Saturday, October 29, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 16 - THE DEEP BLUE SEA

Jolyon Coy (Philip), Kate Ogborn (producer), Tom Hiddleston (Freddie), 
Terence Davies (director and screenwriter), Sarah Kants (Liz), 
Harry Hadden-Paton (Jackie) at the premiere of THE DEEP BLUE SEA

This review is brought to you by Professor007, long missing from these pages, and a dutiful stand-in when Bina007 was struck down by cine-flu.

It is rare these days to find a movie that captivates one for its length. It is rarer still to find a movie that keeps one in its spell well beyond the hustle of the tube on the way back home.

Terrence Davies' adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea is such a masterpiece. It is beautifully set in 1950s London, yet its topic is timeless. Hester (Rachel Weisz), a young and attractive woman of simple background, who is married to William (Simon Russell Beale), a distinguished man of law considerably her senior, falls in love with the young and handsome maverick Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). In Freddie, Hester seems to find the passion, lust, and physicality that she misses in her married life. Some months into the affair, however, William finds out and Hester decides to leave William and move in with her lover. Freddie, however, seems unprepared for such co-habitation: mentally stuck in his life as hero during World War II, he struggles to find a new focus in life, and is unable to emotionally care for anyone else than himself. Despite this lack of attention by Freddie and her husband's continued attempts to win her back, Hester's love for Freddie is unbroken. She does not, however, get the committed and passionate relationship she so desires, and with every increasingly desperate failed attempt to win Freddie over, she degrades herself more and more.

What is striking in its sadness and yet utter plausibility is how the behaviour of three people, of which neither is spiteful or keen to hurt the other ones, can lead to such pain and misfortune. Rachel Weisz beautifully portrays a woman who, in her attempt to find love and passion, knowingly destroys her life. William, excellently played by Simon Russell Beale, tries to win her back, but is too restrained by his upbringing to show the emotions his wife may be longing for so much. Finally, Freddie is a man who struggles with the void of purpose in his life and at the same time is overwhelmed by the passion of his lover.

To me, an oscar candidate for best movie, best actress and best supporting actor. On vera.

THE DEEP BLUE SEA played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2011. It will be released in the UK on November 25th and the US in December.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 15 - THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Rabartu Smitu, Rabartu Smitu, 
tashiwa ga suki Rabartu Smitu

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a visually inventive but often frustratingly slow-paced film that bravely tries to juxtapose whimsical comedy and serious history with problematic results. 

Sean Penn plays an ageing, bored and depressed former goth rock-star called Cheyenne. His high-pitched voice and Robert Smith clothes mark him as a man-child, trapped in his adolescence, but anchored by the love of his down-to-earth wife, Jane (Frances McDormand) and the friendship of emotionally scarred fan-girl, Mary. The death of his father forces Cheyenne back to America. Almost on a whim, he sets off on a meandering road-trip, searching for the Nazi that had tormented his father. But despite a very moving late scene of confession and humiliation, this is not really a revenge movie at all, but rather a character drama about an estranged son breaking beyond that emotional vacuum in order to become a man.

The casting is strong - with Sean Penn and Frances McDormand complemented by strong cameos from Harry Dean Stanton, Judd Hirsch (as a Simon Wiesenthal cipher) and Heinz Lieven as the Nazi. And the script, by Umberto Contarello, contains many belly-laughs, and superlative dramatic set-pieces. But as with all Paolo Sorrentino movies, the true stars are Luca Bigazzi's fluid, deliberate, elegant camera-work and the flamboyant use of the musical score, this time, by the legendary David Byrne. Technically, this film is flawless and imaginative. 

But it didn't grab me, fascinate me, in the same way as Sorrentino's previous films - IL DIVO and THE FAMILY FRIEND. This is partly because the character of Cheyenne is, however sympathetic, also rather slow and whimsical, and after a while this started to grate. It's partly because the road-trip in the second half is so random and slow. I know that this is the point - that is should have the kind of magic and wonder of THE STRAIGHT STORY - but I did become very impatient with it. And finally, I guess I just felt too uncomfortable with the deliberate juxtaposition of the Holocaust with the character of Cheyenne - the man least likely to come to mind as a Nazi hunter. Something about the man using the hunt for the Nazi as a kind of distraction from a life of satiety, and then as a kind of agent toward self-knowledge, felt weird and exploitative. I know this was a deliberate provocation from Sorrentino - but for me it just didn't work. 

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE played Cannes 2011 where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. It opened earlier this year in France and is currently on release in Italy. It opens in Germany on November 10th, in Sweden on November 18th, in the US in December, in Australia on December 26th, in Poland on February 3rd, in Spain in March and in the UK on March 9th. 

London Film Fest 2011 Day 15 - ANONYMOUS

The use of the interrogative tense in the poster for ANONYMOUS is misleading. Director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff aren't asking whether Shakespeare was a fraud. They are telling us, without doubt, with complete certainty, that he was. Their theory is that it is inconceivable that a poorly educated provincial dolt could have written plays of such genius and erudition. Rather, they posit that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, a man of great wealth and learning, wrote the plays. But at a time when theatres were next to brothels, and plays seen as seditious, it would have been degrading for Oxford to be publicly acknowledged as an author.  He therefore allowed the boorish, illiterate actor, Will Shakespeare, to take the credit, and the cash, with Ben Jonson as the unwilling go-between.  If this weren't scandalous enough, the movie further raises the stakes by positing that Oxford was at the centre of a conspiracy by his enemy, the puritan Cecil family, that involved the line of succession, incest and bastards. 

