Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Month: October, 2015

LFF 2015: I Am Belfast

by Ben Diamond

I Am Belfast (Cousins 2015, 84m)

Belfast is a ten thousand year old woman.  At least, according to Mark Cousins she is.  He has recruited Helena Bereen to embody the spirit of the city and to tell its story, from its beginnings of co-mingling of sweet and salt, to its recent Troubled history, and finally looking forward to the future.  The closest I can recall watching anything remotely like this was Terence Davies’s love letter to his Liverpool childhood, Of Time and the City, although the two really only bear superficial similarities – Davies’s work is constructed entirely out of archive material, whereas I Am Belfast is as much about the ‘now’ of Belfast as it is about ‘then’.  Or, perhaps, looking at the ‘then’ through the frame of the ‘now’.

Cousins and Bereen engage in a dialogue, literally – the two discuss Belfast, a co-voiceover to complement Bereen’s wanderings around the city, from the textile mills (once once of Northern Ireland’s strongest exports, the success built off the back of female labour), to the docks, and to the murals.  A well-chosen piece of footage from the early ’70s shows British soldiers using a water cannon unnecessarily on a group of justifiably angry women.  I think I caught a smirk from one of the soldiers just as the cannon is turned on, and I felt a flicker of rage, perhaps only a thousandth of the feelings of humiliation and injustice that, in one way or another, infected all the residents of this city during the Troubles.

Mark Cousins has an admirable talent for finding beauty in a city which has sort of faded away, left to lick its wounds.  Perhaps beauty is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s better than beauty, perhaps it’s simply something unique, an essence of Belfast – a combination of colours on a building that once stood tall and proud but has now been left unoccupied, the way the cranes at the dock frame what’s behind them, or simply the play of shadows on a residential street.  And, to go with these visuals, which tell a story of greys and browns, (nothing is a simple chiaroscuro in Belfast), a story of murky puddles and blurry images (fogged through the filter of Bereen’s cateracts), we have the voices of Belfast, which, in their lyrical and eloquent way, tell their own story.

I Am Belfast has bite to it too.  I admired the will to make things better, rather than to simply recoil in horror at the recent past.  The tale of three off-duty Scottish soldiers, lured from a pub and shot in the back of the head whilst taking a piss (‘two fluids leaking out at the same time’, very graphic, very shocking), a key incident at the start of the Troubles, is counterbalanced near the end of the film with a staging of the last bigot in Belfast, celebrated by the weird and the wonderful, who form the funeral procession.  A unique take on a unique city.

LFF 2015: Heart of a Dog

by Ben Diamond

Heart of a Dog (Anderson 2015, 75m)

“This is me, but it’s not me.  It’s my dream body.”  So Heart of a Dog starts, with an animated Laurie Anderson in a dream sequence, narrated by the real Laurie Anderson.  Ah, bloody hell, I think.  It’s one of those.  And whilst it was one of those, I got completely behind this film.  Poor old Laurie Anderson.  She’s had a sort of triple-whammy of death – her dog, her mother, and of course, the late, great, Lou Reed, her partner.  So it’s a documentary, a very creative documentary, about death – how we deal with death, and what happens when we die.  But it’s more than that.  It’s about time, it’s about how we tell stories, and it’s about life in a world of surveillance, post-9/11.

Laurie Anderson appears to be a bit of an all-rounder.  Clearly an accomplished filmmaker, we are also treated to musical compositions, her narrative, delivered in a captivating style (it actually reminded me of the slightly sinister voiceover in Desperate Housewives) reading like a long-form poem, and her elaborate paintings which imagine her dog in the various stages of the Bardo, the Tibetan equivalent of a sort of purgatory.  There’s oodles of invention and daring concept in this film, including interludes of pure text on the screen, run out of order and flashing up very quickly, a see-what-sticks approach.  What, in the hands of some, might have ended up as a whimsical mélange of ideas, in Anderson’s, becomes an enlightening and perceptive essay.

