Thursday 15 October 2020

Friendship's Death (Peter Wollen, 1987)

Film theorists Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey were married for 25 years and made a number of films together, including Amy! and Riddles of the Sphinx.  As a filmmaker, Wollen—who died late last year—branched out on his own to make Friendship's Death, which was to be his only solo feature film.  While Wollen will always be best remembered for his seminal 1969 book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, his 1987 rarity Friendship's Death is a film that fully deserves its new 4K remaster, which plays as part of the Treasures strand at the London Film Festival from Saturday until Tuesday.  If you happen to miss its festival screenings, a much-needed Blu-ray of this new version will be available at some point over the next year; the disc was due to be released this year, but scheduling issues have pushed it back, with the ETA now being June 2021.

Friendship's Death is effectively a two-hander between Bill Patterson's war correspondent and Tilda Swinton's alien.  Friendship, the extra-terrestrial, is on her way to Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she drifts off course and finds herself in Jordan, which happens to be in the middle of the Black September conflict of 1970.  There, she's steered away from danger by Patterson's Sullivan, and the two go on to enjoy a number of conversations that both sides appear to find equally fascinating.  Sullivan isn't sure whether to believe Friendship's story—she looks and sounds completely human, and he voices suspicions that she might be an agent—but he's certainly interested in finding out more about her.  As the Palestinians and Jordanians go at it outside, Friendship and Sullivan hole up in a PLO-controlled hotel; over a bottle or three of whisky, the pair discuss a range of topics including technology, humanity, football, and of course the conflict that rages around them.  

Although it was made 33 years ago, much of Friendship's Death's dialogue feels remarkably fresh and relevant, with both the man–machine interface and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remaining two ongoing issues that aren't going away anytime soon.  The point, or at least one of several, appears to be that Friendship is much more sensitive than many humans, and this is something we've witnessed in many a sci-fi tale, with Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence featuring an especially poignant example.  Does Friendship have as soul, or just a facsimile of one?  It doesn't really seem to matter to Sullivan, who enjoys Friendship's company regardless of what may or may not lie beneath her warm, inquisitive exterior.

Perhaps the only gripe with Friendship's Death is that is often feels a bit too much like a filmed play, with two actors and as many sets forming the bulk of the snappy running time.  But that isn't too much of a problem when you have characters and dialogue as engaging as this.  The two leads are both very good here; Swinton, currently starring in Pedro Almodóvar's The Human Voice (which also plays at this year's LFF), gives an appealing performance in a role that's very different from the sort we're now used to seeing her play, while Patterson, just a few years on from his great turn in Bill Forsyth's chronically underrated Comfort and Joy, imbues the world-weary Sullivan with a compassion that belies his cynical, battle-hardened demeanour.  Friendship's Death is something of a minor gem, and its new lease of life is extremely welcome.

Darren Arnold

Image: BFI

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Rose: A Love Story (Jennifer Sheridan, 2020)

This terrific debut feature from director Jennifer Sheridan is one of just three films in the Cult strand at this year's London Film Festival.  The Cult section of the LFF brochure is typically where I start when I'm circling what to watch at the festival, and although I would have liked to have seen a few more titles in there this year, this paring down is in line with the festival having been streamlined in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  On the upside, it means I should manage to see everything Cult has to offer this year, as scheduling conflicts almost always get in the way of me completing a full set when it comes to catching up with everything in this particular strand.  With only a few slots to play with, the LFF programmers had to get it exactly right this year, and Rose: A Love Story, which had its world premiere this evening, is an excellent choice to fly the flag for the Cult strand in these troubled times.  The film screens at the festival from today until Friday.

Rose, which features facemasks, surgical gloves, and a couple spending most of their time indoors, feels very appropriate for the world we're currently living in.  Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe, also the film's writer) live in an isolated house in the woods, where they have minimal contact with the outside world.  Their home has no electricity, but is powered by a petrol generator; Sam has an agreement that enables fuel to be delivered to him, but a rupture in this supply forces him to venture further afield in order to keep the generator topped up.  Sam's trip to the filling station has a definite air of risk to it, much like the feelings many of us had (and may still have) when venturing out for supplies during lockdown.  While Sam succeeds in getting the fuel, there's an altercation connected to the original non-delivery of the petrol, one that seriously spooks Rose when she learns of the incident and its potential to threaten her and Sam's off-the-grid existence.

