Scoped: La Playa D.C., Babylon, Faith Love and Whiskey, Resolution, The Rambler, Under the Weight of Clouds and Out of Frame

10 April 2013

Three award-winners, two horrors and two shorts...

This is the second of two Scoped specials, on films screening at this year's Bradford International Film Festival; click here for the first.

La Playa D.C.
(Juan Andrés Arango, 2012 Colombia/France/Brazil)
After premiering in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last year, La Playa D.C. won the Best Film Award at the Lima International Film Festival. The debut feature from Colombian writer-director Juan Andrés Arango, it's a visually distinctive and understated tale of urban survival. Three brothers negotiate the everyday hustle of Bogotá: caught between feelings of responsibility for younger, drug-addicted brother Jairo (Andrés Murillo) and his streetwise elder brother Chaco (Jamés Solís), Tomás (Luis Carlos Guevara) navigates a fatherless adolescence with dormant anger and resentment. The treatment of his coming-of-age arc is refreshingly low-key; Arango's direction is gripping and quietly confident, while Nicolas Canniccioni's cinematography employs a palette of compellingly deep violets and icy blues - both of which seem to gradually dissipate as the film progresses, as if the cool fronts put on by the three central protagonists are just fragile avatars for premature masculinity.
(Screens at BIFF on Sunday 14 and Tuesday 16 April.)

(ismaël, Ala Eddine Slim, Youssef Chebbi, 2012 Tunisia)
Babylon tells us in its opening text that its authors "have chosen not to resort to subtitles": what we have is a two-hour chronicle of forced pilgrimages in the spring of 2011, when more than a million people of different nationalities sought refuge in Tunisia from the burgeoning conflict between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya. Opening the film as such risks overwhelming all other concerns therein, but it begins to make sense: to provide translations - never mind explanatory commentary - is to imbue a sense of coherence and of, perhaps, an A-B narrative, one in which A is conflict and B is some kind of happy resolve. No such blueprint is granted to the refugee, of course, and so this eye-witness account gradually becomes a bold, suitably gruelling representation of the refugee experience. While its longer-than-usual cuts-to-black suggest a stuttered narrative progress, its absolute refusal to individualise incidents (it gives us nothing in the way of "character") allows for a pluralism that is both engaging and important.
(Screens at BIFF on Friday 12 and Sat 20 April.)

Faith, Love and Whiskey
(Kristina Nikolova, 2012 Bulgaria)
"Sometimes to return is a vulgarity." So warns Maurice Conchis in John Fowles's novel The Magus, and it's an aphorism put to the test in Vjara, lubov i whisky, Kristina Nikolova's directorial feature debut (co-written with Paul Dalio), which won Best Film at last year's Dallas International Film Festival and Best Debut Feature at the South East European Film Festival. In it, Neli (Ana Stojanovska) flees her fiancé in Manhattan and arrives back in her native Sofia; there, she meets with old friends and takes up a utopian fling with former flame Val (Valeri Yordanov), the kind demanding fast-paced car journeys down country lanes with bare feet hanging out of the window. "You wanna know why I came back?" Neli says; "I wanna know why you left," replies Val, and the implied anguish hovers over any would-be rekindlement. Just as Neli's recent-past risks becoming forgotten in favour of a resumed older-past, fiancé Scott (John Keabler) shows up unexpectedly, and the lovers' brief interlude is shattered. Rooftop longings at sunrise beckon, and there's a beautifully judged scene in which Val must translate between English and Bulgarian for his oblivious romantic usurper. Neli's grass-is-always-greener dilemmas, meanwhile, seems to hint at something deeper and more universal in a world in which love and desire are pressured into being one and the same. And all Manhattan is steely grey.
(Screens at BIFF on Wednesday 17 and Friday 19 April.)

(Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead, 2012 USA)
With echoes of The Blair Witch Project, Kill List and The Wicker Man - though very much standing on its own two feet - Resolution is the best horror film I've seen in years. At its start, Michael (Peter Cilella) receives an apparently homemade video from old friend and crystal meth addict, Chris (Vinny Curran), living out his crazy days at a cabin in the woods. Using the map that came with the video to find his way to Chris, Michael tasers his friend and cuffs him to a rail, with the intention of helping him through a week-long cold turkey. Things, however, are not what they seem: unexpected visitors, mysterious objects and slowly-revealed details of the cabin's history make Michael's trip more intriguing than he'd originally presumed. The effect is cumulative: the idyllic backdrop and the day-by-day repetition of the narrative give a genuine unease. Michael's confidence in his own rationale is refreshing for a film of this sort, and contrasts well against suggestions of off-screen incident - of which we're all too aware. The chemistry between the two performers anchors the film, and there are some excellently handled moments that play off the basic fears of easily-imagined scenarios (the kind that two pals such as Michael and Chris may in their younger days have scared themselves with), such as a figure at the window doing nothing more suggestive than sustaining a smile and tapping on the glass. Don't miss this.
(Screens at BIFF on Friday 19 April.)

The Rambler
(Calvin Reeder, 2013 USA)
An expansion upon director Reeder's 2008 short of the same name, The Rambler begins with the crackle of fire and beats out a punchy montage of prison life that evokes a succession of traumatic memories that will haunt the narrative and its eponymous protagonist thereafter. The Rambler (Dermot Mulroney) is released from a four-year stint in the slammer and is the reluctant recipient of a surprise welcome home party; he lands a job in an army and navy surplus store and endures the tyrannical commands of his employer; asks for understanding from his long-suffering and pregnant girlfriend and doesn't get it; finally, he hits the road to meander his way to his brother's home, and catches a lift off a demented scientist (James Cady), who carries mummies in the back of his car as well as a machine that records people's dreams onto VHS (and also blows their heads off). This unstraight story has the feel of a Lynchian road movie to it; The Rambler's (unwanted) cowboy status recalls a key character in Mulholland Dr. (2002), while the film's sheer unpredictable energy has shades of Wild at Heart (1990). Speaking of shades, does the fact that The Rambler constantly wears reflective sunglasses suggest he reflects the external world in some way? Who knows, but if oddball horror's your thing, The Rambler's rambling fun.
(Screens at BIFF on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 April.)

Under the Weight of Clouds
(Martijn Maria Smits, 2012 Netherlands)
Though 48 minutes long, De Hoer en het Mesje packs more dramatic and emotional weight than many a feature. Elena (Tanja Otolski) is a Ukrainian prostitute held illegally in Amsterdam, whose pimp Viktor (Juda Goslinga) causes humiliation and misery to her and fellow prostitutes in his ruthless pursuit of capital. When one of the other prostitutes is sold off as a sex slave, leaving behind her young daughter, Elena takes charge of the tot. Their escape is short-lived, but Elena's determination remains undimmed... As the infant, Golda de Leon is incredible; Otolski too holds a complex and compelling screen presence, even (and especially) in the many difficult-to-watch scenes of physical and sexual abuse.
(Screens with 28-minute Polish short My House Without Me on Monday 15 and Wednesday 17 April.)

Out of Frame
(Yorgos Zois, 2012 Greece)
Zois's excellent 2010 short Casus belli, which paid homage to both the supermarket scene in Godard and Gorin's Tout va bien! (1972) as well as the endless sideways tracking shot of a traffic jam in Godard's Weekend (1967), satirised Greece's consumer culture with a seamless and engaging crab-shot of its own. Titloi telous, by contrast, is a fixed-camera landscape film that captures - quite beautifully - Greece's giant billboards, whose skeletal frames are now visible to all as a result of recent sanctions on exterior advertisements. Contemplative and, for its ten minutes, wholly engrossing.
(Screens with Stan Brakhage's textural delight Mothlight, before I Have Always Been a Dreamer - reviewed here - on Sunday 14 and Tuesday 16 April.)