LFF

London Film Festival 2014: Round-up Part 2

Town that Dreaded Sundown

The Town that Dreaded Sundown (Gomez-Rejon, 2014)

Not quite a remake, reboot, or sequel to the 1976 original, The Town that Dreaded Sundown sets itself in the real town that was set upon by the unsolved “Phantom Killer” murders in the 40s that then formed the basis of the original film 30 years later. Everyone in the town of Texarcana on the border of Texas and Arkansas knows its legacy – there are screenings of the original film every Halloween at the drive-in – so when a copycat killer strikes and reignites a hysteria that has been laying dormant for decades it feels as though the whole town itself is culpable.

The original Town that Dreaded Sundown is a minor but interesting horror movie – basically a set of effective sequences strung together by some dull procedural and some head-smackingly dumb slapstick – so it’s surprising to see so many interesting ideas being flung around here. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
does well to focus on the survivor of this new phantom’s first attack, rooting his film in the genuine protagonist that the original film lacked. And though the actual horror plotline is as routine as they come, the specifics of the real-life setting provide enough underpinning context and colour to keep things engaging, particularly in town hall scenes that explore the difficulty of having a town on a state border (two mayors, two sheriffs), the impact that the original string of murders had on the town, and the way that the first movie meant that they could consign it to history – effectively turning the Phantom murders into a myth that they didn’t have to engage with.

Gomez-Rejon has some visual style, too, smartly intercutting his action with footage from the original, and instilling some haunting imagery into his set pieces. The result is striking, original horror film that manages to say something new from something old.

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London Film Festival 2014: Round-up Part 1

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Dear White People (Simien, 2014)

It’s hard to comment on the ideas being explored in Dear White People, as I’m so far removed from them. As a white Brit I can only listen to director Justin Simien and take him for his word, but suffice to say that this satire, cartoonish in style though it may be, rings very true about racism in the US, particularly amongst the middle classes. Its Ivy League campus setting proves to be a fantastic sounding board for myriad ideas, and its exploration of the black experience – particularly the performance of race and the various ways that black people find to survive and assimilate into a predominantly white world and the politics of this – feel illuminating and vital.

It’s also very funny, and Simien has a remarkable amount of visual flair and ambition for a first-time director. Spike Lee will inevitably the first point of comparison, but he also touches on Kubrick in his framing and Altman in the way he deftly handles his huge cast of characters – all of them broadly written but as clear as a bell. The cast are uniformly excellent, but Tessa Thompson as the righteous-but-vulnerable Samantha White emerges a true star. One can only hope that Hollywood will find more roles for women of colour so we can see her shine again.

 

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The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Oreck, 2014)

This ravishing, poetic essay-film about the tension between the traditional and the modern in Eastern Europe, with its focus on mushroom foraging and folklore, is rendered all the more fascinating when you discover that its director, Jessica Oreck, is American, and this film is much more of an anthropological study than anything rooted in personal experience. Either way, it’s a hypnotic exploration of man’s interactions with nature and the traditions that keep a culture rooted in the land that it comes from, even in the wake of a century fraught with conflict.

The animated fairytale that she scatters in counterpoint throughout her film is lovingly rendered and has a clear purpose in illustrating the kinds of stories her subjects were raised upon, and her most powerful images, particularly those of the nearly abandoned, Chernobyl-adjacent Pripyat, with its overturned libraries and decaying ferris wheels, are indicative of a culture that had its heart ripped out attempting to rediscover its roots.

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White God (Mundruczó, 2014)

There was a lot of laughter in the screening of White God I attended, but I suspect that there were few moments of intentional comedy in the film itself. In fact, it may have been one of the most earnest films in the entire festival. The tale of a dog that gets put through the wringer after been separated from his loving owner  and emerges as the leader of a doggy uprising against humans, this Hungarian film by Kornél Mundruczó  somehow won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, despite being tonally baffling and ill-thought out in its internal logic.

The problem is that it tries to have it both ways when it comes to its canine protagonist, Hagen: he maintains his doggy instincts throughout but also seems to have the heart and mind of a human, meaning that we never feel on solid footing with our main character, who in one scene will be successfully conditioned into a snarling prize fighter, and in the next will seem so human you half expect him to start talking. Images of huge packs of dogs terrorising the populace are a lot of fun, but even in its satisfying third act the film is fraught with coincidences and ill-thought-out plot developments. Absolutely the best dog performance of the year, though.

