Friday, 28 October 2011

LFF 2011: That's a wrap

And so the London Film Festival comes to an end for another year, leaving my October (and much of September as well) a blur of film screenings. I saw 65 films at this year's festival, which is about normal for me. Sadly, this is the last of nine LFFs organised by artistic director Sandra Hebron (pictured above with Jude Law on opening night). Over her tenure, she has hugely expanded the scope and profile of the festival, and she'll be missed. Here are a few more films, plus my favourites and the award winners...

dir Ruben Ostlund; with Sebastian Hegmar, John Ortiz 11/Swe **** 
This bold, ambitious Swedish drama explores some potent issues in any melting-pot society without ever overstating them. And with its striking visual style, it leaves us deeply haunted by the issues it explores in a very personal way. It centres on a clash between two groups of young teens, as five black boys target three white boys to steal their mobile phones. But it's much more complex than that, as they talk and interact, travelling out of the city for a strange series of confrontations. Filmmaker Ostlund is exploring the whole culture of bullying, while making an intriguing comment on the nature of a melting-pot society. Cleverly shot in long takes from askance angles, it's not an easy film to watch, but it really gets under the skin.

dir Mark Jackson; with Joslyn Jensen, Ron Carrier 11/US ***
For a low-budget, meandering American indie movie, this film actually has a lot more going on than most of them. Sure, the plot feels aimless and rather uninvolving, but the filmmaking is especially sharp, and there's a lot going on beneath the surface. It also features a terrific central performance from Jensen, as a young woman housesitting a disabled man (Carrier) in an isolated island home. But it's her internal journey that becomes the focus, even though most of it happens in subtext. She's recovering from a relationship that we later learn took an unexpected turn. Her experience is haunting and creepy and also blackly funny. And in the end we're surprised at how much we care about her.

King Curling
dir Ole Endresen; with Atle Antonsen, Linn Skaber 11/Nor ****
With garish production design and bone-dry wit, this raucously entertaining film finds comedy in a story about mental illness, terminal disease and the sport of curling. Only in Norway. It centres on the obsessive-compulsive curling star Truls (Antonsen), who is released from a mental facility after 10 years and brashly decides to reform the old team. But this puts him back on a collision course both with the judges and his arch-rival (Kae Conradi). The film is designed with bright colours and hilarious costumes, and the character interaction sometimes feels very cartoonish. But it's very funny and surprisingly involving as the big final competition approaches.

My top 10 films of the fest...
  2. THE ARTIST (Hazanavicius, Fr)
  3. WEEKEND (Haigh, UK)
  4. SHAME (McQueen, UK)
  5. THIS IS NOT A FILM (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Irn)
  6. WILD BILL (Fletcher, UK)
  7. ALPS (Lanthimos, Gr)
  8. BEAUTY (Hermanus, SA)
  9. DREAMS OF A LIFE (Morley, UK)
  10. SHE MONKEYS (Aschan, Swe)
Honourable mention: INTO THE ABYSS (Herzog, US), THE DESCENDANTS (Payne, US), THE KID WITH A BIKE (Dardenne/Dardenne, Bel), CARNAGE (Polanski, Fr) and SNOWTOWN (Kurzel, Aus).

And the festival awards go to...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

LFF Day 16: Men in skirts

Tom Hiddleston and Terence Davies led the charge on closing night at the London Film Festival with the red carpet premiere of their film The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz, who of course also starred in the opening night film. I'll have a wrap-up tomorrow, but here are some more highlights...

The Deep Blue Sea
dir Terence Davies; with Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston 11/UK ****
Based on the 1952 Terence Rattigan play, this exquisitely made British drama moves at its own slow pace, pitting repressed emotions against reckless passion. It's also rather gloomy and downbeat, almost reluctant to let us see glimmers of hope in the story... FULL REVIEW >

This Must Be the Place
dir Paolo Sorrentino; with Sean Penn, Frances McDormand 11/Ire ***
Italian filmmaker Sorrentino creates a Jim Jarmusch-style odyssey from Ireland to America and back. Witty filmmaking and Penn's quirky performance keep it watchable, even though the story and themes are vague and elusive... FULL REVIEW >

We Have a Pope
dir Nanni Moretti; with Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr 11/It ***
Cleverly filmed to look like the real thing, this papal drama is infused with such a lively sense of humour that we often start it think it's a comedy. So when something serious happens, it feels a bit jarring. And in the end, unsatisfying. When the Pope dies, the cardinals meet to select his successor, but when the decision is made, the new Pope (Piccoli) has a crisis of conscience. Until he sorts this out, the cardinals must remain sequestered in the Vatican. And so must a shrink (played by director Moretti) brought in to help the new Holy Father, who meanwhile takes a secret pilgrimage into the streets of Rome. The film is a rather odd mix of slapstick (as if anything the priests do is funny) and religious exploration. And the two don't blend very easily, leaving the film feeling a bit fragmented and ultimately unconvincing. While the film is often very entertaining and engaging, it's ultimately a bit frustrating.

dir-scr Joseph Cedar; with Lior Ashkenazi, Shlomo Bar-Aba 11/Isr **** 
Essentially a father-son drama, this extremely clever Israeli film expands to explore huge issues from religion to politics with a strikingly ethical slant. It also maintains a comical tone even when things get very serious indeed. It centres on a Talmud expert (Ashkenazu) who can't quite cope with the fact that his father (Bar-Aba) has never been acknowledged for his contributions to the field. So when Dad wins the prestigious Israel Prize, the son couldn't be prouder. Until he finds out that there was an error and actually he won it, not his father. Personal vendettas, long histories and some ongoing feuds feed into the events that follow. And filmmaker Cedar injects the film with more humour than theological pondering. The result is a smart, involving film that keeps us on our toes.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

