London Film Festival 2016: The Ghoul

This psychological thriller appears to be half a film, or at least one episode of a ten-part TV series, and perhaps that is the point. It sees incompleteness as profundity, ambiguity as intelligence. The unreliable narrator is a timeworn device in contemporary fictions, and there is usually fun to be had in second-guessing character motivations. The Ghoul of the title is itself untraceable – a manifestation of mental illness, a supernatural entity, or a physical being bent by evil machinations. But by possibly being all of these, intrigue in the film is diluted. The allusions are unexplored rather than subtle, and the Ghoul becomes supplanted in our minds by the Goya etching, though the plot offers little in the way of monsters and less in the way of reason.

The opening is impressive: a suitably reticent detective, Chris (Tom Meeten), investigates a domestic crime scene. An intruder has shot two residents repeatedly. A basic forensics check estimates the pair did not die instantly; in fact, they inexplicably continued to approach the assailant after multiple, undoubtedly fatal, gunshot wounds. First-time filmmaker Gareth Tunley produces a sharp introduction here, and the scene seems to promise a conventional police procedural. Our expectations are quickly upended, however: Chris, he of moody silences and downward head tilt, begins to work undercover, attending the sessions of some dodgy psychotherapists (Niamh Cusack, Geoffrey McGivern) who are somehow linked to the case. Chris meets Coulson (Rufus Jones), a bipolar sufferer also under the therapists’ care, who believes that the therapists’ motives transcend the merely criminal.

Tunley clearly joys in obfuscating Chris’s fluctuating descent into deceit, the occult and clinical illness. But while discarding a conventional plot structure, Tunley never truly embraces the strangeness of his protagonist’s psyche. The suburban noir setting is altered by camera shifts that are irritating rather than bizarre, the representation of depression sometimes feels slightly broad, and one of the supposedly sinister characters spouts Partridge-isms that induce hilarity instead of unease. Budget constraints are no doubt an issue in some respects, but the film’s lack of focus seems to run deeper: it is dour when it should be arresting and subdued where it should be fantastical.

Verdict:

Joseph Owen

The Ghoul does not have a UK release date yet.

For further information about the 60th London Film Festival visit here.

Read more reviews from the festival here.

Watch the trailer for The Ghoul here:

London Film Festival 2016: Die Geträumten [The Dreamed Ones]

That both the lives of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan ended tragically and separately adds a significant poignancy to the pair’s postwar correspondence. Fed through years of creative antagonisms, personal recriminations and persistent rivalries, the poets’ love letters articulate an experience particular to central Europe in the 20th century – the precarious space described by Heidegger, the countries caught in the pincers of untrammelled modernity, and the Jewish people at once reclaiming, reconciling and remembering the horrors of the Holocaust.

Director Ruth Beckermann fuses together a trained, documentary sensibility and a scripted reconstruction of the poets’ intellectual and emotional sparring. Two actors, played by Anja Plaschg and Laurence Jupp, verbalise, interpret and wrestle with the poets’ decades-long dialogue. Jupp is actorly, confident and good-humoured; Plaschg is raw, emotive and sombrely thoughtful. Each plays two parts: poet and actor. Beckermann’s direction emphasises physical proximity and intimacy as a way for the actors to transcend their roles: Bachmann and Celan’s written relationship is prefaced by a brief love affair, never rekindled; Plaschg and Jupp’s relationship is forged only in the intense immediacy of the recording studio, a professional and artistic connection unconsummated. The camera imposes itself on the actors’ faces, capturing the subtleties of expression as each begins to embody the poets’ experience – that European experience – coloured by their own fluctuating and spontaneous frissons. At one point, Plaschg reads aloud Bachmann’s angst as “collapsing under the burdens”. This seems right: the aesthetics of horror, the age of rupture, discontinuity and shock.

But what can be concluded from Beckermann’s attempt to unveil the process of recording poetic transcripts, of rearticulating the past? The direction is stylish, if uninspiring; the acting is solid, if unintriguing. The premise does not convince – that we should compare the lives of Bachmann and Celan to those of a distorted Plaschg and Jupp. The European experience maintains, perhaps, but temporality is linear, not universal, and it is glib for the film to imply that Bachmann, Celan, Plaschg and Jupp can necessarily speak to one another. This may be a glorified radio play, or a curio of literary scholarship, but there is little to suggest in the material a 90-minute feature film.

Verdict:

Joseph Owen

Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones) is released in select cinemas on 2nd December 2016.

