(Reviews of films showing at the 65th BFI London Film Festival - Memory Box; Brother's Keeper; Money Has Four Legs; Nudo Mixteco; The Storms of Jeremy Thomas; Azor; and Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest)
Resplendent in its red carpet glory after lockdown forced last year's event to be an entirely online affair, the BFI London Film Festival returns for a sixty-fifth edition at various venues across the capital between 6-16 October.
Breaking with tradition, rather than try to namecheck everything on the programme, we shall be offering first thoughts on selected titles. While gratefully acknowledging the access granted to the online press screenings, it has to be said that the selection owes more to the margins than the marquee. But there's still much here to intrigue.
Joana Hadjithomas turns to her own teenage letters and diaries for this fourth collaboration with co-direcor Khalil Joreige following Around the Pink House (1999), A Perfect Day (2005) and Je veux voir (2008).
The action divides between a 1980s Beirut in the middle of a civil war and a Montreal present, in which teenager Alex (Paloma Vauthier) can't understand why both her mother, Maia (Rim Turki), and grandmother, Téta (Clémence Sabbagh), are so reluctant to deal with a delivery that arrives before Christmas. Key to the flashbacks are the fact that Téta (Nisrine Abi Samra) risked alienating Maia (Manal Issa) by trying to protect her after the death of her brother, especially when she takes up with the handsome and seemingly apolitical Raja (Hassan Akil).
Superbly photographed by Josee Deshales and edited by Tina Baz, this is a deeply personal memoir that reflects on the difficulties of trying to live normally at a time of conflict and the time it takes for wounds to heal (if, indeed, they ever do). A well-chosen soundtrack reinforces the 80s vibe, as do the cassette recordings and the shifting textures of the Super-8 and 16mm stock. The performances are heartfelt, although the Canadian sequences can err towards melodrama.
Seven years after debuting with The Fall From Heaven, Turkish director Ferit Karahan returns with a semi-autobiographical sophomore school saga that doubles as a scathing political allegory. Nuance might be at a premium, but the stereotypage allows Karahan to puncture pomposity with a waspish wit.
The morning after 11 year-old Memo (Nurullah Alaca) is given a humiliating punishment in the showers of an Eastern Anatolian boarding school by draconian duty master Hamza (Cansu Firinci), Kurdish roommate Yusuf (Samet Yildiz) strives to alert the staff to Memo's deteriorating condition. As a blizzard closes in, Yusuf looks on with accusatory dread as teachers Selim (Ekin Koç) and Kenan (Melih Selcuk) reluctantly try to convince principal Burhan Demir (Mahir Ipek) that they have a potentially damaging emergency on their hands.
Confining Tolunay Türköz's atmospheric interiors within an Academy ratio frame, cinematographer Türksoy Gölebeyi ably conveys the sense of the options narrowing for the self-satisfied staff members, who seem to regard the boys in their care as an irksome inconvenience. Full of sly gags about slippery floors, misused power and phone reception, the escalating incompetence recalls the buck passing in Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). But this precisely told tale has a last-reel twist that is as devastating as it's unexpected.
MONEY HAS FOUR LEGS.
It's not often that a film from Myanmar makes a festival slate. But, with Michel Hazanavicius acting as a script consultant, debuting director Maung Sun makes a more than favourable impression with a satirical treatise on the state of the nation and the travails of the film business that is rooted in Sun's own experience.
The son of a noted film-maker, Wai Bhone (Okkar Dat Khe) is keen to make the transition from shoestrng videos to mainstream movies. However, his bid to remake Shwe Done Bi Aung's 1941 gangster classic, Bo Aung Din, is being thwarted on all sides. A jobsworth from the censor's office insists on Wai cutting down on the amount of sex, smoking and cursing in the screenplay, while he also demands that the villains turn themselves in to reinforce the message that the police are a force for good. Meanwhile, the penny-pinching producer is too preoccupied with romancing the leading lady to listen to complaints that she can't act.
Adding to Wai's woes is the fact that brother-in-law Zaw Myint (Ko Thu), an alcoholic with a prison record, has broken the camera in a fit of pique. Moreover, wife Sleazir (Khin Khin Hsu) has just lost her job at a bank that has suddenly closed and defaulted on all of its responsibilities. Spotting a chance to bankroll the picture, find better lodgings and send his daughter to a private school, Wai falls in with Zaw's plan to rob the bank before its cash stash disappears. Yet, having scarpered with the loot after a surprisingly easy raid, Zaw loses his memory.
From the moment the censor swats a fly with a copy of the 1996 Motion Picture Law, this amusing, but resolutely trenchant comedy delights in wearing its meta credentials on its sleeve. Sun and co-scenarist Ma Aeint stuff the action with references to Anton Chekhov's gun, George Orwell's Animal Farm and Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958). That the latter hommage coincides with a Buddhist house purification ceremony typifies the withering wit that courses through this bold denunciation of so many aspects of Myanmar life. Spiritedly played and deftly photographed by Thaid Dhi and edited by Myo Min Khin, this celebration of a century of Burmese cinema (which was launched by Nyi Pu's Love and Liquor, 1920) suggests that Maung Sun is a talent to watch.
