Oct 15, 2014

24FPS @ LFF 2014: Roundup 2

The Keeping Room
Dir: Daniel Barber
The home invasion film isn't new, it's been the model for everything from some of the most controversial films ever made (Fight For Your Life) to a series of hit family comedies (Home Alone), but this is the first home invasion film I can recall set during the American Civil War.

Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) are Southern sisters, their large home is now empty but for them and one slave, Mad (Muna Otaru), who they now live on more or less equal terms with.  The war is all but over and Northern forces are encroaching, but when Augusta catches the eye of a violent advance party, led by Moses (Sam Worthington), the women must defend their home and their lives.

 The Keeping Room could have been made, in some alternate movie universe, 40 years ago as a nasty little grindhouse piece, but director Daniel Barber, writer Julia Hart and cinematographer Martin Ruhe bring more craft and subtext than you would probably have seen in that film.  The screenplay doesn't lean too heavily on its subtext, but there are powerful things said about both female empowerment and race.  The film is striking from the off, with a disturbingly slow and still opening sequence that introduces the film's suggestion that even in a war that was fought against slavery the victors weren't always noble.  The image of a cart rolling along a deserted road, on fire, its black driver shot in the head, is both sad and brutal; a combination the film plays to throughout.  The cinematography is excellent throughout, with an Innocents like shot of the women, carrying lanterns, walking up the stairs stealing the honours as the film's most beguiling.

The Keeping Room spends a good amount of time establishing rounded characterisations for its three leading ladies.  The dynamic between Augusta, Louise and Mad is never entirely comfortable; you get the sense of an uneasy but long lasting truce, especially in an early scene in which Louise says that Mad should be doing all the digging, because “she's the nigger”, to which Augusta replies “We all niggers now”.  This is typical of the film; it knows that these characters we're going to end up rooting for aren't always admirable, that they were on the wrong side of this war, but it still humanises them, showing them caught up in a brutal situation not of their making.

This complexity is matched by three fine central performances.  Hailee Steinfeld finally delivers on the promise she showed in True Grit, with a performance that is by turns forceful and vulnerable and Manu Otaru brings a quiet, clearly hard won, dignity to Mad.  However, as she does so often, Brit Marling stands out.  As Augusta she's full of steely resolve and resourcefulness, but also lets us see the fear behind her actions, fear both of the men who are invading the farmhouse and of those she knows will follow now the war is lost.  Marling is a great actress, but more than that she's clearly a movie star, she has a presence that draws the eye of both a camera and an audience and that quality pays dividends here.

There is a surprise in the cast in the form of Sam Worthington. This year, having previously been one of my least favourite actors, he has begun to win me round, first with a forceful role in the underrated Sabotage and now here, with a performance that is more than the cipher of a villain it begins as.  Late in the film, in a quiet and extremely tense scene conducted at gunpoint, Worthington more than holds his own with Marling.  It's this late moment, in conjunction with a quote about the cruelty of war that opens the film, that serves to humanise the villains of the piece.

While it's not hugely explicit, Daniel Barber doesn't flinch from much of the brutality on show here.  What, aside from an extremely upsetting rape scene, makes an impact is how much damage is done by a single gunshot.  Because the weapons used here still operate with ball and powder rather than bullets gunshots are infrequent, which means that every one has huge impact; they are loud, painful looking, and seldom without consequence, a stark contrast to how they are often treated in modern set films.  That said, the film's most powerful moment isn't a violent one but its quietest and most reflective, as Mad tells a story about life at one of her previous plantations.  This scene is where the film hammers home the idea that, as brutal as war is, for Mad it's hardly new, or indeed worse than any other time in her life.

Intelligent and artistic but also thrilling and accessible, The Keeping Room brings class to what could have simply been an exploitation movie and in doing so stands out among this year's London Film Festival crowd.

Dir: Zhanna Issabayeva
I have been coming to the London Film Festival for over a decade and must have seen at least 250 films here over the years.  Some were probably worse than Nagima, but few, if any, were emptier.

In contemporary Khazakstan Nagima (Dina Tukubayeva) is living a hand to mouth life with her friend Anya, with whom she grew up in an orphanage.  Anya is heavily pregnant, but after complications with the birth Nagima finds herself left holding the baby, something she is ill equipped for.

