LFF 2015 – Ruined Heart

Filmgoers hung up on plot-driven narratives might want to skip punk filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz’s crime movie. Set in the back alleys of Manila, Ruined Heart features a familiar array of movie archetypes. Criminal, Godfather, Best Friend, Whore. Khavn introduces them by having the actors walk towards the screen one by one and giving them their label. Tadanobu Asano is the criminal whose relationship with a sex worker (Nathalie Acevedo) brings him into conflict with a local gangster. The cliched elements of the story are acknowledged in the film’s subtitle (Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore). We learn nothing more about them. Khavn tells this story through images and music and his title song ‘Ruined Heart’ performed by Bing Austria becomes a refrain throughout the film. Assisted by legendary director-of-photography Chris Doyle Ruined Heart is a colourful, chaotic, and ultimately sublime sensory experience.

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LFF Connects – Alistair Hope

Fascinating talk with Alistair Hope, creative director for the game Alien: Isolation. Set between events in Alien (79, Ridley Scott) and Aliens (86, James Cameron) it follows Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, as she searches for her missing mother and ends up trapped on a space station with a Xenomorph and a handful of survivors. It’s an unbearably tense experience, beautifully designed, and oddly affecting at times as Ripley gets closer to the truth about her mother. 20th Century Fox were hugely supportive of the project and gave Hope and his team access to production material from the original movie even going so far as allowing them access to their archives. The resulting game looks pleasingly like Ridley Scott’s roughnecks-in-space vision of the future. Hope also mentioned being influenced by the work of Terrence Malick and what Hope described as “the space between the action” in The Thin Red Line. Alien: Isolation fits so well into the universe established by the film franchise it’s hard not to consider it canon.

LFF 2015 – Carol

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Beautifully realised adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt from director Todd Haynes. A tale of forbidden love between a young shop assistant and a glamorous older woman, the novel is based on an experience Highsmith had while working as a shop assistant in a department store. Highsmith writes in an afterword added when the novel was republished under her own name in 1984,

“Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.”

Highsmith’s interaction with this woman went no further but she turned the small clues she had about this woman’s life into an act of wish-fulfilment. The woman she names Carol seeks out the young shop assistant and thanks her. There is a mutual attraction both women act upon, yet the restraints put upon them by society force them apart. Her facsimile whom she names Therese begins to find success as a photographer and make something of herself. While most novels of the era were forced by law to show homosexuals as being tormented by their feelings Highsmith ended The Price of Salt on a hopeful note.

Returning to the 50s era setting he used so well for his Douglas Sirk inspired melodrama Far From Heaven (2002) Haynes again deals with the theme of women forced to conform and suffering emotionally because of it. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is going through a break up with her perfectly decent husband  Harge (Kyle Chandler) because of her close relationship with her ex-lover Abby (Sarah Paulson). Harge is a nice guy in the aw shucks mould, but he’s becoming increasingly tormented by his inability to save their marriage and is threatening to restrict access to their child. Meanwhile Therese is still finding her way at an age where she’s still trying to work out what she wants. There a controlling would-be fiance Richard (Jake Lacy) and other interested parties including Donnie (John Magaro) a likeable wannabe novelist who takes notes when watching old movies to learn how to write.

Highsmith’s work often deals with a dangerous outsider inveigling their way into the life of somebody who is higher placed up the social ladder. While Therese is slightly off-kilter, “what a strange girl you are, flung out from space,” says Carol at one point, it is their romantic involvement which threatens them rather than any sociopathic behaviour. There are hints at Highsmith’s gifts as a thriller writer though which Haynes manages to draw tension from. A stranger they meet on a road trip seems harmless at first but like Highsmith’s most famous creation Tom Ripley he proves to be deceptive. After Carol calls off the relationship it is not immediately apparent how Therese will respond and the casting of the enigmatic Rooney Mara helps in this respect.

While Far From Heaven imitated a particular style of filmmaking from the 50s’ Carol is located firmly in the period itself. This is a more realistic presentation of the era with a muted if not quite drab colour scheme. Emotions are mostly kept in check as you would expect from a film set during a period when homosexuality was illegal, but occasionally they burst forth. Abby quietly weeping while driving, Carol pulling a gun on a private detective, and finally rising to a crescendo during its transcendent last scene recreating perfectly Highsmith’s original defiant ending.