Mexican actress Ángeles Cruz makes an accomplished directorial bow with this triptych examining damage being done to her country by poverty, prejudice and toxic misogyny. Set during a fiesta in honour of the patron saint of the fictional Mixtec village of San Mateo in the southern state of Oaxaca, the picture uses a bus stop to link its tales of prodigal migrants.
The first to arrive is Maria (Sonia Couoh), who has been working as a maid in a big city. In seeking to pay her respects to her later mother, however, Maria succeeds only in enraging the father who blames her for his wife's death. Spurned at the graveside, Maria is given sanctuary by Piedad (Eileen Yanez), the lover she had left behind when the going had got too tough. She is now the mother of a baby daughter and leaps at the chance to join Maria in the city after they make love. But the prospect of being responsible for more than herself spooks Maria and she sneaks away in the middle of the night.
Stepping off the bus with his clarinet in his hand, Esteban (Noe Hernandez) expects a warm welcome after spending three years on the road. He's coaxed into jamming with a festival band before drifting home to his wife, Chabela (Aida Lopez), and their two children. They scarcely recognise him after so long and Chabela compounds his dismay by announcing that she has taken up with a new man because she didn't think Esteban was coming back after he made no effort to stay in touch. Infuriated by Chabela's behaviour and his own mother's lack of support, Esteban summons the village tribunal to adjudicate on what he considers a betrayal.
Having travelled on the same bus, Toña (Myriam Bravo) leaves the city where she has a handbag stall in a backstreet market and a lover who exploits her vulnerability. She has heard that her daughter is being abused by the same uncle who had ruined her own childhood. So, she berates the mother who has repeatedly protected her brother before publicly calling out José Luis (Jorge Doal) in front of their neighbours.
Keeping Carlos Correa's handheld camera close to the characters, while also locating them within their hardscrabble environment, Cruz condemns the tight-knit communal conspiracy that seeks to keep women in their place. She also uses the slightly discordant contrasts between Ruben Larenges's funeral and festival music to expose the part that religion and tradition has played in reinforcing the patriarchal grip. Befitting the `nudo' (or `knot') of the title and the emphasis on family ties, the vignettes hold together neatly and are played with conviction. Yet the need to devote equal time to the interwoven storylines means that each feels slightly underdone.
THE STORMS OF JEREMY THOMAS.
Mark Cousins's passion for cinema can never be doubted. But his first love is very much front and centre in this salute to Jeremy Thomas. Filmed in 2019 during the producer's annual five-day drive to the Cannes Film Festival, this some way short of the standards set in The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018), as Cousins fails to take advantage of his unique access.
As the son and nephew of Ralph and Gerald Thomas, who dominated postwar British comedy with the Doctor and Carry On series, Jeremy Thomas was born with a celluloid spoon. Cousins, by contrast, was the son of a Belfast mechanic and he proceeds to play on the perceived class chasm between himself and the movie prince with a love of fast cars. It doesn't stop him cadging a ride in a sleek Alfa Romeo, however, as he plays word association games in between seeking to analyse the distinctive contribution that the self-styled outsider producer made to such landmark features as Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing (1980), Stephen Frears's The Hit (1984) and Bernardo Bertolucci's multi-Oscar winner, The Last Emperor (1987).
In between gushing panegyrics by Debra Winger and Tilda Swinton (who worked with Thomas twice each), Cousins provides his typically idiosyncratic insights into such titles as Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2003) and Richard Shepard's Dom Hemingway (2013). When he's allowed to get a word in edgeways, Thomas is particularly engaged by David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996) and his partnership with Takashi Miike.
For all the poignancy of the detours to Drancy and Orleans, however, we learn precious little about what Thomas actually did to earn the reputation of being an auteur producer. He seems a nice chap, who is grateful for the chance to keep living to the full into his seventies after a cancer scare. But he's schmoozed rather than profiled in this typically esoteric, yet surprisingly lightweight odd-couple odyssey.
They always say `write about what you know' and debuting director Andreas Fontana does just that in this slow-burning drama, as he is the grandson of a Swiss private banker. He gets a little help developing his themes from co-scenarist Mariano Llinás, who is best known for directing the 14-hour epic, La Flor (2018). But this echoes so many films about Argentina's Dirty War in its calculated restraint and ominous aura of unaccountable evil.
Arriving in Buenos Aires from Geneva, watchful Swiss private banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) and his haughty wife, Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), check into a salubrious hotel. The desk clerk is content to talk about Argentina's 1978 World Cup win, but he is more reticent when De Weil mentions the changing political situation under the junta that had seized power four years earlier.