Taken on its own terms, ANONYMOUS is a great success. Indeed, I was quite amazed that Roland Emmerich - director of such dubious, mainstream disaster movies as 2012; 10,000 BC; and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW - could direct something with such elegance and beauty. Because, make no mistake, ANONYMOUS is a brilliantly directed film. The way in which Emmerich deftly handles the transitions between different periods in Oxford's life is elegant and never confuses.  The conspiracy is woven with great delicacy so that even in the final act, we are genuinely surprised and saddened by the turn of events.  In front of the camera, Emmerich coaxes a career best performance from Rhys Ifans as the older Oxford, and uses CGI to create a completely engrossing and compelling Tudor London.  I was absolutely delighted to see Southwark and the Tower recreated, complete with squalor and grandeur.  Kudos to cinematographer Anna Foerster, shooting with the Arri Alexa (the first feature to do so).  She manages to create a colour palette of warmth and depth, beautifully capturing candelit pageants, and snow-covered country mansions. Most importantly, I cared. I deeply cared about the battle between Oxford and the Cecils - I cared about the fate of young Essex, the Queen's bastard son and pretender to the throne - and I cared about the Queen herself, wonderfully portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave as frail and vulnerable and hounded on all sides. 

Of course, when I stand back from the film, the whole thing seems a bit pointless. I've always thought that these debates - who wrote Shakespeare; was Shakespeare a crypto-Catholic; was the Dark Lady really a boy - pretty pointless, as there simply isn't the documentary evidence to decide it either way. So you're just left with dogmatic people using thin supposition.  In particular, the idea that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because they required great education strikes me as peculiarly class-ist. Just because someone is provincial and working class doesn't mean they aren't capable of genius - I mean, isn't the whole point of genius that it's like a lightning bolt. And anyway, according to Rene Weis' superb book "Shakespeare Revealed", Shakespeare attended a local grammar school and was taught by a string of Oxbridge graduates in all the subjects and to the very same standard that the movie suggests Oxford was tutored in and to....

But as I said, there's no point quibbling about the truth. I am perfectly happy to believe Will Shakespeare was indeed Shakespeare.  That didn't stop me having a cracking good time watching ANONYMOUS.  To that end, this movie falls firmly in the same category as SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE - a pleasing fiction.

ANONYMOUS played Toronto and London 2011. It is currently on release in Portugal, Finland and Norway. It opens on October 28th in Canada, Ireland, the UK and the USA. It opens on November 3rd in Germany; in Spain on November 11th; in France, Russia and Singapore on November 17th; in the Netherlands, Mexico and India on December 1st; in Sweden on December 16th; in Hong Kong and Hungary on February 2nd.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 14 - HUNKY DORY

Minnie Driver is the only recognised name in Marc Evans' musical drama HUNKY DORY.

Welsh director Marc Evans (SNOWCAKE, MY LITTLE EYE) bravely takes on a "concept" film with his new musical coming-of-age flick, HUNKY DORY. Minnie Driver (with impeccable Welsh accent) plays a teacher in a Welsh school, putting on a musical version of Shakespeare's The Tempest that incorporates the popular music of 1976 - David Bowie, Nick Drake, The Beach Boys - the year in which the movie is set. And while Driver is the only recognised name actor, she's actually not the person carrying the film. Rather, the young cast of talented kids steal the show, with the lead schoolboy Aneurin Barnard making an impressive debut. 

I found the movie earnest, joyful, but uneven and unsure of what it wanted to be. French writer Laurence Coriat (WONDERLAND) has penned a script that isn't an out-and-out big dance number musical in the manner of GLEE or HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. Indeed, it seems to want to be one of those authentic realist teen flicks of the US indie movement - AMERICAN GRAFFITI or DAZED AND CONFUSED. And even then it can't resist one of those plot devices that seems totally out of scale with all that preceded it - stupidly clumsy deus ex machina. Combining social realism and musical numbers is a hard trick to pull off, and HUNKY DORY is no BILLY ELLIOT.

HUNKY DORY had its world premiere at London 2011 and has no commercial release date yet.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 14 - THE AWAKENING

Dominic West (Robert) and Rebecca Hall (Florence) star in THE AWAKENING.

THE AWAKENING is an intelligent, adult horror movie that sees Florence (Rebecca Hall), a notorious debunker of spiritualism, invited to a boy's boarding school by Robert (Dominic West) to investigate an apparent haunting. This sets up a classic haunted house movie, in the manner of Alejandro Amenábar's The Others - but with the refreshing site of a clever, independent woman as the protagonist, and the pervasive air of  post-war mourning hanging heavy over proceedings. The resolution is satisfyingly complicated and there were enough genuinely unexpected scary moments to make this good horror - particularly the pivotal bathroom scene. Admittedly, there is nothing particularly innovative in the set up (Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk), but first time feature director Murphy creates and sustains a genuinely tense and morbid atmosphere that completely sucked me in, largely thanks to superb cinematography from DP Eduard Grau (A SINGLE MAN, BURIED) and a desaturated colour palette.

THE AWAKENING played Toronto and London 2011. It opens in the UK and Ireland on 11th November.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 14 - WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011)

Andrea Arnold (RED ROAD, FISHTANK) is an exceptional British director - a woman whose films take us under the skin of the characters she is portraying. She isn't a director of dialogue but a director of sensory perception. We hear the wind; dogs scuffling; kisses. We can almost feel the texture of worn clothes; curled hair; ruffled blankets; the mist on our face. We feel the relationship between two people from the way they are in each other's presence, not from the dialogue. And every emotion felt by the characters is mirrored in nature, brought to us with startling clarity by Robbie Ryan's award-winning cinematography. In short, Andrea Arnold echoes the authenticity and heightened sense-perception of Terrence Malick - high praise indeed - but justified. All these qualities make Andrea Arnold the perfect director to take on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - a movie whose characters are so much embedded in the wild beauty of the Yorkshire Moors. Working in collaboration with screenwriter Olivia Hetreed (GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING), Arnold has taken a bold approach to the source novel. She only portrays the first half of the novel, takes away the framing device of Nelly recounting the story to a traveller, as well as the gothic vision that opens the novel.  What this does is allow her to take her time over establishing the central characters and conflicts.  