Some of the connections she draws might sound silly, but in the film become utterly thrilling and convincing.  She takes you one way, and then steers you in completely the other direction, then draws things together that make you marvel at her skills of perception, her unique worldview.  She talks about the moment her dog, Lolabelle, was attacked by hawks when they were out for a walk – they mistook her for a rabbit.  The hawks realise their mistake and retreat – but the dog is left with a new fear – they can come from the air, too.  A whole 180 degrees of extra threat for Lolabelle, who, although territorial before the incident, now looks up at the sky constantly as well as scouting on the ground.  Anderson then swerves back to 9/11.  We, too, realised that they can come from the sky.

Some bits of this film worked for me and some didn’t.  I have to admit I got slightly lost during the extended Tibetan instructions for what to do when you die.  I think the film succeeded best when it was simply Anderson telling a story – something which she clearly has a gift for.  And she has important things to say, too, about how we tell stories, and the things we leave out.  Heart of a Dog never feels didactic.  It feels more like the musings of a wise elder, which you can take or leave.  At one point Laurie tells us that she tries to feel sad, but not to be sad.  I’m not even sure what that actually means, or how you could achieve it, but it sounds significant, and I’m going to give it a go.

LFF 2015: High-Rise

by Ben Diamond

Cold, detached and airless.  Tom Hiddlestone in High-Rise (Wheatley 2015, 112m)

Oh dear oh dear.  I was really looking forward to this.  Ben Wheatley has been rising in stature over the last five years, starting with his debut, Down Terrace (his best), shot on a shoestring budget, and following it up with tales of the darker part of the English psyche – Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England.  Now he’s been given a proper budget and has chosen to adapt JG Ballard’s treasured novel High-Rise, which concerns the breakdown of social order in a block of flats for well-to-do professionals, who revolt against each other, and the building itself, which possesses its own sinister qualities and acts as a sort of superego for the collective hive mind of the residents.  A bit sci-fi, but not that sci-fi really, considering similar incidents were occurring at the time Ballard was writing the novel.  For someone with a fearsome reputation for pre-cog, including making the prophesy in the 1960s that Ronald Reagan would one day become president, this was more a reflection of what was happening, rather than what could happen.

Which all sounds like it might translate into a brilliant film.  I love Ben Wheatley but I feel he has simply picked source material that is too difficult to put onto the screen without losing Ballard’s intellectual verve.  I applaud his ambition.  But it simply doesn’t work.  Wheatley’s early work has been characterised by his gift for characterisation and dialogue, and his ability to create real menace and tension onscreen with nothing but a conversation.  In Ballard’s book, I feel most of the interesting ideas come from characters’ internal dialogues, not from external actions, which are actually fairly violent and repetitive.  Given a big budget, Wheatley appears to leave behind all the ideas about how the atmosphere of violence and jealousy of the High-Rise itself came to be, assuming it’s a given, and that we have all read the source material and understand it anyway, instead focusing on elaborate set designs and set pieces, which admittedly look stunning, but feel hollow without the ideas behind them being explained properly.

I really wanted this film to work.  In the end I feel Wheatley may have panicked and come to realise that, indeed, much of the message of the novel had been lost in the heady mix of visual flair and violent montages.  All of the characters from the book, (importantly) all living in different parts of the building and with different agendas, perspectives and attitudes, are thrown into a melting pot where they all blend into a homogenous, violent whole.  Perhaps this is why an audio clip of a Thatcher speech is shamefully tacked on to the end of the film, to give it some sort of intellectual weight which it had been lacking for the previous hour and forty minutes.  That might have been acceptable in This is England, but for a film devoid of social and political context up to then, it felt like a shortcut.  Even The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’, which plays over the end credits (in many ways the perfect track full stop, but certainly the perfect track for this film) couldn’t save this one.  The less said about the montage where Portishead cover ABBA’s ‘SOS’, the better.

LFF 2015: Entertainment

by Ben Diamond

Entertainment (Alverson 2015, 110m)

When is a film not funny?  When its subject is a stand-up comedian.

