We kicked off the festival proper on day two with one savage hangover and one slightly awkward dress inside out moment on the tube. Pretty standard really. Suffragette full review on the way (out in cinemas on 12th October - get your tickets now!) from the first day but before that we had a pretty varied day two...
Jafar Panahi is fast becoming a favourite of ours here at BS Towers. Since being convicted by the Iranian authorities of making 'unscreenable' movies - that is movies that contain anything that might be seen as a slight on the state, he has had to find new ways to get his craft out into the world. Having filmed entirely from house arrest for his previous - This is Not a Movie, we now find him plying his trade as a cab driver around Tehran.
Of course this being Panahi, nobody getting into this cab is going to get a normal ride. Likewise of course, nobody getting into this taxi gets in by accident and so we get a series of vignettes as Panahi picks up a variety of 'customers' who each have something to say about the state of his nation. Which isn't to say they get in and deliver speeches, Panahi is way to sly for that, more that the situations that they are currently in the middle of present handy opportunities for them to pick up on current issues.
We get a bigot desperate for the law to hang just a couple of tyre (or tier as the subtitles would have it) thieves just to discourage the rest, a man from a motorcycle crash who insists on recording his last will and testament so that the law doesn't take the house off his presumed widow and, most entreatingly, Panahi's niece who has to make a short movie for a school project.
Like This is Not a Movie, Panahi's latest is, out of necessity restricted to one space but this doesn't stop the filmmaker's joyously cheeky attitude coming across. His niece (there are no credits for the movie as it hasn't been certified by the authorities so I have no idea if she is related or not) is an absolute charm, exuding all the impatience and innocent questioning of a school child whilst also touching on a number of important things. Taxi (as it is internationally known) is a charmingly subversive movie that never loses its creator's sense of humour in the darkness of ever present repression.
Movie two of day 2 saw us returning to Zhangke Jia, director of A Touch of Sin shown at 2013's LFF. That movie left us a bit baffled and somewhat cold and here Jia treads a similar path. We pick up with three childhood friends in 1999 and then tracking their paths through life, dropping in on them in 2014 and 2024.
Jinsheng (rich elite) and Liangzhi (working class) are both in love with local singer Tao. Tao chooses the rich guy (I know, right?) and marries him. The wedding invite delivered to Liangzhi has him abandon his life there and flee to work abroad (his former friend having bought the coal mine he worked at and fired him over his refusal to never see Tao again). Later contracting cancer from the mine work, he returns home with his young family to discover that Tao and Liangzhi are divorced and their son is at the international school miles from his mother.
The latter third of the movie, set in the near future abandons Liangzhi completely as far as I could work out and we spend our time with Dollar (Tao and Jinseng's son) as he struggles to connect with the women in his life, having long since abandoned any attempts to connect with his increasingly erratic father.
As with his previous movie, I found Mountains May Depart difficult to connect with. Jia's style of film making makes for a disjointed experience but it's not one without its moments. Some of which come completely out of the blue with no explanation or apparent reason in the story - here for example a prop engine aeroplane crashes spectacularly into a hillside as Tao looks on. This isn't followed through and I was sat wondering why on earth it happened. But there are also great sections of this movie that really hit home. Tao's father dying and her struggling with a son she has barely seen since the divorce was particularly affecting. Overall though, a difficult movie to love.
I shamefully have to admit to not having known anything about Dalton Trumbo up until now. This is pretty poor show given the amount of movies I watch but I imagine it's probably something I have in common with more than a few people. Well, hopefully that will change now.
Trumbo is the based on real life story of the eponymous writer and the group of writers who were declared persona non grata back when America was doing its best to purge itself of a largely imaginary communist threat. Driven out of their jobs by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the thirties and forties, many lost their livelihoods and in some cases their lives without any recourse or any evidence being presented to back the accusations that were levelled at them.
Jay Roach has crafted a superbly put together movie hung around Dalton and his attempts to continue writing despite his blacklisting. Bryan Cranston is wonderful as the irascible Trumbo, no saint of a man by any means but one who you feel just about had his heart in the right place. Backed by an impressive cast filling out Trumbo's family - Diane Lane as his eternally patient wife and Ellie Fanning as his activist daughter, Roach does just about enough to present Trumbo as a flawed man who you may not agree with and may doubt his motives but can't fault his central argument - simply that it is nobody's business what his political views are.
Trumbo is also incredibly funny. Cranston's writer is a canny devil and makes sure that everybody knows it - we are never sure if he's actually trying to affect change or just get his fortune back. John Goodman pops up in a movie stealing role as Frank King, a hack movie maker who can't believe his luck at getting Trumbo scripts for $1,200 a pop and doesn't think twice about taking a baseball bat to his office to make a hilariously serious point when the authorities come knocking. Dame Helen Mirren has a great time with a variety of fabulous hats as the sinister Hedda Hopper, slithering around collecting testimony from former friends and generally stabbing everyone in the back.
Roach's movie takes a particularly nasty recent period in American history and shows it through the prism of Hollywood attempting to deal with itself. The result is fantastically entertaining two hours with Cranston once again proving that he is a very special talent indeed.
As aforementioned our day two started with a not entirely pleasant bang in the shape of a Suffragette shaped hangover and a Singaporean film called In The Room, directed by Eric Khoo, which was frankly almost a porno. There’s something a little disconcerting about starting a day being told your dress is inside out on the tube and then watching penetrative/oral and transgender sexual encounters in a cinema with three men at 930am.