The Earnshaw family live in a ramshackle farmhouse on the Moors in the early nineteenth century.  The puritanical father brings home a poor young black boy, later baptised as Heathcliff, throwing the elder son, Hindley into brutally violent jealousy and contempt and the young daughter Catherine into a kind of selfish, selfless profound love.  When the father dies, Hindley brutalises Heathcliff; and his poor, rough person stands in sharp contrast with the smooth refined Linton family.  And so, when Edgar Linton proposes, Cathy accepts, though feeling she is betraying both herself and Heathcliff, who overhearing, runs away. So ends the first hour of the film.  In the second hour, Heathcliff has returned a rich man, and Cathy is now married to Edgar.  Their love is hemmed in by Edgar sending his sister, Isabella, as chaperone, and when Heathcliff learns Cathy is pregnant, he returns this apparent "betrayal" by seducing Isabella, so setting off a nervous reaction in Cathy.

The story is, then, powerful, passionate, violent - filled with supposed and real slights, revenge, and a love so painful to bear it results in self-destructive behaviour.  For it to work on screen, we have to feel that visceral connection between Cathy and Heathcliff - we have to believe that their every breath and decision is coloured by the connection.  In the first half of the film, I absolutely believe that thanks to some exceptional casting, the portrayal of young Cathy and young Heathcliff sets a new benchmark among the tens of film adaptations. Shannon Beer and Solomon Gave quietly, powerfully, portray a real and charismatic connection - they are quite simply magnetic. Sadly, the movie is let down by indifferent casting in the later scenes, with Kaya Scodelario (Effy in TV's "Skins") and James Howson.  I didn't buy into their relationship - Howson was too milksop, too little darkly enjoying his revenge on Hindley, not malicious enough with Isabella - and Scodelario simply didn't have the look of a wild bird tamed, caged - she looked to Isabella-ish!   Also, I know we are meant to suspend our disbelief, but the two Cathy's look utterly dissimilar. One feels that better casting would've provided the continuity seen in the Young and Teen Kevins in Lynne Ramsay's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS played Venice (where Robbie Ryan won Best Cinematographer) and Toronto 2011. It opens in the UK on November 11th; in Spain on November 25th; in Slovenia on January 26th; and in Poland on March 23rd.

Monday, October 24, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 13 - A DANGEROUS METHOD

A DANGEROUS METHOD is a deeply disappointing movie - dull, vacuous, with a desperately poor central performance by Keira Knightley - little sexual or emotional tension - it rolls through its scenes until it comes to a sudden halt. Frankly, the most exciting that happened during the Gala screening at the BFI London Film Festival was some poor sod having a seizure. Fans of Cronenberg's dark, dangerous films will be underwhelmed, I suspect, and those of us looking for Christopher Hampton's trademark elegant screen-writing will feel let down.  And if you want to see Michael Fassbender in psychologically challenging material, look no further than SHAME.

The central conflicts of the movie are almost bourgeois in their banality.  The first conflict is between Dr Carl Jung (Fassbender) and his one-time mentor Dr Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  Jung thinks not all neuroses have sexual origins, and that psychiatry should also embrace spiritualism.  Freud thinks Jung is discrediting an already embattled new field of research with his mystic nonsense.  Moreover, the poor Viennese academic resents Jung's rich wife.  The second conflict is between Jung and Sabine Spielrein (Knightley), Jung's patient, lover and finally his academic peer. Initially traumatised by her father, whose spankings excited her, Sabine progresses to become a psychiatrist of greater skill than Jung. Moreover, in the Freud-Jung conflict, she sides with Freud. She also escapes their love affair a stronger woman, whereas we are asked to believe that engaging in sado-masochistic sexual practices precipitated Jung's nervous breakdown.  

All this should have made for an intellectually challenging, daring, complex film.  But it does not.  The almost sterile production design; stilted camera-work; and almost coy treatment of the sexual material make for what can only be described as a kind of TV afternoon movie biopic.  I am hard-pressed to think of less erotically charged sex scenes, and a movie about overcoming sexual repression where the actors faces seem so wooden.  Worst of all, in the early scenes of most acute neuroses, Keira Knightley acts "at" being mad, rather than portraying the emotional truth of the scenes. Her physical contortions are mannered rather than real - the part was simply too challenging for her.  Still, the movie could've survived this had the script been more profound, the conflicts mined more fully, and the camera-work more innovative.  I wanted to see more of the anti-semitism and mistrust of psychiatry in Vienna. I wanted to see more of the reaction to Otto Gross' (Vincent Cassel) breakdown.  This film desperately needed widening out. 

A DANGEROUS METHOD played Toronto and Venice 2011. It opened earlier this year in Italy. It opens in Germany on November 10th, in the Netherlands on November 17th, in the USA on November 23rd, in Spain on November 25th, in France on November 30th, in Denmark on January 12th 2012, in Sweden and the UK on February 10th and in Hungary on March 8th.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 13 - W.E.

It would be all too easy to write off W.E.  - a biopic of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII - as a self-financed vanity project from Madonna, a highly successful musician who has serially failed to translate that success to celluloid.  However, if one is able to forget who has directed the film, and review it on its own merits, a far more nuanced and fair-minded discussion can ensue.  Because, much to my surprise, W.E. is a beautifully photographed, acted, and directed film, let down only by the concept of intertwining the story we all care about with the story of a modern bored housewife called Wally Winthrop.  This unnecessary, unenlightening contemporary drama frustrates us - it comes off as an hour long PR stunt for Sotheby's New York - and takes precious time away from Andrea Riseborough's charismatic and sympathetic portrayal of Wallace Simpson.  If this movie had just had the courage to stick to the source material, it could've been truly great.

The contemporary story is bland and predictable.  Abbie Cornish plays the bored and abused houswife of a financially successful but cheating husband.  She obsessively visits an exhibition of Wallace Simpson's personal artefacts, envisioning Wallace's life and desperate to know what it feels like to be loved that much.  It is a "way in" to the story that is completely unnecessary and not helped by a completely cliched "rich woman meets poor man with a soul" love story between Wally and the security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).  