Entertainment seems to owe a debt to Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon, both looking at the business of comedy.  But whereas there is some sort of prankish genius at work in the Andy Kaufman construct in the latter, it soon becomes apparent in Entertainment that there’s absolutely nothing funny whatsoever about its main character (played by Gregg Turkington, simply ‘The Comedian’ in the credits), who drives alone through the desert, performing terrible and offensive jokes to the few nonplussed stragglers in each new bar he reaches.  I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s brilliant book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, about his years toiling on the road, playing upstairs at pubs, misunderstood and underappreciated.  But at least in his book there is eventual redemption (success), and the confirmation that Lee really does possess some sort of comic genius that is just too sophisticated for the masses.  Here, although I desperately wanted some sort of an equivalent to a wink from Turkington, letting the film audience in on the joke, there was none.  Instead, there is just a slow-burn realisation that this lone figure is doomed to perform piss-poor comedy (if it can even be called that) for the rest of his life.  That he turns nasty when his audiences lose interest in the performances belies a lack of self-awareness, and gives the whole piece a razor-sharp edge.

The Comedian’s deranged onstage performances differ completely from his quiet demeanour offstage.  The set-up to his jokes often start with a pained and drawn-out “Whyyyyyy?”, almost as if he has been forced onstage against his own will as some Inferno-style punishment, questioning his own torment.  In his hotel rooms between gigs, he phones his wife and speaks to his daughter.  “Hello sweetie,” we often hear him say.  After a while one wonders if this family even exist.  It’s strange to watch a comedian at work and failing miserably.  It’s not as if he’s a misunderstood genuis – he’s just not funny.  And it’s not funny watching him fail, either.  And therein likes the horror.  This is a film so bleak, the comedy so pitch-black you can’t even see it, that when the credits roll you just close your eyes and take deep breaths until the house lights come up again.

The things The Comedian encounters as the film goes on become more and more surreal, extreme metaphors for his alienation and descent into madness.  Michael Cera, in an inspired piece of casting, completely against type, plays a desperate driver at a gas station with a buzz cut.  The effect is disorientating.  At one point The Comedian witnesses a woman giving bith by herself on the floor of a truck stop bathroom.  All his performances are mirrored by his support act, a young man who puts on makeup and clowns around silently, jumping on tables and pretending to masturbate, defecating in his own hat.  It’s a great and innocent (if equally shit) comedic counterpoint to Turkington’s abhorrent nastiness onstage.  The film is full of slow-burn moments of absolute existential horror.  I thought it was wonderful.

LFF 2015: Virgin Mountain

by Ben Diamond

Virgin Mountain (Kári 2015, 94m)

Sometimes film festivals throw up the odd gem and you are rewarded for being adventurous.  Whilst many people’s rosters for festivals are studded with big-name previews which are due to go on general release within the next few months anyway, it’s good to throw some wildcards into the mix.  And by wildcards, I basically mean Weird Foreign Shit.  The BFI LFF page had a good filter option where it listed films by country, and so I decided that I simply wanted to see an Icelandic film this year, checked under ‘I’, and, lo and behold, one film, and one film only, bearing the Icelandic flag this year, and that film was Virgin Mountain, or, as it has been titled natively, ‘Fúsi‘, the name of our protagonist.

I feel like Virgin Mountain strikes the perfect balance of humour and sadness, whilst at the same time keeping its subject at arm’s length, as if this is a nature documentary, tracking Fúsi as he searches for a girlfriend, the camera looking on with indifference. Fúsi isn’t actually that keen to find a girlfriend and is under pressure to do so from his mum, and in this set-up we find the perfect comic balance – a loner half-heartedly looking for a partner, partially coerced into doing it against his own will, and perhaps finding himself in too deep when he achieves some success in the dating game.  Tinder does not appear to have reached Iceland yet.  Curiously, at one point some of Fúsi’s workmates ask him if he’s up for going to the pub to ‘watch Fulham play Aston Villa’ – I didn’t realise Icelanders were that into the English Premier League.