I really am not sure what to say about In The Room. It’s a strange film trying to form a cohesive narrative and parts of it work well but parts of it really don’t. Six separate stories unfold within the confines of Room 27 at the fictional Singapore Hotel in Singapore. The strands are all very different and are tied together by the death of a pop star that now haunts the hotel room and his obsession with a maid that still works there. It’s not bad it just sometimes falls flat and perhaps was just a bit much for 930am.
I had it in my head that this was a French movie, namely a Francois Ouzon film so I was pleasantly surprised when Tilda Swinton strutted into view as a rock star and stayed happy throughout. A Bigger Splash is jarring, in your face, unconventional filmmaking and I loved it.
A remake of 1969 cult film La Piscine director Luca Guadagnino of I am Love is again reunited with Tilda Swinton, this time casting her as ageing rock star Marianne Lane alongside Matthias Schoenarts as her troubled lover, Paul and a maniacal turn by a bearded and toothy Ralph Fiennes as her ex lover Harry. Also along for the fun is Harry’s coquettishly precocious daughter Penelope played delightfully by Dakota Johnson (I didn’t even know it was her, completely changed my image of her).
Marianne and Paul are enjoying an idyllic summer, being naked, having LOTS of sex and resting (Marianne has lost her voicee) in their Italian house when a sudden visit from Harry and his newly announced daughter turn everything upside down. Harry is everything Paul is not and also determined, it is clear, to win back Marianne. Couple this with the languid sexuality and suggestive nature of Penelope and painful pasts being desecrated and it seems this volcanic island’s inhabitants are set to blow.
Luca Guadagnino has created a strange film that I am sure will be with cinematic marmite but I am on the side of those who love it. It’s unusual, fun, funny and kinetic. The cast are all superb and Fiennes in particular is having a ball as lunatic Harry whilst always grounding him in some reality.
There are some elements that don’t work entirely, the refugee aspect of the story feels a little tagged on, despite Swinton being brilliant it’s really hard to capture rock stars and it does fall a teeny bit flat and the ending becomes preposterous but one can and should forgive A Bigger Splash all of this. Set in the beautiful Southern Italian city of Pantelleria the vistas are stunning and the performances are fantastic. Bella.
Having forgotten about High-Rise (gladly actually) I wended my way to the much less popular screening of T(error), a documentary by Lyric R Cabral which began it’s life as the story of an FBI informant and ended up being something quite different.
The story begins as Lyric has befriended a man called Shereef who is a Muslim and who also works undercover as an FBI informer for many years. The FBI first approached Sheriff when he got arrested for robbery. There are approximately 15,000 informants currently employed by the FBI, the number mushrooming after 9-11. And with that of course comes trouble.
Shereef cuts a sad figure, having turned informant on one of his friends many years previous he now moves from places to place on the whim of the FBI. The latest case he has is a white man who has turned to Islam and is putting some dubious tings on Facebook and spouting off Islam and Bin Laden. When we see this ‘target’ it’s pretty clear that he’s just a bit of an idiot but in this current climate of Fear with a capital FEAR (especially in the US) nothing can be overlooked.
Cabral hit the mother load when Mr. al-Akili started to suspect Shereef of being an FBI informant and then she started to film him too. Neither party knew the other was being filmed and then the twists and turns start and it really does go into some pretty interesting waters.
The film uses text messages between the FBI, Mr. al-Akili and Shereef to let the drama unfold. As a documentary itself it is shot pretty basically, looks good enough but stylistically isn’t terribly exciting but it is the story itself. One has never seen this side of the FBI and it’s [pretty amazing this is even out there. It’s ending is sad for both parties and underlines what a terrifying state a lot of nations are living in right now.
Last on my list of films today was Black Mass, the story of the notorious crime lord/FBI informant James ‘Whitey’ Bulger played by an utterly physically transformed Johnny Depp.
Bulger was a low level gangster, released from Alcatraz when his old school buddy Jimmy Connolly, now working for the FBI, approached him with a proposition – help the FBI get the Mafia out of South Boston and help himself at the same time. In Whitey’s mind he is a man of honour and a rat is a rat but being the clever man that he was Whitey decided he could use this to his advantage and boy, did he do that. Whilst ‘informing’ for the FBI Bulger became on the biggest crime lords in Boston, unstoppable and protected by the FBI shield. Classic FBI stupidity.
Directed by Scott Cooper who made the wonderful Crazy Heart, Black Mass has got some stellar talent involved both behind and in front of the camera. The cast is top notch; some of my absolute favourites are playing roles. Joel Edgerton is wonderful as kind of good guy going bad Connolly, Jesse Plemons is great as kid Kevin Weeks, Rory Cochrane was actually my favourite as right hand man Flemmi. We really saw the humanity and heartbreak in some of the scenes as he watches Bulger finally overstepping the mark. Kevin Bacon gives great Bacon as FBI boss and Corey Stoll plays good lawyer trying to clean up the crap Connolly has gotten the FBI into. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother Billy that is erm, interesting casting. He’s not bad if you can get past the fact that Cooper is asking you to believe Cumberbatch and Depp are brothers. Dakota Johnson is in this film as well for about 6 minutes as token female…I mean the mother of Bulger’s child. There are in fact three female characters in Black Mass – a mother, a wife and a whore. Wonderful.
So let’s cut to the chase, Black Mass is a good film. It has a good script, it is well directed, has a fabulous cast and Johnny Depp is just brilliant but you know what? It’s just ain’t got no swagger. This is a film that is aligning itself with movies such as The Departed, Carlito’s Way and Goodfellas. And those films are Cool as fuck. Black Mass is not cool. It’s good but it’s not cool. And that’s kind of a shame.