The Wallace Simpson-King Edward story is told in a far more balanced and sympathetic manner than most retellings.  Madonna briefly and deftly essays her unhappy first marriage in Shanghai, with a powerful bathroom scene.  Wallace (Riseborough) then turns up in London, breaks into the royal circle, and we see her evident intelligence and wit win over the less impressive but again, sympathetically portrayed, King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy).  Once again, with elegance and economy, Madonna shows Wallace's talents for throwing parties, refusing to pander to the King - her complete understanding of her own limitations and attractions - and her foreboding at the life she would lead post-abdication.  She does not come across as grasping or materialistic but as a vibrant woman hoist by her love affair -  a truly tragic tale. These scenes beautifully portray her dilemma, and give the low budget of the film, are stunningly well produced.  The costumes, hair, the very look of that era is brilliantly captured, and DP Hagen Bogdanski (THE YOUNG VICTORIA, THE LIVES OF OTHERS) captures the crisp light of the Cote d'Azur as well as the dank, claustrophobic interiors of the royal palaces.  In the supporting roles, Natalie Dormer is particularly waspish as the jealous and manipulative future Queen Mother. I wanted to spend far more time in this story, and particularly to know more about Wallace's life post-abdication.  But sadly, that was not to be.

Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson); Madonna (Writer-Director) and 
James D'Arcy (King Edward VIII)at the UK premiere of W.E. 
at the BFI London Film Festival 2011.

W.E. played Venice, Toronto, Hollywood (where Andrea Riseborough won the Spotlight Award) and London 2011. It will be released in the US on December 9th; in the Netherlands on December 22nd; in the UK on January 20th and in Sweden on March 16th.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 12 - SURPRISE FILM - DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

Carrie MacLemore (Heather); Megalyn Echikuwoke (Rose); Greta Gerwig (Violet);
Analeigh Tipton (Lily) and Adam Brody (Charlie) in Whit Stillman's
In recent years, the Surprise Film at the London Film Fest has swung between the uncontroversially superb (THE WRESTLER) to the uncontroversially bad (CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY) to the boringly undiscussed (BRIGHTON ROCK). But with this year's selection, the Festival's Artistic Director, Sandra Hebron, threw a stick of dynamite into the audience.   Her valedictory choice, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, is like the cinematic equivalent of Marmite - you either love it or you hate it.  And, dear readers, I absolutely adored it!  It's a movie with a very particular visual style, and a very particular type of dialogue - but its concerns are relatable, touching and occasionally hilarious.   I simply floated out of the screening, and to my mind, this is the *real* stand-out feel-good movie of the festival, even surpassing THE ARTIST.  I defy anyone who has seen it not to have a wry smile when thinking about Cathars, to introduce the phrase "player-operator" to their vocabulary, or to try The Sambola. This is simply a hands-down wonderful movie that is an absolute delight to watch.  Not to mention the fact that it's a worthy successor to Whit Stillman's iconic early 1990s flick, METROPOLITAN, and the Sally Fowler Rat Pack.

What's the movie about?  Stuff everyone can relate to.  It's about going to college and trying to reinvent yourself. It's about deciding what kind of person you want to be - what ideals you want to pursue - and how to cope with sharky boyfriends, frat-house idiots, bad break-ups, and what happens when the person on whom you have a crush likes your best friend instead.  It's about how good friends can get you out of an emotional tailspin.  And it's fundamentally an uplifting tale of good friends trouncing the mean blues - and how simple things like a wonderful song or a dance craze can make a big difference. Yes it's earnest, yes it's sunny, but it also doesn't shy away from some really serious stuff - handled with a light-touch and comedic air that belies their truth - towit, the "Cathar" incident.....

I simply loved the casting.  Greta Gerwig (GREENBERG) is simply charming as "Violet", the emotionally fragile, but outwardly self-assured leader of the group of girls who see their mission as civilising the male-dominated great books college that they attend.  As Lily, Analeigh Tipton (CRAZY, STUPID LOVE) perfectly captures the way in which new kids try on a new group of friends before having the self-confidence to pull back. In the smaller roles, Megalyn Echikunwoke (CSI MIAMI) steals scenes as Rose, with her deliberately cod English accent and catchphrase about "player-operators". By contrast, Carrie MacLemore, as Heather, is rather short-changed.  And before you think this is an entirely female affair, be assured that the guys garner plenty of laughs too, particularly Billy Magnussen's hilarious dumb frat-boy, Thor. But even more than the performances and the classically deliberate, almost archaic, and yet bitingly acerbic Whit Stillman dialogue, I just loved the look of the film. All crumbling college buildings, pastel pretty dresses and sunlit dance routines in gardens.  

I'm not denying that DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is a very unique and particular movie. I can't deny that it's unique look, dialogue and style will be anathema to many a mainstream audience member, and particularly men.  But for anyone who delights in the quirky, unique Stillman style, this movie is a welcome return to our screens.  For anyone who welcomes a darkly comic look at universally relatable material, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is a pure delight.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS played Toronto and London 2011. It does not have a commercial release date yet.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 12 - LAWRENCE OF BELGRAVIA

LAWRENCE OF BELGRAVIA is about a real British musician called Lawrence - no sirname - who had a glimmer of success in the underground rock scene in the late 80s and early 90s but never really troubled the charts and has since faded yet further into obscurity. Living on the poverty-line, a recovering addict, scrabbling for a gig, and yet still convinced he has that one great record - Lawrence is a tragicomic figure. It's quite astonishing to see how far a man can fall - and yet still have a complete sense of self, and a righteous indignation about the fame the world owes him. The result is that Paul Kelly's documentary is at once terrifyingly specific - rooted as it is in Lawrence's particular personality - but also a cliché. The intimacy and access afforded to the director, and an editorial style that focuses on an unwitting punchline, gives the movie flashes of SPINAL TAP humour. We like Lawrence, but we also laugh at him. 

