The 56th BFI London Film Festival 10-21 October

 

BFI_LFF_54th_AMEX_dates+BFI WHITE

Over the next three weeks, a group of Close Up Film writers will bring you news and reviews from the 2012 BFI London Film Festival. You can see the festival lineup on the BFI London Film festival website. There are over 300 films to choose from.

UPDATE: 21 October – Top five films – Colin Dibben

  • Imagine
  • Here and There
  • Like Someone in Love 
  • Gimme the Loot
  • = The Hunt/ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Top five films – Carlie Newman 

  • Amour
  • Argo
  • Song for Marion
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Our Children

Top five films – Adam Hollingworth

  • Post Tenebras Lux
  • Seven Psychopaths
  • End of Watch
  • Sightseers
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild

 

03 October – Keeping it real – Colin Dibben

A festival is a great opportunity to see films that might not get the exposure they deserve. I’ve been enjoying some low-key wonders, including two quietly intense scorchers from Latin America and a very funny Bronx tale.

Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Here and There (Aquí y allá) tells the story of a rural Mexican family using non-professional actors who are all heart-warming naturals. It always amazes me that people can reveal so much of themselves when there’s a camera present. Pedro, the father, just back from working in the States, sets about rebuilding his relationships with wife, Teresa, and their two daughters. The dollars in his pocket give him big ideas – he’s always dreamed of starting his own band – but the money just seems to spend itself. Real lives, filmed in real locations – this is the best thing I’ve seen during the press screenings (and I’ll be updating that opinion if needs be). This film makes everything else look stagey, sentimental and manipulative. And I’m not alone in liking it: the film won the Grand Prix in this year’s Cannes’ Critics Week.

Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Till Sunday (De jueves a domingo) is in a similar slow-burning key: a journey down the Pan-American highway in Chile, as seen through the eyes of  10-year-old Lucia. She’s travelling  with her father, mother and younger brother and as they drive through the desert landscapes, she becomes aware of a serious tension between her parents. This is a film that celebrates the bonds between parents and children, even as the love between father and mother wanes. It’s heart-wrenching stuff, depicted without any sentimentality. It’s also beautifully filmed.

Gimme the Loot is a very funny, kinda gritty, urban NYC comedy that’s bursting with guerrilla film-maker energy.  Bronx teenagers Malcolm and Sofia plan to graffiti tag an iconic New York building but they need to raise $500 to do it. Over the course of two hot summer days, they hustle and scam their way to the money, but their goal seems to get further and further away. Adam Leon’s film has two charming (yes, charming!) performances at its slightly potty-mouthed heart, once again from natural actors without too much training.


04 October – Keeping it real 2 – Colin Dibben

Speaking of reality, you should definitely see writer-director Matteo Garrone’s new film,  Reality. Luciano is a Neapolitan fishmonger who becomes obsessed with tv show Big Brother, or Grande Fratello as it is known in Italy.  His obsession begins as a family-affirming even communal affair, but then turns dangerous. This is an overblown, hyper-ventilating satire on families, celebrity culture, reality tv, even religion. The exuberant family scenes are the best thing about it – and very funny – but there’s a mordant edge to the comedy. Garrone made the disturbing state-of-the-Italian-nation Gomorrah. Reality is a lighter-hearted comment on contemporary lifestyles. The two Italians sitting next to me were distinctly embarrassed by the film, which I guess means Garrone’s got something right. Oh, and the film won the overall Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

05 October – Reeling you in – Colin Dibben

There are dark rewards available when you enjoy the manipulative world of ‘issues’ drama, and there are some very sly, very engaging, big-name  films on offer in this category.

Mads Mikkelsen won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for The Hunt (Jagten), Thomas Vinterberg’s glossy return to form. Mads plays Lucas, a kindergarten assistant in a rural Danish community, who is falsely accused of child abuse. As a wave of hysteria sweeps the town, Lucas attempts to salvage his relationships with old friends, his son, a new girlfriend, even his first ‘accuser’. It’s all completely heart-breaking and utterly manipulative, for two reasons: you never doubt Mads for a minute; and there’s some obvious culprits in the form of middle-aged, middle-class busybody women who hypocritically claim they are processing the accusation ‘by the book’ – when they are doing no such thing.  However, the film is spot on in outlining how such false accusations might occur and escalate; as well as presenting the most ethical way of surviving them.