Watch the trailer for Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones) here:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/177619260

Cannes 2016: Gimme Danger

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

By most accounts The Stooges revolutionised rock music in the late 60s and early 70s. Jim Jarmusch, in close collaboration with frontman Iggy Pop, offers a relatively conventional documentary of the band’s history, encompassing the traditional rock star career fluctuations: initial musical success, the descent into drugs and – for some in the tale – a significant reversal of fortunes. Jarmusch’s evident love for the music, and his artistic respect for Iggy and the other band members, both enlivens and inhibits the film. It rollicks along at quite a pace, being both affectionate and funny towards its cast of talking heads, and the roll call of obituaries is particularly heartfelt. But the bad times are passingly referenced more than explored (although this is no hagiography), and because the story is told chronologically and mostly straight there is little space for visual or thematic invention.

For fans of The Stooges, however, this is a treat: an album-by-album analysis of the band, an in-depth exploration of the member rotation and residency changes, and a tribute to their musical influences as well as their descendants to the punk throne. But there is no doubt that Iggy is the star. His olive, defined torso appears in various states of wear throughout the film, the only constant throughout the aesthetic metamorphoses during his career. (He’s dropped the dog collar, now.) Iggy’s limber, visceral stage performances are displayed immediately, but his intelligence, articulateness, self-confidence and musical ability also shine through. However, it would have been interesting to see a slight digression into his solo career, and a larger emphasis on his personal and professional partnerships with the likes of David Bowie, which produced some of the great pop music of the late 20th century.

Gimme Danger repeatedly returns to the opening riff of The Stooges’ most famous song, I Wanna Be Your Dog, in live performances and within the soundtrack, encapsulating both the advantages and limitations of Jarmusch’s ode. The track is a brilliant showcase of the band’s seismic impact and singular talent, but it also inclines you to go elsewhere and simply listen to the music.

Cannes 2016: La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis [The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Closing Un Certain Regard for this year’s Cannes is La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis, an understated, almost minimalist, short feature written and directed by Argentinian pair Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa. Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, the film presents a succinct Orwellian narrative of one man’s unexpected and dangerous mission that takes him deep into the witching hour. There are some artful touches, and the silent, noir-like atmosphere produces several strange, tense episodes. But the film is as slight in substance as it is in running time, and the imposing grey palette rarely offers an opportunity for much visual intrigue.

Diego Velázquez stars as the titular Francisco Sanctis, an unassuming hard worker who supports his traditional nuclear family in 1970s Argentina, a country which remains under the rule of military dictatorship. He has no evident political allegiances. In fact, middle-aged Francisco is the archetype of normality, perhaps even banality. His dreams extend to a job promotion; instead he receives a novelty gift box from his employers, despite his continued excellence and efficiency in the workplace. One evening he is given surprising information about two individuals who will “disappear”. Out of character, Francis is compelled to help, and his journey commences across Buenos Aires and into the night.

Velázquez adequately conveys first Francisco’s confusion towards his burden and subsequently his quiet determination to complete the ad hoc obligation. The apparently overriding metaphor of Argentina’s dictatorship is not sharply drawn out, however, and the general effect of the film is muted rather than thought-provoking. The production values are low, with some scenes, particularly those which take place in the car, appearing stagy and amateurish. There is a germ of an interesting idea regarding state authoritarianism and political repression, but this minor effort cannot quite locate its significance nor satisfyingly portray its consequences.

Cannes 2016: The Last Face

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Cannes has produced its first unqualified disaster. Sean Penn’s The Last Face plays out like a satire of terrible Sean Penn films: a risible love story, crude and incurious politics, unintentionally laugh-out-loud dialogue, and a highly questionable white guilt agenda viewed through the prism of gung-ho humanitarian intervention. It resembles an advert for UN peacekeeping. It is remarkably bad. The disparity between Penn’s earnestness and his filmmaking ability is galling, and for a film that is so po-faced it achieves the distinction of being frequently boring but also intermittently hilarious.

Events are told in flashback, as the director of an international aid agency Wren Petersen (played by Charlize Theron, who looks for the nearest exit at every opportunity) prepares to speak at a lavish awards ceremony. She recalls her past work for an emergency relief NGO during a barely identified civil conflict in Africa, meanwhile contemplating her relationship with the roguish Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem), a brilliant field doctor. This love affair becomes the fulcrum of the film, subordinating the themes of geopolitics and war to a romanticised backdrop, acting as a mere inconvenience for their fated bond. For a story supposedly about them, the black characters barely get a chance to speak. One climactic scene occurs so clumsily that the emotional resonance is nonexistent. There is further intended to be some sort of ideological tension between Wren and Leon, though any possible conflict of ideas is demonstrated through the pair’s regularly inaudible, semi-articulate growls and ludicrous histrionics. The politics are juvenile, the love story laughable.

