London Film Festival 2014

I’ve always found the film festival experience to be strange. Watching 3-4 films in a day is par for the course for some cinephiles, but doing that every day for two weeks straight is a different matter. You’re largely watching new films, often world or regional premieres, and the temptation to offer snap judgements before moving on to the next screening is huge. I’ve read many a critic talk about how opinions formed at Cannes shouldn’t be trusted because your brain is frazzled from copious amounts of art cinema and French wine. The new Michael Haneke film is likely to still be a work of genius in four months’ time, however the Bulgarian drama about agricultural relations you saw in Directors’ Fortnight might look a little different in the cold light of day.

My own involvement in film festivals, except for a couple of volunteering gigs here and there, has largely been focused on the Sarajevo Film Festival in Bosnia. I’ve been there six times and I absolutely love it, from the opportunity to see Cannes and Berlin heavyweights long before they pop up in the UK to discovering exciting new films from the Balkans. For example, this year I was able to see Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep alongside Isa Qosja’s intriguing Three Windows and a Hanging, a film that dealt with the fallout from the Kosovo war. Another plus point is you get to see all these films and still find time to immerse yourself in a great city.

Moving back to London last year after graduating from university has allowed me to expand my festival horizons to include the last two editions of the BFI London Film Festival. I’ve joined this particular train in a period of gradual transition after Clare Stewart took over as festival director in 2011 and oversaw a rehaul of its structure. One thing that’s immediately noticeable about LFF is that the programme mostly consists of films that premiered elsewhere, leading to it being seen as a catch-up festival rather like the New York Film Festival is. This can work really well if the curation is good, but it also means the few world premieres and restorations really need to make their mark to stand out.

I’m not writing this post to make some grand statement about what the main film festival in London should represent, nor to complain about the ticket prices. I simply wanted to look at how my two years at LFF have changed my perception of film festivals. It’s certainly different to Sarajevo, a much larger operation that attempts to find a tricky balance between the glitzy gala screenings and the art house fare which makes up the rest of the programme. This aforementioned catch-up element also makes it hard to speak of an objective festival experience, because I could pick out thirty films from the programme and still have no overlap with someone who is also planning to see loads. I can’t think of many other festivals (perhaps NYFF being the major exception) where this lack of competition and an overall perspective is so prevalent.

This has been a bit of a ramble but I did want to put these thoughts in one place before I move on from the festival. Here are some stray thoughts about the films I saw:

1) LFF 2014 showed me a promising glimpse into the future of British cinema. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy received a lot of attention at Toronto and has a somewhat international feeling to it, so instead I wanted to look at three other efforts from British filmmakers. Carol Morley’s The Falling, her follow-up to the acclaimed documentary Dreams of a Life, is an unnerving watch. It portrays the outbreak of a fainting epidemic at a girls school in the late 1960s, asking whether this is a real thing or simply a psychological trick to undermine the school’s hierarchy. Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy initially appears to be a peculiar mix of the “it’s grim up north” sentiment and an honour killing scenario, but Robbie Ryan’s typically glorious 35mm photography coupled with a strong cast ensure this is a distinctive feature. Tom Harper’s War Book, a film about nuclear war protocol and competing visions of governance, is also worth considering. Jack Thorne’s smart script confines most of the proceedings to one room, and the film’s structure has a theatrical sensibility, but Harper somehow manages to adapt this into something unmistakably cinematic. At the other end of the Brit spectrum, the less said about Michael Winterbottom’s hopeless The Face of an Angel the better.

2) This year’s selection showed me that there should always be space for films with different energies and rhythms. My screening of Damien Chazelle’s explosive Whiplash was followed by Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, and this juxtaposition led me to a comparison of how the two films set out to depict the teacher-student relationship. Chazelle prefers a more aggressive approach as the ruthless Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) exploits his students’ insecurities at every opportunity. Lapid, on the other hand, indulges in more reflective musings as he depicts the obsessive activities of Nira, a teacher who unlocks a talent for poetry in one of her young pupils. Crowd pleasers like Whiplash are always going to get a lot of attention for the way they excite audiences, and yet contemplative films like The Kindergarten Teacher shouldn’t be left out to dry or seen as inaccessible. Here are two films that choose to explore their ideas and subjects in different gears, and that’s fine by me. Also worth noting that I opened my LFF this year with Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom and ended it with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Both are wonderful, but the latter’s screaming matches don’t need to be in opposition to the former’s whimsical nature.

3) Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, in which Nina Hoss’ Nelly undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then reappears to her husband, is a masterful film and contains one of the most stunning finales in recent memory. It’s important not to spoil the content of that scene, although every review/reaction I’ve seen has hinted at the power of it. Many of the films I saw at LFF saw filmmakers enhancing their work with strong endings. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden steps back from its epic look at the 90s and 00s for a final moment of reflection. Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery ends on a note of beauty as the exhibition spaces of this legendary institution are taken over by a performance piece. Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange survives a couple of dodgy subplots and considers the enduring nature of its central relationship in the last few scenes. None of them quite match the boldness of Phoenix, but each impressed in their own way.

I made a list on Letterboxd that ranks the 21 films I saw at LFF this year: http://letterboxd.com/castleknight/list/lff-2014/

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Review: About Elly (2009)

“A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.”

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) was a film that managed to gain a lot of supporters because it touched upon numerous themes that are universal and not just confined to contemporary Iranian life, including guilt and class justice. Unlike contemporaries such as Jafar Panahi and Rafi Pitts, Farhadi’s films feel as though they just happen to be set in a country like Iran rather than being defined and sometimes overwhelmed by their setting. Yet by aiming for something slightly more narratively pleasing, and working through the system rather than from outside it, Farhadi has ended up with honest and progressive portrayals that speak to what it is to be Iranian nowadays.

Released in the UK as a result of the success of A Separation, About Elly moves proceedings away from Tehran and towards the shores of the Caspian Sea, where three middle class couples are on vacation. The trip is planned by Sepideh, who brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly, in order to introduce her to Ahmad, a divorced friend, visiting from Germany. Elly is immediately depicted as an outsider who is constantly trying to impress the others, even though they all welcome her into the group with only a little hesitation. The first 40-50 minutes of the film takes place without much incident and this makes the event that drives the rest of the picture all the more tense and explosive. It happens almost in a hazy flash but has repercussions that come to define the next hour of the film.

The film has a three act structure insofar as it begins life as a drama before suddenly becoming a surprising thriller and then settling back into a more dramatic atmosphere towards the end. The cast is without fault but particular recognition should go to A Separation’s Peiman Ma’adi, who once again shows what an intense actor he is. Hossein Jafarian’s photography is subtle and unfussy, and through this manages to ensure that the deserted beach-fronted villa the friends are staying in never seems either idyllic or peaceful. I did feel as though certain questions that Farhadi raised throughout the film, both narrative and thematic, were left unanswered by the end (not sure if this was intentional) and that the film sometimes lacked the punch that A Separation possesses, but About Elly is nevertheless another intriguing entry in an already impressive filmography.

B+

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Review: King of Devil’s Island (2011)

Marius Holst’s film is initially impressive because it is based on true events that occurred at Bastøy Prison in Norway yet feels wholly cinematic and not at all like a docudrama. He attempts to build up tension by testing the boys’ patience again and again until it breaks. C19 sticks out from the crowd because he reacts against the brutal regime, headed by Stellan Skarsgård, in ways that the other boys and guards never thought possible before. His failed escape effort midway through the film actually works to his advantage because it makes the Governor more afraid of him and awakens the other prisoners to their unequal standing on the island.

Skarsgård, so fantastic in A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010) from the same year as this, does some good work in a supporting role and really does seem to act better in his native tongue than when he makes numerous trips to Hollywood. Benjamin Helstad is also solid in the lead role of C19, yet his burgeoning friendship with fellow inmate C1 didn’t come across very well and I almost feel as though it would have worked better if C19 had been a sort of anti-hero, leading the others towards their rebellion but having little connection to them beyond that.

