London Film Festival 2017: Part Three – the big apple in the big smog

Listen. I have come unstuck in Good Time. It’s the start of the festival, and there are too many press screenings to count, all going on at the same time. So I have to make hard choices. Inadvertently, I chose 4 films about New York in a row. This would be disorienting at the best of times, but it’s more than that— this is Good Time, half of which feels like it was filmed on, or from, a speeding train by directing duo Ben and Josh Safdie. It begins with a heist— no money at stake, just Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) rudely interrupting a session between his intellectually disabled brother, Nick, and Nick’s therapist, tearing him away in order to make him accomplice in his daylight bank robbery. Connie is an exposed nerve, a twitching gland of toxic masculinity who despises weakness in himself and others. The idea that Nick needs help is existentially threatening to him and his dog-eat-dog view of the world, so he ignores it.

What follows is a brutally logical, grimly comic living nightmare that takes place mostly over the course of one night, almost always seen not just through Connie’s eyes but in them, his face as reflective as the Scotchlite strips on his winter coat, glowing with neon, halogen, the lights of an empty funfair— that’s not a metaphor, it’s the setting for the most destructive of all Connie’s impulsive heist schemes. It’s hard to remember a crime saga that moves the goalposts for its protagonist as quickly and frequently; or one with this many victims, almost all of whom are collateral damage. The narrative fugue is occasionally rocked by psychic echoes of a wider tragedy: one minute there’s Pepe the frog and reality TV cop shows, the next minute an innocent young black girl and a do-gooder security guard (Barkhad Abdi) are being arrested during the fallout of Connie’s latest narrow escape. Oneohtrix Point Never’s electronic score is a glitching monitor for the city’s quivering heartbeat. It’s a stylish film, but that style always emerges organically from the environment. This is the real New York, siphoned through the rift in space-time that Connie tears everywhere he goes.

Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck never shows ‘the real New York’, but breaks the city up into multiple ideas of what it might be; Todd Haynes treats the city like he did Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Rose is experiencing New York in 1927 through the eyes of a deaf young girl, run away from her wealthy, domineering father to visit a silent movie actress transplanted to Broadway. Ben, also a runaway on a Greyhound bus from rural Michigan in 1977, has recently been made deaf by a lightning strike that runs through the telephone line to his ear. Where Rose finds herself in a silent, black-and-white movie, Ben discovers a riotously colourful New York summer, allowing Haynes to indulge his wide-ranging cinephilia and sensory specificity in both intercut halves of what eventually becomes a complete story. In typically Haynes-ian fashion, Wonderstruck envisions New York as a bridge: a refuge for America’s runaways, a place that anyone might call home; at its best, the nexus for the healing of historic rifts, the fulfilment of a sense of longing that reaches across time and space. Where better to bring disparate timelines together than the Museum of Natural History? In its achingly gentle tone, it is perhaps even more tailor-made for sensitive, introspective children than Inside Out— whether that child is five years old or forty-five.

On to another New York summer, this time in today’s Brooklyn, in Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats. Shot on 16mm and replete with shirtless, toned male bodies idling in between bouts of exercise and ritualised behaviour, it’s reminiscent of Beau Travail with the homosexuality brought to the surface (and the racial politics ignored, despite the setting). It’s a stripped-down look at a young gay man trapped by his milieu. His two outlets for a stifling, grief-stricken family life are his toxic friends and numerous internet-assisted hookups with older men. The film holistically explores how Frankie negotiates between habitual theft and drug use with his friends and closeted life, but this is a complete character, not a divided pair of opposing personalities, one ‘real’ and one a facade. The writing can’t explore the depths of the character as incisively as the direction examines his surface, leaving Frankie a little opaque to the viewer, although perhaps that’s the point— being open is so risky that he’s become a person to be looked at, not through. Harris Dickinson’s portrayal of this compromised intimacy is especially effective in moments where it harms the people around him; a tendency that Frankie shares with Good Time’s Connie.

Beach Rats

It’s hard not to take a bad film experience at a festival personally. With all the options available, the art of predicting what will be worth watching, which everybody on earth practices from an early age, is put under a much more exacting microscope than most of us are used to. Despite my scant years of experience, I’m still not sure how I wound up watching Saturday Church, except that the trailer promised a hip, low-fi indie musical with New York’s ball culture (made famous by Paris Is Burning) as a backdrop. Instead, it’s an artless single-minded public service announcement punctuated abruptly with a few dreary ballads, a means of musical expression unrelated to the culture that these characters are immersed in. The one interesting (wordless) dance sequence is reproduced in its entirety as the aforementioned trailer, by the way, which is not even the falsest move made by the film’s manufacturers.