LFF 2015 – Evolution

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More than a decade after her haunting debut Innocence (2004) Lucile Hadžihalilović returns with another powerful story based around childhood. In a small village by the sea young Nicolas (Max Brebant) sneaks out in the morning to swim. While diving underwater he sees the dead body of a boy his own age. There’s a red starfish on the corpse’s belly. Nobody believes him. His mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) scolds Nicolas, his friends tease him. These early scenes recall the opening sequence in Luc Besson’s The Big Blue (1988) as the boys play and fight on the island, but there’s something not quite right here. There are no grown-up men or girls present, only mothers and their little boys. All of them are attending the local hospital for treatment for what seems to be exactly the same symptoms.

Evolution is a dreamlike fable about the uncertainties of approaching adolescence and works in tandem with Hadžihalilović’s Innocence which also is set in its own hermetic world and contrasted childhood and death. Though the plot when cut down to a generic synopsis seems slight even for an eighty minute horror film there is much in Evolution that fascinates. Nicolas likes to draw. The seemingly everyday objects (footballs, cats, ferris wheels) he puts in his notebook seem extraordinary to the women and other children. They praise Nicolas for his vivid imagination but he knows what these things are called. The film’s inspiration seems to be two simple French words, La Mer and La Mere, the sea and motherhood. Both givers of life presented as being beautiful and menacing forces of nature.

With its unsettling horror sequences and art-house sensibility Evolution put me in mind of another great French film, Trouble Every Day (2002, Claire Denis). That was simultaneously too gory for most ‘serious’ film fans and too arty for gore-hounds leaving it with only a small devoted following. Certainly at the screening I attended there was an interesting reaction with one rather strident plummy-voiced gentleman tearing into Hadžihalilović for filming “obscenities” and asking the visibly rattled director what her film meant. Bizarrely the chap giving Hadžihalilović a bollocking turned out to be Peter Bowles, star of the 80s’ sitcom To The Manor Born. That little interaction at the end felt even more surreal than the film. 

The Great McGonagall (1974, Joseph McGrath)

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Every morning when I go out
The Ignorant rabble they do shout
“There goes Mad McGonagall.”

William Topaz McGonagall, ‘A New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee,’

While William Topaz McGonagall (1825 – 1902) is now a celebrated figure in Scotland for his questionable verse this forgotten movie languishes in the kind of obscurity normally reserved for poets. Made in a couple of weeks at the Wilton Music Hall in London it was funded as a tax-write off. Tigon productions made some interesting British horror films in the 60s’ but by 1974 their output consisted mainly of pornography.

Written by Spike Milligan and director Joseph McGrath, an inventive comedy director who had worked on Not Only But Also and been one of the five directors involved in James Bond debacle Casino Royale (1967). McGrath directed the Peter Sellers/Ursula Andress segments of the film which work really well and might have made something of that project had producer Charles K. Feldman not taken over the production.  Milligan’s film career amounted to little more than cameos in other stars films but The Great McGonagall is his project and he clearly sensed a kindred spirit in this gentle Scottish misfit.

Like Tim Burton’s biopic of Ed Wood (1994) the film shows compassion for a talentless outsider whose passion outstrips his abilities. This opening line to McGonagall’s poem about old Braveheart himself gives an idea of the kind of poetic sophistication you find in his work.

“Sir William Wallace of Ellerslie
I’ve heard he went to the High School in Dundee,”

While the film mocks McGonagall it’s kinder towards him than the rest of the cast. Queen Victoria (Sellers cameoing) is so dumb she doesn’t notice an assassin adjusting his pistol for a better shot while standing next to her, it portrays Tennyson (Valentine Dyall) as a snobbish sex maniac, the Edinburgh literary crowd as a bunch of braying hoity-toits, and Prince Albert (Julian Chagrin) as Adolf Hitler. McGonagall comes off quite well in comparison. Milligan and McGrath transform McGonagall’s odd life into a fanciful tale involving a foiled assassination attempt, a royal love affair, and his ascension to the title of poet laureate. In among Milligan’s clever wordplay, “he turned out to be a very reasonable unreasonable man,” and sight gags is a moving celebration of creativity and the artist’s struggle to make sense of the world around him however inept the results may be.