LFF Day 15: Starry night

Tuesday night was one of the starriest of the London Film Festival, with the casts of films like Anonymous and Hunky Dory parading through Leicester Square for crowds of adoring fans. Meanwhile, most critics were on the other side of the square, avoiding the red carpet insanity for the UK press screening of the 3D Greek god romp Immortals. Here are

dir Roland Emmerich; with Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave 11/UK **
Based on the long-mooted Oxfordian theory about the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays and poems, this film undermines its own point by over-egging the story. An over-complicated script and arch performances don't help the case... FULL REVIEW >

Hunky Dory
dir Marc Evans; with Minnie Driver, Aneurin Barnard 11/UK ***
With a lively recreation of the 1970s in South Wales, this relatively standard nostalgic teen drama holds our interest through its colourful settings and characters. Although without a clear central character, the film feels rather diffuse. It's set at a Swansea school, where unorthodox drama teacher Viv (Driver) is mounting a rock-infused version of The Tempest. But of course, this causes problems with the school board and the community. Meanwhile, various students are having coming-of-age issues involving romance, sexuality and hanging with the wrong crowd. But all of them are hugely talented singers, which kind of makes the film feel like a groovy, soulful version of Glee. It's also very colourful, catching the period with style and energy. And the characters are all engaging. But the film doesn't have a central point of view, jumping from plot to plot and leaving each strand somewhat undercooked.

The Dish and the Spoon
dir Alison Bagnall; with Greta Gerwig, Olly Alexander 11/US **
With its deliberately quirky characters and meandering, seemingly random series of events, this mumblecore movie is enjoyably ramshackle, constantly catching us off guard with moments of spiky humour or warm emotion. But it's also infuriatingly vague about everything, from the plot to the characters' names... FULL REVIEW >

dir Alexander Zeldovich; with Maksim Sukhanov, Justine Waddell 11/Rus ****
This astonishing 2.5-hour long Russian epic takes us into the near future with glassy-eyed production values that are reminiscent of vintage TV shows like UFO and The Avengers. In fact, Waddell often looks rather a lot like Diana Rigg as she prowls through this story. She plays the wife of a government official (Sukhanov) who joins a group that travels to an isolated valley, where a disused scientific station has been shown to permanently stop ageing. But the five characters who have this experience all find their lives drastically changed by the experience, mainly because of their own reactions to their newfound immortality. The film is both gorgeous to look at and so packed with unsettling themes that it's deeply haunting in all the right ways. It's also vague enough to please arthouse film fans and probably alienating everyone else.

In non-festival screenings, I've caught up with the muscled Greek god romp Immortals, Daniel Craig's muddled Dream House, Annette Bening's moving Mother and Child, Marcia Gay Harden's intriguing If I Were You and Wayne Wang's girly Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Still to come: Justin Timberlake's In Time, Johnny Depp's The Rum Diary, the remake/prequel The Thing and the sequel The Human Centipede 2. Not to mention lots and lots of writing to catch up after the festival. And some sleep too.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

LFF Day 14: Danger!

Michael Fassbender was back at the London Film Festival yesterday to promote his second film here, A Dangerous Method, costarring Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley and directed by David Cronenberg. This made for a lively press conference, as well as a paparazzi-friendly red carpet later in Leicester Square. Amid the general exhaustion on the faces of film journalists here, there's finally a sense that the festival is coming to an end in a couple of days and we'll be able to sleep - Freudian dream alert! - again. Here are some more notes on festival films...

A Dangerous Method
dir David Cronenberg; with Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley 11/Ger ****
Cronenberg's brainy approach makes this film fascinating but demanding as it traces the birth of psychoanalysis through the relationship and rivalry between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The film radiates intelligence through clever direction and strong performances... FULL REVIEW >

dir Richard Linklater; with Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine 11/US ****
Jack Black delivers one of his strongest performances in this rather outrageous true story from East Texas, which Linklater tells with a witty blend of comedy, drama and documentary. It's played dead straight, but it's consistently hilarious... FULL REVIEW >

The Monk
dir Dominik Moll; with Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois 11/Sp ***
This 16th century freak-out is ravishingly beautiful to look at. but it's also turgid and relentlessly grim. So what's essentially a dark supernatural thriller will only really appeal to arthouse audiences. Based on the 18th century novel by Matthew Lewis, it's the gothic saga of a priest (Cassel) who was raised from infancy by monks. Now a celebrated preacher, he begins to have increasingly dark encounters with the supernatural through dreams, visions and a stranger who offers him demonic powers. This is a seriously bleak story that's clearly not heading for a happy ending, but it's so gorgeously designed and shot by Moll that we can't look away. And Cassel's performance is deeply haunting.

Dreams of a Life
dir Carol Morley; with Zawe Ashton, Alix Luka-Cain 11/UK ****
This beautifully assembled exploration of the life of a Londoner is hauntingly, desperately sad as it reveals a person living in such isolation that she could simply fall through the cracks. And while the filmmaking is skilful and powerfully moving, it does feel a bit more lit a TV doc than a feature film. That said, the story is astonishingly gripping: it's the 2006 case of Joyce Vincent, who was found dead in her North London flat with her TV on, after being undiscovered for three years. There was no foul play, and the film is a potent mix of re-enactions and interview with her friends, who talk about her as the life of the party. But she also had a dark side, and drifted out of their lives to the point where no one ever asked where she had gone. The film may feel a bit padded out, but it's utterly riveting, and hugely moving.

