Jr. is a born filmmaker. Like his father, who spent plenty of time shooting in cars recently in films like Taxi Tehran and 3 Faces, Panah Panahi appears at home on the road. His film follows a family on a journey, the purpose of which is unclear for a long time. The four members of this family – and their sickly dog – are crammed into the tight confines of their car, and Panahi displays an uncanny knack for framing and a playful imagination from the start, with the six-year-old younger brother (Rayan Sarlak) idly playing out the film’s opening score on a piano that he has drawn onto his father’s leg cast. Hit the Road is full of such eccentric comic moments, but there is also a growing gravity to the picture, with an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear being embodied by the older brother (Amin Similar) and the mother (Pantea Panahiha) as they get closer to their mysterious destination. Outside of the car, Panahi shows he has an equal facility with panoramic shots, staging a couple of brilliant sequences late in the film where the characters appear as tiny figures moving across the landscape. The younger brother finds himself being tied to a tree during one of these scenes, complaining about it at some volume, and I’m sure many viewers will see that as a fitting fate for a character who never shuts up. I found him to be mostly very funny and the distinctive characteristics of the four people in this car allows Panahi to find interesting and contrasting emotional textures throughout the film. I think Hit the Road has some pacing issues and not all of the director’s eccentric ideas land, but I loved its ambition, its sense of humour and its tender heart, and I am excited to see whatever either Panahi does next.

Munich: The Edge of War (Christian Schwochow)
Signed in 1938, the Munich Agreement annexed the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany and – as was widely believed at the time – settled Hitler’s territorial claims in Europe, preventing the prospect of another war. As we all know, this treaty was merely a postponement, as Hitler invaded Poland a year later, but that knowledge is a problem for Christian Schwochow’s Munich: The Edge of War. This adaptation of the novel by Robert Harris revolves around an attempt to smuggle a document out of Germany that reveals Hitler’s true plans for Europe, but given the fact that we know what happened and when, the actual relevance of this document getting into the hands of the British feels diminished, and the film suffers from a chronic lack of tension. There’s a bit of cat-and-mouse business in Munich as George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner attempt to avoid suspicion while behaving very suspiciously, and Schwochow throws in a fight scene between MacKay and August Diehl that feels hilariously perfunctory, but mostly the film just trundles along with little energy and style (Schwochow’s direction is all coverage and close-ups). Jeremy Irons has fun in his role as an arrogant and doddery Neville Chamberlain, but the permanently stricken-looking MacKay lacks the charisma to carry off the lead role. Things are better on the German side of things, thanks to  Niewöhner’s passionate performance and the always welcome presence of Sandra Hüller, but Ulrich Matthes doesn’t work at all as Hitler (although, having played Goebbels in Downfall, we can congratulate the actor on his promotion). Regrettably, Sandra Hüller’s role is the only half-decent spot for a woman in sight. Jessica Brown Findlay spends a few minutes nagging MacKay for focusing on the impending war over his family before being written out of the movie, Liv Lisa Fries is an appealing presence in flashbacks before – you’ve guessed it – being written out of the movie, and Anjli Mohindra is left playing a deeply unconvincing plot device.

Money Has Four Legs (Maung Sun)
The title comes from a proverb that is brought up halfway through this film: money has four legs, meaning you’ll never catch it if you’re chasing it, and there is no escape if money is chasing you. Money is just one of the problems that young filmmaker Wai Bhone (Okkar Dat Khe) is facing as he tries to make his directorial debut. His script has already been pulled apart by the censorship board, which has looked unkindly on any scenes involving sex, violence, bad language (“Try replacing this word with fothermucker”); he has to deal with actors who won’t show up, and don’t know their lines when they do; and above all else, he has to cope with the well-meaning interventions of his drunken brother-in-law. This knockabout satire plays like a Burmese version of In the Soup, with Wai Bhone facing one obstacle after another before resorting to burglary and blackmail to try and clear his debts and finish his film. The pacing is perhaps a bit too leisurely and the film is beset by some obvious budget and talent limitations, but there are some very funny scenes here, notably the build-up and execution of the bank heist. Maung Sun also includes a number of sly meta gags, like a false start for the end credits before the story has been wrapped up, and a dream sequence interrupted by the admonishment: "You're a supporting character, you're not allowed a dream sequence!" The film’s real ending is surprisingly resonant, being reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Killing but given a wry comic spin thanks to the obliviousness of the two central characters.