McGonagall’s eccentricity is apparent from his autobiography. As a young wannabe actor playing Macbeth onstage he refused to die and kept on fighting Macduff. He walked from Dundee to Balmoral with the intention of meeting Queen Victoria and is bewildered when he is turned away by an angry estate worker at the Castle gates. McGonagall is both innocent and provocateur. This kind of material is perfect for Milligan. McGonagall has already done most of the work for him leaving him free to put his unique spin on events and the result is one of the few films to capture the absurdist brilliance of Milligan’s legendary sketch show Q (1969-80).

LFF 2015 – Latin Lover, Arabian Nights

Latin Lover 

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Charming Italian comedy-drama from director Cristina Comencini about the ex-wives (Virna Lisi, Marisa Parides) of lothario movie star Saverio Crispo (Francesco Scianna) and his many daughters from around the world reuniting at a commemorative event celebrating his life and work. Latin Lover contains wonderful recreations of classic era Italian cinema and the genres popular in the 50s’ through to the 70s’. Neo-realism, spaghetti westerns, romantic comedies, and left-wing political cinema are all mimicked perfectly. These clips are the only time we see Saverio onscreen so he remains an enigma until gradually through the stories these women tell each other we begin to get a clear idea of what kind of man Sevario was. However the arrival of an eccentric stranger throws the event into chaos. Pedro (Lluis Homar) was Saverio’s stunt double and claims to know a few secrets about Sevario’s past. Warm and funny, Hollywood’s probably negotiating for the remake rights right about now. 

Arabian Nights 

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Miguel Gomes three-part documentary combining stories from Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights with a state of the nation documentary looking at the effects of the economic collapse on Portugal. Arabian Nights opens with Gomes depressed at his inability to film Scheherazade’s tales and berating himself for wanting to in the first place. How can he possibly justify telling transient stories that do no engage with the present? he reasons calling this desire “dandyism.” Yet he manages it, switching between documentary essay and contemporary rewordings of the Scheherazade. Arabian Night meanders somewhat but at it’s best it’s an exhilarating mixture of political commentary and the fantastical.

LFF 2015 – Youth

Paolo Sorrentino takes the opulent stylisations of his last movie The Great Beauty (2013) even further with this operatic tale set around a Swiss mountain spa. Sorrentino mentioned during his LFF Connects Talk his main themes are characters dealing with a profound sense of malaise, the passing of time, and their problems having no real solution. These are all grand themes but Sorrentino’s approach intertwines high seriousness with humour. There’s also present in his work a fascination for celebrity and a love for extravagant set-pieces yet his work remains grounded in the emotional reality of the story he is telling. The flamboyance of his direction does not distract from his often very straightforward narratives but becomes an essential part of them.

Youth is primarily about two men who are no longer young. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, an elderly composer hiding away from the world in a Swiss spa. Pestered by an emissary (Alex MacQueen) from the Queen who insists he come out of retirement to play his most famous work ‘Simple Songs’ he’s made his peace and is happy to remain quiet. Fred still composes in his head, though using a sweetie paper to keep time, and taking inspiration from the everyday sounds around him. Most of his time is spent with his longtime friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker working on what he hopes will be his last great movie summarily titled ‘Life’s Last Day,’ but he and his team of young screenwriters are struggling to find an ending. Paul Dano plays an American method actor researching for an unexpected role, and Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) whose husband has just run off with Paloma Faith.  

Also wandering about the hotel are Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), and Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano) now obese and attached to an oxygen tank his wife carries around behind him. Staff wise there’s a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) who believes in communicating through touch, and a mountaineering instructor (Robert Seethaler) whose awkward attempt at chatting up Lena turns sublime as he launches into a bizarre story about finding an unlikely household item on K2.

Youth occasionally teeters on the edge of absurdity but it’s anchored by beautifully judged performances from the leads. Caine, working with a great Italian director for the first time since Vittorio De Sica in 1967’s Woman Times Seven, has wonderful chemistry with Kietel. There’s a real feeling of mutual affection present in their conversations about their memories of their shared past. Kietel does regret very well as his wonderful performance as a burnt out Hollywood agent showed in Ari Folman’s The Congress (2012). He’s funny and ultimately moving here as a Blake Edwards-type film director who is blissfully unaware his best days are behind him until in his muse (a coruscating cameo by Jane Fonda) sets him straight.

Sorrentino’s regular director-of-photography Luca Bigazzi lenses and together their mastery of images combined with David Lang’s music makes this one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Youth won’t win over Sorrentino’s detractors but for admires of his cinema of grand spectacle it’s a delight.