Jacques Audiard follows up  hit A Prophet with Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os), a film that sounds a bit sentimental and melodramatic on paper but isn’t because of the way Audiard shoots and edits and his attention to visual and thematic detail. A friendship/love affair between a bare knuckle boxer and a legless killer-whale trainer? It sounds like the plot of a Jean-Jacques Beineix film. Eek! The understated central performances (Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts) are excellent – you focus on their characters so fully that the improbability of the story doesn’t hit you until half way through.

But I think Audiard is the real star: he depicts credible, simple actions within naturalistic environments and lets both of these build the story.

Voyeurism, living vicariously, the perils of reading, the perils of the teacher-pupil relationship, the glib shock value of contemporary art, François Ozon’s In the House (Dans la maison) creates a superb comedy out of his ironic take on a bagful of issues. Middle-aged, middle-class literature teacher Germain is mentoring a talented pupil, Claude, who is obsessed with the middle-class family of one of his schoolmates. Claude relates his encounters with the family to Germain through creative writing assignments and he’s such a good writer that Germain and his wife become obsessed with Claude’s obsession.  Almost farcical, very funny, very clever and a bit disturbing too.

10 October – It’s the quiet ones you have to watch – Colin Dibben

This early in the festival – okay, so, it hasn’t technically started as I write this – it may seem meaningless to talk about ‘favourite films’, but I’ve just seen Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love and oh boy, it’s good. I’ve had a bit of a problem with his more recent stuff, but the mix is completely engaging here: yes, there are a lot of long, static camera shots, yes there’s a lot of driving around and shots out of car windows; but there are also three great characters that hold your attention completely for as long as they are in the frame. The story is simple. Akiko (this film is set in Tokyo) is a student who works as an escort. She’s trying to keep knowledge of her work from her paranoid boyfriend, Takashi. Tired after an exam, her ‘boss’ sends her to an address, where her punter turns out to be the retired Professor Noriaki.

Surprisingly for Kiarostami, it’s the interplay between the characters that really makes this film work, in an almost comic fashion (and despite Kiarostami’s style of only including one main character in any shot).  This calm focus on characters/actors means that you can’t help feeling generous about them. As far as I’m concerned, this film is another victory for the Shhh! school of film-making. It’s time to shout about quiet films!

10 October – 56th BFI London Film Festival Opening Night Gala: Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie – Matt Rodgers

Like the bolt of lightning that re-animates Victor Frankenweenie’s patchwork mutt, Sparky, this stop-motion masterpiece seems to resuscitate Tim Buton’s rotting corpse of a career. Shot in Universal monster-movie era monochrome, one of many nods to the kind of films that shaped Burton’s gothic skewed world – a vision that, let’s be honest, had grown a tad tedious over the past decade – Frankenweenie is a simple tale that unfolds beautifully, with a big patchwork heart beneath it’s gruey stitches and odd-shaped inhabitants.

Victor is your quintessential loner. His best friend is his dog, Sparky, who also happens to be the star of many of the home-made monster movies that entertain his family. At school Victor excels, with his assorted classmates clamouring to partner up for the latest science project, an accolade bestowed upon the hunchbacked, Edgar, by virtue of him uncovering Victor’s dark secret. For, when Sparky becomes the tragic victim of a ball-chasing incident, our pasty-faced protagonist is able to harness the power of lightning to bring him back from the dead.

Frankenweenie is riddled with moments of understated brilliance: the home movie which plays out during the opening sequence, B-movie monsters, dogs tenderly rolling balls between a hole in the fence, and an evocative score from the usually intrusive Danny Elfman, all morphed together into a cohesive, wondrous, macabre fairytale. Frankenweenie is imbued with so much care and attention to character and detail, that you fall in love with a Burton universe for the first time since Edward Scissorhands. This is a classic Burton creation.

11 October – End of Watch – Adam Hollingworth

End-of-Watch-Horizontal-650x433My LFF this year started emphatically with David Ayer’s End of Watch, a blisteringly suspenseful odyssey through cartel-ridden South Central LA in the company of two uniformed police officers.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena deliver wonderfully naturalistic and charismatic performances as beat cops Taylor and Zavala. On the job they employ cavalier humour mixed with stoic unassuming fortitude, which allows them to confront the despicable horrors they witness with a rarely rewarded courage and humility. They instead gain solace from their domestic quietude (Zavala and his high school sweetheart await the birth of their first child, whilst Taylor is staring into a bright future with the radiant and intelligent Anna Kendrick) and crucially from their close fraternal relationship with each other. However, both find themselves plunged into a terrifying abyss when their investigation into an arms bust places them in the sights of a murderous Mexican cartel.