The problem is that the movie has little to offer other than the innate charm and comically monstrous ego of Lawrence - and that begins to bore after a while. I also felt that the movie, which assumes the audience already knows and loves Lawrence, lacked context and objectivity. I would have loved to have seen people other than Lawrence describe why his bands - Felt and Denim - were significant (or otherwise). I also wonder whether a non-British audience will understand the significance of Lawrence claiming that he was never a success because John Peel didn't like his music. Without context, will they know the importance of the BBC Radio 1 DJ in championing new bands? And I would have liked Paul Kelly to press Lawrence on his years of addiction, rather than just coolly presenting it as fact. Because in a sense, where this documentary could have been really great - could have had an impact beyond hagiography - would've been in presenting Lawrence as a warning to all young aspirant musicians who want it all, never get it, and whose frustrations leads them into a downward spiral. Sadly, Kelly chooses to play it for laughs - albeit fond rather than nasty - instead.

LAWRENCE OF BELGRAVIA has no release date.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 12 - TAKE SHELTER

Writer-director Jeff Nichols's psychological drama, TAKE SHELTER, has been winning rave reviews, and with screeners already sent out to the Oscar electorate, I am sure Michael Shannon (BOARDWALK EMPIRE, BUG) will be receiving Oscar buzz for his performance of a man conscious that he is losing his mind.  But to be frank, I found this movie near un-watchable - so languorous was its pace, so obvious was its plot trajectory.   

Shannon plays Curtis, a hard-working man, whose nightmares of violent storms and biting dogs start to seep into his waking life.  Convinced that a violent storm is coming he puts himself in financial jeopardy to extend and stock up a storm shelter in his garden, at the same time alienating himself from his sweet wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain).  Shannon is always committed and convincing in his performances, but has become typecast as the sympathetic insane person. I also feel that Chastain needs to move beyond roles where she is just an archetypal sweet wife to be adored and put on a pedestal. She needs to break free of this typecasting. I feel that I have yet to see her really act. But the story just moves at such a slow pace, and doesn't really go anywhere. Over-hyped tedium.   

TAKE SHELTER played Sundance, Cannes where it won the Critics Week Grand Prize, and Jeff Nichols won the SACD award for Best Feature.  It also played Hollywood 2011 where Jessica Chastain won Breakthrough Actress, and London 2011. It opened in September in the US and opens on November 11th in the UK. It opens in France on December 7th.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 12 - BERNIE

“It’s not as bad as people say; he only shot her four times, not five.”

Bernie Tiede was a good, god-fearing man, who went out of his way to please.  His patient, caring manner was an asset as a funeral director, and his willingness to throw himself into small-town life made him beloved by his fellow residents of Carthage, Texas.  So much so, that when it was revealed that Bernie had shot Marjorie Nugent four times in the back, none of the townsfolk believed him guilty. Oh, they knew he shot her dead, for sure.  But they figured that someone as mean-spirited as Marjorie must have incited Bernie to take leave of his senses for a moment.  Tragically for Bernie, prosecuting attorney Danny Buck knew full well that despite a full confession, four bullets in the back, and Bernie’s ample use of Marjorie’s money, he wasn’t going to get a conviction in Carthage. So he got the trial moved a mere 44 miles away to Saint Augustine, where Bernie's charismatic personality wouldn't get in the way of a fair verdict.

The wonderful thing about Richard Linklater’s new fictionalized retelling of Bernie’s true story is that he allows us to fall in love with Carthage, its quirky inhabitants, and with Bernie himself. By the end of the movie, we can’t quite believe that any humane jury would convict Bernie, and sit in fear that those no-good inbred St Augustinians won’t do him right.   Because this movie isn’t so much a character-driven crime drama as a Coen Brothers style love-letter to small-town Southern life.   We luxuriate in the broad accents, marvel at the cast-iron certainty of the town gossips as they declare that Bernie FOR A FACT was or wasn’t this or that, and laugh at their incomprehension of Austin hippies.  It’s hard to think of any recent use of faux-documentary talking heads that is as successful and hilarious as Linklater's use of  the Carthage townsfolk – narrating, commenting on, and judging the story at each twist and turn. 

Because I warmed so much to these people, and started to identify so strongly with them, the movie turned from what could’ve been a real downer into effectively a rather heart-warming experience. On one level this was a movie about really nasty aspects of human nature – a man so wanting to be liked that he wills himself into an emotional prison, and a woman delighting in his pain.  But rather than being brought down by the depiction of a bizarrely, horribly, sado-masochistic relationship (emotionally, not sexually, that is!), I left the cinema positively full of faith in humanity. Because Carthage was a small town where ordinary townsfolk knew just what was what, and a good guy was a good guy, even if blighted by a sudden act of rage.

All of which tells you that native East Texan, Richard Linklater, is pretty much in love with Carthage, and doesn’t really make much attempt to give a balanced view of Bernie. Or maybe he does, but the truth really is that Bernie was a good guy, despite the slightly suspect love of the high life to which Marjorie's money gave him access. By now, I’m so complicit in the “free Bernie” campaign I can’t even tell. All I know is that Linklater somehow managed to capture both the black humour and the tragedy at the core of Bernie’s need to please.  I laughed a lot, I was fascinated, and I won’t soon forget the tale. Massive praise also to all three leads.  Jack Black gives a more modulated performance than is typical in his mainstream films, as the gregarious, needy Bernie. Shirley Maclaine as mean old Marjorie is just an acting masterclass. Look at the scene where she listens to Bernie sing a duet in a theatrical rehearsal, imagining him singing a love song to her. Her face shows a cynical old woman melting.  And finally, you have to hand it to Matthew McConaughey, an actor who is brilliant in inverse proportion to his screentime.  Banality in mediocre rom-coms turns into piquant cameos – first in TROPIC THUNDER, and now as the fame-hungry prosecutor Danny Buckland. 

BERNIE played Los Angeles and London 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 10 - TRISHNA

Freida Pinto stars as Trishna in Michael Winterbottom's loose
adaptation of Hardy's Tess of the Durbevilles.

TRISHNA is a fascinating, intelligent film about a relationship turned sour on the back of withheld secrets and unequal material power, centred on Freida Pinto's first performance of real merit. 