When the inevitable uprising takes place the film steps up a gear and starts to become a gripping thriller as it races towards the ending. I had mixed feelings about the echoes of Titanic (1997) that seemed to haunt the filmmakers when they were deciding how to end the story but that certainly didn’t diminish the enthralling final scenes between the oppressed prisoners and their oppressors. Wasn’t as keen on a subplot involving one of the guards being accused of mistreating a boy, especially because the way it was resolved made it seem irrelevant to everything else.

B

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Review: The Sessions (2012)

The Sessions, based on a true story and detailing a paralysed poet’s attempts to lose his virginity through the use of a sex surrogate, is clearly attempting to deal with both disability and love/sexuality in a different and more subtle way than Hollywood normally does. I felt as though it approached the former more sensitively than the latter, perhaps because director Ben Lewin is himself a polio survivor. I just found a lot of the so called ‘pillow talk’ between Mark and Cheryl to be clunky and out of step with the approach towards the subject matter that the film appeared to be searching for as a whole.

It is interesting that the only Oscar nomination that the film has received is Helen Hunt for Best Supporting Actress, not because her performance is bad but because she is a lot less ‘showy’ than the rest of the nominees in that category. I was much more impressed by Hawkes, showing a level of versatility that perfectly expresses why his career has been given a massive boost in the past few years and will surely continue to blossom in the future. It also amused me that, while Mark is miles apart from the characters Hawkes played in Winter’s Bone (2010) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), each of the three is extremely charming in their own way.

The most impressive part of the film is the relationship between Mark and his priest, played well by William H. Macy. Mark seeks a validation that his choice to utilise the services of Cheryl is justified, and the fact that he chooses his faith in God for this leads to the funniest and most heart-warming scenes in the film. This relationship is largely absent from the final 10-15 minutes of the film, where Lewin attempts to tie all the strands up and end Mark’s story in an unsatisfying and forced manner. It didn’t completely spoil the film as a whole for me, but it did ruin a lot of the good work from the actors and the script that came before it.

B

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Review: Your Sister’s Sister (2012)

Lynn Shelton’s Humpday (2009) is the kind of film that takes its’ high concept – two straight men decide to film themselves having sex – and develops it into something much more emotionally mature than any synopsis suggested. It also contained a lot of improvised dialogue and was thus associated with the ‘mumblecore’ movement. Your Sister’s Sister uses some improvisation in a similar way but has a slightly more conventional set-up: Jack (Mark Duplass), emotionally struggling a year after the death of his brother, takes up an offer from his friend Iris (Emily Blunt) to stay at her families’ remote cabin. Whilst there, Jack’s drunken encounter with Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ sister, kicks off a revealing stretch of days.

What is immediately noticeable about Your Sister’s Sister is that not only does it have a more orthodox plot than Humpday, it also looks and feels familiar in a way that film certainly didn’t. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, definitely not a claim that Shelton has gone mainstream or anything like that, more an observation that this film fits right in with contemporary American independent cinema and the kind of things come out of Sundance.

Aside from the opening scene, containing a nice cameo from Mike Birbiglia, the entire running time of the film just has the three main characters talking, laughing and arguing. This means it relies a lot on the characters being believable and the performances anchoring the plot. The latter is thankfully realised well on screen, with DeWitt and Blunt rising above their forced backstory to depict an authentic sibling relationship and Duplass once again proving he is just as good at acting as he is at writing and directing with his brother Jay.

Are the characters believable? I’m less sure on this one. The love triangle between the three protagonists builds towards a set of reveals and an intense confrontation at the cabin. This scene works really well but the way all these plot strands are eventually resolved (treading lightly around spoilers here) feels forced in a way that nothing else in the film does, while the final shot may be the stupidest I’ve seen since last year’s Polisse. Your Sister’s Sister is a solid entry in Shelton’s body of work but I doubt it will ever be remembered as anything but a film with an interesting premise that didn’t know how to end so decided to play a trick on the audience that ultimately failed.

B-

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Review: Japón (2002)

Carlos Reygadas’ debut film follows a nameless man who leaves Mexico City to travel to a more rural setting. He makes no secret of the fact that his is a one way journey, that he intends to kill himself. He eventually ends up staying with an old Indian widow in her ramshackle home overlooking a desolate canyon. Her lust for life and undiminishing humanity appear to reawaken something in the man.