What's remarkable about that plot summary is that I've made Nagima sound about six times more interesting than it actually is.  The only truly notable thing about this film, at least until its abysmal, out of nowhere, last five minutes is how unstintingly boring it is.  Early in the film we see Nagima making her way home from work, which is to say that for about three minutes we watch her sit on a bus.  Expressionless.  This is not the only time during the film that director Zhanna Issabayeva takes 'slow cinema' to its inert conclusion, similar moments of watching Nagima on buses or watching vehicles travel along roads occupy perhaps ten of the film's scant 78 minute run time (this is not to say it feels like 78 minutes).

There is something to be said for the idea of using cinema simply to observe people going about their lives, but either the people or their lives ought to be interesting and Nagima, as played by Dina Tukubayeva, never has even the tiniest hint of personality.  Because she's such a complete void, so totally affectless, and because we never get a handle on who she is nothing that she does in the film, especially her extreme actions towards the end, connects.  There's no throughline, no logical progression from one event to the next because she's just a blank space.

I'm all for extreme cinema, I like to be challenged, I like to be shocked, but Nagima's shock ending is one of the cheapest I can recall.  Two years ago at LFF I saw a film called Accession, which featured one of the most shocking scenes I have ever seen, but it wasn't there for its shock value, it wasn't cheap.  Accession followed the progression of its character's brutally and hideously misguided logic, with a deep sense of dread, up to that moment.  That is what Nagima would like to do, and tries to do with Tukubayeva's final speech.  It's utter failure is not because it tries to shock but because that shock doesn't come from anything within the film.  It doesn't seem credible for Nagima's character, there's no hint of it in Tukubayeva's performance and the film never seems to be driving to that (or indeed any other) moment.

Nagima is easily and by far the worst film I've seen in this year's festival; a total waste of time and money, hell, even of the electricity going to the projector.

Hungry Hearts
Dir: Saverio Costanzo
From its still, its title, its place in the Love section of the festival and the presence of Adam Driver I had assumed that Hungry Hearts was going to be another indie hipster romance of the kind I have become so tired of over the past few years.  It is not.

Hungry Hearts begins with the most disarming meet cute I've seen in some time, as Jude (Driver) and Mina (Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher) find themselves locked in a restaurant toilet together.  The next time we see them they have been together for a few months.  Soon Mina falls pregnant and they get married, but when their baby is born Mina becomes so obsessed with purity and cleanliness that she may be harming him. 

Most films pick a genre and stick with it, or hybridise a couple of genres.  Hungry Hearts takes a different approach; it mutates throughout, evolving from a romantic comedy to a drama to a thriller to a horror film and back to a drama.  This could have unbalanced the film, throwing us between too many different poles in too short a time, but until the very end the gear shifts are surprisingly natural, growing organically out of the story and Saverio Costanzo's decision to alter the style of his direction along with the genre of his film keeps things interesting and specific from moment to moment, only proving disconcerting when the film wants you to be thrown off balance.

Driver and Rohrwacher capably adapt their performances to the shifting genre, with Driver's charming hipster routine sliding compellingly into a portrait of a man who clearly adores his wife, but is increasingly afraid of her and what her obsessions might be doing to their son.  Rohrwacher's finest choice here is to keep everything that Mina says and does small.  Her quietness and her conviction enable you to believe that, even if she's not well, she does believe everything she's saying and that she doesn't want to harm her son.  She becomes ever better and ever more disturbing as the film enters its Polanski influenced darkest patch.

These twenty minutes or so, when Mina's illness is at its worst and Jude's concern for his son at its height, also contain some of Costanzo's most interesting visual choices.  Operating the camera himself, he uses an extremely wide angle lens, giving the whole thing a surreal, sickly, look and making the already petite Rohrwacher seem to become an elongated skeletal figure.  This all contrasts very nicely with the brighter visual style of the first act, as we see Jude and Mina fall in love and get married and the shift from charmingly funny rom-com to disturbing everyday horror is so strong that it only compounds the disappointment of the ending.

The last three minutes of Hungry Hearts seem to be the product of Costanzo throwing up his hands and saying to himself 'I can't think of anything else, so I suppose that will do'.  From one completely out of the blue extreme action to a final shot that goes completely against the prevailing tone and feels like someone phoned Hallmark to obtain the final frame, the last three minutes are a complete disaster.  Thankfully, the rest of the film is strong enough and confident enough that it is still absolutely worth your time.

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