1. Beats Being Dead: dir Christian Petzold; with Jacob Matschenz, Luna Zimic Mijovic 11/Ger ***
2. Don't Follow Me: dir Dominik Graf; with Jeanette Hain, Susanne Wolff 11/Ger ****
3. One Minute of Darkness: dir Christoph Hochhausler; with Stefan Kurt, Eberhard Kirchberg 11/Ger ****
This trilogy tells three distinct stories that take place in the same time and place and overlap at various points. And in the final film, we also a more over-arching drama emerges from the shadows of the first two films. All three are extremely well shot and edited, packed with insinuation and clever touches in the styles of their respective directors. The three films stand alone as a twisty romance, friendship drama and dark thriller, respectively. And they also have some strongly echoing themes about human fragility and the way our private obsessions have a potent impact on the people around us. You also get the feeling that these aren't the only three stories you could tell from this setting.

Monday, 24 October 2011

LFF Day 13: The dark side

One of the overwhelming feelings from this year's London Film Festival is that the world isn't a very nice place. Sure, there have been a few moments of joyous relief (The Artist has been the bright point), but most films are grappling with very dark themes or genres. Here are notes on just five of them....

The Awakening
dir Nick Murphy; with Rebecca Hall, Dominic West 11/UK ***
A nifty twist on the standard ghost story, this British period drama starts extremely well and then slips into overwrought melodrama. And while the plot feels a little too gimmicky, at least it's complex enough to hold our interest... FULL REVIEW >

Martha Marcy May Marlene
dir Sean Durkin; with Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson 11/US ****
With a disturbing tone and skilful filmmaking, this insinuating drama completely unsettles us as it delves into the mental life of its central character. And it has a lot to say about how relationships affect us... FULL REVIEW >

Hors Satan
dir Bruno Dumont; with David Dewaele, Alexandra Lematre 11/Fr ****
Ever the provocateur, Dumont fills this story with religious iconography, blurring the lines between Jesus and the devil. It's about the thin line between good and evil, suggesting that positive actions must sometimes involve violence. And the filmmaking is both bold and elusive as it follows a drifter (Dewaele) along the French coastline as he has a supernatural impact on the villagers. Virtually dialog-free, the film is packed with eerie scenes that echo Biblical stories, from healing the sick to walking on water to exorcising a demon, so watching it is thoroughly unsettling. And while Dumont's central point is a little hard to find, it's rare that any filmmaker deals with religious themes. Especially one who knows how to push our buttons.

dir Oliver Hermanus; with Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan 11/SA ****
An intensely personal filmmaking style takes us deep into this darkly involving drama about a man who simply doesn't have the skills to deal with his inner desires. Watching it is a remarkably challenging, involving experience. It centres on a middle-aged man (Lotz) who is married with two grown daughters and a very dark secret: he's actually gay but can never come out in his rural society. This repression has left him unable to cope with his own urges, which makes his growing obsession with a young family friend (Keegan) increasingly worrying. But what makes the film so riveting is the way writer-director Hermanus tells this story in such an intimate way: we are right inside this man's mind all the way through, understanding his thoughts and actions. And the subtle skill in the way it's shot, edited and acted is simply astounding.

Into the Abyss
dir Werner Herzog; with with Michael Perry, Jason Burkett 11/Ger ****
Herzog departs sharply from the quirky tone of his recent documentaries to offer a startlingly astute and sensitive exploration of a horrific murder case. And more generally, he's also looking at the issue of America's death penalty. The case is genuinely disturbing, especially as Herzog talks to policemen, townsfolk, the victims' families and the killers themselves (Perry and Burkett), one of whom is awaiting his execution. What emerges are details that thoroughly disarm our expectations, quietly observing facts and emotions that challenge ideas of an-eye-for-an-eye justice. It's one of those films that gets deeply under your skin, and without ever preaching makes you examine your prejudices an probably change the way you think.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

LFF Day 12: Royal performance

At the UK premiere of her film W.E. at the London Film Festival, Madonna is flanked by actors Richard Coyle, James D'Arcy, Andrea Riseborough, Laurence Fox and Katie McGrath. It was quite possibly the starriest night of the festival, and Madonna received a warm welcome from the audience as she introduced her film and then gave a long, candid Q&A after with the festival's artistic director Sandra Hebron. It was great to be there - probably my only gala event this year. Here are some comments on the film, as well as a few other highlights...

dir Madonna; with Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough 11/UK ***

Madonna takes an ambitious approach to the story of Wallis Simpson (Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy), merging their history-making romance with the story of another Wallis (Cornish) in modern-day New York. Frankly, it's all a bit overwrought as it parallels the two stories and even merges them surreally several times along the way. The swings in mood are vast, from cheeky comedy to wrenching violence to political intrigue to sweet romance. And while the performances are good, only Cornish really connects with the audience. That said, the film's sheer ambition makes it worth seeing, as it is packed with terrific scenes that stand on their own. And it's also rather nice to see a big historical story like this seen from a woman's viewpoint, which brings out some issues most filmmakers are happy to pretend don't exist. So even if it's a bit of a mess, it still has relevance and resonance.