The only other Reygadas film I’ve seen is Silent Light (2007) and the two share similar themes and look. Faith and spirituality rear their heads at various points, especially in the discussions between the presumably ‘godless’ man and his evangelically Christian landlord. The film also possesses the same slow rhythm and long, melancholic sequences that made Silent Light such a delight. In terms of cinematography, Reygadas depicts the Mexican landscapes as if they are vast and empty. It is rare that you see a debut feature this beautiful and assured.

I did, however, find this much tougher to engage with than Silent Light. This is partly just because the film is complex and full of various lofty ideas that don’t always come across as fully formed. I also found the subplot involving the nephew’s attempts to tear down Ascen’s house distracting, especially in the scene where the builders interrupt one of the most surprising sex scenes I think I’ve even seen in cinema. The relationship between the man and Ascen is so rich and appealing that I almost could have done with it being a two-hander. That being said, the scene in which one of Juan Luis’ crew drunkenly sings (although I’m not quite sure it could quite be classified as singing) some kind of folk tune is supremely funny and compelling.

The film ends with a devastating tracking shot in which the music surges and everything slowly gets more intense until the final frame is a release. Reygadas is a serious filmmaker who writes and directs with a distinct style. Cannot wait to catch up with Battle in Heaven (2005) before Post Tenebras Lux (2012) is released in the UK on March 22nd.

B+

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Review: Oslo, August 31st (2011)

While I did enjoy the Millennium trilogy, and thought Headhunters was one of 2012’s superior thrillers, the impression they give is that the only thing Scandinavia is supplying cinematically at the moment is bleak, brutish noir. Joachim Trier has other plans.

Oslo, August 31st is also bleak, but in a completely different way to those aforementioned films. Anders, a recovering addict living in a nondescript rehabilitation clinic on the outskirts of Oslo, travels into the city for a job interview and to see people from his old life. The film progresses in a drifting manner but always stays focused. Trier slowly reveals aspects of Anders’ past yet I didn’t feel like I’d really learnt anything about him at the end of the 90 minutes. This isn’t meant to be a story about either reintegration or compassion. When Anders stops someone who he appears to have had a run-in with before, essentially to say ‘no hard feelings’, there is no great confrontation or act of forgiveness. The encounter simply ends awkwardly, with Anders leaving wondering why he bothered in the first place.

The great Whit Stillman, speaking at the 2011 Stockholm International Film Festival, described the film as “a perfectly painted portrait of a generation”. That sentiment is probably best expressed in two scenes. The first takes place when Anders is taking a coffee break after the job interview goes disastrously. His attention darts between the various conversations taking place in the café and finally centres on two girls talking about their life wish lists. One of the girls details all the ambitious things she wants to achieve, and it is clear she possesses the determination and lust for life that Anders, who constantly tells us others he is ‘doing much better’, seems to have lost. The other scene, which I don’t want to spoil, takes place right at the end of the film. It was the moment that I realised I was watching a very special film from a filmmaker attempting to depict a very different side of modern Norwegian life than Jo Nesbo.

A

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Review: Liberal Arts (2012)

Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed this feature about a 35-year-old college admissions officer (Jesse) who returns to his alma mater to attend a retirement ceremony for a beloved professor, is best known for his role as Ted on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. There are a number of differences between Jesse and Ted, notably that the former is far more unwilling to be impulsive in almost all areas of life, but one trait that they hold in common is finding it hard to grow up and act their age.

Radnor has been very shrewd in his casting, getting the best out of character actors and new stars alike. Richard Jenkins, as the retiring professor, and Allison Janney, brilliant as another academic who changed Jesse’s life, are always reliable and don’t disappoint here. Elizabeth Olsen, so fantastic in Martha Marcy May Marlene earlier this year, steals the show here as Zibby, the university student who Jesse connects with on his visit. Olsen is equal parts funny and charming, and looks likely to have a long career ahead of her.