Fúsi is actually happiest when he is looking after his next-door neighbour’s daughter, who is often left alone by her negligent father.  The two strike up an unusual relationship, like a docile bear becoming friends with a mouse.  The two share an interest in toys – Fúsi being interested in battle re-enactment, Hera (played by the director’s daughter) being more of a Barbie kind of person.  There is something tragic about an adult man playing with miniature tanks, but when he’s playing with Hera, something is transformed, and it was quite wonderful to watch this relationship unfold.  I appreciate Dagur Kári tackling the subject of adult-child friendships that most directors seem to shy away from, because of the obvious taboos surrounding it (also dealt with in the film).  I was reminded of Miranda July’s (great) film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which also dealt with the subject in an original and challenging way.

There was an excellent tragicomic moment in the film when Fúsi’s mum is talking to Fúsi and her new boyfriend (for Fúsi’s mum is outperforming her own son in the dating/mating game) and she is trying to remember someone famous dying, and the effect it had on Fúsi, who, we learn, was very upset when he heard the news.  Various people are suggested – John Kennedy, etc. Eventually Fúsi’s mum has found her answer. “Kurt Cowbrain.”  And just for a moment we catch a glimpse of what it feels like to be an outcast in a freezing-cold place where you’re the only person to have heard of Nirvana.

LFF 2015: Taxi Tehran

by Ben Diamond

Taxi Tehran (Panahi 2015, 82m)

What’s it like to be an outlaw in the film world?  Jafar Panahi should know.  He was banned from making films for twenty years by the Iranian government in 2010.  That hasn’t stopped him, though.  He made This Is Not a Film in 2011, shot on an iPhone inside his apartment, a creative re-imagining of the film he wanted to make before he received the ban.  The film was reported to have been smuggled to the Cannes film festival on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake.  And now we have Taxi Tehran.  Panahi moves from the prison of his own apartment to the open prison of the city itself.  I find the whole conceit of this film deeply amusing – Panahi moonlighting as a cabbie (what use is a film-maker who can’t make films?) for some extra cash during his state-enforced creative dry spell, but at the same time engaging in his altruistic tendencies – in good spirits for most of the film, he waives his passengers’ fares.  The taxi itself becomes a space for dialogue, exploration and interrogation.

This is a film which starts playing games on the audience from the very first minute and never lets up.  Panahi has set many tricks and traps which force us to consider what a film is.  The first two people to get in his cab have an argument about crime and punishment (what else is there?).  It feels like a documentary.  But the third observer in the back of the cab, after the other two have left, challenges Panahi, says he recognises him as a filmmaker, that the other two must have been actors, and that the speech one of them delivered was very similar to that of another character in one of his previous films, Crimson Gold.  But, of course, this man is also an actor.  Deceptively simple in concept, Panahi actually, upon consideration, appears to have created a piece of art which performs daring feats of intellectual somersaults.  And underlying it all is a real sense of dread, and menace – despite no violence or threat occurring onscreen, the feeling that Panahi is being watched and shaped by hostile forces is ever present.  This opening scene is a good example of the film’s dizzying dance around the ideas of what is planned, what is unplanned, and who is in control of the script – Panahi?  Or is he simply trying to capture things that are out of his control?

Panahi’s most important passenger is his young niece.  She has a camera of her own and has been instructed to make a short film as part of a school project.  But her teacher has issued the class with a whole list of instructions – what she can’t film, what the protagonist should look like, what the content of the film should be.  Panahi leaves his taxi at one point and the footage switches to his niece’s camera – she tries to capture something herself.  But it doesn’t go to plan – so she starts to direct the young boy she is filming from the window of the taxi – which goes horribly wrong.  Of course, once again, what is real and not real is blurred.  The whole thing is scripted and planned, surely?  By now, we are so far down the rabbit hole of films within films that a thrilling fog has shrouded all intentions and meanings in the film.  But Panahi’s deep, deep meditation as he switches his focus to the young girl – the next generation of filmmakers, who will all grow up with smartphones capable of filming anything, all the time – radiates from Tehran outwards.