While Sam is at the garage, he collects a parcel containing leeches he has ordered, and we witness him, more than once, administering the bloodsucking creatures to his own body.  After a while a picture emerges: Rose has a taste for blood, and therefore must be kept away from it at all costs, and the jars of well-fed leeches act as a source of sustenance, should the urges become too strong; this vampiric tendency also explains why Rose doesn't really venture outside of the poorly-lit house.  While the petrol station episode is yet to have repercussions, Sam and Rose's idyll is nevertheless shattered when young runaway Amber (Olive Gray) gets caught in one of the many gin traps surrounding the well-guarded property.  Amber's leg is broken by the trap, and Sam helps her but is naturally at great pains to stop the blood making too much of a mess.  With Rose banished upstairs, Sam cauterises the wound and resets the leg, then reluctantly agrees to let the injured girl stay the night.

While vampire tales are certainly nothing new, Rose manages to come up with an interesting take on the genre in that it is, above all else, a human story, one in which Sam and Rose's relationship is most definitely at the forefront, with the horror elements used both sparingly and effectively.  At times ,the film put me in mind of Leave No Trace and Let the Right One In (and its remake Let Me In), but somehow the film never once feels derivative.  The nicely-photographed wintry locale really adds to the sense of isolation, and, as is typical for films in which characters are doing their best to stay unnoticed, we take in the sight of the protagonists going about their strict daily routine, all the while acutely aware that their peace simply can't last—which provokes mixed feelings: we're rooting for Rose and Sam, but also wish for an agent of change to come along and shake things up.  As its subtitle informs us, Rose is very much a love story, one that proves both fresh and appealing, and it is a far cry from the tired, formulaic horror that typically rears its head at this time of year.

Darren Arnold

Images: Strike Media

Sunday 11 October 2020

The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1930)

Sydney's pioneering McDonagh sisters made several self-funded films, including Those Who Love and The Far Paradise.  Their third silent festure, The Cheaters, was filmed in 1929 and released the following year, when the McDonaghs filmed some additional scenes in an effort to convert the film into a partial talkie using an improvised sound recoding device; sadly, the makeshift system, however ingenious, didn't achieve the desired results, and the film worked better as a silent feature—although it still underperformed on its limited domestic release, with a deluge of American sound films brushing it aside.  The film has now been lovingly restored by Australia's National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), with this new print of the film (in its original silent version) enjoying some outings at festivals including Melbourne and Sydney; it screens at the London Film Festival from today until Wednesday.

The Cheaters finds Paulette McDonagh in the role of writer-director, while Phyllis McDonagh serves as the film's art director.  Isabella McDonagh, under her stage name Marie Lorraine, stars as Paula Marsh, whose father is a career criminal bent on taking revenge on the man who once shopped him for embezzling from his employer.  Paula is part of her father's operation and is involved in scams such as the theft of an expensive necklace, which is depicted in an early, entertaining sequence.  Business is good for the Marsh family, but the situation grows more complicated when Paula falls in love with the son of the man her father's aiming to take down.  While Paula would very much like to leave her life of crime behind and marry the man of her dreams, her father wants her to take part in one last heist—and we all know how those tend to work out.  What could possibly go wrong?

Although The Cheaters starts out strongly—the aforementioned scene in which the Marsh gang swindle a jeweller out of a pricey item really is great stuff—it soon runs out of steam as Paula's love life takes precedence over her criminal activities, and what promised to be a fun caper film soon gets bogged down by an unappealing love story.  While silent movies were always at an obvious disadvantage and often had to concentrate on quickly driving the plot forward, usually at the expense of nuanced storytelling, The Cheaters finds itself in the strange position where it slows down the pace, but then proceeds to do very little with the time and space it has carved out; the result stretches the already-thin topic of Paula's romance to breaking point.  It's a pity the film judders to a halt like this, as it really does come roaring out of the traps, and the setup is extremely promising.  Given the time in which the film was made, there was only going to be one outcome for the villain of the piece (Paula's father), which makes for a conclusion that may well prove unsatisfying for present-day audiences.  On a more positive note, the production values are excellent, as is the use of locations.

To criticise The Cheaters for its long, dull stretch may be to miss the point of this release, which is to show off a sparkling new print of a film that, like Chess of the Wind, could very easily have been lost to the sands of time.  It is estimated that up to 90% of silent films are gone, so the survival of The Cheaters is something to be celebrated.  Since its inception five years ago, the NFSA's restoration program has seen more than 20 Australian classics—ranging from silent movies to films from the early 1990s—preserved and restored before being re-released in cinemas.  The Cheaters may not be the best example of silent cinema, but we should all be extremely grateful for the chance to see it. 

