Thursday, February 5, 2015

AFI Festival 2014

Back in the years when film critic Robert Koehler ran the show, the AFI Festival positioned itself, coming towards the end of the season, as the ‘festival of festivals’, which was a celebratory way to justify the fact that international festival-goers would have seen much of its programme already, but that those less-travelled would finally get a chance to see the mouth-watering titles about which they’d only read and imagined. This round-up character is no longer specified under director Jacqueline Lyanga, and such a simple elision gives the event a slight tarnish for not admitting it (recycling a lot of TIFF’s Korean strand, for example). Even if one may also miss the spiky, serious-mindedness of Koehler’s taste, the festival nonetheless remains a decent forum for a sampling of new world cinema, much of which would never find its way to Los Angeles otherwise.

Hollywood product is standard for the galas (Foxcatcher, Clint Eastwood’s The Sniper, both 2014), which are entirely missable, unless one wants to face the scrum for the sake of getting a jump on the general release. I was far more interested to see the Chinese winner of this year’s Golden Bear at Berlin, Bai ri yan huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice – literally, Fireworks in Daytime 2014). It turns out the prize is a tribute to the skilful direction of Diao Yinan Zhifu (Uniform, 2003), with touches of dry, surreal humour, discreet revelations, boosted sound design, a measured palette from muted gray-greens to neon pink, a particularly effective burst of sudden violence, and a beautifully simple reverse-shot time-jump that takes us from the prologue to the main body of the film. What all this obscures, however, is a fairly standard detective mystery, short on character and emotion, lifting the endings of both A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Beau travail (1999) to no particular effect, and culminating in an oblique and deliberately frustrating finale. Perfectly watchable, a big hit at the Chinese box office, but not a major film by any means, even if it makes one wish that more lightweight genre fare could be pulled off with a least such an aspiration to elegance in its making. 

Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014) by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Izgnanie [The Banishment], 2007), is another celebrated festival hit (best script at Cannes), and it is a curious beast. At heart, it tells two fairly simple but appealing tales: first, of the little man against bureaucracy, as hotheaded Kolya fights to forestall the transfer of his house and land to the irredeemably corrupt mayor. When his lawyer, armed with career-destroying dirt, makes the inexplicably idiotic mistake of getting into said mayor’s car halfway through, however, the drama becomes more intimate and family-focused, and things get even worse for Kolya. Bookending the film are portentous, Phillip Glass-scored sequences of the rugged northern Russian coastline where Kolya’s little fishing town is situated, beautiful in the majesty of nature and the charm of the rundown buildings and ruined boats. The point seems to be both that man is small and, per the whale skeleton on the beach, that the body of once-great Russia (or, indeed, Thomas Hobbes’ social contract as ideally applied to communism) has been picked clean by the corrupt bureaucrats, in bed with the all-powerful church. A couple of intrusive scenes with priests indicate first how the church rubs along quite happily with the new capitalism, before baldly lecturing on the Leviathan itself (yes, man is indeed small) and the nature of God’s truth. What could have been a rather affecting, intimate film with appealing performances from all concerned is crushed by a metaphysical weight it neither earns, nor can carry.

About the latest from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014), there’s little actual criticism one can make, as has been the case for their films for some time now: pursuing their narrowly-defined, well-honed form and content, they place themselves almost outside of critical judgment, comparisons becoming valid only with the rest of their work which, being of such consistent standard, means the best one can say is that yes, this is another Dardennes brothers film. The most obvious difference here is the star power of Marion Cotillard, although if one didn’t know her, one wouldn’t guess; she is resolutely unstarry, but giving one of the strongest, invisibly actor-ly performances to be found in the brothers’ filmography. The other difference, less obvious, is that aside from the ending of Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence, 2008), this may be the brother’s most blatant foray into metaphor. Cotillard is a recovering depressive, and the situation in which she finds herself directly mirrors the subjective experience of living with bi-polar disorder: her situation is impossible, and absurd, as her factory boss has forced her 16 colleagues to decide between letting her keep her job, or instead laying her off to keep their €1000 bonus. Thus, she must spend the weekend going through the same seemingly hopeless process again and again, visiting her colleagues to try and persuade them to vote for her, an exercise that alternately produces hope and optimism, or despair and self-loathing, resolution to continue, or surrender to its futility. Whether she has won or lost in the end is unclear, and it is all rather effective if, as usual, quite depressing, the message being that making the effort is an end in itself, because what else can you do?