LFF 2015: Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen

by Ben Diamond

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (Kitano 2015, 125m)

Takeshi Kitano, perhaps best known in the UK for being the host of ’80s gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, but also known for having made some great ’90s films – Sonatine and Hana-bi – has returned with a light-hearted comedy in which old Yakuza member Ryuzo reunites with his old mob buddies to wreak havoc once more, and reminisce about the good old days, back when the Yakuza were respected by all, left alone by the police, and unencumbered by anti-corruption laws which have been put in place since the gang became inactive.  Kitano himself plays a police chief who occasionally watches on with a mask of inscrutability as his old Yakuza acquaintances make prats of themselves.  I often have a problem with directors inserting themselves into their own films (or other people’s films), especially in the case of Quentin Tarantino.  But whereas Tarantino is a nerd who should stay behind the camera, Kitano has that cult-cool about him that gives him an edge onscreen, even if he isn’t doing much.  Of course, it’s hard to tell if he delivers his lines well or not.  Perhaps a blessing in disguise when his films cross over to the West.

But fart gags are the esperanto of comedy, and translate across geocultural borders.  Hence, the film is laden with methane.  I don’t mind the heavy reliance on rectal gas, but the rest of the comedy is incredibly broad.  The camera often lingers on a sight gag or a gurning face too long, well after the penny drops with the audience.  Similarly, a lot of the political content seems completely unsubtle and appealing to our most basic sense of Japanese history, although admittedly there are some very funny moments with an old kamikaze pilot that still have bite.  I don’t quite know how the film managed to run past the two hour mark – the plot feels stretched, and at least half an hour could’ve been cut.  The genuinely funny gags are too sparse, and looking back, the plot was virtually nonexistant, a shaggy dog story for a series of set-pieces and pratfalls.  I like the idea of Kitano making a film which considers the anachronism of the Yakuza man in modern society.  It feels like he’s thinking about his own place in the world as he approaches his seventies.  It’s still a Kitano film, even if it looks like the Japanese equivalent of a Hangover or a Horrible Bosses-type outfit.  He successfully avoids giving the characters any sort of moral compass.  They are complete bastards.  That is funny and rings true.  But after a good start and a strong set-up, the film loses its way and never finds its way back, despite a few very strong scenes.  By the end it was long past its sell-by.

Ryuzo is still worth seeing for the odd moment of Kitano brilliance.  The inspired scene in a restaurant where Ryuzo and his buddy gamble on what customers who enter will order felt like a shake-up of Japan’s film history, a violent riposte to Ozu’s moments of tea-room calm, like his own school reunion scene in An Autumn Afternoon.  Kitano’s still got it – he might’ve mellowed, but we still get flashes of the old spirit.

LFF 2015: The Club

by Ben Diamond

The Club (Larraín 2015, 98m)

Pablo Larraín put himself on the map in 2008 with his film Tony Manero, set in Santiago in 1978, where, against the backdrop of Pinochet’s brutal regime, a man goes on his own psychopathic killing spree whilst simultaneously trying to get onto a reality TV show to perform a Saturday Night Fever dance routine.  In his new film, Larraín continues to delve deeply into the dark Chilean heart, once again combining a very dark humour with an exploration of the very worst in human behaviour.

Set in a remote Chilean town by the sea, the film centres on a house for excommunicated Catholic priests, some of whom have been accused of being paedophiles.  The house is run by the tender yet firm Sister Mónica, who has her own demons to grapple with too.  Although the priests are forbidden to talk to anyone outside the house, their one release is when they decamp to the local greyhound track to watch (from afar, with binoculars) Sister Mónica race their own dog, who they have been training, for cash.

Everything is shaken up when a disturbed character called Sandokan turns up outside the house and starts to recount, to everyone and no-one in particular, in the most graphic detail, all the abuse he has suffered at the hands of a priest as a young child.  Father García turns up, despatched by the upper echelons of the Catholic church to make an assessment of the mental stability of the residents of the house, and, more importantly, to discern whether they are repenting for their sins or simply having a relaxed retirement at a seaside retreat.

