More London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford and Pamela Jahn.
A bracing stroll through an emergent American Muslim punk sub-culture, The Taqwacores follows newcomer and straight A student Yusef as he moves into a shared house in Buffalo, New York, to get his head thoroughly rattled by its inhabitants. There’s a dope smoker, a feminist riot grrl, a flamboyant gay dude, various drinkers and promiscuous party people, all of whom claim to be devout in their own way. Thus we have skateboard sequences jostling with moments of unconventional worship (‘You gotta come to Friday prayers!’ ‘Totally, I’m there!’). We have a call to prayer played on an electric guitar and we have bands called Osama’s Tunnel Diggers and The Guantanamo Bay Packers. Tensions build within the house as the contradictory belief systems clash, and it all comes to a head at an ill-starred all-star punk blow-out.
The film The Taqwacores brings most readily to mind was Penelope Spheeris’s cult gem Suburbia, which detailed the LA squatter punk scene of the early 80s. Like Suburbia, it’s a bit gauche and earnest and embarrassing in places, with lots of on-the-nose dialogue as the ‘cores thrash out their conflicting ideologies. Like in Suburbia, the story has a tragic arc we can sense in the offing, and we have to endure a central character who’s mainly there to ask dumb questions and get opinions thrust at him. Unlike Suburbia though, The Taqwacores has pretty good performances, especially Noureen DeWulf as Rabeya, who manages to convey a forceful personality through a customised full burqa, and Dominic Rains as the mohawked poster boy Jehangir (‘I’m too wrapped up in my mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures!’). It has energy and humour and a nice bleached out look. And it throws a startling image or off-the-wall piece of dialogue at you every few minutes of its lean 83-minute running time.
Apparently the Taqwacore scene didn’t exist until Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, on which the film is based, inspired a number of bands to spring into being. If so, more power to their various elbows, at least if they’re anything like the mess portrayed here, a welcome vision of Islam as something not set in stone by humourless pricks, but something fluid and playful. Mark Stafford
Another rock solid effort from writer/director John Sayles, Amigo is set during the US invasion of the Philippines in 1900, where a garrison of troops is stationed in a small farming village, surrounded by guerrilla fighters. Sayles, of course, has time for everybody – the Yanquis, villagers, guerrillas, and Chinese coolies all get their sides of the story shown – but he especially has time for Rafael, the poor bastard stuck in the middle: as head man of the village, brother to the local insurrectionary leader, and now servant of the Yanqui occupiers he is, as he rightly surmises, ‘fucked from both ends’. There are clear allusions to the current US Middle Eastern misadventures, of course, including a spot of low-tech waterboarding, and the film as a whole is a demonstration of why invading a country and then expecting to win hearts and minds is doomed. The film’s true ire is reserved for the military high ups (here personified in Chris Cooper’s Col. Hardacre) and the church, in -‘s devious and self-serving friar. It’s an entertaining, old-school, well-constructed piece of liberal drama. But as often happens with Sayles’s films, the visual aspects feel a little bit meat and potatoes, and a little more cinematic exuberance wouldn’t go amiss. Mark Stafford
Finally arriving on the big screen in the UK after it was withdrawn from this year’s FrightFest by the filmmaker and its producers, Kaboom is not as stunning and exceptional as you might expect from the American enfant terrible Gregg Araki, especially as a follow-up to his wonderful Mysterious Skin. A campus B-movie sci-fi comedy romp totally out of this world, the film spins an insane narrative of teen sex of all kinds, drugs, dreams, cuckoo conspiracies and animal mask-wearing cultists. At the centre of this maelstrom is handsome but shy college student Smith, who secretly lusts for his chav surfer roommate Thor, but prefers hanging out 24/7 with his sarcastic lesbian best friend Stella. It’s a candy-coloured, bizarre, chaotic, silly joyride that wins you over instantly once you abandon yourself to its wackiness. A mature continuation of Araki’s confrontational earlier work in terms of directorial style, it is suffused with the same dazzling blend of antic spirit, questionable taste and truly anarchic fervour. Twin Peaks and Donny Darko might obviously have been influences for Araki here, but Kaboom is way too soft and outright ridiculous to ever draw you in in the same way. Nevertheless, it’s sexy to look at and a fun piece of cinema for short-term pleasure. Pamela Jahn