The film feels electrifyingly fresh and immediate for a number of reasons. The screenplay is an extraordinarily authentic character piece filled with wit, warmth and complexity, and the rich dialogue in the mouths of Gyllenhaal and Pena feels almost improvisatory in its spontaneity, much like the writing of David Mamet. Ayer directs the film with a general handheld approach which treads the well-worn route to documentary realism, but its interspersed with police CCTV footage, news broadcasts and, most inventively, home movie footage shot by Taylor during his shift. At first this eclectic melange of aesthetic techniques feels indecisive, but as we become used to it the film variously resembles first-person shooter video games and YouTube style pranks – which lend the piece a gloriously intense kinetic drive.

What is ultimately so searingly brilliant about the film is the authenticity of its grunginess and characters. These are the uniform cops putting their lives on the line so that the plain clothes detectives and DEA agents, who so regularly dominate films in this genre, can later swoop in and claim the glory. These aren’t the amoral adrenal junkies of The Hurt Locker, but real people pursuing a nastily hedonistic breed of criminal: these aren’t slick and likeable masterminds, and this makes them an all-too-real and frightening danger. It’s the sense throughout the film that this danger is frightening, and that the two protagonists seem so real, which define its greatness.

12 October – Shoot the pianist? – Colin Dibben

During his travels in the States, Oscar Wilde saw a sign in a bar in the small mining community of Leadville, Colorado sporting the legend: ‘Don’t shoot the pianist. He is doing his best’. Wilde was impressed by the suggestion that in Dogdick, Colorado bad art should be punishable by death. Wilde concurred. Isidore Isou, the maniac film maker behind On Venom and Eternity (Traité de bave et d’éternité), would probably also agree.

Actually, his rabid, very ‘Parisian’ and very funny film manifesto suggests a desire to kill cinema itself. This feature-length rant from way back in 1951 has to be seen to be believed – it’s 110% crazed intellectualism, like being shouted at by a drunk post-grad student for two hours. Isou thinks cinema has outlived the image, that cinema’s focus has to turn to the film material (by scratching the celluloid surface) and to a new experience of cinema in which sound and image are violently opposed to each other. So, the images here are intentionally redundant: a man walks towards the camera over and over again, on a series of Parisian streets; footage from a diplomatic trip to Vietnam (I think) is scratched, played and replayed. Sometimes, the film screen is black and the scratches jump about in a nerve-shredding manner. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is providing the humour.

In the first part, Isou’s narrator/character attends a film club meeting and starts to expound his theories, which are met with carnival screams of ‘Cretin!’, ‘Stalinist!’ and the like. Then things go pretty haywire: a rather uninteresting story is told about the hero following a woman around Paris, before he starts to have a verbal at random cultural artefacts, like jazz. The whole film is very shouty and fun in  a migraine-inducing way. You can see where the next generation of French film makers got some of their ideas and it’s nice to hear super-stinky Normandy cheese Livarot get a thumbs-up – cinema should be like stinky cheese, apparently. There’s a disturbing, looping, gobbling noise on the soundtrack. I think this must be a pretty early attempt at tape manipulation, though I’m no expert.

This film got me thinking: if someone could make the convincing case that cinema was played out in terms of stories and visuals by the late 40s, what the hell are we all doing at a film festival in 2012? Most of the films I’ve seen at the festival are ‘well made’, technically proficient; but the more of them you see, the more you realise there is in fact nothing new on offer in the way of story formats or visuals. And yet film makers and distributors pretend their product is new and exciting and significant. Perhaps, nowadays, we will our own depression when it comes to cinema? It’s no longer disbelief we suspend but, deep down, the hope of being offered something new – or of creating the new ourselves.

13 October – Wolf Children – Colin Dibben 

Wolf-Children-HK-Blu-ray-ext2With my optimistic hat on, I saw and loved Mamoru Hosoda’s latest Japanese animated film, Wolf Children.  Hosoda previously directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars – all his films are aimed at both young and adult audiences in a Studio Ghibli/Spirited Away way. Wolf Children is the story of a single mum bringing up two kids – who are half wolf! As with much Japanese animation, the genius of the film lies in taking its premise seriously. In this, the film resembles the focused seriousness of child’s play, allowing adult audiences to indulge in fret-free joy and optimism for a couple of hours. At the same time, there are issues of good parenting and child psychology and ecological destruction being aired.

