Reviewed today: The Cave, Fire Will Come, Waiting For The Barbarians, White Snake.
12.30pm: Waiting For The Barbarians [clip]
I'm please to report that today we get the first MIKE LEIGH KLAXON and the first TRICIA TUTTLE KLAXON of this festival, and within a few seconds of each other: they're both spotted outside the Odeon Tottenham Court Road as we head inside. Mysteriously, we don't get to see Tuttle at the screening itself, but we notice Leigh after the film making a beeline for the director of the film he's just seen. Which is nice.
The director in question is Ciro Guerra, half of the team responsible for last year's LFF hit Birds Of Passage. He's no longer working with co-director Cristina Gallego - they were literally divorced by the time Birds came out - and his first solo feature is also his first in English, not to mention his first with star actors. Mark Rylance (told you) plays the British magistrate in a small frontier town at the height of the Empire, employing a largely hands-off approach which keeps everyone more or less happy. Enter Colonel Joll, played by Johnny Depp with one of his silly English accents: combined with his pudgy face and a pair of little round sunglasses, he resembles nothing so much as a racist version of Suggs from Madness. He suspects the 'barbarians' have plans to rise up and attack, and is doing some pretty brutal interrogation work to find out. The danger is that he'll find out just how closely the magistrate is associating with the barbarians, especially the female ones.
Adapted by JM Coetzee from his own acclaimed novel, Barbarians has a similarly chaptered structure to Birds but with a more traditional and familiar story, examining colonialism in all its degrees. Unfortunately, the film adaptation has a couple of distractions that take you out of the story. One of them is Depp, who’s hard to take seriously these days despite his obvious efforts. The other is the cinematography of Chris Menges, the man responsible for some of the best-looking British films of the 1980s, making a welcome comeback after several years in apparent retirement. His imagery is utterly ravishing here, so much so that it works against the storytelling. I spent one scene marvelling at his balance between the contrasting light sources of an open fire and a window, before realising I wasn’t paying attention to what was actually happening in the shot, which leads me to suspect that what was happening wasn't quite interesting enough.
Towards the end, Barbarians starts to acquire some tragic weight, largely down to a typically detailed performance by Rylance. But by then, it's too late to pull back from the overcooked melodrama that's made up most of the story before that. This may well be the best-looking film you'll see at this year's LFF, but it could have been so much more. Maybe it'll turn out that Cristina was the better director all along.
6.20pm: White Snake [US official site]
Go big or go home, as the saying goes. Well, I’m seeing two films at the BFI IMAX this evening: is that big enough for you?
There are two reasons why the LFF squeezes a couple of screenings into the UK's biggest screen every year, and this is one of them - to give a large-scale presentation to a spectacular film that couldn't justify a full IMAX release in this country. A good example is this one: a CGI animation from China, playing in the LFF's Family section, which presumably explains why the tickets only cost ten quid.
Amp Wong and Ji Zhao's film is about a young woman in white, imaginatively called Blanca, who’s discovered unconscious by a waterfall, possessing only a jade hairpin and a bad case of amnesia. We know how this works in the movies, and the secret past we've come to expect in these situations has already been partially revealed in the pre-credits sequence: Blanca is a white snake demon who was on a mission to assassinate a baddie. Inevitably, a human - Xuan, the snake-catcher, how ironic - falls in love with her while she’s in the process of finding out who, or indeed what, she is.
To be honest, the huge canvas of the IMAX screen makes the flaws of White Snake even more apparent. You come to a film like this hoping that the Chinese would do large scale CGI fantasy differently from the West, and there are certainly images we've never seen here before - the giant three-headed bird that the bad guy rides around on, for example. There's also the cultural backbone of reincarnation and magical ritual that the story centres around, and if that proves a little impenetrable to a foreign viewer then that's entirely our problem. (Though I would point out that my own personal route into the trappings of Chinese fantasy was the 1987 film A Chinese Ghost Story, which took the time to at least offer a token explanation of its esoterica to people who were unfamiliar with it.)
But the big problems in this film are the same problems that afflict Western CGI epics: if you have the technology to create anything on screen, you shouldn't attempt to put it all up there at the same time. Far too many scenes involve thousands of things flying around in all directions, and a swooping camera moving so fast it fails to capture any of them. Combine the needless giganticism of a lot of the action scenes with the impossibility of keeping track of who we're supposed to be rooting for at any given time, and after a while you just stop caring.
Sure, the imagery is technically impressive, though Chinese animation still hasn't cracked the problem of how to make characters run convincingly rather than doing a ridiculous knees-up sort of jog. And the film actually picks up in its final scenes, where the huge effects are applied to a scene that's been stripped back to two people expressing their undying love. But while you're mostly looking at tornadoes of fire, ice, wind and dislodged scales flying around a giant screen, it's all rather dull. In conclusion, piss off with your mid-credits teaser for a sequel, we don’t want it. Actually, just one more question: why would you put a talking dog in a story and not have him say anything funny? Is that a cultural thing, too?
