Monday, November 01, 2021

Genre highlights at BFI London Film Festival 2021

Most of the conversations (and the longest queues) at the London Film Festival tend to be centred around the high-profile gala screenings, whether they’re the big studio pictures gearing up for the Oscar race or arthouse fare on the festival circuit, but there are plenty of smaller films worth talking about if you delve deeper into the programme. This year’s festival opened with Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, a boldly revisionist take on the western, and one that set the tone for a series of films that tried to look at familiar genres in a fresh way.

Sometimes these films can look extremely familiar at first glance. The screenplay for Inexorable could easily have been the template for a glossy ‘Nanny from Hell’ Hollywood thriller in the mid-90s. Instead, the Belgian director Fabrice du Welz takes the film in a different direction. Shooting on Super 16mm, he has made something that feels grainy, rough and intimate, despite the palatial surroundings of this family’s country retreat. The hangdog Benoît Poelvoorde is Marcel, a writer who has failed to deliver a second novel in the twenty years since his hit debut Inexorable, and Mélanie Doutey is his wife and editor Jeanne, who is also the daughter of his late publisher. “I feel like a usurper” Marcel admits after moving his things into his former father-in-law’s office, but the real usurper is walking up the driveway in the shape of Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi).

This is a classic interloper plot, with a stranger arriving to expose the fissures in a family that apparently has it all. Du Welz doesn’t make any attempt to disguise how unhinged Gloria is – she gives herself a black eye to expedite the family’s sympathy and acceptance – but the true reason for her fixation on Marcel, whose novel she has memorised, remains under wraps until the end. It perhaps stretches credulity that Marcel and Jeanne would be so trusting and immediately hand childcare responsibilities over to Gloria, but Du Welz and his actors make these characters real people with raw, complicated emotions, and when we reach the inevitable bloody finale, it feels messy and tragic for all concerned rather than exciting or cathartic. Inexorable may be a film uninterested in sticking rigidly to the Hollywood playbook, but Du Welz does acknowledge his influences, giving special thanks to John M. Stahl and Gene Tierney in the end credits.

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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 - Boiling Point

Expanding on the BIFA-nominated short film of the same name that he made in 2019, Philip Barantini’s exhilarating Boiling Point takes us behind the scenes at a busy east London restaurant in the run-up to Christmas, on a night when seemingly everything is going wrong for head chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham). When the film opens on Andy he is already stressed and running late, and when he arrives at Jones & Sons in Dalston, the news that a visiting hygiene inspector has downgraded his restaurant from a five-star rating to a three (largely as a result of Andy’s failure to maintain proper paperwork) sets the tone for the evening. Tensions in the kitchen continue to rise when it is revealed that Andy has also forgotten to make a substantial meat order, and by the time celebrity chef and former colleague Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng) has turned up for dinner with a notorious food critic (Lourdes Faberes) on his arm, we can see what the film’s title is getting at.

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.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor on Rose Plays Julie

“Who are you?” Those are the words we see scrawled on a Post-it Note towards the end of Rose Plays Julie, and it’s a question that goes to the heart of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s work. Since making their feature debut with Helen in 2008, this filmmaking team has explored the slippery nature of identity and the way past traumas can shape our present lives, and Rose Plays Julie is their most potent examination of these themes yet. This quietly riveting film follows a young Irish woman named Rose (Ann Skelly) who adopts a new persona as she tracks down her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), and subsequently discovers the shocking truth about the circumstances of her conception.