Take Shelter
dir Jeff Nichols; with Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain 11/US ****
Shannon reteams with Shotgun Stories writer-director Nichols for another exploration of one man's wobbling mental state. But this time the story is much more introspective, and watching it is thoroughly unnerving... FULL REVIEW >

Wild Bill
dir Dexter Fletcher; with Charlie Creed-Miles, Will Poulter 11/UK *****
British actor Fletcher makes a terrific directing debut with this sharply told story of a family struggling to survive in a bleak environment. But this film is so full of hope that it thoroughly engages our emotions even when things get scary... FULL REVIEW >

The Future
dir Miranda July; with Miranda July, Hamish Linklater 11/US ***
While this film is a bit too precious and offbeat, it also makes some striking observations on the nature of relationships and the fears we have about moving ahead into the unknown. And the engaging cast keeps us involved... FULL REVIEW >

Saturday, 22 October 2011

LFF Day 11: Tess goes east

Freida Pinto and Michael Winterbottom turned up at the London Film Festival today with Trishna, their India-set version of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Meanwhile, Andrea Arnold was also on hand with most of the cast for her new film version of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Also in town today: Bruno Dumont (Hors Satan), Robbie Pickering (Natural Selection), Nirpal Bhogal (Sket) and Ole Endresen (King Curling). Here are comments on five of today's highlights...

dir Michael Winterbottom; with Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed 11/Ind ***
With this darkly edgy romance, Winterbottom adapts his third Thomas Hardy novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and sets the action in India. It's colourful and dramatic, but lacks the passion the story requires to grab our emotions... FULL REVIEW >

Wuthering Heights
dir Andrea Arnold; with Kaya Scodelario, James Howson 11/UK ****
Emily Bronte's novel is one of the most unsettling books you'll ever read, so it's about time a filmmaker made a darkly disturbing movie out of it. And Arnold's movie is like no other period adaptation we've ever seen: gritty, messy and thoroughly involving... FULL REVIEW >

The Ides of March
dir George Clooney; with Ryan Gosling, George Clooney 11/US ****
As a writer-director, Clooney delivers another complex exploration of American politics in this lively drama about the pressures of the campaign trail. The plot is somewhat theatrical, but the stellar cast brings it to life... FULL REVIEW >

Natural Selection
dir Robbie Pickering; with Rachael Harris, Matt O'Leary 11/US ****
A skilful mixture of comedy and drama makes this the kind of film that keeps us off balance from start to finish. Like the central character, we are challenged by every twist and turn of the plot. Which also means that it's hugely involving... FULL REVIEW >

dir Morten Tyldum; with Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau 11/Nor ****
Based on Jo Nesbo's bestselling novel, this freewheeling action-thriller is hugely entertaining because, besides being unpredictable and suspenseful, it's also relentlessly hilarious. But in fine Scandinavian style, it's played dead straight. It centres on the fast-talking job recruiter Roger (Hennie) who has a secret business in art theft to support his leggy blonde wife (Synnove Macody Lund), whom he knows is way out of his league. But one particularly tempting job results in him being hunted by a high-tech killer and the cops who now think that he's a vicious killer. The story propels Roger at full-speed through a series of outrageous situations that are amusingly deadpan while being genuinely scary at the same time. There's not much to the film, but it's so much fun, and the hero is so easy to identify with, that we can't help but be hugely entertained.

Friday, 21 October 2011

LFF Day 10: The charmer

One of the best surprises of the London Film Festival has been Michel Hazanavicius' almost ludicrously charming black and white silent movie The Artist, which has been gathering buzz since its premiere at Cannes last May. Now the film and its leading man Jean Dujardin are being talked about as possible Oscar contenders (of course, it helps that Weinstein is distributing the film). Apparently Dujardin has been here in London for the festival, but I haven't tracked him down yet. Here are some comments on the film, and some other festival highlights...

The Artist
dir Michel Hazanavicius; with Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo 11/Fr *****
Made as a 1920s-style silent movie, this feels like an instant classic  It's packed with more wit, passion and invention than all of the films in any given multiplex combined. The story centres on a silent movie star (Dujardin) who discovers a young ingenue (Bejo) and then watches as their careers take extremely different trajectories - mainly because she embraces talkies while he prefers to keep making silent movies. The strong supporting cast includes John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell, and the film is so sharply well written and directed that every moment is packed with humour, emotion and witty nods to film history. It's also one of those movies that makes you laugh and cry without seeming to try at all. In a word: sublime.

The Kid With a Bike 
dir Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne; with Thomas Doret, Cecile De France 11/Bel ****
The Dardennes once again achieve a remarkable sense of reality with this understated drama about an angry tornado of a boy (the remarkable Doret) whose troubled, sad life seems heading for a nasty end when he's adopted by a caring stranger (De France). But nothing is easy, and the film heads into some very dark places that continually catch us off guard. It's such an intimate film that it's sometimes difficult to watch, but we continue to root for this kid. Everything feels so natural on screen that it's almost shocking when we start to feel the grinding gears of a plot. And while this feels a bit pushy, it still keeps us involved, and even provides a moment of gasp-inducing drama.

dir Tinge Krishnan; with Eddie Marsan, Candese Reid 11/UK ***
Riveting performances hold our attention even when this dark drama starts wallowing in the messy lives of its central characters. But there are glimmers of hope along the way, and a terrifyingly realistic depiction of addiction... FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 20 October 2011

LFF Day 9: George in the house

Every year at the London Film Festival, there are at least two big new George Clooney movies, and this year's Clooney Mini-fest kicked off yesterday with The Ides of March, and a the charming actor held court at a mammoth press conference along with costars Evan Rachel Wood and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Today was Part 2 with The Descendants, along with director Alexander Payne and costar Shailene Woodley. This meant that the evening premieres involved hundred screaming fans camped out in Leicester Square to get a glimpse of their hero. And the films weren't bad either. Here are some more festival highlights...