8.50pm: Fire Will Come [trailer]
Here's the thought process that led me to buy a ticket for Fire Will Come. Back in 2015, I saw a pair of complementary works made by the artist Ben Rivers - a site-specific installation at the former Television Centre, and a film that played at the LFF called The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers. Yes, I only went to see it for the title. They were both flawed pieces of work, but intriguing enough for me to set up a joke Twitter account in their honour: I did notice at the time, however, that a lot of their most eye-catching imagery was documentary footage from the set of another film, Oliver Laxe's Mimosas.
Four years later, and Ben Rivers has a new film at this year's LFF: Krabi, 2562. I couldn't work up the enthusiasm to see another one of his works, but noted in the description that part of it is documentary footage from the set of a commercial being shot by... Oliver Laxe. Maybe I should be looking to see what Oliver Laxe is doing instead? He also has a film at LFF 2019, you say? And it's showing at the BFI IMAX? Two tickets, please.
This is the second thing that they do with the IMAX at the LFF - use it to blow up art films to a scale way beyond what they were made for. In previous years, they've used this cinema for a couple of Godards: last year, we had Guy Maddin's The Green Fog, constructed from old archive clips expanded to the size of seven double-decker buses to become a concerto for film and video grain. Now we have Laxe’s film, following Amador (Amador Arias) as he returns to his Galician village after two years away, moving back in with his mum (Benedicta Sánchez). He keeps himself to himself: he's actively ignored by some of the villagers, and quietly mocked by others. Why? Because this is act one of the film, and Amador is Chekhov’s pyromaniac.
The title’s as much of a come-on as any exploitation flick: nobody in the audience assumes that we’re seeing this on an IMAX screen to enhance its pretty closeups of cattle accompanied by Leonard Cohen. Laxe assures us from the off that he can deliver large scale spectacle, with a jaw-dropping pre-credits sequence of a forest clearance, shot from a variety of unexpected angles. He depicts the landscape and the changing seasons beautifully, bringing out the contrast between Galicia’s shitty rainy season and the rich colours of spring.
Still, it’s obvious that he's toying with our expectations. Thanks to subtle performances from the two leads, we’re kept guessing as to what’s going on under the surface, without it ever feeling like a deliberate tease. When the fire does indeed come, Laxe delivers on all of his implied promises - the story of how he filmed these sequences is great, albeit one you'll have to find out for yourselves. But what he does after the fire is also impressive, in its own way. Fire Will Come will get a release in normal cinemas eventually, and it'll work just fine as a drama like that: but showing it in the IMAX turns it into a full-on spectacle, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to see it that way. More of this sort of thing in the future, please.
Notes From Spank’s Pals
The Cave [trailer]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave shows us footage from a hospital during the siege of Eastern Ghouta in Syria, following the doctors and nurses working there to treat the casualties of the constant bombardments outside. Many of the victims are children, and the hospital is run by Dr. Amani, a female paediatrician, and the main focus of the film. The title comes from the name given to the hospital, which used subterranean tunnels to try to give some shelter from the attacks. We follow Dr. Amani and the rest of the team working there as an endless stream of casualties are brought in, with the explosions and sounds of war outside a constant background. As well as the horrific injuries of war, many of the children are malnourished, but the hospital has neither enough food nor enough medicine, using music to try to soothe in an absence of anaesthetic. As well as battling against the ongoing war, we see how Dr. Amani also has to contend with the attitudes of Syrian society towards her working as a woman, and particularly in a position of authority. But we also get to see the camaraderie of the group, and some moments of lightness and laughter, however brief, as they have to live their lives amongst the horrors.
The film makes effective and visceral use of sound, occasionally leaving the hospital to show us the bombardment of the city or the fighter planes screeching above. The sounds of the battle and the screeching of the planes are heightened to try to reproduce in the audience the effect they had on the people who lived through it. At times this perhaps made the film feel more like a war movie than a documentary, and although this did meet the filmmakers aim to create something cinematic, I wondered whether it also was a little counterproductive, allowing the audience to disconnect from the fact that these were real people, who had lived though horrific real circumstances. The Q&A after the film brought you back to the reality, where the Danish team who had worked through the 500 hours of harrowing footage uploaded to satellite needed support and counselling: this was footage of a more harrowing reality that Dr. Amani and her staff, not to mention the civilian population of Ghouta, had had to live through. And although the siege of Eastern Ghouta eventually ended, the civil war is ongoing, and the crisis for the people living in the country, and the many refugees who have fled, is real and continues. The Cave is a film which brings one particularly intense period of that war to life.