Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Color out of Space

London Film Festival review #8

Richard Stanley made a couple of interesting cult films in the early ‘90s (Hardware and Dust Devil) then somehow managed to recruit Marlon Brando to star in what was to be his third film, The Island of Dr Moreau. Unfortunately, the casting of Brando meant that the budget ballooned and the money men who were keeping a close eye on Stanley became nervous at his lack of experience. They fired him and replaced him with John Frankenheimer, who battled with Brando to complete a film almost nobody liked. There’s a fascinating documentary about this entitled Lost Soul, which can be viewed on Youtube.

For a very long time, it appeared as if Stanley would never direct another feature, but here he is after a break of 27 years. The fact that he has chosen a story by H.P. Lovecraft as the basis for his new film makes it even more tantalising.

Color out of Space tells the story of Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage), a man who has fled life in the city, relocating his family in the middle of nowhere and trying to survive by farming. One day, a meteor lands close to his house, bringing with it a mysterious force which changes everything.

Unfortunately, Stanley’s film fails to work for a number of reasons. The family’s situation is already pretty weird before the meteor lands – instead of the more traditional farm animals, Gardner keeps alpacas, which he enjoys milking every morning, and he has a mad hippie living in a shed on his land. The alien force itself is too ill-defined to present an appropriate sense of threat, appearing variously as a shape-shifting Thing-type monster, a giant purple mantis, and a kind of disease that infects the plant life.

Some of the dialogue is frankly terrible, and the family’s reactions to the mayhem that ensues often feel ludicrous, prompting frequent unintended laughs from the preview audience at the National Film Theatre. Cage does not help matters by giving a performance that is way over the top even for him.

Color out of Space is not badly made, but it is fatally misconceived and seems destined for a future as the kind of cult bad movie fans love to snigger at.

The Painted Bird

London Film Festival review #7

The Painted Bird is one of those rare films which is simultaneously so ambitious and so uncommercial it is difficult to see how the filmmakers managed to find the backing to make it. The basic premise itself is nothing new – a boy of around nine years of age is separated from his parents in Eastern Europe during World War Two as the Germans are heading for Russia, and goes through hell as he attempts to find them again. This subject matter is quite similar to two previous masterpieces, Ivan’s Childhood and Come and See, and to some extent The Painted Bird feels like a throwback to the days when people made such serious films about the war. What differentiates it from these earlier works is the approach. Although director Vaclav Marhoul takes us on a harrowing journey, the violence in the film is stylised rather than realistic, and some of the images we see are more reminiscent of the gothic horror genre than films dealing with military conflict. Vladimir Smutny's black-and-white ‘scope photography makes every frame a work of art, and the lack of colour helps to make some of the bloodier scenes easier to take.

Marhoul has made only two previous features, neither of which were very high-profile, but this latest is clearly the work of a master. Based on an autobiographical novel by Jerzy Kosinski, it has an episodic structure which sees the silent and unnamed boy (a devastating performance by Petr Kotlar) repeatedly going from one terrible situation to another for almost three hours. This is a risky approach for a film, but somehow it works, and every member of the film festival audience I saw it with watched in rapt attention throughout the entire running time.

There are a handful of well-known actors in the cast, among them Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Julian Sands and Harvey Keitel, the latter of whom is rather obviously dubbed. The episodic nature of the story means that none of them are in it for very long, but all make an impact in various ways.

The Painted Bird is a misanthropic masterpiece, an instant classic packed full of memorable images, and a film that, once seen, will never be forgotten.

Waiting for the Barbarians

London Film Festival review #6

Columbian director Ciro Guerra has already proven himself to be one of the most talented and interesting directors working today with his previous four feature films. Although Embrace of the Serpent remains the best-known of these, Wandering Shadows, The Wind Journeys and Birds of Passage are all highly impressive in their own ways.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Guerra’s English language debut, is certain to enhance his reputation even further, and likely to win him some major awards. Based on a novel of the same name by J.M. Coetzee, who has written the screenplay himself, the film stars Mark Rylance as the magistrate at an unidentified colonial outpost around the turn of the 20th-century. The magistrate is a kind and decent sort hoping to live out the years until his retirement in as peaceful a way as possible. Unfortunately for him, a vain and sadistic police officer arrives and sets out to make a name for himself by pre-emptively quashing a rebellion he claims to believe the natives are planning, thereby shattering the uneasy peace. This character is memorably played by Johnny Depp in his most villainous role to date.  The other big star present is Robert Pattinson, who has a minor part as Depp’s right-hand minion, and does not appear until well into the film.

Guerra was recruited by the producers, so this may not be his most personal project, but colonialism is clearly a theme that interests him, as we can see from Embrace of the Serpent. Although the filmmakers have made an unusual decision in shooting the film in Morocco but using Mongolian actors as the ‘barbarians’,  it is to their credit that this geographical impossibility never jars. Rylance was apparently on board before the director, who said at the London premiere that he was very pleased with the choice as the only other actor he could imagine playing the character was Alec Guinness. This is probably Rylance’s best film role yet – the magistrate is seldom off-screen, and the character’s status changes dramatically throughout the film, allowing the actor to display considerable depth and range in a performance which never falters. At the end, the magistrate is forced to question whether he is really as good a man as he had thought he was – a moment which could easily be overplayed, but is not in this case.

Waiting for the Barbarians is always absorbing, sometimes shocking, and often moving. It is helped in no small part by the stunning cinematography of Chris Menges and the perfectly-judged musical score by Giampiero Ambrosi.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Family Romance, LLC

London Film Festival review #5

This documentary from the prolific Werner Herzog (his first made in Japan) follows Yuichi Ishii, a man who owns a small company called Family Romance, which supplies a rather unusual service: impersonation. The main part of the film concerns Ishii pretending to be a 12-year-old girl’s long-estranged father, but we also see him undertaking a variety of odd roles for other clients.