The film looks lovely: it’s packed with lyrical pastoral images and you can play spot the differences between Japanese and Hollywood-style animation till the cubs come home. For instance, I noticed the way that characters’ faces’ features blank out when they experience extreme emotions other than pleasure. No idea what that piece of ‘film grammar’ means, but it is intriguing.

In relation to my previous post, Wolf Children is at least different from most of the ‘serious’ (worthy, stodgy?) dramas in the festival. It’s this difference – and the Japanimation genre’s promotion of childlike awe and joy at being in the world – that makes this film charming. It would be interesting to compare Wolf Children with Beasts of the Southern Wild: I haven’t seen the latter film but have heard that it ultimately turns its back on the ethical values it seems to espouse.

13 October – Reality – Adam Hollingworth

As director Matteo Garrone himself proclaimed during the brief Q&A following the screening of his latest film Reality, winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the move from his previous film Gomorrah to this one sees his style shift away from Rossellini and towards Fellini. This is a film that is by turns satirical, carnivalesque and religious, yet always resolutely Italian.

Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a Neapolitan fishmonger living in a ramshackle tenement building with his extended family and friends who, after a wedding day encounter with the previous winner of the Italian version of “Big Brother,” develops an aspiration to appear on the show’s next series; a dream which gradually spirals into a destructive obsession. Following what he considered to be a promising interview with the show’s producers, Luciano tailors his behaviour in the belief that agents from the programme are constantly monitoring his behaviour as part of an extended audition process. His growing paranoia threatens to unravel his career, his marriage, and his sanity.

Garrone’s film is based upon an actual incident, and the blackly comic tone his screenplay and direction take suggests a melancholic sadness for a man who has sacrificed a warm, loving and comfortable existence in pursuit of a superficial plastic reality of fame and glamour: the glossy and cold microcosm of “Big Brother” contrasting with the colourfully eccentric milieu surrounding Luciano’s life in Naples. The opening sequence in particular contrasts the vulgar tackiness of a wedding ceremony with the more low-key but cosy party attended by Luciano’s family, and Alexandre Desplat’s score majestically evokes the dark fairy tale aspects of the story. Yet Garrone’s pace and style are as immersive and meditative as in Gomorrah and this doesn’t suit his comic subject quiet as well as it did the seediness of gangland Italy.

The film is fun and engaging throughout, but Garrone alternates his satiric gaze between the delusion of those aspiring to the crass plastic reality of celebrity culture, and the idea that such widespread cultural corruption has turned Italy itself into a “Big Brother” environment where everyone’s behaviour is placed under scrutiny. Neither track is fully committed too, which gives the film a sense of dilution when it really ought to have been more savage and penetrative.

14 October – Beasts of the Southern Wild – Adam Hollingworth

Winner of the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Benh Zeitlin’s majestic debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild is a richly entertaining piece. The film alternates confidently between gritty naturalism and magic realism to tell a compelling coming of age tale, evoking in some ways the feeling of a live-action Miyazaki film.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her Daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in a fictional bayou called Bathtub in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Provided by Fox Searchlight

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her Daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in a fictional bayou called Bathtub in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Provided by Fox Searchlight

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a young girl living with her father (the mother having left some years previously) in a ramshackle community called The Bathtub: an idiosyncratic and fiercely independent township living in close commune with the surrounding natural world. When her father returns from hospital clearly suffering from a debilitating and life-threatening disease, and melted polar ice caps cause The Bathtub to be completely flooded, Hushpuppy must reconcile her turbulent emotions and naivety with the reality of her threatened survival. In so doing, she must acquire the courage and maturity needed to confront the deterioration of her insular and protected world.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has a feeling of wonderment coursing through it which perfectly reflects the perspective of its young child protagonist, through whose eyes we view a distinctive and absorbing world. The voice-over narration spoken by Hushpuppy is delivered with tender simplicity by Wallis, and the dialogue itself carries a poetic beauty that stands at odds to the more precocious attempts at first-person narration present in Terrence Malick’s more recent films. The dialogue throughout the film is beautifully textured, and the confluence between the film’s screenplay and direction creates a terrifically nuanced and immersive universe, one which is further strengthened by Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s evocative music. Indeed, the spirited and resolute community banding together to preserve its home and traditions against encroaching flood waters make the film very readable as an allegory for post-Katrina New Orleans.