The question of how the hell Errol Morris alights upon his subjects seems less of a mystery in this case, as Joyce McKinney has a habit of thrusting herself into the public eye, though she would deny this was ever her intention. In 1977, she was behind the ‘manacled Mormon’ case that obsessed the British tabloids, and more recently she bubbled up clutching a litter of cloned puppies, in another media sensation. Morris’s entertaining documentary has Joyce, her collaborators and a brace of journalists all telling their parts in a jaw-droppingly screwy tale of bondage, kidnapping and high religious weirdness – it’s a cavalcade of WTF!? moments. Tabloid touches on themes of truth and madness and media complicity, but it’s pretty bubbly stuff, and the style used here is bouncier than in, say, The Fog of War: John Kusiak’s music is suited to a caper comedy, and there are little bits of animation amid the usually artfully picked illustrative clips. But Joyce is a fascinating, mercurial subject, a hyper-intelligent stalker, an ‘aw shucks’ down home gal, a bondage queen and master of disguise. Her relationship with any objective reality is clearly pretty strained, and working out how much of this tall tale you’re prepared to believe is a large part of the fun. Mark Stafford
Decidedly non-yeeha Western tale from Kelly Reichardt, the director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. We’re in Oregon in 1845, following a tiny wagon train as shaggy guide Stephen Meek leads it astray while attempting to cross the Cascade Mountains. Bruce Greenwood is Meek, and indie stalwarts Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Will Patton and Michelle Williams are among the increasingly paranoid and disgruntled travellers, as water runs low and notional Indians lurk in the shadows. It feels absolutely authentic: Reichart does an impressive job of creating the sounds, sights and textures of life on the trail, the feeling of isolation and peril, and slowly builds real and involving characters out of the figures in this vast landscape. But I’m not sure she guides us to a satisfactory destination. Mark Stafford
An extraordinary film, The Arbor is an exploration of the short life of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her three children, in which extensive interviews with all concerned have been given to actors to lip-synch direct to camera in various settings. These are intercut with a staging of one of her plays in the middle of the Buttershaw estate where it was set, and occasionally spliced with some of Dunbar’s rare appearances on TV. The result is mesmerising and artful where the bare facts of the lives detailed would have just been unbearably bleak served up straight, especially the life of Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, a slow motion car crash of child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, prostitution, and worse. The lip-synched, cleverly staged sequences give all this squalor and neglect a dreamy, not-quite-right intensity as various parties tell their side of the tale, and we skip around in time and space, from memory to theatre to street and back.
It’s an odd technique, curiously distancing and involving at the same time, and seems to have been inspired by the ‘verbatim play’ An Estate Affair, which the Royal Court staged following up Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, (which was filmed by Alan Clarke). Curiously, Dunbar’s The Arbor, her most extensively represented work, doesn’t come across very well, almost seeming like a parody of gritty northern drama. But the film overall is an original audio-visual one-off, a highly choreographed waltz through memory and truth and time. Mark Stafford
Arguably one of the strongest films in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, Carancho is the latest work of Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero, whose Lion’s Den impressed us last year as a brutal and morally ambiguous portrayal of a young mother’s life in prison. Carancho is an equally well-crafted, tough-as-nails thriller built around the world of ambulance chasers, corrupt hospitals and unscrupulous lawyers who make their money out of late-night traffic accidents and other calamities. Echoing the style and moral decay of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood film noir, it feels at times like Trapero is a little too caught up in his own ambitions to push social realism on screen beyond its usual thematic and emotional boundaries, and to get the right balance in the web of corruption, murder and love that connects Sosa (Ricardo DarÃn), a legal vulture who is tired of his job, to young ER doctor LujÃ¡n (Martina Gusman). But as predictable as the narrative is, the procedural set-pieces in which the culmination of car crashes and the couple’s dangerous liaison play out are shot in a handheld style with great old-school skill and energy, and the intense performances by the two leads make for a gripping film that aptly rings alarm bells for the state of the nation. Pamela Jahn
It’s kind of a Funny Story
A teen movie about Depression Lite, call it Absence of Glee. Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a would-be suicide, checks into a mental health ward instead of chucking himself off Brooklyn Bridge, and over the next five days, surrounded by various shut-ins, schizophrenics and self-harmers, learns to gain a sense of perspective on his life and problems. The previous two films by writing/directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson and Sugar, were both low-key observational indie art-house affairs, but their third film seems to have unleashed a whole world of wacky that they had previously kept hidden. Thus we have freeze frame flashbacks, fantasy sequences, cut-away gags, animation and all manner of quirky bits of business thrown into the mix. It’s warm-hearted and funny if you’re in the mood for that sort of caper. But I found the cutesifying of mental illness a little hard to take. Craig’s problems are reduced to John Hughes movie dilemmas, where his suicidal urges can be shelved if he just picks the right girl, says no to his dad’s career pressure and develops that recently discovered lucky artistic streak. Only Zach Galifianakis’s striking and believable turn as Bobby seems to come from a world where depression is an intractable problem with no easy answers, and he remains gratifyingly awkward throughout. Nice soundtrack by Broken Social Scene though. Mark Stafford