Despite the overall strangeness of the situations presented here, what makes this film worthwhile is not so much the laughs that it generates along the way, but the fact that it is also very moving. Ishii seems to be a well-intentioned man who wants to bring a little happiness into these lonely lives, but at times it becomes difficult for him not to become personally involved, and he clearly has doubts about continuing. 

Japan gives Herzog plenty to play with visually, and he wisely keeps himself completely off camera for a change, not even providing narration, but letting his subjects speak for themselves. As some of the people filmed are supposedly unaware of the reality of the situation but are co-operating with a film crew, this does raise the question of how much of what we see is genuinely spontaneous, and it seems that most (if not all) of the scenes featured are staged re-enactments. However, what matters more is that Herzog has made one of his most affecting and least self-indulgent films, and probably his best since Grizzly Man. Having said that, the director does characteristically linger on a shot of some robotic fish for what seems a very long time.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Guest of Honour

London Film Festival review #4

Atom Egoyan’s latest stars David Thewlis as a British ex-pat food inspector living in Canada and married to a Brazilian woman. His character is already deceased at the beginning of the movie. The flashback narrative sees him trying to find out why his music teacher daughter has allowed herself to serve an unnecessary prison sentence. 

Egoyan takes a lot of risks with his complex story and structure here, but for the most part it pays off, and the unexpected twists and turns of the plot make for an enjoyable journey.  A great tragi-comic performance by Thewlis is one of the main reasons to watch this film, but there are incidental pleasures throughout, especially in the often surreal vignettes of Thewlis going about his job inspecting a variety of weird but seldom wonderful restaurants. In support, Luke Wilson does well as a hip priest, as does newcomer Laysla De Oliveira as the daughter. The film looks and sounds great too. 

By turns funny, moving and strange, like his earlier offerings, The Adjuster and ExoticaGuest of Honour is a one-of-a-kind movie only Egoyan could have made, and also one of his very best.  

The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain

London Film Festival review #3

This first feature by director Ridham Janve is one for films of slow cinema only. Happily, I am one of these. The film is about some shepherds living an isolated existence high up in the Dhauladhar region of the Indian Himalayas. The two main characters are an old man who complains constantly about everything and his younger helper, who deals with the loneliness and boredom by drinking himself senseless. There is some humour to be had from these two, but this is no comedy.

One day, a military jet crashes in the mountains. Hearing that the authorities are offering a reward, a number of the shepherds go in search of it. Of course, the crashed plane represents the gold-laden sheep of the title, which comes from an old Indian parable curiously similar to that of the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece. However, this is certainly no Jason and the Argonauts and, if I have suggested that this film has anything resembling a plot, I apologise. Those seeking a conventional narrative should look elsewhere. At the screening I attended, an elderly couple huffed and puffed their way out after half an hour but, for those with a more open mind, this film offers considerable rewards.

No other feature film in the history of cinema has been set in this remote and extraordinary region of the Earth, and Janve and cameraman Saurabh Monga have captured some very beautiful and haunting images that linger in the mind long after the film is over. The amount of equipment they were able to take to the location was severely limited, and a total absence of electricity meant they had to charge their cameras using solar power. Many of the things they had planned to shoot apparently turned out to be impossible, so the fact that they managed to complete such a fully-formed piece of art is remarkable.

All of the actors featured are non-professionals from the Gaddi community; playing versions of themselves, Janve elicits entirely natural performances from all. The subtle ambient score by Jered Sorkin never intrudes, but accentuates the mysterious power of nature – this is a place where humans seem about as significant as ants as they scramble among the broken boulders strewn across the mountain slopes, and where man is an intruder in a landscape that will endure long after he is gone.

A great film.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Song of Names

London Film Festival review #2

1986: Martin (Tim Roth) is a classical music impresario attempting to track down his adopted brother, Dovidl (Clive Owen), a Jewish refugee and violin prodigy who disappeared 35 years previously.

Introducing this film at the London Film Festival, the producer revealed that his mother had given him a copy of the novel by Norman Lebrecht, and he had loved it so much that he became determined to film it. As the story is set amid the world of classical music, director François Girard must have seemed an obvious choice, having made mostly music-related films such as Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. Given that the screenplay is by Jeffrey Caine, who successfully adapted John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener some years ago, this is clearly a film produced by people who know what they’re doing. However, it suffers from a number of shortcomings.

The story takes place in several time periods, meaning that there are three actors playing Martin at different ages, and another three playing Dovidl. This would not necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that it’s difficult to see how the posh young Martins played by Misha Handley and Gerran Howell could possibly have grown up to be Tim Roth, who doesn’t seem posh at all. There’s a similar lack of consistency in the three portrayals of Dovidl, although Luke Doyle (who plays him as a child [see pic]) rather steals this movie with his amusing arrogance.

There are also issues with the story, and the contrived plot begins to creak more and more noticeably as the film proceeds. Once the central mystery has been solved, the film really has nowhere else to go, and it winds up with a couple of thuddingly predictable ‘twists’ before finally sputtering out.

Roth and Owen are fine considering their questionable casting, while the other performances to note are the musical ones. The virtuoso violin parts are all played by Ray Chen, while the most affecting scene in the picture is when a rabbi sings from the titular song. This sequence is genuinely moving, mainly because the singing is extraordinary.*

Overall, this middle class musical mystery is well-made and fairly absorbing but ultimately collapses like a house of cards.

*Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to confirm the name of the singer.