She plays a poor, naive village girl called Trishna - who in her society is simply a commodity to earn to support her family, and conditioned to obey. A chance meeting with a rich young man, Jay (Riz Ahmed, FOUR LIONS), prises her away from her family and strict values. They approximate the life of two lovers in the freeing atmosphere of big city Mumbai. Given the differences in their social status, it is a measure of Jay's belief that he loves Trishna, that he's willing to broach the subject of marriage, but the revelation of secrets and the return to a cloying small-town hotel serve to subtly alter their relationship, step by step, into one of master-servant, and sexual exploitation, with alarming results. 

What I loved about the film was how it was able to show the drastically increasing imbalance of power in the relationship with a few elegant, economical scenes. There is very little straightforwardly scripted dialogue. Characters' actions, positions, tell us everything. Jay is rarely shown other than supine on a chair or bed, waiting for his dinner to be served to him. Trishna seems to turn within herself, visibly shrinking as the film progresses, trapped in her material dependence on Jay and her shame at her sexual history. I also loved how writer-director Michael Winterbottom didn't feel the need to show Trishna's accusers as a gaggle of villagers or hotel workers scandalised by her situation. Her emotional distress, her shame, her sense of betrayal and entrapment, is all in her own mind, and expressed by Freida Pinto in a quiet, sensitive performance. I also loved Winterbottom's willingness to simply observe everyday Indian life - a side of India rarely shown in glitzy Bollywood movies. DP Michael Zyskind's (28 DAYS LATER) evocative images of Rajasthan and Mumbai show what can be achieved with high quality DV (in sharp contrast to yesterday's MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE).

That said, there are some small quibbles. In the Mumbai section, I'm not sure what the cameos of director Anurag Kashyap and actress Kalki Koechlin really add. Also, I'm not sure this film should be marketed as an adaptation of Hardy's "Tess of the Durbervilles". I spent the whole film being teased into believing that a Hardy character or situation was being introduced only to realise that Winterbottom wasn't going to take the film in that direction. His adaptation contains clever elisions and contemporarises the story intelligently. But what you end up with is a quite different beast - particularly in the character of Tess/Trishna. I would suggest that by far the best way to enjoy and appreciate this film is, then, to take it on its own terms.

TRISHNA played Toronto and London 2011.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 10 - GUILTY - Guest review by George Ghon

Philippe Torreton stars in Vincent Garenq's docudrama, GUILTY.

This review has been provided by George Ghon, stylist, writer, editor and friend of the blog. 

Early one morning in 2001, when it was still dark, the police came knocking on the door of Alain Marécaux, a successful bailiff. Without much explanation they searched the house, separated him from his wife and three children and put him in custody. What followed was a biased police interrogation; information embargo; and no contact with the world outside the prison walls - a nightmare trip for Mr Marécaux, who was accused of child molestation, a crime he always strictly denied committing. Asserting his innocence, and the conspicuous lack of hard evidence supporting the arrest, did not stop the legal machine from rolling in the wrong direction, in turn causing one of the biggest judicial errors in French history. 

Director Vincent Garenq turned the true story, based on Alain Marécaux’ memoirs, into a docu-drama that stays close to the facts, but provides a subjective angle on the case, following the lead actor (Philippe Torreton) from start to end. Information is dispensed only scarcely, making the claustrophobic lack of it a viewing experience, too. Garenq puts us through the same process of indignation that Marécaux must have gone through at the time of his arrest. ‘I wanted to keep the anger that I felt when I read the book’ the director said during a Q&A session. He didn’t make an objective study of the Outreau affair that Marécaux was part of, but zoomed in on his take of it, and shows the disastrous implications that the judicial system can have on the citizen’s life when it steers off its correct path. 

After going through several suicide attempts, a body wrecking hunger strike, and desperately appealing to the justice minister himself, Marécaux was eventually acquitted in 2004, but the case left a stain on a nation that prouds itself being built on the republican values liberté, égalité & fraternité. In 2006, a special parliamentary enquiry looked into the case, after president Jacques Chirac called the affair a ‘judicial disaster’, but the commission hardly acknowledged any erroneous behaviour within the judiciary corps. In 2009, finally, the Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature issued a reprimand for the judge Burgaud, a minor penalty, which he, in turn, appealed. The case reveals how stubbornly one-directional the bureaucracy apparatus can work in so called advanced western democracies. Not one of all the magistrates involved in the case dared to reassess the initial judgement lacking any solid evidence in a fleeting spell of individual brain activity. Besides, it wasn’t only laziness or intellectual inertia that caused the magistrates to lose their objective eye. 

Europe was shocked by the Dutroux case in Belgium, where girls got abducted, sexually abused in a dungeon, later drugged and eventually killed. The general policy, quite understandably, was to go hard on child molesters. Police officers, magistrates, psychologists, prosecutors and judges became biased, so much so that they evidently lost their sense of good judgement. All this shows the Janus-faced correlation between a moral codex, of what we deem to be right or wrong, and the judiciary system in a civil state, which is based on equal rights. The former is necessarily subjective and demands an individual assessment of the situation according to the values of the society we live in. The latter, however, needs to be unambiguously bound to the law. In other words, it requires the inhuman objectivity of a system that does not deem an individual guilty before proof of his wrongdoing has been found in order to safeguard the pole of humanity where the European flag is hoisted. 

Garenq’s GUILTY is an eye opener for Europeans who tend to proud themselves for their moral superiority. It also staggeringly unveils how an all too human emotion that abhors child molestation can bias a supposedly fair legal framework and torques the objectivity of the law. 

GUILTY opened in France in September and played Toronto and London. It was released earlier this year in France.

Friday, October 21, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 9 - MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a movie with a fascinating premise and a compelling central performance that is let down by a deeply non-credible plot and incredibly flawed cinematographer. It arrived at the London Film Festival fêted with praised and awards from the Sundance Film Festival, but sadly does not live up to the hype.

The central premise is to tell the story of a young girl in the immediate aftermath of her escape from a Charlie Manson like cult.  Day by day we see her struggle to adjust to normal society - her behaviour increasingly paranoid and aggressive - her family turning from accepting to irritated.  I really liked the novelty of taking this point of view. Rather than a lurid movie taking us into a cult in simple chronological fashion, it was far more fascinating to see the impact of the emotional manipulation in nightmarish flashbacks.  (That said, and to resist plot spoilers, I will simply say that I found the final scene to be needlessly "tricksy".)