Everything Must Go
Fair tilt at Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Why don’t you dance?’ in which alcoholic Will Ferrel loses his job and arrives home to find his wife gone, the locks changed, and all his possessions out on the front lawn. Already half-blitzed on Pabst Blue Ribbon, he elects to stay out there, surrounded by the remains of his world, until life, the law and his neighbours intervene. I suspect Carver fans will be unhappy that one of his best oblique little vignettes has been fitted with character arcs and social conscience and structure and all that Hollywood stuff, and Will Ferrel fans will just be wondering where the hell the funny got to. Everything Must Go is alright, as it happens. And it’s nice to see Ferrel playing someone difficult, and occasionally unpleasant. Mark Stafford
It’s remarkable that in only two films Joanna Hogg should already have developed such a distinct style and world that I suspect most critics would recognise a piece of her work in 30 seconds or less. I wish it was a style and a world I was more enthusiastic about watching, but there you go. After her debut Unrelated, here we are again with a frosty rich family in a remote location discovering untapped oceans of anger and social tension as a mother, her son (Tom Hiddleston) and daughter ( Kate Fahy) go to Tresco in the Scilly Isles for a family holiday. To await the arrival of the patriarch, who remains stubbornly absent, they picnic, and stroll, and paint, and eat, and fall apart over tiny social fault lines. Hogg’s style, with its off-kilter framing, where her actors are dwarfed by architecture and landscape, and a habit of entering scenes before and after they have started, creates a weird, tense form of naturalism, like a nature documentary observing strange creatures in one of their natural habitats. It’s smart and well crafted and Hogg’s clearly got something. But I hate these people. Mark Stafford
Lucy Walker’s documentary follows artist Vik Muniz back to his homeland of Brazil, where he hopes to spend a couple of years producing pieces about Rio’s Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest rubbish dump. He settles on producing a series of huge portraits of some of the ‘pickers’ who scour the trash for resellable recyclables. The portraits are to be constructed from Jardim junk, and sold to raise money the pickers desperately need to improve their lot. What could have been a simplistic doc about the transformative power of ART, is made more complicated, and touching, by the lives of the pickers themselves, who take centre stage for much of the film. The last 20 minutes or so had me crying like Niagara goddamn Falls, which I guess is a recommendation. Moby does the soundtrack, if that does anything for you. Mark Stafford
American Indie dream couple Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple, married with a cute child, and heading for the rocks. Over a few days we see them bicker, fail to communicate, pick fights out of thin air, and make a disastrous visit to a love hotel in an attempt to fix the problem, unable to alter the character traits that are driving them apart. And this, heartbreakingly, is intercut with scenes of their initial meetings, when they were funny and fumbling, the story of their road to marriage. Romantic expectation is weighed against harsh reality, and we detect the DNA of their split within their budding relationship. Gosling and Williams are extraordinarily convincing as the cute couple going to hell, and the whole thing is almost too painful and intimate to bear. It’s picked up an NC-17 rating in the states, and doesn’t stint on the tougher details of life and love. Upsetting, recommended, fine Grizzly Bear soundtrack too. Mark Stafford
The Tillman Story
Pat Tillman seemed almost tailor-made for pro-war propaganda when he joined the fight in Afghanistan, a hunky football star and all-American boy, married to his high school sweetheart, who’d set aside a lucrative NFL career to join the frontline. You can see what the Bush administration was doing when they used the example of his heroic 2004 death in speeches and press releases. The only problem was that the story the military first put out was bullshit. Pat hadn’t been battling terrorists to save the lives of his brothers in arms, Pat had been killed by his fellow troops in a ‘friendly fire’ incident. This documentary follows the story of his family’s battle to get to the truth through a fog of military and political manoeuvring. It’s overlong and nothing new, technically, but the story’s worth hearing. Mark Stafford
Upside Down: The Creation Records Story
Competent and entertaining documentary detailing the rise and fall of Alan McGee’s label, home to Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream and others, from indie roots signing The Loft in the mid-80s to their collapse after the cocaine blizzard/Sony buyout/Oasis at Knebworth years of the late 90s. Full of great stories, but could have done with a bit of context to explain why this music meant so much at the time, and the later years have been pretty well covered elsewhere. Mark Stafford
Mark Stafford and Pamela Jahn