 

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, 2014)

Billed as “The first Iranian vampire western” (though mostly American in design) LA-based Ana Lily Amirpour’s truly distinctive debut feature has bags of style and poise. Set in the fictional Iranian town of Bad City and shot in moody black-and-white, it tells the story of a lonely vampire (Sheila Vand) slowly falling in love with the hapless Arash (Arash Marandi), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night spends most of its time skulking through dark, lamplit streets and dim, decaying apartment buildings, to great effect. Amirpour devotes most of her time to shooting her lead actress with all the attention her astonishing performance deserves, and the film’s best moments are the ones where little happens and the film’s pervasive, lonely-romantic mood is allowed to take over.

The problem is that Amirpour seems more concerned with cool than she is with story, so the film falls flat when things have to happen. Early scenes involving a pimp drug dealer are far too broad to fit into the rest of the film, and the film’s actual plot is so ineffectual that it drags the more powerful, plotless sequences down with it. This film is based on an earlier short of Amirpour’s, and one can’t help but feel that there wasn’t quite enough material here for a whole film. Nonetheless, it’s a striking, satisfyingly unusual film and a director to look out for in the future.

London Film Festival 2014: It Follows (Mitchell, 2014)

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Any child of the 90s will tell you that sex = death in the horror movie, that the moment the virgin (and we’re only talking women here) pops her cherry, she signs her own death warrant. It’s a trope that hasn’t yet borne much scrutiny: Scream highlighted it but did nothing to dismantle it; Cherry Falls attempted to flip the script on it but failed by not being very good. So, it’s a huge relief that we now have It Follows, one of the first horror movies to really examine the idea that teens need to be punished for having sex, and one of the best, scariest, and most visually ravishing horror movies in years.

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Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac, Guiraudie, 2013)

Stranger By the Lake

A consideration of the politics of gay cruising and the relationship between sex and death in the gay psyche, Stranger By the Lake’s most remarkable quality is that it never comes to easy conclusions. Shot through with unbearable tension even when it’s at its most wildly erotic, director Alain Guiraudie simply and dramatically casts the cruising ground as a space that is both social and emotionally distant, sexually charged but monotonous, as steely and opaque as the water of the lake itself.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular visitor, arriving for the first time of the summer. He befriends a pudgy, ostensibly straight man called Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) who is only there for the view, and goes after a mysterious swimmer, Michel (Christophe Paou), who unfortunately has a possessive boyfriend. Later that night when no one else is around he witnesses the swimmer drowning his boyfriend in the lake. The day after, the swimmer approaches him, and despite what Franck saw the night before, they embark on a wild love affair.

That is the crux of the plot of Stranger by the Lake and also the central idea of the film – it makes explicit the truth that every anonymous sexual encounter is a flirtation with danger. This isn’t a judgement, merely a statement that here sex and death have become so inextricably linked that there’s little to distinguish the two. The film’s most tense moments come from the times in which Franck is torn between his magnetic attraction to Michel and his fear for his life, putting himself increasingly in harm’s way because death is implicitly part of the thrill.

Guiraudie intends to explore the uniqueness of gay attitudes towards sex, and the uniqueness of cruising grounds as a curious mix of public and private space. His camera is at times an impassive observer and at others a voyeur, exploring the space as much as it documents it and capturing the sensation of watching and being watched, to the point that key moments of the film are point-of-view shots. The cinematography by Claire Mathon is absolutely beautiful, shooting her make subjects with a powerful eroticism and the landscape with a cool, undeniably French detachment.

The film doesn’t shy away from the sex, either – in fact, I think it may be the most explicit film I’ve seen outside of porn and Shortbus. These characters relate to each other through their bodies – Franck and Michel have barely spoken a word before Franck has fallen hopelessly in love with him, but they have had fiery, passionate sex. The secondary characters populating the lake only serve to enrich this little world with pinpoint accuracy – the guys who do nothing but stand around jerking off, the guys who get angry at anyone who makes eye contact.

The only true outsider in the film is the inspector investigating the murder, and he is prone to judging where the film does not. The inspector does not understand how this world could be so dispassionate, how the lake could be buzzing again just two days after someone has died. One senses Guiraudie agrees with him to an extent, that the sex of looking for sex has become one of blinkered self-interest – even the friendly conversations that Franck has with Henri are promptly terminated as soon as Michel arrives on the scene. But where as the inspector does little to hide his disgust, Guiraudie accepts this place for what it is. The lake setting is cold and opaque, but it’s also something natural ancient – Henri talks of rumours of a fifteen-foot silurus beneath its surface, an easy metaphor for the primal danger that they all find so alluring.