What registers most strongly and movingly, though, is the progression of Hushpuppy from innocence into experience. Wallis shines in the role, and the scenes between her and her father Wink, played with heart and fiery passion by Dwight Henry, have a stark and fearlessly emotional quality to them which is utterly hypnotic. Moments of pragmatic education sit easily alongside moments of magic to create a story that embraces the miraculous and unending wonderment of a world that is by turns brutal and beautiful. The film’s final scene, in which Hushpuppy comes face to face with an colossal extinct beast, encapsulates this feeling superbly…but then again, so does the rest of the film.

15 October – Possessed nuns are back and so’s a ghost that makes people eat entrails! – Adam Hollingworth

In a particularly arty triple bill on Sunday afternoon, which fittingly took place in cinemas around Mayfair and Kensington, my first LFF weekend rounded out with a Romanian metaphysical drama and a double bill of Thai featurette films, both of which lasted only an hour or so. Unfortunately, none of the three were destined to stand out as being amongst my picks of the festival, but at the same time none were without merit.

Beyond the Hills is Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, and sees the director on similarly contemplative and biting form with regards to social and moral decay. Alina (Cristina Flutur) is a damaged young woman living in Germany who pays a visit to her childhood friend (and ex-lover, it is implied) Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). The two girls knew each other from growing up in an orphanage, but now Voichita lives in a remote rural convent as a devout Orthodox Nun. From the moment the troubled Alina arrives, and realises she can’t tempt her friend back into her old lifestyle, Alina’s mental and physical wellbeing deteriorate within the confines of the cloistered and austere community, and the convent’s inhabitants come to believe that she has been possessed by the devil.

The film plays out like a Bergmanesque chamber drama, with a notable absence of the ambivalence of faith, enacted on an abandoned set from a Bela Tarr film, beautifully photographed to convey the passage from the autumnal to the wintry in stark pathetic fallacy. As the drama progresses, it becomes clear that this is less a consideration of the redundancy of faith and dogmatic religious practice in the modern world, and more a wider damnation of the complete disintegration of the Church’s moral imperative. These are compelling issues in a solidly performed piece, which is rather too slow-burning and theatrical to be truly remarkable.

Unbeknownst to me going into Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel was the fact that it was the second piece in a double bill of short Thai features that began with Mother, the graduation piece of a young director who is apparently happy to be known as Billy. It’s a deeply personal film about the director’s mother’s battle against illness, involving some distressing documentary scenes of kidney dialysis and family feuding, alongside some eerily poetic fictional, expressionistic sequences. The film has some visually arresting moments, but overall feels more like an art installation than a film.

Similarly, Mekong Hotel turned out to be more akin to a “Making Of” documentary than a narrative feature. Set entirely within the confines of a hotel on the Mekong River, a body of water on Thailand’s border over which Laotian refugees fled into the country during the Civil War, the film is comprised of fictional re-enactments of an abandoned screenplay of the director’s in which two lovers meet at the hotel at various times in their life, their affair foiled by the presence of a Pob ghost that causes those it possesses to consume entrails; and non-fictional discussions between Apichatpong and his collaborators about the personal and topographical past. The premise of fluid time and the permeability of the physical and supernatural worlds in a hotel which stands on an important border promises an interesting work about transience and trans-migration, but in this instance Apichatpong’s experimental approach is detrimental, and the film feels slight and unsubstantial.

15 October – Viggo Mortensen’s excellent swamp noir – Colin Dibben

Two of my fave novelists are David Goodis (Shoot the Pianist) and Charles Williams (The Catfish TangleThe Hot Spot) – so imagine my delight when I realised that under all the technical proficiencies and tonying up of the drama to fit with our chattering class film-going ways, Everyone has a plan (Todos tenemos un plan), is a good old-fashioned pulp noir that transports loser characters from a Goodis novel to a classic Williams environment – way up the far end of the bayou. Except that we’re in Argentina, up the low-no rent part of the Paraná Delta. And yes, that’s Viggo Mortensen mumbling Argentinian Spanish (with a nod even to the characteristic ‘che’ sounds).

Viggo plays twin brothers: Pedro, a terminally ill boondocks criminal and Agustín, a Buenos Aires pediatrician with ennui issues. Pedro visits Agustín, who jumps at the chance for some Antonioni’s The Passenger-style life swapping. But when he turns up back in the delta where he grew up, his life gets more complicated and way more dangerous than he expected. Writer/director Ana Piterbarg may not know who Goodis and Williams are, but her film totally delivers the pulp goods – and dresses them up in a way that deserves big bums-on-seats success. As in lots of bums. Size is irrelevant.