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is yet more ripe for metaphorical interpretation, although the subtextual wellspring is intriguingly unclear (and the subject could not be more different from that of the Dardennes’ film). Following a backseat make-out session, teenaged Jay learns from her seducer of the existence of an ‘it’ that – guess what? – follows, and kills, unless its quarry has sex with someone else, in which case it will turn its attention to the new partner and, if successful in killing them, then return to pursue its previous prey. That it moves slowly yet inexorably, can take the form of any humanoid known or unknown to those it follows, creepy or benign, and is invisible to everyone else, is effectively exploited for chills and shocks; the set-up inevitably lends itself, however, to repetition, and an impossibility of ending the film in any satisfactory way, opting instead for weakly-presented ambiguity. More interesting is that just as the production design is deliberately unspecific, evoking the 1980s but carefully out-of-time, so the metaphorical import of the conceit is left nebulous – one can’t lay STDs on it, nor distinguish whether high school kids should have sex as soon as possible to rid themselves of something or other, or avoid sex completely to avoid catching it in the first place. It is another example (after the ending of Black Coal, Thin Ice) of empty suggestiveness rather than intriguing implication, but more successfully so, and given the originality of the premise (alarmingly, taken from the director’s recurring childhood dream), competent direction, photography, and performances, the film ends up more or less succeeding in spite of itself (and in spite of the derivative ominous-synth-bass-chords-under-arpeggiator score).

There seems to be less on offer from the fascinating underground of Argentina than there was a few years ago, which is a great shame (I am waiting with baited breath for the new Mariano Llinás film La flor [The Flower]). However, a middle-ground independent cinema seems to be developing to counter the state-funded, usually-starring-Ricardo-Darín product, that is certainly better than nothing. Pedro Almodóvar-produced Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales, 2014) is the debut feature from TV director Damián Szifrón, and the background shows, with sharp, bright photography from DP Javier Julia, and several ad-ready, affluent settings. The presentation is a cover, however, for absurdist black humour, across six unconnected tales of increasingly whatever-can-go-wrong-will. The direction is impeccable, the escalating chaos neatly handled, and much of the film is genuinely amusing; but Szifrón’s fondness for killing off his characters, and the suspicion that he has contempt to one degree or another for every single one of them (even Darín’s accidental folk-hero) leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth, the whole glossy enterprise suggesting a film-maker who wants to have his cake and eat it.

As an Orson Welles nut, I was intrigued to see the new documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014). There are so many by now, that what more can one say? Nothing, as it turns out, although what director Chuck Workman has done is cram a great deal of material into 94 minutes, such that aficionados will unconsciously fill in the gaps, and newcomers may be forgiven for thinking they now know the whole story. But gaps there are aplenty (most glaringly, given the title, Welles as magician), as Workman races from one obvious beat to another, covering several interesting films (Mr Arkadin, 1955; Chimes at Midnight, 1965) with footage alone (and barely touching F for Fake, 1973 or The Immortal Story, 1968); parading the usual stories and talking heads, albeit in new interviews, offering little in the way of thesis or insight; and slathering it all in bland-to-inappropriate music. A couple of rare snippets (make-up test stills for the unmade Heart of Darkness, actual footage of the 1937 ‘voodoo’ Macbeth stage production), and a delightful random montage of Oja Kodar’s opinions are slim consolation. Yes, a workman-like primer, mostly uninspirational, but for its ambition to all-encompassing scope, probably destined to become the standard Welles documentary. Not what he deserves.