The Descendants
dir Alexander Payne; with George Clooney, Judy Greer 11/US ****
Clooney has never done a role that was quite as emotionally resonant as this one. He plays a man whose wife is in a coma, leaving him to care for his free-spirited daughters, aged 17 and 10. Meanwhile, he and his cousins are considering selling off their ancestral land in Kauai. And then he finds out that his wife had been having an affair, and amid his anger and grief he makes a startling decision about the other man. The film plays out gently, with a profoundly humane script that blends strong emotions with earthy comedy. And the performances are terrific, delicately balancing the joy and pain of a variety of relationships. A seriously involving and entertaining film.

This Is Not a Film
dir/with Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb 11/Iran *****
There's something eerie about watching this playful documentary just a few days after filmmaker Panahi had his draconian prison sentence (six years) and 20-year ban from filmmaking upheld by an appeals panel. Because this, of course, is not a film. Essentially, the camera is just watching Panahi while he's under house arrest awaiting the appeal ruling. His friend Mirtahmasb is operating the camera, although sometimes Panahi provides reverse angles with his iPhone. And it's a hilariously surreal exploration of filmmaking, as Panahi tries to stay within the boundaries of his sentence but clearly can't resist the urge to tell stories. He even acts out scenes from one of his banned productions (after all, he's been banned from writing and directing, not acting or reading). But it's the film's serious subtext that makes it a hugely important document.

How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire
dir Daniel Edelstyn; with 
Daniel Edelstyn, 
Hilary Powell 11/UK ***

Edelstyn narrates the story of how he discovered a Ukrainian vodka distillery that was once owned by his great-grandfather and his efforts to launch an international vodka label out of it. Meanwhile, we see the story of his grandmother's departure from Ukraine amid the chaos of Russia's 1917 revolution. re-enacted by his partner Powell with the help of his friends and some eye-catching hand-made animation. It's a lively, enjoyable film that cleverly parallels the two stories to draw out some bigger issues, including personal ambition, government bureaucracy, international business and even impending parenthood. And what makes it so endearing is Edelstyn's personal approach: his grandparents' story is a lovely example of European migration through the 20th century, while his own journey is like a less-gimmicky, more-goofy Morgan Spurlock.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

LFF Day 8: Dear John

Along with We Need to Talk About Kevin, John C Reilly has two more films in this year's London Film Festival - and they come from three very different genres. Several actors pop up more than once in this year's line-up, including George Clooney, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon and Michael Fassbender. But Reilly wins the prize for the most varied roles. Here are notes on his two other films, plus one more...

dir Roman Polanski; with Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster 11/Fr ****
Based on Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, this claustrophobic film takes place almost entirely between four characters in a single New York apartment. But it's absolutely riveting, because of the filmmaking and directing as well as the bracingly smart script. It also helps to have Winslet, Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C Reilly playing two couples who come together after their 11-year-old sons are involved in a playground fight. Yes, the script is extremely theatrical, spiralling around as each character gets the upper hand, lashes out and so on. But Polanski keeps it crisp and pacey with an inventive use of the space, letting the actors grab hold of the characters and run with them.

dir Azalee Jacobs; with Jacob Wysocki, John C Reilly 11/US ****
This offbeat drama is kind of a coming-of-age story, as it focusses on the overweight teen Terri (Wysocki), who lives with his unstable uncle and feels likt an outcast at school. It probably doesn't help that he wears pyjamas because they're more comfortable. But he's taken under the wing of the principal (Reilly), who clearly has a thing for misfits, being one himself. What follows is a surprisingly involving series of events as Terri quietly begins to accept who he is and make some friends along the way. It's a low-key film, with a constant undercurrent of deranged humour and a series of genuinely touching moments too.

Magic Trip
dir Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood; with Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs 11/US ***
Gibney and Ellwood got their hands on the film Kesey shot as he and his Merry Pranksters drove their psychedelic bus across country in 1964. Originally intended to be a feature film, but never coming together at the time, it's now assembled as a freewheeling documentary. Colourfully edited together with wit and insight, it's thoroughly entertaining to watch, as we've never seen such intimate footage of these people before. On the other hand, the voice-over present-day interviews sound like fond nostalgia rather than any attempt to make sense of what happened. Sure, most of the time everyone was lost on LSD, but this film starts to feel almost like a yearning reminiscence of happier, higher days. Still, the context is strong, as we see both how the Pranksters responded to and affected the times they lived in.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

LFF Day 7: Cast and crew

Tonight saw another parade of actors and filmmakers on the London Film Festival red carpet, including Justin Kurzel and Lucas Pittaway (Snowtown), Lynne Ramsay and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Pablo Giorgelli (Las Acacias). All of these are noted below, plus Return, whose star Linda Cardellini is also in town for the festival...

We Need to Talk About Kevin

dir Lynne Ramsay; with Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly 11/UK *****
Scottish filmmaker Ramsay takes an astonishingly visceral approach to Lionel Shriver's notorious novel. And combined with Swinton's internalised performance, the experience of watching this dark, disturbing film is almost unbearably moving... FULL REVIEW >

dir Justin Kurzel; with Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall 11/Aus ****
Based on a nightmarish true story, this Australian drama starts in a squalid home and descends into pure horror. The film takes the perplexed perspective of 16-year-old Jamie (the astonishing Pittaway), who is abused by a neighbour before being taken under wing by his mother's new boyfriend John (Henshall). But John's hot temper, vengeful urges and violent tone hint at something much nastier under the surface. This is one of Australia's most notorious serial killer cases, but the film approaches it internally, never quite giving us all of the details, so we feel like we're living through the events along with Jamie. And by eerily underplaying everything while keeping us off-balance, the filmmakers make one of the most terrifyingly original movies of the year.

dir Liza Johnson; with Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon 11/US ***
An edgy sense of realism makes this back-from-war drama surprisingly engaging, even though it's never as original as we hope it will be. But solid, naturalistic performances and an urgent, intimate approach make it worth a look... FULL REVIEW >

Las Acacias
dir Pablo Giorgelli; with German de Silva, Hebe Duarte 11/Arg ****
Artful and engaging, but also extremely slow, this Argentine road movie centres on an intriguing relationship between two strangers: a truck driver and a woman who hitches a long ride with him, bringing her infant baby along. Most of the time they drive along in silence, but over the many hours they can't help but start to take an interest in each other. This gentle thawing is witty and involving, partly because the catalyst is the adorably curious baby who begins to crack the driver's hardened, cynical shell. It's finely shot and edited, and extremely well-observed, but is so low-key that it will probably only appeal to adventurous filmgoers.