It’s easy to cast Strangers By the Lake as a parable about post-AIDS gay sex culture, particularly as Franck and Michel don’t use condoms, but Guiraudie’s vision isn’t easily tied to the specifics of that crisis. It’s more about the danger of sex in the abstract, the slippery line between passion and violence, the erotic allure of death itself. Its final sequence is so tense not because of the immediate threat, but because of the way it’s invited in. Franck’s actions shock not because they seem insane, but because they perversely understandable. Stranger by the Lake understands that sometimes one plays with fire because they want to be burned.

Night Moves (Reichardt, 2013)

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Kelly Reichardt is firmly established as one of the greatest living American directors, and Night Moves is her most accessible, plotted film to date. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as eco-terrorists who blow up a dam only to discover they may have inadvertently killed a camper downriver in the process, it feels like more things happen in Night Moves than happen in all her previous films put together. Thankfully, though, she has retained the tense quietness that has so wholly defined her style thus far, and Night Moves, for all its relative largeness, remains a haunting experience.

Her two previous films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, are to my mind two of the greatest films of the last decade, both of them extremely low on incident but thick with atmosphere, their visual style the equivalent of a Hemingway story in its minimalism. Night Moves is much higher in incident, much of what defines Reichardt’s previous films remains. In particular, her preoccupation with processes and procedure (take a look at Wendy’s obsessive documenting of every cent she spends, or the focus on repairing a wagon wheel in Meek’s Cutoff) is still here in spades – the physical processes of preparing to blow up a dam are nicely paired with the similar procedures of the small farm on which Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh lives. Fanning and Eisenberg do a great job with the internalised emotions that define her work too, Fanning in particular giving a subtle but extremely physical performance. And Reichardt’s ability to conjure a striking image from nowhere hasn’t diminished one bit either – she can still make a pair of headlights in a rear view mirror look like a great monster stalking its prey and a library floor look like a barren wasteland.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is about Night Moves that doesn’t quite work. Perhaps its because this is her most populated film to date. Set in a small Oregon town, there are more minor characters and places than in any of her previous films, most of which only have a handful of characters in them, and the increased dialogue and interactions gives the film a busy-ness that her other films lack. It’s never clear what point Reichardt is trying to make here, either – where Wendy and Lucy was a cry for those being lost to the recession and Meek’s Cutoff was a parable on America’s colonial invaders and their treatment of its native people, it’s unclear what this film is trying to say, beyond possibly “the environment is a thing we should care about but maybe let’s not blow up a dam”.

It’s not that the film particularly needs to say something – it seems wrong to criticise a four-star film for not being a five-star one, and Night Moves is, at its highest points, a gripping thriller and a probing examination of guilt. Reichardt’s controlled-yet-soulful aesthetic still has tremendous power, but in taking on a more complicated story it feels as though some raw energy has been lost.

We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!, Moodysson, 2013)

We Are the Best

Around the turn of the century, Lukas Moodysson made two films, Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) and Together (Tillsammans) that announced the arrival of a distinctive talent in Scandinavian cinema. Even-handed, open-hearted, deeply sympathetic, and with a detailed, rich attention to character, these films (Together in particular) are most than just the sweet little films that they appear – their power to warm the heart is almost unrivalled, and they do so without any easy sentimentality. So it was a shame when Moodysson has spent the last decade plus making one empty, pretentious provocation after another, beginning with the relentlessly bleak Lilya 4-Ever, and reaching a nadir with the intolerable A Hole in My Heart, to the point that I didn’t bother with his next films, Container and Mammoth. It seemed almost as if he was trying to swear off his previous work that I had found so special.

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Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013)

Under the Skin

The most daring, experimental work to come out of British cinema for quite some time, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is concerned with viewing the world through an alien lens, examining humanity from a distance that makes it seem strange and unknown. The story of an alien sent to earth to seduce and destroy men, any description of its premise is laughable in the face of the resulting film – abstract, sinister, largely wordless, and balancing scenes that have a realistic, almost kitchen-sink feel with ones that are hugely stylised and cinematic, it is a grand statement on what it means to be a human being. It’s the story not of an alien seductress, but of a being that goes from looking like a person to feeling like one.

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