De Weil is in South America to track down his missing partner, René Keys, who did his business in a clubbable manner that made him extremely popular with his clients. Urged on by Inés, who believes that her husband is inhibited by his timidity, De Weil seeks an appointment with Aníbal Farrell (Ignacio Vila), who is threatening to close his account. However, he is informed by lawyer Dekerman (Juan Pablo Gerreto) that Farrell is too preoccupied with his horses to discuss business.
Dekerman does provide De Weil with some introductions, while compatriot
Frydmer (Alexandre Trocki) arranges for him to attend an exclusive soirée. While dining with an elderly couple, Inés sympathises with Mrs Lacrosteguy (Carmen Iriondo) about the creeping sense of instability and her concern that even the aristocratic élite may not be safe from the gangs behind the spate of disappearances.
In reassuring De Weil that he retains their trust, Augusto Padel Camon (Juan Trench) and his wife, Magdalena (Elli Medeiros), are more bullish, as they lounge beside their pool. But Monsignor Tatosky (Pablo Torre Nilson) warns De Weil that a day of reckoning is coming that may, for all its savagery, might well have beneficial effects. De Weil takes such confidences in his stride, as he discovers Keys's secret apartment. Yet he can't decided whether he has absconded with some ill-gotten gains or been punished for a word out of turn.
Angered by the meeting in which the high-handed Farrell dispenses with his services, De Weil also feels affronted when Tatosky ignores his advice on some share deals. So, he decides to seize the nettle, and takes a river trip into the jungle interior to meet with a shady couple of operators who need an honest broker to dispose profitably of the belongings of the disparus. Returning down river as dawn breaks, De Weil allows a quiet smile to cross his lips.
With the denouement reinforcing the underpinning connection to Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, this is a disconcerting journey to the dark side that does little for the reputation of high finance. Reluctantly, De Weil realises that discretion and dependability are not enough in an increasingly ruthless world and Fabrizio Rongione excels as the model of propriety who decides to get his hands dirty. Stéphanie Cléau also makes her mark as the Lady Macbeth who goads her spouse into ensuring that she maintains the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed.
Ignacio Vila and Pablo Torre Nilson stand out from a fine supporting cast, who are impeccably dressed by Simona Martínez and housed by inspired production designer Ana Cambres. Cinematographer Gabriel Sandru also does a good job in switching from the static shots used while De Weil is finding his feet to a greater mobility after the visit to Keys's hideaway. Capturing both the upper echelon's careless sense of entitlement and the invidious encroachment of fascistic barbarity, Fontana makes quite a first impression in exposing the language of power and its ability to corrupt.
CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST.
Kim Købke doesn't say much. He prefers to let his fingers do the talking, So, when `Cannon Arm' decided to have a crack at playing the 1983 arcade game, Gyruss, for an unprecedented 100 hours on a single coin, Danish documentarist Mads Hedegaard simply had to be present to cheer on his compatriot. The result is a charming study of unassuming mastery and geek camaraderie that would make a fine double bill with Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007).
With his blonde mullet cascading down his back, 55 year-old chemist Kim Købke is instantly recognisable at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. A taciturn grandfather who has been nicknamed `Kanonarm' since the 1980s, he once set the world record for playing Gyruss for 49 hours straight. Now, in homage to Thomas, the much-lamented friend who took his own life, Kim seeks to go way beyond the current record of 56 hours and embarks upon a fitness regime having been warned of the dangers of going for so long without sleep by his doctor.
While Kim pounds the pavements in preparation for his fourth attempt at the ton, his buddies forge themselves into a support unit to cater for his every need while he's ensconced in a pimped up garden shed. When not competing at poetry slams, Dyst fancies himself as a Puzzle Bobble expert and his pounding will give Kim a sense of arcade normalcy, as Emil keeps him supplied with snacks and Icelandic mathematician Svavar monitors the console during the carefully planned pee and snooze breaks.
Aiding this process is the computer spreadsheet devised by Trier, which keeps count of the lives that Kim accrues by completing levels so that he knows how many he can afford to burn on break and how close he is to the 250 mark, when the game has been known to erase scores on a whim. Keeping an eye on everyone is Carsten, who has devoted his life to analysing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, he also shares Kim's musical tastes and can blast out Iron Maiden's `Run to the Hills' when the mood leads lifting.
Anxious not to get in the way or miss anything significant, the awestruck Hedegaard and co-cameraman David Bauer give editor Mark Bukdahl plenty of angles to convey the energy and tension of what is essentially a static enterprise. Taking the odd swipe at gaming golden boy Billy Mitchell, the film sees nothing wrong with notion that the geek shall inherit the earth and signs off with a touching graveside sequence, as the gang raise a bottle to their fallen friend.