In Father García we are given our psychological crowbar to pry open the inner psyches of the exiled priests.  He conducts interviews with all of them individually about their past crimes, all of which are different, and their attitudes towards those crimes now, all of which are different.  In these interviews, when the camera is on Father García, it is crisp and clear, and when it turns to face the cast of the interrogated, it becomes blurrier, more out of focus, as if the degradation of memory as time wears on, and the moral fog it produces, has warped the stock of the film itself.

Less a film trying to do a boot-job on the Catholic church, Larraín is more interested in the three-way struggle for power between Sister Mónica, who appears to command the respect of the priests but at the same time is implicit in their immoral slouch towards indifference, the priests themselves, and the reforming Father García, the outsider who arrives as the Lord’s judge.  As Father García starts to exert his influence – no more alcohol in the house, no more dog racing, less meat and more vegetables, things start to get more tense.  The conclusion is unexpected and open-ended.  I would single out Roberto Farías for praise as the Christlike and troubled Sandokan.

By Our Selves

by Ben Diamond

By Our Selves (Kötting 2015, 83m)

By Our Selves combines the considerable intellectual and creative talents of director Andrew Kötting and writer-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair as they attempt to recreate John Clare’s 80-mile, 4-day walk, from the lunatic asylum in Epping Forest where he was being interned, to Northamptonshire, looking for a lost love who had actually died some years ago.  Sinclair wrote a book about this in 2005 called Edge of the Orison, but this time they have enlisted the help of actor Toby Jones to embody the spirit of Clare, as well as his dad, Freddie Jones, who reads some of Clare’s poetry (as he did for a BBC dramatisation of Clare’s work many decades ago) to enhance and enchant the sonic backdrop.  Toby Jones is accompanied on his walk by a man dressed as a straw bear, for reasons that are explained in an illuminating conversation with a Clare expert towards the end of the film.  I would say the film is roughly one third documentary, one third re-enactment, and one third is simply left to random chance, edited together to make a moody, unique blend.

I was very impressed with Kötting and Sinclair’s last film, Swandown, where they climbed into a swan pedalo at Margate and made their way to the main site in east London for the 2012 Olympics.  The stylistic hallmarks of Swandown are present here, but somewhat exaggerated, perhaps to reflect the state of Clare’s troubled mind.  This time they have chosen to film in stark black and white photography, but continue to expose the underwiring of the filmmaking process – quite an important aspect of the film is the sound, which is often shown being captured by the boom-mic operator onscreen.  Confusingly, the sound that is being captured onscreen often does not correspond to what we are hearing simultaneously.

Sound and vision are set free here.  In a beautiful single take, a handheld camera is left to simply float upwards, high up into the trees, slowly arc 180 degrees, and then descend, upside-down, back to the forest floor.  Repeated sonic snatches recombine and gain new meanings with repeated takes.  The horrendous audio snippet of someone saying “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” is repeated over and over again, taking various tragic and comedic turns, until it simply becomes mental wallpaper.

Why John Clare?  Because he fits with Sinclair’s agenda and interests.  A working-class poet.  A ‘mad’ poet.  A poet working at what Professor Kövesi in the film implied was ‘the end of the poetry era’ (Sinclair, a poet himself, operating well after the era of the poet).  A poet who took refuge in the flora and fauna.  And a poet who appeared to be operating on some other psychic plane, embodying the spirit of others, notably Lord Byron.  A brilliant conversation with author and wizard Alan Moore turns to his native Northamptonshire, a psychic black hole in Albion, where the dead come to rest, and people never leave.  Sinclair has an interest in ley lines and is no doubt fascinated by the pull Northamptonshire had on Clare and others.

But perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film is simply Freddie Jones trying to remember Clare’s most famous poem, ‘I Am’.  He starts confidently, stumbles, and then triumphantly picks up again at the final stanza.  An amazing poem, and just for a second, you can see Clare glinting in Jones’s eye.