Reviewed today: Bad Genius, Funny Cow, Grain, A Matter Of Life And Death, You Were Never Really Here.
It's the last day of the festival, meaning the last four times I'll get to see this thing. (Plus two more outings for its close personal friends, this and this.) However, there's the downside of an 11.30 start in the West End on a Sunday morning, which is a real test of character, or something. It's a test I only manage to pass thanks to two strong black Americanos before the screening. Lynne Ramsay, on the other hand, kind of fails it: she comes on stage at the start to nervously thank us for coming out for her film, but doesn't answer any questions and doesn't come out for the hinted-at Q&A afterwards. Lucky her film's so damn good, then.
It's based on a book by Jonathan Ames, who I only really know from his funny HBO series Bored To Death. This, it has to be said, is a lot less funny. It's the story of Joe (Joachim Phoenix, who's in town but doesn't even make it out of bed for an introduction, the lazy get), a man who finds and/or hurts people for money. He's hired to track down a young girl who's been abducted into an underage sex ring. He retrieves her, and it all turns out to be surprisingly uncomplicated. And then it suddenly gets complicated.
Ramsay's handling of tone here is extraordinary. At the very beginning, as we see Joe cleaning up after his previous job, we're shown just enough detail to suspect the absolute worst about him. There's a similar restraint to multiple aspects of the story, from the brief glimpses of Joe's backstory to the way in which much of the violence happens just offscreen: but when she needs to show violence, she doesn't hold back. At the same time, even when we hit one of the darkest points of the story, it's immediately followed by a surprisingly warm little moment that you simply wouldn't believe if I told you about it here.
All the elements come together magnificently: Phoenix's multi-layered performance, the razor-sharp editing, the lush photography. Even Jonny Greenwood's typically showoffy score works brilliantly (more than it did in, say, There Will Be Blood), becoming an integral part of the complex sound design. And best of all, the film moves like a rocket - it's only 90-odd minutes long, and you feel you could have had more at the end, without being disappointed by the way the story is resolved. I think we may have my highlight of the festival right here.
3.00pm: Grain [trailer]
It's almost comforting these days to spend some time in a fictional dystopia caused by Science Gone Bad, rather than our current real-life dystopia caused by Twats With Daddy Issues. Here's the situation - the planet has gambled everything on GM crops, only to find they've all failed within a few years. The human race has to be split up using a form of genetic apartheid just to keep itself going. One scientist - Cemil Akman (Ermin Bravo) - foretold all of this several years ago, but unfortunately he was last seen somewhere between Untended Nature and The Dead Lands, which is the sort of phrase people tend to repeat in this sort of film until it starts sounding daft. Anyway, fellow scientist Erol Erin (Jean Marc-Barr) goes on a quest to track Akman down, to find out if he has a solution.
The monochrome widescreen shots of a post-apocalyptic landscape bring to mind Luc Besson's debut The Last Battle, but by contrast director Semih Kaplanoğlu (I'm only going to say it once) has some scientific and philosophical substance to go with the style. That style is terrific, if a little derivative in parts: all white surfaces and forced symmetry in the early city sequences, changing to greys and chaos once Erin's crossed the border out of civilisation. There are some extraordinary individual images in this film, but they're always there to push the story further rather than provide cheap visual thrills.
In a way, the early part of the film is more engaging, as we're dropped in at the deep end and forced to work out the state of society from the few clues we're given on screen. The second half becomes a more conventional quest narrative, but it's given interest by the dreamlike atmosphere that the director creates. It's an atmosphere that gives me a couple of problems with the ending - sometimes, you can have too much ambiguity - but there's an awful lot to admire here.
6.00pm: A Matter Of Life And Death [clip]
There was that time all those years ago when Apocalypse Now played at the LFF (in its Redux version), and I quoted the Time Out review of Once Upon A Time In The West: "after eleven viewings, objectivity is out: we're talking favourite films here, so only superlatives will do." Well, it's the same story here. (Actually, it would be the same if we were talking about Once Upon A Time In The West, too.)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's classic is set at the tail end of World War 2, and starts with pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) having his plane shot out of the sky during a dogfight. He bails out at a thousand feet, with no parachute, and somehow survives. Is it a miracle? No, it's a cock-up: he was supposed to die. By the time the people in charge of that sort of thing find out, Peter's already fallen in love with June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator who talked him down. He's meant to drop everything and go to heaven where he belongs, but his new responsibilities make it hard for him to agree to that.