Darren Arnold


Saturday 10 October 2020

Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976)

The story behind the magnificent 4K restoration of The Chess Game of the Wind is arguably more interesting than the film itself: Mohammad Reza Aslani's debut feature endured a disastrous premiere at the 1976 edition of the Tehran International Film Festival, and the film was subsequently yanked from both the festival and public view.  To add insult to injury, the film was then banned in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1978—not that it needed any government assistance when it came so slipping into obscurity. For the next four decades, the film was largely considered to be lost, save for a very distressed VHS copy that changed hands between those sufficiently determined to dig out this holy grail of Iranian cinema.  The possibilliy of a "proper" version of this lost film ever turning up seemed less than remote, but in 2015 director Aslani was visiting a a flea market when he stumbled across the original negatives, which he duly purchased.  Aslani then sent the reels to France, where they were restored thanks to funds from the George Lucas Family Foundation.   

The Chess Game of the Wind, variously known as Chess of the Wind (the title it plays under at the London Film Festival, where it screens from today until Tuesday), A Game of Chess Lost to the Wind and Shatranj-e baad (Farsi), centres on a wealthy, Qajar dynasty-era family squabbling over a large inheritance, and as such plays along the lines of Rian Johnson's recent smash Knives Out, which screened at last year's LFF.  Although The Chess Game of the Wind contains far less humour than Johnson's enjoyable (if hugely overrated) film, there are some striking similarities between the two movies, including the significant role played by servants as the story twists its way to its climax, not to mention the lengths those circling the honey pot will go to in order to secure what they see as being rightfully theirs.  The Chess Game of the Wind features a dank, creepy basement littered with barrels of acid, so it's not too surprising to find that not all of these characters make it to the end—what was it Chekhov said about a gun?

One way in which The Chess Game of the Wind most definitely doesn't resemble Knives Out is in its accessibility; Aslani's film proves a difficult one to get a grip on, but it may well be that things become slightly clearer on subsequent viewings.  While obviously set many decades before the time in which it was made, the film was presumably a commentary on a particular section of 1970s Iranian society, one whose lives would be changed considerably once the Shah was overthrown.  Thus, the film serves as both a snapshot of pre-revolution Iran and a reminder of a time in which such a project could be made in that country; just a couple of years later, the film's lack of Islamic content cemented its place in the cinematic wilderness.

The Chess Game of the Wind, one of only two features directed by Aslani (the other being 2008's The Green Fire), stands one of the the best recent examples of a film being pulled back from the brink of extinction, and to go from that perilous situation to this incredible print is little short of miraculous.  Sometimes, restored versions of movies fail to produce a significant improvement, but the difference between the old and new prints of this film—and I've seen the creaky VHS copy that was once the only option—really is like night and day.  The Chess Game of the Wind film deserves to be seen simply on the basis of its remarkable, unlikely rescue, and while there is certainly a most handsome movie in there, the content will most likely remain overshadowed by the sheer improbability of its survival.

Darren Arnold


Friday 9 October 2020

Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020)


This debut feature from Natalie Erika James has been hyped as one of the year's better horror films but, despite laying some excellent groundwork, it ultimately takes the audience down a well-trodden path that proves to be much less fun than its setup promised.  Despite a trio of decent performances and some fine production values, this Australian feature just doesn't have enough about it to carry it over the line.  Relic plays as one of three films in the Cult strand at this year's London Film Festival, which has been streamlined in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; the film screens at the LFF from today until Monday. Viewers in Australia can watch the film via Stan, and it is also available on other platforms, including Prime Video and iTunes.

When the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her remote home, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive to join the search for the vulnerable old woman.  Kay and Sam find Edna's house locked from the inside, and although they manage to find a way into the building, there are no clues as to what has happened to its owner.  The house is littered with Post-it notes containing basic reminders for Edna, and there's a strange black mould growing on the walls.  The pair settle into their temporary home, then join the hunt for the missing relative.  After a lengthy, fruitless search through the nearby woods, hope starts to fade, but Edna suddenly reappears in her house, seemingly unaware of her absence and none too appreciative of the exasperated Kay's numerous questions.   