As well as Viggo (I’m never completely convinced by him as an actor as he seems to spend a lot of time merely wincing), there’s great support here from the very bad baddy Adrián (Daniel Fanego) and the nuanced Rosa (Sofia Gala). One minute she’s vulnerable and young, the next she’s sullen and tough as nails.  Gala’s is the only psychologically credible performance in the film, the rest come across as extreme, pulp-type characters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – most people I know aren’t psychologically credible either. The rural environment – think Southern Comfort in Spanish – is both beautiful and scary. Apparently, Viggo has the cojones to speak Spanish because he lived in Argentina for years as a kid.

15 October – My Amityville Horror – Dan Collacott

Ok, so I thought it about time I entered the festival  fray. I began my experience with My Amityville Horror, a documentary film that focuses on the accounts of Daniel Lutz, who was ten at the time of the original and now infamous events.

my_amityville_horror_ver2Documentary film maker Eric Walter, a long time expert in the Amityville incident, interviews Daniel, carefully documenting his role within the family and the haunting itself. He talks about such difficult touch points as his highly volatile relationship with his stepfather George Lutz, and most importantly his account of what happened to him and his family within the house (a version of events he never had the chance to provide at the time). In particular, the film delves into the indisputable suffering the events brought Daniel and the impact they have had on his life in the 35 years since. Daniel’s testimonies are also cushioned by interviews with some of the media and people who reported or investigated the events at the time they happened, alongside some slightly more doubtful psychological evaluations and conjecture.

The film’s charm lies in the conviction, strength and belief of Daniel. His accounts may to some be questionable but his personality and determination remain highly magnetic throughout. In fact the retelling of events is so emotive that it is hard at times to separate fact from fiction. In truth, I may have had trouble believing some of what Daniel was recounting, but that didn’t mean I didn’t believe in him.

Documentary filmmaker Eric Walter handles the source material with due reverence, neither sensationalising the 1975 haunting nor trying to discredit or prove it’s validity. The intensity of Daniel and his evident torment make quite a powerful but incredibly intriguing film which leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions.

16 October – American Airlines Gala screening: Quartet – Adam Hollingworth

It’s taken Dustin Hoffman a very long time (he’s now over seventy years old) to make the transition from standing in front of the camera to sitting behind it. What’s more is that with Quartet, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own stage play, Hoffman has chosen to grapple with material boasting a self-consciously British theatrical leaning, which stands in apparent opposition to Hoffman’s own reputation as a meticulous screen method actor. What he has achieved with his debut film as director, however, is a warmly humorous and at times subtly melancholic comedy-drama that probes the emotional and psychological repercussions of great creative talent being cruelly and inevitably eroded by age.

Quartet takes place at Beacham House, a secluded and picturesque estate that serves as a retirement home for old musical performers from the worlds of opera, classical music and Vaudeville. When former opera diva Jean (Maggie Smith) arrives at Beacham House and struggles to reconcile her glorious former career with the harsh reality of her retirement and deterioration, the other residents decide to tempt her into a final performance of the Quartet from “Rigoletto” at their annual fundraising gala, the success of which is vital to Beacham House’s continuation. Before this can happen, however, Jean’s fractious relationships with the other singers of the Quartet, and the wounds from their collective past, must be healed.

Hoffman directs with a simple but assured touch, at times conceding to the piece’s theatrical origins but for the most part complementing the actors’ sterling performances against a colourful autumnal backdrop. Harwood adapts his own stage work for the screen with aplomb, and the comic dimension of Quartet is especially strong: the comedy derives from depth of character and not from cheap slapstick or tired age gags, making the piece less “Last of the Summer Wine” but something rather more fortified. The slight narrative of the old getting-the-band-back-together routine does unfortunately hamstring the film, preventing it from dwelling deeper on the darker themes of regret, loss and creative degeneration. As if to deliberately undermine the film’s central thesis, the lead performances are uniformly magnificent: Maggie Smith is at her sharp, dry best as the diva Jean; Tom Courtenay merges granite stoicism with the hurt of a wounded animal as her one-time husband; Pauline Collins is joyfully dotty as the ex-flapper Sissy; and Billy Connolly gives his best performance since Mrs Brown in a role combining sauciness with dignity. The supporting cast, comprised of actual former opera stars, also give the impression that their powers are happily not as diminished as you might imagine.