There is a lot more wrong. Two supporting characters, Ellen and Dr Mehmet Love, played respectively by Adèle Exarchopoulos (a former Cannes winner, no less) and Jean Reno, are reduced to ill-conceived bubbles of oxygen. Both draw the biggest gasps of incredulity. Ellen’s shock revelation is inserted halfway through from a different planet, and Dr Love delivers excruciating pearls of wisdom, including one on romance: “It is not grabbing. It is loving.” Often after lines of this ilk Penn produces a close-up of the other actors. A look of dumbfounded numbness is the stock expression. No one knows what anyone is talking about, least Penn himself, who insistently uses an out-of-focus lens perhaps to demonstrate the characters’ myopic emotional state. It looks terrible and is a magnet of irritation. Elsewhere, teeth brushing passes as a motif, which optimistically sounds avant garde but categorically is not. Some of the blame must be attached to the screenwriter Erin Dignam, whose screenplay manages to display not one ounce of wit, imagination or self-awareness, producing some astonishingly transparent, convoluted and tortured narration. In this film, nothing is sacred. An embarrassment.

Cannes 2016: Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku [After The Storm]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here sporadically. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

 

Writer and director Hirokazu Kore-Eda serves up a contemporary tale of domestic split, familial responsibility and emotional closure, deftly handling moments of candid humour along with scenes of poignant seriousness. This is a genuinely funny and sometimes touching film, and Kirin Kiki as Ryota’s elderly mother Yoshiko is close to a revelation: tricky, sharp, humane and sensitive as she comforts and berates her son for his life decisions.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is the hapless man-child at the centre of the story: an unorganised novelist with a gambling addiction, still trading on a writing prize won over a decade before, now unable to keep up payments on his young son’s child support or edge closer to winning the affections of his elegant ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Make). He is a part-time private detective (and not a bad one), refusing a job writing manga comics so to preserve his commitment to quality literature. There has not been much in the way of new material lately. The death of his father and an incoming typhoon, however, gives Ryota the opportunity to rebuild ties with his family, as the storm encloses them in his mother’s house. Grievances, recriminations and disputes ensue, though the film is keen to depict these in minor key. There is barely a shout among the conversations, as the night develops into morning.

Kore-Eda expertly judges the comedy in each scene; he has an acute ear for surprising, witty dialogue and is helped along by fine performances from his cast. The film eschews sentimentality, never forgiving Ryota for his parental and career negligence nor judging him too harshly either. Taiyô Yoshizawa plays the son Shingo with an appropriate mixture of confusion and innocence. He struggles to understand the arrangement between his parents, which mirrors Ryota’s difficulty accepting the new settlement. Despite her intrinsic capacity for compassion, only Kyoko is desperate to move on. It is testament to the craft of the film that it seems impossible to deny her this dignity.

Cannes 2016: Bacalaureat [Graduation]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Former Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu returns to Cannes with Bacalaureat, an engrossing study of conflict between public morals and necessary compromises. Another Romanian entry to this year’s competition, the slowly unfurling tale depicts the insidious effects of endemic corruption within the Eastern European country. The thin end of the wedge is represented through nepotism and small favours, which spiral deeper into blackmail attempts and criminal injustice. But this is mostly a film about fathers and daughters: a parent’s choice of offering paternalism and positive liberty, and a child’s desire for independence and autonomy.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo, a respected doctor in Cluj with a network of useful contacts across a variety of public institutions: in health, education and the police. His daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus, of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon) is a brilliant student, due to earn a conditional scholarship in psychology at an esteemed English university. The day before her final exams she is assaulted and raped outside her school by an unknown assailant. Men, including her father, emphasise the assault; women, including her mother Magda (Lia Bugnar), do not dare downplay the fact that it was rape, despite the apparent flaccidity of the attacker. This fracture is only the beginning of a severance. Romeo’s concern for his daughter is twofold: obvious anguish at her injuries, but a further acknowledgement of the importance of her upcoming exams. Sensing Eliza’s disillusionment and distress, he attempts to circumvent the rules of the process, enlisting help from various high-ups to whom backhand deals are common currency. The film then carefully and complexly attempts to pinpoint whose best interests are served by such machinations.

Mungiu fascinatingly and painstakingly prods at the moral dilemmas that dominate Romeo’s life. Romeo cares deeply for his family, but is a constant philanderer. He believes in teaching honesty and respect, but eschews both traits when the occasion suits. As he castigates a young boy for throwing stones, we see an explanation for Eliza’s new-found resistance and disdain for her father. There are problems: the middle section is extremely cluttered, with several plot strands later left by the wayside, and Dragus’s performance as Eliza is a strangely muted one. These are minor issues though; this is thoughtful, absorbing filmmaking.