Edna is examined by a doctor who finds no major problems, although there is a strange bruise on her chest.  Kay is still far from happy with the situation and makes an appointment to look round a Melbourne nursing home; Sam, who disagrees with this plan, tells Edna about this and offers to move in with her gran in order to avoid the need for the care home.  All is far from well in the house: Kay notices a strange, indistinct organism under Edna's bed; Sam discovers a secret passageway to another section of the building; and Edna tries to eat, then bury, a family photo album as she feels these measures are safer than leaving it inside the house.  Edna's behaviour grows yet more erratic, and she violently retrieves a ring she'd previously gifted to Sam, claiming her granddaughter had stolen it from her.  Jamie, a neighbour with Down Syndrome, refuses to enter the house when Sam invites him in, and it is later revealed that on his last visit a game of hide-and-seek went horribly wrong when Edna locked the young man in a cupboard and proceeded to forget he was in there.      

Relic does well to create an unsettling atmosphere, but unfortunately can't sustain it for anything like the duration of its running time.  The scenes in which Sam wanders through endless, looping hallways recall similar stretches in Mark Z. Danielewski's excellent novel House of Leaves, but unfortunately Relic is missing the spark that made that book so memorably chilling.  Of the three main performers, Heathcote is the most impressive, and she makes Sam a sympathetic, believable young woman, one who has her own problems long before she arrives at her grandmother's home;  Mortimer and Nevin are similarly committed, and the performances really can't be faulted.  While Relic has something interesting to say about the futility of watching elderly loved ones go into mental and physical decline, it's ultimately an understuffed, predictable and unsatisfying film, albeit one that demonstrates a certain talent on the part of James; it would be interesting to see what she might come up with if armed with a much stronger script. 

Darren Arnold


Wednesday 7 October 2020

Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2020)


Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was one of two films (the other being Butter on the Latch) by Josephine Decker that screened at the 2014 London Film Festival, and it proved to be an an absorbing if rather oblique effort.  Decker's Shirley, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell about The Legend of Hell House author Shirley Jackson, is a much more direct work, and it screens at this year's LFF from Friday until Monday.  Shirley is not your usual biopic, but rather has more in common with the likes of The Damned United, which was also based on a novel in which the author liberally interpreted a specific period in its subject's life.  As with The Damned United, which focused on football manager Brian Clough's brief, ill-fated spell in charge of Leeds United, Shirley isn't scared to get among the demons that scratch away inside the genius it depicts.

Elisabeth Moss, one of the finest high-profile actors currently working, is predictably great as Jackson, a woman who struggled with several debilitating conditions as she strove to realise her writing projects.  Michael Stuhlbarg, that fine actor from the Coens' A Serious Man, plays Jackson's husband, the critic and academic Stanley Hyman.  Hyman is far from the ideal spouse, and this crashing bore plays a very strange game with his wife, appearing to care while constantly looking to undermine Shirley and her work  It must be said that the razor-sharp Shirley is no stranger herself to playing games, and there are many occasions when she gives back at least as good as she gets.  When a young couple enters Shirley and Stanley's home, they prove a fine diversion for the difficult author and her boorish husband, who take to toying with these rather green newlyweds. 

Rosie and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman) are the pair who temporarily move into Jackson's Vermont home; the callow Fred is hoping to secure a tenure at the college where Stanley teaches, while the pregnant Rosie soon gets railroaded into cooking, cleaning, and keeping a watchful eye on Shirley.  Rosie is very interested in Shirley and her work, and although the younger woman is initially treated with contempt by the established writer, the two gradually form a strange bond; on the evidence presented in Shirley, one might conclude that Jackson was incapable of forming a straightforward relationship with anyone.  While the dynamic between these two women is developing, Stanley is busy manipulating the earnest Fred, who is continually badgering his mentor for feedback on his dissertation; Stanley basically strings Fred along and clearly has no intention of appointing this younger, more attractive man to a position that might prove distracting for the cohort of all-female Bennington College.    

Shirley is both well acted and well made, and Moss does very well in a tricky role, one in which she remains sympathetic even when playing elaborate psychological games with the undeserving Nemsers; while Stanley certainly deserves every brickbat that's slung his way, Fred and Rosie arrive in town as an optimistic young couple who simply want to settle down and get on in life, yet both are eventually worn down by the cynical nature and casual cruelty of their hosts.  Comparisons with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are inevitable, but the impressive Shirley, which boasts none other than Martin Scorsese as its executive producer, is very much its own movie, one that will hopefully see the talented Josephine Decker find a much wider audience.

Darren Arnold