Monday, 17 October 2011

LFF Day 6: The warzone

Recent red carpet stars at the London Film Festival have included the cast of Coriolanus (Vanessa Redgrave, Jon Snow, Brian Cox and Ralph Fiennes, left) and Rampart (Ben Foster, Oren Moverman and Woody Harrelson, right). Although for members of the press, this festival can be more of a scrum, trying to get tickets to public screenings of films that weren't shown to the press. Forget about the parties, we have four or five movies to watch every day. It's a bit exhausting, but there are only 10 days to go. Here are some highlights today...

dir Ralph Fiennes; with Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler 11/UK ***
Actor-director Fiennes sets Shakespeare's military tragedy in a modern-day war setting, which gives it a meaty kick of recognition. But it's such a bombastic film that it's difficult to find much emotional resonance in it... FULL REVIEW >

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
dir Takashi Miike; with Ebizo Ichikawa, Eita 11/Jpn ****
Miike takes a remarkably restrained approach to this remake of the 1962 samurai classic about a man who asks for permission to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a great house, then unravels a twisty story that sharply explores the issue of honour in Japanese society. This version is strikingly still, gorgeously shot in muted colours to concentrate on the dark emotions that fill the story. It's also shot in 3D, which gives the sets an intriguing depth. As the drama progresses mainly through conversations and flashbacks, there's very little action until the final scenes, which are a shocking collision of tragedy and violence. And as an aching story of love and revenge, it's deeply moving.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan; with Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan 11/Tur ****
Patiently following a police procedure over about 18 hours, this Turkish drama is startlingly involving, mainly because it quietly deepens our interest through character detail. It's also stunningly well shot and edited... FULL REVIEW >

Meanwhile, I have still been watching non-festival films and reviewing them for their normal release dates. Over the past week, London critics have seen the Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball, the Chinese drama Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and the girly ensemble movie Monte Carlo. Coming up we have the Greek gods extravaganza Immortals, the remake-prequel The Thing Marca Gay Harden in If I Were You, the now unbanned sequel The Human Centipede 2 and Jan Svankmejer's Surviving Life.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

LFF Day 5: Feeling a bit unsettled

The London Film Festival continues apace, with a busy weekend of screenings and events all over the city. I saw three films today, two of which were introduced by their directors and followed by Q&As - Giorgos Lanthimos (above right, with actress Ariane Labed and producer Athina Rachel Tsangari, photographed with my phone this evening) with Alps and Julie Loktev with The Loneliest Planet. Woody Harrelson and Oren Movermen were apparently in town for Rampart, but were too busy to attend the matinee, apparently. Comments about all three below...


dir Giorgos Lanthimos; with Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris 11/Gr *****
After Dogtooth, it's impressive that Lanthimos has actually upped his game with this remarkably involving drama. Once again, it's opens mysteriously, and takes a while to show us exactly what this group of people are up to: they call themselves Alps and pose as the recently deceased to help friends and family members ease into their grief. Where the film gets interesting is in its examination of how we all play roles in our lives, both at work and at home, and how telling the difference between who we want people to see and who we really are gets increasingly blurry as time goes by. Of course, in this case all of these issues are magnified, and what happens has a surprising emotional kick as the film takes several provocative twists and turns. Don't miss it.


dir Oren Moverman; with Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright 11/US ***
Harrelson reunites with The Messenger writer-director Moverman (as well as costars Ben Foster and Steve Buscemi) for this grim drama cowritten by James Ellroy about police corruption in late-1990s Los Angeles. It feels a bit too similar to Training Day for comfort, as Harrelson's character struggles to hold his fractured family together while covering up his dodgy activities as a cop. Addiction to prescription drugs and a tentative relationship with a lawyer (Wright) add to the mix, but as he spirals down into a hole it's difficult to care much about this cocky racist/sexist dinosaur. Are we supposed to feel sad that the olden days are gone in which cops could do whatever they want? As in Training Day, we lose all sympathy as the central character goes under. And the only saving grace is that Moverman resists the apocalyptic ending, going for something much more interesting.

The Loneliest Planet

dir Julia Loktev; with Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg 11/US ****
Set in the republic of Georgia, this offbeat film sends two intrepid foreign travellers (Garcia Bernal and Furstenberg) on a hiking trip through the spectacular Caucuses. The first half of the film feels completely improvised, as we relax into the easy relationship this couple has and the banter they share with their guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). Then something happens. In the grand scheme of things, it's pretty minor, but the underlying tension is nearly unbearable. It also makes us examine our deep-seated ideas of gender in a startlingly inescapable way. It's such a simple idea that it's amazing no one has ever addressed it with this level of complexity. And the film is so impeccably shot, edited and acted that it's gets hugely uncomfortable to watch - we know how we feel, and yet we also know that we shouldn't be thinking this way. And as events continue to unfurl, Loktev continues to challenge us while never letting the film boil over into melodrama. A skillful, subtle gem.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

LFF Day 4: It's the weekend

Red carpet glamour continues at the 55th BFI London Film Festival as stars come out in support of their films. Out tonight in Leicester Square and on the Southbank: Woody Harrelson, Oren Moverman, Dee Rees and Julie Loktev. And from the rightly acclaimed British independent drama Weekend, Andrew Haigh, Tom Cullen and Chris New were all on hand for the screening and a very cool party afterwards - perhaps the only one to which I will be invited this year, thanks to distributors Peccadillo, who also have She Monkeys (see below) and Beauty (next weekend) in this year's festival. Here are some highlights...

Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
dir Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill; with Nick Broomfield, Sarah Palin 11/UK ***
With his usual disarming, faux-bumbling style, Broomfield sets out to get the real story of the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate. But she won't talk to him, and her supporters are told not to, so it's kind of difficult togged a balanced view. On the other hand, this tells us rather a lot about Palin, but nothing we haven't heard before. This lack of a revelatory bombshell keeps the film from ever being important, although it's thoroughly entertaining to watch Broomfield's comical attempts to interview Palin and her secretive friends. On the other hand, her "enemies" are happy to talk. But the filmmakers never indulge in a hatchet job, the approach is fair and honest. And what we see of Palin is pretty scary, really.

dir Emanuele Crialese; with Filippo Pucillo, Donatella Finocchiaro 11/It ****
Filmmaker Crialese once again captures the atmosphere of rural Italian life in this darkly involving drama, which loses some of its warmth when a more politically oriented plot takes over. But it holds our interest with lively, realistic characters and settings. It centres on a young man caught between harsh ant-immigration laws and the traditions of his fishing community on the isolated island of Linosa. It's both gorgeously filmed to capture the raw beauty of the island and insightfully observed. We really understand the tensions in this place, where the old ways are disappearing and people are increasingly making a living off tourism. But the plot, involving the arrival of a pregnant illegal immigrant, catches the intensely personal side of the situation.

She Monkeys
dir Lisa Aschen; with Mathilda Paradeiser, Linda Molin 11/Swe ****
This Swedish drama explores issues of women in society in ways we rarely see on screen. With a bracing filmmaking style, this unflinching exploration of power and desire continually surprises us with its quietly revealing approach. The writing, direction and acting are all extraordinary as it centres on the power struggle between two teen girls on a vaulting team - both rivalry and attraction are factors here. The main idea is that a lack of role models makes it difficult to find your place in society, but it's the way filmmaker Aschen approaches this, with a naturalism and artistry that continually catches us off guard with an honesty that's sometimes uncomfortable to watch.

Friday, 14 October 2011

LFF Day 3: Full steam ahead

Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen ran the gauntlet of press and fans today at the London Film Festival as they presented Shame to the UK for the first time. And the reaction after the press screening was stunned silence - mostly of the positive kind - due to the film's bold honesty. And the press conference afterwards was remarkably lively, with a sharp sense of humour. Yes, the festival is fully underway, which means that most public screenings are introduced by cast members and/or filmmakers, which is great fun. Here are a few highlights...

dir Steve McQueen; with Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan 11/UK ****
After Hunger, McQueen continues his inventive approach to cinema with this New York drama about sex addiction. He refuses to play by Hollywood rules, facing up to the issue head-on, which includes using unusual directing choices to show the characters in remarkable detail. Fassbender and Mulligan are transparent and raw as brother and sister, both fragile, damaged people presenting an unexpected face to the world. And while the film's plot feels a little over-constructed, it's also powerfully involving and ultimately moving. But the most intriguing thing is that way it manages to get us into the skin of the central character, forcing us to think about our own addictions, whatever they may be.

dir Andrew Haigh; with Tom Cullen, Chris New 11/UK *****
It's clear to see why this gentle gay romantic drama has been compared to Before Sunrise and Once, as it follows two men over the course of two days. But it's also an extremely well-made film packed with its own sharp observations... FULL REVIEW >

dir Gus Van Sant; with Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska 11/US ****
Van Sant returns to his earthy-airy style for this story of a young man coming to terms with the concept of mortality. It's effortlessly honest, with edgy humour balancing the dark themes. Although it's also diluted by commercial sensibilities. FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 13 October 2011

LFF DAY 2: Around the world

On opening night, Fernando Meirelles and his cast traversed the red carpet in Leicester Square for the film 360, which travels across North America and Europe. Meanwhile, the festival is travelling all over the globe over the next 15 days. Here are a few highlights from day 2...

Dark Horse

dir Todd Solondz; with Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair 11/US ****
Todd Solondz takes another hilariously pitch-black exploration of human behaviour with a film populated by excellent actors playing seriously messed up characters. And it can't help but force us to look at how we interact with people around us. It centres on slacker Abe (Gelber) who has been pampered all his life by his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and hasn't a clue that he's actually a loser. So he pursues a depressed girl (Blair) with unnatural relentlessness. The comical disconnect between Abe's vision of himself and how everyone else sees him provides plenty of scope for dark humour, and Solondz never passes judgment on any of his characters. Which means we see a bit of ourselves in there too.


dir Dee Rees; with Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans 11/US ***
Expanded from her Iris-winning short, Rees' feature debut is a bracingly original variation on the usual coming-out and coming-of-age movie, getting under the skin of its vivid characters in ways that are hugely involving. Set in inner-city New York, it follows boyish 17-year-old Alike (Oduye), a straight-A student everyone is worried about since she's hanging out with the "wrong" crowd: namely a group of lesbians. And when Alike's mother virtually forces her to hang out with one of her friends' daughters, things take a twist no one can predict - especially a naive 17-year-old. Alike's journey is thoroughly engaging, and Oduye's performance is stunning. So it's a bit frustrating that other characters are rather overplayed. Still, it's a powerful film that really gets us thinking.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

dir-scr Goran Olsson; with Angela Davis, Stokeley Carmichael 11/Swe ****

By taking a journalistic approach from outside the USA, this film helps us see the turbulent events surrounding the Black Power movement in a new light. And it's powerfully relevant today... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

LFF Day 1: Back on the red carpet

The 55th BFI London Film Festival kicked off tonight with a red-carpet premiere of Fernando Meirelles' ensemble drama 360, and will continue over the next 16 days with some 300 movies plus special events and more. There really isn't much more to my life between now and 27th October - although I do still need to see the usual weekly releases and review them along with the 60 or so LFF movies I'll be watching.