120 BPM, on the other hand, stretches its reality out beyond the cinema screen. It’s a vigorous yet emotionally draining AIDS-memoir by Robin Campillo based on his and his co-writer’s personal experience with ACT UP in Paris. The first half is already up there with the best recreations of a political moment, intercutting heated yet tightly orchestrated debates at ACT UP meetings with the bold, righteously indecorous protests and campaigns that spring from those debates; fake blood for the pharmaceutical companies, condoms and sex education for the schools. Then, with deft sleight-of-hand, the film zeroes-in on the love story between two of its characters (one of them positive) without an ounce of misplaced sentimentality. One activist is eulogised with the words ‘he lived politics in the first person’. The film explores what this means to each character, how much they reveal their private selves in public, and vice versa. The last shot is of them all dancing at a club, a recurring image; this time the background detail and the music eventually fall away, until only the shuffling of footsteps is heard in the near-darkness. The credits roll in complete silence. As the audience shuffle quietly out of the cinema, it occurs to me that we are still dancing to Campillo’s tune.

120 BPM

Last Flag Flying is a Richard Linklater film about growing old rather than growing up, a not-sequel to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (it’s a looser adaptation of a follow-up to the novel, with character names changed) that finds Steve Carrell enlisting his estranged Vietnam comrades on a road trip to help him bury his son, who has died in Iraq. Linklater manages to find his usual hangout comedy rhythm in this funereal premise, and Laurence Fishburne is convincing as a reformed priest rediscovering his old army self because, or in spite of, Bryan Cranston-as-Jack Nicholson’s constant mockery and unrepentant plain-speaking. But the film is self-consciously preoccupied with ruminating on the obvious parallels between both wars, and while it flirts with challenging the lies of military heroism and ceremony, it concludes with the idea that the comforting lie is more important than the truth. Defanged thus, it becomes the lies that it indulges, and for the first time I am on the side of those who see Linklater as a complacent defender of antiquated ideas.

More defanged critique in Iranian director Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds, which explores poverty and disenfranchisement in Mumbai, but, as the title suggests, is much more interested in lofty ideals of beauty, truth and love than these earthly concerns. The chocolate-box cinematography, uncharacteristically conventional A.R. Rahman score and the over-choreographed production design all strive for universality, at the expense of the socio-cultural detail required to understand and relate to these characters and their struggles with the legal system. The plot meanders, occasionally into some interesting places, as when streetwise Amir takes pity on the innocent, homeless family of his sister’s attempted rapist. It’s a widescreen melodrama with emotions visible from space, much to the chagrin of this humble earthling, who likes to sit 4 rows from the front of the cinema.

Beyond the Clouds

I was starting to get depressed, until finally one of my adventures into the more obscure corners of the festival yielded a result: Western, Valeska Grisebach’s story about German migrant workers laying the foundations for a hydroelectric dam in rural Bulgaria, creating tensions with the locals, some of whom still remember Nazi occupation. The focus is on Meinhard, a taciturn, gangly outsider who claims to be ex-Foreign Legion and is drawn to the sense of tight-knit community the locals come to represent for him. Shot in an improvisational, naturalistic way with non-professional actors, the film nevertheless makes its intentions clear: deconstructed elements of genre— horses, black hats, fist fights, standoffs with the natives, to name a few— are used to elucidate the frontier existences of lonely men who long for settled lives. Both the German and Bulgarian dialogue is subtitled, so meaning is crystal-clear, but how much each character can understand one another is deliberately ambiguous. These trans-cultural, trans-genre games, played in a deadpan manner, gnaw diligently away at our expectations rather than trying to violently subvert them.

Here’s all I’ll say in defence of Funny Cow: if you wanted to tell a load of bigoted jokes, and also wanted to glorify the PC-scorning era in which that was normal, wouldn’t you cast Maxine Peake on top form as a working-class female northern comedian from the ‘70s who never existed, put her through the biopic abuse ringer, and then maybe, once you’d built up enough good will, you could safely deliver an ‘uplifting moment’ where she kick-starts her career in a slur-filled stand-up set at a working men’s club? I concede, she can handle a heckler, but mostly I’m baffled by this creative decision to tell the story of a fictional character as if flicking dutifully through the highest and lowest moments of a real life.

The framing device by which the protagonist narrates and reflects on the story, which suggests a series of on-stage or televised comedy routines, makes even less sense, because it isn’t even attempting to be funny. Imagine the director, seeing Peake on set inhabiting this resilient, cheeky, incisive character, and then deciding that it was much more important to show just how much her first husband beat her than it was to show how funny she could be on stage. I hate to end yet another diary entry moaning about the disappointing world premiere of a lacklustre British film, but not as much as Funny Cow hates to depict domestic abuse with enough sensitivity and insight to offset such a discordant ignorance of its main character’s abiding passion and career, so here we are. Until next time, when I’ll be reviewing the festival’s most hotly anticipated offerings. Some of them are even more dizzyingly good than Good Time, I promise.

Western

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