A superb, light-hearted treat which occasionally grapples with genuine melancholy, Hoffman’s directorial debut proves that while age can cause some talents to decay, it might well inspire the opening up of previously untapped abilities.

16 October – Beware of Mr Baker – Matt Rodgers

Beware-of-Mr-Baker-2For those who have walked to the beat of Cream, Blind Faith, or the Graham Bond Organisation, Beware of Mr Baker is a nostalgic warts-n-all look back at a hedonistic superstar who set a benchmark rarely matched to this day. For the uninitiated amongst us, this is an education on the genesis of modern sound, and more intriguingly, a look at a character who demands immediate attention; for he is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The Gallagher Brothers, eat your heart out.

Even those reluctant to watch another talking heads music doc about an eccentric madman should know this; Jay Bulger’s documentary begins with the filmmaker, having spent an extended amount of time living with his subject on his South African farm, being whacked in the face and given a bloody nose by the elderly hellraiser. Attention is well and truly demanded.

16 October – Grassroots – Matt Rodgers

Contextually, a movie about politics couldn’t have been timed better, and one providing a voice to the disenfranchised youth could have been a contemporary zeitgeist of Social Network proportions. Unfortunately Grassroots is the movie equivalent of Sarah Palin; initially intriguing, fundamentally flawed, and in Joel David Moore’s central performance, one of the most armchair thumpingly annoying characters projected upon a white wall in a long, long time. Remind yourself whilst watching it that we’re meant to believe that people would vote for him. Never mind “Four more years!” at times this is barely tolerable for four more minutes.

Based “loosely” on true events in the wonderfully framed Seattle (director, Gyllenhaal has at least painted an authentic look at the city), Grassroots feels like a gross-out comedy but without the gross or the comedy. Yes 10% No 89% Not Sure 1%.

16 October – Robot and Frank – Matt Rodgers

Set sometime in the near future, this whimsical little fable is assembled using part Wall-E, with a few nuts-n-bolts taken from A.I. and Oceans 11, by way of the retirement home.

If this pitch had been doing the rounds in the 80’s it would have ended up a knockabout comedy featuring James Belushi and a talking tin-can. Instead it’s a beautifully measured tale of friendship, family, and understanding the path that has been laid out for you in life. In the same way that the robot can never emote or care that his memory is wiped, Frank must accept certain inevitabilities about his own life, and it’s the antithesis of both Frank and Robot’s programming, and their journey towards a similar destination, that is the heart of Jake Schreier’s gentle drama.

16 October – West of Memphis – Matt Rodgers

The HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), is an intense three hour case study of the horrific events which occurred in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. It is graphic, bruising and raw, as are its too less focused follow-ups. Now, after almost two decades, Amy Berg’s update acts as a human compendium to that litigation-heavy series of docs.

Narratively, West of Memphis has two huge piques of interest. One of them is clearly the potentially lifesaving outcome of the investigations, kept alive by the films many heroes – Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has clearly invested every ounce of his soul into the cause, and Echols original trial lawyer, Dan Stidham, omnipresent throughout the entirety of the boys’ nightmare, has never waivered in his belief of their innocence.

Intrigue also manifests in the form of some fresh evidence which pinpoints one of the children’s stepfathers as the potential murderer. The revelations, from the DNA investigations and from the mouth of the accused, are gasp -inducing stuff.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the entire movie is that we are never given closure, or even an indication that the case remains open. It’s perhaps fitting that for a 20-year mystery which has left so many unanswered questions, that we still remain in the dark once the credits roll on this powerful chronicle.

17 October- Centrepiece Gala screening: Hyde Park on Hudson – Adam Hollingworth

Hyde Park on Hudson plays as a bizarre and muddled crossover between The Gathering Storm and Fawlty Towers. Neither particularly funny nor especially dramatic, the film feels like a complete waste of the talents of an excellent cast and a misuse of a fascinating period of transatlantic history.

Margaret (Laura Linney) is a distant cousin of Franklin D Roosevelt (Bill Murray) summoned to the President’s New York retreat, nicknamed Hyde Park on Hudson, to help him relax from the pressures of his Depression-era Office. A friendship that quickly turns into a secret romance blossoms as the years go by. In the wake of World War 2, Margaret plays witness to the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) to the House, where the uncertain royals attempt to enlist American support for the inevitable conflict with Nazi Germany.