The film has a lot of interesting things to say about books and what they mean to us. Jesse’s claim that reading gets in the way of the rest of our lives may appear a little patronising but his decision to be non-specific about some of the literature discussed is wise and ensures that the audience is thinking more about the general themes and less about their personal feelings on Twilight and David Foster Wallace.

Where the film fails, however, is in Radnor’s decision to include a couple of other sub-plots in Jesse’s story. His mentoring of the depressed and frustrated Dean seems hackneyed and inessential, while Zac Efron’s cameo performance as the open-minded Nat is redundant and only there to further the plot in the least subtle of ways.

Ultimately, Radnor’s attempts to try and say something deeply profound about ageing/maturity and what a liberal arts education is really for have stopped him from fully fleshing out characters and getting more laughs. It prevents the film from realising what it really should be, perfect for Sundance audiences and a Sunday afternoon, and nothing more.

B-

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Review: Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus was always going to be the victim of hype. Despite his recent track record, including duds such as A Good Year and Body of Lies, a new film by Ridley Scott is always likely to be an event. Excitement grew when the news came that the film would be connected in some way to the Alien franchise that Scott began in 1979. Then the amazing trailers and viral marketing were released on the internet, and suddenly Prometheus became one of the biggest and most anticipated films of this summer. In fact, the only way in which it could have met expectations would have been if it was actually the much promised ‘game-changer’. The finished product fails to meet these hopes but is kept from being just another monsters-in-space movie by some very interesting ideas and a couple of breathtaking action set-pieces.

The film begins when a team of explorers, including Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover ancient cave drawings that appear to be a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth. Years later, Shaw and Holloway join a crew of scientists on board the spaceship ‘Prometheus’. They are on a mission, financed by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and overseen by the steely Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), to investigate these clues and the Alien life forms they seem to lead to. Once they reach their destination, however, their struggle to survive appears to form a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.

One thing that is immediately noticeable about the film is that it looks absolutely stunning. Dariusz Wolski’s expansive cinematography and Scott’s vision of a bare but intimidating planet come together to create a fully realised world that is a joy to spend time in. While Alien was all about creating tension by confining the action to the Nostromo, Scott seems keen here to do everything on a much larger scale and the film’s reported $130 million budget is certainly not wasted. Scott is also incredibly adept at constructing action scenes and there are a couple in Prometheus that work so well because the audience feels unsure as to where he is going to take us next. One particular moment of body horror is very effective in this respect.

As with the rest of the films in the franchise, Prometheus is an ensemble piece with substantial focus on the leading lady. The problem here is that the characters and performances that make up the ship’s crew are largely hit and miss, and the central couple of Shaw and Holloway fall in the latter camp. Rapace comes across as miscast and neither of the characters feels fleshed out, leading to problems with the audience’s sympathies when something significant happens to one of them. Better realised is Idris Elba’s Janek, the cocky and charismatic captain of the ship who has some choice lines. The film, however, is stolen by Michael Fassbender as David, the seemingly faithful android who turns out to have questionable motivations. Fassbender is an actor everyone seems to be talking about at the moment, something that isn’t surprising on the evidence of his measured performance here.

Where the majority of the film’s problems lie is with the script, and this can be better explained with a look at the history of the production process. An initial script was written by Jon Spaihts that apparently had much more of a connection with the Alien franchise. Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, was then brought in to rewrite the script, and it appears to be at this point that the decision was made to try to create a standalone film with loose connections to the mythology of Alien. The issue is that the resultant script raises a number of really fascinating questions, concerning the origins of mankind and faith/religion, and then fails to address some of them in the pursuit of providing a prequel to the events of Alien. Another problem is that a lot of the dialogue is clunky and misplaced, making some characters appear even more unconvincing.

The impact of the shortcomings of Prometheus is lessened when it is considered how beautiful it looks and how certain bits of action are truly breathless. With the recent announcement that Scott is to return to the world of Blade Runner, it is at least comforting to know that he can still make stimulating and provocative sci-fi films. There is, however, a sense in which the attempts to make Prometheus fit in with the world of the Alien franchise have resulted in a troublesome script that distracts the audience from truly appreciating the spectacle before them.

B-

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