Where to start? Well, given that I've recently seen Prism, the just-finished-but-keep-an-eye-out-in-case-it-transfers play about his later years, let's start with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose lighting in both monochrome and colour - not to mention all the stages in between - is ravishing. I have a vague childhood memory of the first time I saw AMOLAD, on a black and white TV, and just about working out from dialogue clues the sort of tricks that were being played with the colour scheme. When I subsequently saw the film for a second time, but now on a colour TV, I remember being genuinely stunned by the lighting in the film's final scene - I can't explain why, but it seemed incredibly modern in the way it was used. For this screening (and a subsequent UK theatrical re-release this December) the film's been restored in a 4K digital print, and Cardiff's work looks as good as it possibly could.
But really, this film is Powell and Pressburger's baby. Considering that it started life as a propaganda piece, intended to encourage better collaboration between Britain and America, it's amazing how much life it's got (though not that amazing, given the people involved). The English character is gently but brilliantly sent up - from Carter's description of his politics as "Conservative by nature, Labour by experience" to the suggestion that cricket commentaries are some sort of torture device - and the Americans are ribbed to a similar degree. I've always loved how perfect the plotting of the film is: for all my complaints about the ambiguity in Grain, Powell and Pressburger present two alternative interpretations of this story - either Carter is hallucinating the whole thing, or it's all really happening to him - and square off every dangling loose end so that both are equally possible. (The business with the chess book ties everything up with a cheeky flourish.)
I'm not sure if I've seen AMOLAD eleven or more times, but it's still true: objectivity is out, it's one of the unassailable great works of British cinema. And I even got to spot something new in it this time round. When Carter is travelling up on the stairway to heaven which gave the film its American title, he passes the statues of many great people from history, with their names carved on the base so we know exactly who they are. Thanks to some accidental - or, possibly, incredibly deliberate - framing, we can see that one of the statues is of Mohammed, but we never see any higher than its base. That's a bullet dodged right there.
8.40pm: Funny Cow [official Facebook]
So that's another festival over. The final tally: one programme of shorts, one on-stage talk event, one virtual reality installation, and 36 features. If I had to identify a current cinematic trend from those 36 features, it would be this: chaptering. 9 Fingers, Word Of God, King Of Peking, My Generation, On The Beach At Night Alone and Funny Cow are all subdivided into anything between two and eleven parts, each with their own separate title card. It would make DVD mastering a piece of cake, if people really bought DVDs any more.
The last of those films complicates matters a bit more: each of its individual chapters flits between four or five different timelines in the life of a woman who's only ever referred to as Funny Cow, played by Maxine Peake. Brought up in an abusive working-class family, she learns to cope with her isolation by cracking jokes. When the cycle continues into adulthood, as she hooks up with a series of wildly unsuitable men, she weaponises that defence mechanism by attempting to break into standup comedy.
Tony Pitts' script wants us to think that it's artfully fragmented, but it comes across more as a bit of a mess: the multiple timelines never really connect, and we're left at the end feeling that there are holes in the story which have been casually glossed over. To be honest, despite the Scope aspect ratio, its wifebeaty drunkparenty cliches feel more like TV drama, at least in terms of visual ambition and dramatic scope. (Director Adrian Shergold is mostly known as a television director, so that kind of makes sense.)
Luckily, the performances help rescue it. Peake is, as is generally the case, sensational: she grasps the multiple aspects of her character and plays them to the hilt, even keeping our sympathy when we discover she's becoming an unreconstructed 1970s club comic, with all that entails. Top drawer names like Paddy Considine and Stephen Graham excel as some of the terrible men in her life (and writer Pitts also puts in a disturbingly intense turn as the worst of them). There are some exquisitely daft cameos from the likes of Vic Reeves, John Bishop, and the least likely eighties pop star you'd expect to see on a list like this. Not to mention Richard Hawley, who simultaneously channels his inner club singer onscreen and provides a pretty song score offscreen. It's not quite enough to make Funny Cow a great finish to our LFF 2017, but I guess it'll have to do.
There will now be a short intermission while we gather our thoughts. Expect to see those thoughts in The Wrap Party, coming soon.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Bad Genius [official Facebook]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Entertaining story of Thai exam shenanigans, told in a thriller style, very slightly let down by its ending.