Reviewed today: Baltimore, The Killer, Penal Cordillera, Wilding.
2.30pm: The Killer [official Netflix site]
We really should consider getting rid of Netflix. We’ve been paying for it for the best part of a decade, but these days the amount of time we spend watching it is vanishingly small. Hard to imagine that what persuaded us to subscribe in the first place was House Of Cards, with a pilot directed by David Fincher and starring, um, that guy.
That guy has his own problems these days, but Fincher is still busy taking the Netflix dollar. His new film for them is adapted from a French comic book by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon, and its opening chapter absolutely feels like that, though not in a stereotypically comic book way. You could imagine the whole sequence spread over 48 pages, no speech bubbles, all captions, as Michael Fassbender's unnamed assassin talks us through the laborious preparations he goes through before a major hit. He repeatedly tells us how professional he is, and the rules he sets himself for any job. That tells us two things: firstly, he’s going to fuck up; and secondly, those rules are going to be broken one by one.
The Killer, aside from being our third film of the festival with a generically named character (see also ‘Wife’ and ‘The Madman’), is also our first one with subtitles for the hearing impaired, and I’ve found a whole new reason to complain about those. There’s a rather fine running gag about the sort of music The Killer plays in the car or over headphones while he’s at work. The subtitles kill this gag by a) verbally making you aware of it in the first place, b) telling you the song titles as soon as they start rather than letting you work them out for yourself, and c) verbalising all the lyrics rather than letting you decide how they apply to the scene in question. And that's not even taking into consideration whether you like the band or not. Nevertheless, increased accessibility is a good thing, yadda yadda yadda.
Fincher's back working with Andrew Kevin Walker, the writer of Seven: but the tone of the film is more reminiscent of another one of his adaptations, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. There are a couple of riffs that feel like references to Palahniuk's work (‘what would John Wilkes Booth do?'), and a general feeling that The Killer is telling us Secret Knowledge that only a few people know. And visually, it’s Fincher down to a tee, with every shot precisely calculated to the nearest millimetre. With all that going on, there’s a danger that this could become a self-referential exercise, and wouldn’t work as an actual thriller that normal people would watch. But happily, it does work.
I’d still say that incredibly static opening is my favourite part of the film, because it’s not something we see so often. But once it turns into a more conventional tale of revenge, then Fincher delivers everything you need: uneasy suspense as we find ourselves rooting for a murderer for hire, some dark humour in all the ways his carefully laid plans can go wrong, and violence that comes in short sharp bursts (with one notable exception). A lovely cameo from someone described in the dialogue as ‘a woman that looked like a Q-tip’ is the perfect capper to the whole thing.
5.45pm: Penal Cordillera [trailer]
Our second world premiere of the festival, although it's a much less jolly affair than our first. Based on fact with a fair amount of fiction mixed in, Penal Cordillera is set in a Chilean prison in the Andes, where five generals charged with crimes against humanity during the rule of Pinochet are now serving long jail terms. They’ve been there for several years now, and are getting increasingly huffy about the way that their lawyers have stopped returning their calls. Still, they’re living out their sentence in comparative luxury, watched over by eight young guards. But as the chief guard warns them, they’re as much prisoners as the generals.
Penal Cordillera comes with all sorts of warnings attached about its disturbing nature, and there’s certainly one scene in the film that justifies that warning on its own. But getting people all worked up about the violence means that they might miss that it’s a pretty funny film, albeit a dark one. Writer/director Felipe Carmona says that he wanted to humanise the generals just enough to avoid making them stereotypical baddies, but not so much that audiences sympathised with them. For my money he gets it pretty much spot on, depicting them as old spoilt brats constantly complaining about how they’re not being treated well enough, not realising that you don’t get to play the ‘don't you know who I am’ card when you’ve been convicted of war crimes.
What sets the film apart is that we get to spend an almost equal amount of time with the guards, and see how they’re gradually corrupted by their continued exposure to the old gits. The viewer's left to draw the potential parallels with the way that Chile, like many other places, is starting to swing to the right again. Carmona carefully balances all these strands with a deft touch, considering that it's his feature debut (and thus in contention for the LFF's first feature award): this material may have started out as a stage play, but he makes it cinematic with the occasional burst of surrealism, such as an anecdote about Pinochet presented as a black and white silent short. See? It's not all grim.
8.45pm: Baltimore [official site]
My last film of the day is also up for an award - the Official Competition, no less. I'm sure that in previous festivals, much more of a fuss was made of the awards at film screenings, with a short sizzle reel of clips from all the other movies competing for the prize. Not this year, though, which is a shame.
There are news stories I vaguely remember from when I was a kid without knowing any real details about them, and Rose Dugdale's is one of them: the English heiress who, in 1974, led the biggest art heist in history in aid of the IRA. Baltimore (a reference to the town in Cork rather than anywhere else) focusses on three timelines as it works through this story. Dugdale growing up in privilege, and rejecting it completely during her radicalisation at, um, Oxford University: the heist itself: and the aftermath, where Dugdale and two of her colleagues hole up in a safe house with several million quid's worth of paintings.
The film intercuts between these three timelines like it's no big deal, leading to the potential risk of losing engagement with the audience. What stops that from happening is the lead performance by Imogen Poots, which holds the whole thing together. There’s a lot to find ridiculous in the idea of a little rich English girl joining the RA over some sort of guilt for her upbringing: but Poots somehow makes it all make sense, while showing you the doubt she experiences when she has to work out how far she's prepared to go for the cause.
It’s a story that would seem implausible if it wasn’t already true, and writer/director duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor - whose work I haven't come across before, although apparently they've been regulars at the LFF for years - shoot it in a dreamy fashion that sometimes makes you doubt the reality of what you’re seeing. You could pick holes in their determination to wrap everything up neatly at the end: I for one would have liked to have heard a bit more about what happened to Dugdale after the events of the film. But I guess that's what Wikipedia is for. What we've got is a highly satisfying film in its own right, and I'll be curious to see how it does when they hand out the gongs next week.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Wilding [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Charlie Burrell inherited the 3,500 Knepp Estate farmland from his grandparents in 1987. His family had been farming the land for generations, and he continued to do so, dependent as many farmers are on government subsidies. But at the start of the century, burdened by debt and seeing his land increasingly as unproductive, he and his wife Isabella Tree decided to stop farming and return their land to a more natural state. Wilding, based on Isabella Tree’s book Wilding – the Return of Nature to a British Farm, tells the story of that decision and the project to rewild Knepp Estate, combining reconstruction of earlier events with contemporary footage of Knepp and its inhabitants, human and animal.
The film shows the transformation of the land from typical managed farm with ploughed fields to a landscape where herds of ancient breed cattle, horses and pigs roam free, shaping the growth of trees and vegetation with their grazing and rootling, and spreading insect and invertebrate life as they go. The herds of large herbivorous mammals are key to the vision at Knepp, taking inspiration from the Oostvaardersplassen project in the Netherlands. In a link to the William Shatner documentary we saw earlier in the week, the film shows the impact of intensive farming and specifically ploughing on the land, breaking the underground mycorrhizal network connections between the trees, and argues that allowing the animals to manage the land keeps the soil healthier. Their activities shape the landscape around them, making it more inviting for an array of species, some like the storks and beavers brought in by Burrell and Tree, others like the turtle doves and Purple Emperor butterflies finding their own way there. The film includes astonishing close-up footage of the animals, especially the pigs as they turn the soil with their rootling or build nests for their litters of piglets.
The story of Knepp is a fascinating one which I was unaware of before the film, and Wilding introduces the story to a new audience in a way that entertains, while also advocating for a change to how land is managed across the country, and the world.