This past week I also attended the 5th Iris Prize Festival in Cardiff, which was as festive as last year (when I was on the jury), as the filmmakers, actors, journalists and festival patrons and organisers all hung out together. In just three days, I saw 35 features and shorts. And the prize winner - the short I Don't Want to Go Back Alone from Brazil - was one of my favourites. As was the winner of best feature and best actor - Eldar Rapaport's August - and best actress - Casper Andreas' Going Down in La-La Land.

Regular releases screened to London critics this past week were good (Roman Polanski's Carnage, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, the frantic Korean thriller The Yellow Sea) and decent (the mopey war movie Resistance, the mopey romance Like Crazy) and almost watchable (the comedy Tower Heist). And then there were the London Film Festival titles. Here are some highlights from tonight and Thursday...

dir Fernando Meirelles; with Rachel Weisz, Jude Law 11/UK ***
Written by Peter Morgan, this ambitions multi-national, multi-strand drama centres on transgressive romances while urging us to take whatever fork in the road life throws at us. It continually urges us to remember that each decision has its consequences, but the film itself never gets deep enough to explore them. Its multiplicity of characters include a hooker from Bratislava, a businessman from Berlin, a strained marriage in London, a Russian mobster in Paris, a lovelorn Muslim dentist, a pair of lost souls on a plane to Denver and a recovering sex offender. The cast is superb, and Meirelles fills the film with glassy, reflective camerawork and tricky editing that carries us as the film moves from Europe to America and back. Yet while this engaging, involving film is full of gorgeous moments, carrying us along effortlessly, it never seems quite as sharp as it should be.

dir Jonathan Levine; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen 11/US ****
Films about cancer aren't generally this funny. And while this movie isn't a comedy, beyond its generous dose of realistic humour, it has a smart, personal script that dares to face a difficult situation head on. And the light tone makes it hugely involving... FULL REVIEW >

Like Crazy
dir Drake Doremus; with Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones 11/US **
With a deliberately wistful style, this romantic drama never quite convinces us that its central couple is actually in love. there are several wonderfully telling moments along the way, but the over-constructed plot and too-cute cuddle-fest just gets increasingly annoying. It follows a young couple (the terrific Yelchin and Jones) who are torn apart when she overstays her student visa and is unable to return to Los Angeles from London. They both have other relationships over the ensuing months, but can't get each other out of their minds. Basically, this film will appeal to anyone who was won over by the similarly toned One Day, another gimmicky and extremely mopey romance that seemed oddly artificial from the start.

Gandu [A**hole]

dir-prd Kaushik Mukherjee; with Anubrata Basu, Joyraj Bhattacharya 10/India ***
Filmmaker Mukherjee (credited only as Q) violates every taboo about Indian cinema to tell a lively story about an angry young man who just wants to make it big as a rapper. It's worth seeing for its brio even if there isn't that much more to it. The story follows an angry rapper nicknamed Gandu who channels his rage through his music. Eventually, he embarks on a road trip with a Bruce Lee-fanatic pal, and their adventures encompass both drugs and porn. The film is energetic and colourful - albeit shot in black and white, except for one lurid sex scene. So it kind of resembles Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It crossed with Coppola's Rumblefish, plus a surreal, drug-fuelled Indian sensibility. It's pretty outrageous, although not as shocking in the West as it would be back home.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Critical Week: The eyes have it

Most of the films screened this week to UK critics are in the programme for the 55th London Film Festival, which starts next week. So it's been a rather higher quality week than normal for us, including: George Clooney's astute and entertaining political drama The Idea of March, starring the seemingly ubiquitous Ryan Gosling; Ralph Fiennes' inventive adaptation of Shakespeare's macho-soldier drama Coiriolanus, costarring the even more ubiquitous Jessica Chastain; Sean Penn as a goth rocker in Paolo Sorrentino's artful and intriguing This Must Be the Place; Todd Solondz's latest quirky and almost terrifyingly insightful black comedy Dark Horse; and Rebecca Hall and Dominic West in the period ghost thriller The Awakening.

Two films surprised us by being much better than we expected: Rod Lurie's skilful remake of Pekinpah's notorious 1970s thriller Straw Dogs and Rowan Atkinson's return as the spoof spy in Johnny English Reborn. Less starry but equally impressive independent films included the festival hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman breaking away from a brainwashing commune; the superb British drama Wild Bill, with Will Poulter and Charlie Creed-Miles; the clever and involving German drama Harvest; and the Indian taboo-busting comedy-drama Gandu.

And this coming week will be just as busy, with the collision of three festivals: Raindance in London, Iris in Cardiff and continuing press screenings for the London Film Festival. Biggies include Roman Polanski's Carnage, starring Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, the youthful romance Like Crazy, the Norwegian comedy-thriller Headhunters, the Israeli drama Footnote, and the Latino drama Las Acacias. Among other things to be revealed next week...