Elizabeth Olsen plays the girl who has escaped - birth name Martha - but renamed by the cult leader Marcy May - a clever re-naming trick designed to alienate her from her former life and family ties.  I guess she'll forever be referred to as the "other" Olsen girl, but this performance should go some way to give her a name of her own.  Her performance is subtle, brave and deeply compelling - it's the backbone that keeps the movie together - and places her as a young talent to watch in the same peer group as Carey Mulligan and Evan Rachel Wood.

The tragedy is that her performance is undermined by a script by debut writer-director Sean Durkin that is utterly (and literally) incredible.  If your kid sister vanishes for two years, then suddenly calls you begging you to pick her up from the middle of nowhere, is in visible distress, covered in bruises, and starts acting really weirdly, wouldn't you ask what just happened?  Wouldn't you take her to a doctor immediately? Wouldn't you try to reach out to her?  I simply found the character of Lucy, Martha's sister, utterly unbelievable, and I wondered if this was deliberate on the part of Durkin or just a mistake, compounded by Sarah Paulin's icy, almost robotic, performance.  But even before that, I found the plot absurd. In the first scene, Martha escapes from the commune by running off into the woods, and then stops in the nearest town for some food.  One of the men from the cult tracks her down and looks menacing, but instead of hauling her ass back, simply let's her hang out in town assuming she'll come back of her own accord.  That just seemed laughably stupid.

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha) on the red carpet
for the UK premiere of  

the BFI London Film Festival 2011
The other major problem with this film is incredibly poor quality cinematography from DP Jody Lee Lipes. That's not to see each frame isn't beautifully composed - that there isn't brilliant work in creating trick shots - reflections.  But I really hate it when people use DV and create colour palettes where the blacks aren't true blacks but washed out greys. It muddies the picture, and reduces the intensity of emotion.  When Martha runs into the woods, for instance, the scene is less petrifying but the scene looks washed out.  

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE played Sundance 2011 where it won the Directing Award - Dramatic. It also played Cannes, Sydney and Toronto. It opens today in the US. It opens on December 22nd in Sweden; on January 20th in Poland; on February 2nd in Russia; in Ireland and the UK on February 3rd; in Spain on February 24th; and in France and Germany on March 29th.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 9 - WILD BILL

Jimmy and Dean fending for themselves in a Newham council flat.
There are those of us of a certain age who have grown up with Dexter Fletcher. As kids we watched him as the cute wanna be tough guy "Babyface" in Alan Parker's delightful BUGSY MALONE. As teens we watched him in the TV show "Press Gang" playing a cool American wannabe journo.  In our errant twenties we watched him plan a heist in Guy Ritchie's superb caper flick, LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and more recently, we've seen him cover up for Robert De Niro's cross-dressing pirate in Matthew Vaughn's STARDUST.  This familiarity bought Dexter Fletcher a great deal of goodwill from the London Film Fest Audience who watched his debut directorial effort.  And the good news is that the film is really worth watching, despite a somewhat predictable plot once the initial set-up is in place.  

WILD BILL is set in the same London of Guy Ritchie's flicks - the East London of drug-dealers, hard-men and hard-ups in council houses.  But it has far more heart, far more subtlety, and is far better observed.  In other words, you gain a whole lot of authenticity and insight, while losing none of the comedy. In fact, one of the great comedic charms of the film is realising that Fletcher has discovered the new "babyface" -  a young kid called Sammy Williams who plays Jimmy - a little kid with an hilariously foul mouth, but also a lot of vulnerability.

As the movie opens we meet Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy living alone in a filthy council flat, with Dean taking on the grim responsibility of a father and the age of just fifteen. Their mother has abandoned them and their father, "Wild Bill", a violent drug pusher and addict, has been in prison for eight years. Bill emerges a reformed man - he wants a clean break in Scotland - but isn't reformed enough to want to take care of his kids.  Problem is, he has to stick around long enough to fool social services, so that Dean and Jimmy aren't put into Care.  What follows is a predictable family reconciliation, complete with a "tart with a heart" character, and an aggressive local mafiosi threatening Bill's conditions of parole.  

From left to right, Sammy Williams (Jimmy); Will Poulter (Dean);
 Charlie Creed-Miles (Bill); and Dexter Fletcher (Writer-Director)
introduce WILD BILL at the London Film Festival
But the film is elevated above its narrative clichés thanks to its genuinely sympathetic characters, the whip-smart dialogue and the fact that Fletcher doesn't flinch from poking holes in the Guy-Ritchie-style myths of East End hard-men.  Many a time we see a guy giving it all that, but turning and running at a key point, and the annoying Ali-D style white boy, Pill (Iwan Rheon) gets a verbal slapping too. I also love the fact that where ROCKNROLLA (a film I still liked) made heavy work of contrasting the poverty of the East End with the redevelopment of Stratford, Fletcher shows the same contrast with much more subtlety. It's enough to show the view of the new Olympic village from the balconies of crumbling social housing - it speaks powerfully enough of the issues facing British society - without being crass or simplistic.  

In front of the camera, I'm full of admiration for Charlie Creed-Miles who has to portray a nasty selfish character at the start of the film but also make his road to responsibility seem credible, and to Sammy Williams who steals every scene he's in.  Behind the camera, George Richmond's lensing use the Arri Alexa is crisp, and the sound-track is superb.  Overall, this is an assured debut directorial effort from Fletcher, deftly balancing raucous humour and pathos - and I can't wait to see what he does next.