No great surprises either in Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014), as absurdly, self-deprecatorily amusing as one might expect, a mockumentary following the Wellington, New Zealand, flat-sharing lifestyle of a group of affable vampires. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner (2014) is likewise hardly a revelation, although does boast a barnstorming central performance from Timothy Spall, totally deserving the Cannes award for his grunting, bandy-legged gorilla creation, and gorgeous Turner-suggestive evocations of natural light in long-term Leigh DP Dick Pope’s photography, to offset the inherent stuffiness of both the period setting and Leigh’s direction.

After the surprising control and effectiveness of Katalin Varga (2009) and the empty fetishism of Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I was curious to see which way Peter Strickland would swing in his third feature, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). The answer was towards the hermetic world of Sound Studio, although this time with a mite more substance. If the shade of art-porn director Radley Metzger hovers around the fringes, so too do the fairytale mittel-European environments, pastoral scoring, and febrile sexuality of Juraz Herz (Morgiana, 1972; Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970), and the general would-be-sophisticate chocolate-box tone of the 1970s Emmanuelle series. Such emotional content as there is resides in the relationship between the two female lepidopterists (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna) who spend much of their days and nights enacting mistress and servant role-plays, to gradual dissatisfaction. But once again, Strickland is far less concerned with the people than with production design (impeccable), semi-abstract camera effects, and esoterica – a great long list of insects and field recording data makes up the bulk of the credits; the title (unexplained) is a species of butterfly – and it is thanks only to Knudsen’s finely modulated performance that the film breathes with any real life at all. Strickland is clearly a distinct and powerful talent, and has once again created a strange and glittering film, but the literally superficial, Tumblrcore approach of worrying at his various fetishes will produce diminishing returns unless he can also recapture some of the humanity of his debut.

Another disappointment was Plemya (The Tribe, 2014) from Ukranian director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy, despite its winning the festival’s special jury award. Its appeal is easy to account for, however, since on one level it is a remarkable achievement – as the opening title card warns, it is a film told entirely through sign language, with no subtitles or translation, and many of the young performers give vivid performances (particularly when angry) in frequently impressive, lengthy takes. It is centred around a group of youths at a boarding school for the deaf, but is little concerned with deafness per se. Instead it follows a group of young men and two women as they go about various nefarious and well-practised night-time crimes, mugging, pimping, and whoring. The overall effect, however, is simply that of another film enamoured of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, with little concern for character or emotion. This cannot be blamed on the sign language, as there are moments when such elements have a chance to blossom, but the unflinching abortion scene seems designed more to shock than provoke empathy; and the last-minute conflict of the sullen central character results in a denouement of cold, hard violence that is abrupt and excessive, but nothing more.

So this festival was not stellar for me, although of course I could have seen an entirely different set of films and perhaps be surprised by a hidden gem. But not much about such a recycling of other festivals is hidden, and if one chooses one can look at Variety, Hollywood Reporter, or Indiewire reviews for previous outings from almost every single title. I had not been intrigued by the coverage of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) – call it fear of a slow cinema, or rather, of a pointlessly self-indulgent slow cinema – and suspicious of the star/producer/composer credits for Viggo Mortenson, but it turned out to be a captivating, delightful treat, and I was unprepared for its magic. It is slow, to be sure, but measured rather than molasses: the opening scenes of conversation between soldiers and Mortenson’s surveyor, sitting on the moss-heavy coastal rocks of Patagonia, surrounded by large brown sea lions, plays like a cousin to Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas (1976) or Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), quotidian conversation slowly delivered as though the words are coming from somewhere else (echoes of Herzog’s 1972 Der Zorn Gottes too, in the precious jewel of a daughter amongst this small band of men in the wilderness). But the film soon reveals itself to be something more like a western on the pampas, far closer to those of Monte Hellman (or even Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971), as a man’s quest across the wilderness gradually loses its object, momentum, and context, ending up in a place of otherworldly magic before evaporating into thin air. The portentous late-on query (repeated) ‘what makes life function and move forward?’ is offset by the emphasis on ‘a man is not all men’, and even a coda that hints that all may be a dream is more mysterious than infuriating. After a week of decent but uninspiring viewing, it was a thrill to see something that dared reach for the spiritual and the metaphysical, and which succeeds with such single-minded simplicity.

(originally published on

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