WILD BILL played London 2011.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 8 - THE DESCENDANTS

Hawaii is the location of this drowsy family drama, Alexander Payne’s latest feature after 2004’s wonderful SIDEWAYS, and any comparison between the two movies, as far apart as they may be now, will find THE DESCENDANTS sorely wanting. George Clooney has the responsibility of a few generations here as Matt King, a landowner who must reassess the relationship he has with his two young daughters, and the property owned by his family, after his wife ends up comatose in the hospital following a boating accident. Her history is only known through the remaining characters, chiefly Clooney’s, and ultimately any grief the audience has for her loss is only as considerable as the feeling evoked by his central performance. Unfortunately, Payne’s multitude of close-ups only serve to reveal how inexpressive Clooney’s face is, and limited his talents are (beyond some hammy running), for this kind of unpolished role and the vulnerability it requires. The work that a more capable actor – Paul Giamatti, most obviously – might have achieved with the same amount of screen time ends up being a regret larger and more diverting than any other in this disappointing and needlessly lengthy story.

<< Shailene Woodley (Alexandra); Alexander Payne (Writer-Director); and George Clooney (Matt King) at the photocall for THE DESCENDANTS at the BFI London Film Festival 2011.

THE DESCENDANTS played Toronto and London 2011. It opens in the USA on November 23rd; in Germany, Ireland and the UK on January 20th; in Lithuania on January 27th; in the Netherlands and Turkey on February 3rd and in France on February 29th.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

London Film Fest Day 2011 Day 8 - REBELLION

French writer-actor-director Matthieu Kassovitz (LA HAINE) returns to his French art-house roots with an uncompromising political docu-drama based on the Ouvea hostage crisis of 1988. The action takes place in the French overseas territory, New Caledonia, where a group of amateur freedom-fighters had taken a bunch of French policeman hostage, hoping to win independence for the Kanaks. The resolution should've been straightforward - send in the police force's GIGN negotiators and get the hostages out. But the situation was complicated by the fact that the crisis took place in the middle of the French Presidential election - a fight between the incumbent President Mitterand, a a left-wing advocate for negotiation and compromise - and the incumbent Prime Minister Chirac, a right-wing advocate of armed intervention and restoring "l'ordre et la morale" - the Order and Morality of the movie's French title. Thus the central conflict is established. The police are put under the authority of the army - the stakes escalate - a massive attack is launched - and many hostage takers executed and their leader left for dead. (No spoilers here, for even if you hadn't been aware of the events, as I hadn't been, the final tragedy is established in the opening shots.)

Kassovitz chooses to tell the tale in a straightforward manner, moving through the events with a strict timeline, chronologically, moving between the hostages in Polynesia and the politicians in Paris. He also takes a single and definite position on events, both playing and sympathising with Capitaine Philippe Legorjus, the GIGN negotiator hamstrung by politics and gung-ho army officers. Kassovitz is firmly on the side of the liberals, seeing the attack on the hostage takers as clumsy, the violence unjustified, and the results as a scandal. Stylistically, the movie is similarly straightforward - the only innovation a very elegant and subtle flashback scene where a hostage explains to Philippe how the initial kidnapping took place. 

All that seeming straightforwardness should not detract from the genuine power of the film. It was utterly compelling - had me on the edge of my seat - even though I had been forewarned of the conclusion. Even when it turns into a military thriller in the final segment, the movie never looses its profound concern with the politics of imperialism and the expediency forced by the electoral cycle. 

REBELLION played Toronto and London 2011 and opens in France on November 16th.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 8 - LET THE BULLETS FLY

LET THE BULLETS FLY is an utterly ridiculous, hilarious, cartoonish movie of the kind that made KUNG FU HUSTLE so superb, but without the latter film's heart. Written and directed by Wen Jiang (THE SUN ALSO RISES), it is set in 1920s provincial China, where the tax revenues of small towns are fought over by provincial governors and brutal mafiosi drug runners. The movie is a kind of action flick come comedy of errors.  Chow Yun-Fat looks like he's having a ball in the roll of Master Huang - the local drug lord defending his territory against the new governor, played by Wen Jiang.  That governor is an imposter, really a gangster, but the real meat of the story is whether either that gangster or indeed Master Huang is really the legendary and feared gangster Pocky Zhang. And why on earth is the governor, who came to the town to milk it of its cash, turning Robin Hood?!  

The movie unfolds in a series of beautifully choreographed tricks and fight scenes as each guy tries to get the better of the other, culminating in the final show-down and revelation. There are lots of laughs, plenty of ridiculousness and a superb supporting performance by Carina Lau as the governor's wife - willing to do anything to support her own position. The only fault is that it's probably too long at over two hours - there's only so much zaniness one can take in one sitting.

LET THE BULLETS FLY opened in China in 2010, in Hong Kong and Singapore earlier this year, and played London 2011.

London Film Fest 2011 Day 8 - TERRI

TERRI is a movie that is so unique, goes so much at its own pace and with its own concerns, that it's hard to characterise and hard to know what to make of it. What I can say is that it is beautifully observed, well-acted, causes moments of genuine un-ease but also genuine human warmth.....It is perhaps the most idiosyncratic movie of the festival and none the worse for that. 

Essentially, this is a movie about a group of misfits - the odd kids, the marginalised adults - that make up society but rarely make it onto the big screen. Chief among them is Terri (a fearless performance by Jacob Wysocki), an obese kid who lives with his ailing uncle in a ramshackle house, wears pyjamas to school, gets teased as a result, and yet has a Good Heart. He forms unlikely friendships with another troubled kid, Chad (Bridger Zadina) and is mentored by the bizarrely intense assistant principal, Mr Fitzgerald (John C Reilly). Perhaps most bizarrely of all, he ends up on a weird night of drinking and intimacy with the school's hottest girl (another fearless performance from Olivia Crocicchia) after he unintentionally precipitates her near-expulsion.

What I love about this film is its refusal to sentimalise or smooth over the strange weirdness of these people and their relationships, but also it's evident fondness for them. The subject matter is honest, brutally so, but as Roger Ebert has pointed out, this film in no way deserves its US "R" rating. One can only hope the BBFC is more mature, if and when this film gets a UK release. That's not to say that there weren't passages in the first half hour when I was wondering where the film was going. But if you stick with it, this really is a wonderful film, full of humanity, insight and beauty, as encapsulated in a truly memorable speech by Mr Fitzgerald on frailty and trying to do the best we can.

TERRI played Sundance 2011. It opened in the US in July and in Canada in August.