There seem to be three main threads running through the film: the exposure of the less genial side of Franklin D Roosevelt as a serial philanderer; the nervousness and insecurities of two royals thrust against their will and expectations into political as well as regal duty; and the reconciliation of British and American attitudes and mutual distrusts into an Alliance against Fascism. However, all of these threads are left undeveloped to such a lacklustre degree that to identify them as subtexts almost gives the film undeserved credit. The dramatic climax of the film, the weakest I can ever remember seeing in any movie, is not only the most heavy-handed reference to present diplomatic relations between the UK and USA imaginable, but also seems to represent the necessary humbling of the elitist, stuck-up Brits in order to gain the sympathy and support of the down-to-earth, proud American commoners. A resolution more stereotypical and crass than this is tough to contemplate.

Olivia Colman and Samuel West deserve credit for distinguished, gently humorous performances which banish the spectre of The King’s Speech, but they are the only talents worthy of praise in this dismal affair. The first-person narration, as written in the script and delivered by Laura Linney, smacks disquietingly of Desperate Housewives, and the direction is ploddingly determined to emulate The West Wing within the environs of Louisa May Alcott. The music is dreadful in its smugly cloying nature; the scenes of farcical comedy are woefully embarrassing; and though Bill Murray bravely rejects his standard screen persona his Roosevelt is an unreal, showy performance boasting little more than a mercurial smile and a Tom Hanks impression.

Ultimately this is an appalling script that’s been turned into a mediocre film, lacking any sense of tension, character progression or dramatic relationships: Laura Linney is introduced as an intimate conduit into the private life of a fascinating President, but is then side-lined after five minutes and barely paid any further heed. Clumsy, unfocussed and tragically shallow, this will more than likely be the worst film I see at the LFF this year.

17 October – Seeing, hearing, believing: Andrzej Jakimowski’s Imagine – Colin Dibben

 When you see a lot of films in a short space of time, you realize that most of them are well-made ‘product’, telling stories that target audiences will be comfortable with, even when they are watching traumatic events. They’ve seen it all before – they can second guess possible outcomes. I call that ‘comfortable’, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But, when a film comes along that takes you into a world you have never even imagined, where you can’t second guess what is going to happen; when said film takes you on a journey of exploration into your own senses through its story of other people – that, dear reader, is a wake-up call to the true power of cinema. Even better, when said film is not ‘mind-blowing’ in the usual sense of the word: when it clearly sets up the new experience with which it is providing you, when it remains compelling, imaginative, intelligent for over 90 minutes – well, that is a unique film.

Andrzej Jakimowski’s Imagine is all of these things – it’s far and away the most brilliant and exciting film I’ve seen in the festival. I think I’m also right in saying that at the moment it has no UK distributor. Which is enough to make me – once again! – wonder what crime we’re all perpetrating by turning up to festival events and bigging up mere ‘product’. Imagine deserves to be recognized as a great film!

Ian (Edward Hogg) is an unconventional blind teacher, starting a new job at a school for blind children in Lisbon, Portugal. He has an uncanny ability to sense the world – an ability he tries to teach the children. He walks without a cane, using his hearing, his shoes and finger and tongue clicking noises to build up a picture of the places he moves through. He also uses inductive reasoning and inevitably makes assumptions that are affected by his own desires about what he can hear and feel. In other words, he is intuiting or imagining the world around him.

For the school children, and for the older, mysterious and beautiful Eva (Alexandra Maria Lara), Ian opens up a wider world of experience, one in which they can learn to believe the evidence of their senses. However, the authorities that run the school come to see Ian as a dangerous threat to the children.

A film about the experience of blindness/partial sight could appear redundant or perverse, but that’s the genius of writer-director Jakimowski’s approach. He has created a way of filming that totally suits the experience that he is, on the one hand, trying to capture; and, on the other hand, trying to provoke in his audience. His film ‘imagines’ the experience of partial sight: he films faces, bodies and locations in a ‘haptic’ way that approximates the sense the partially sighted must have of their own bodies and immediate environs; and of course the soundtrack is clear as a bell, heightened and ultra-sensitive. I noticed that shots and scenes tend to centre on a source (of sound or light) rather than on a narrative event – another instance of an approach to film making that’s entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

There’s a total lucidity to this film, that’s not just down to the sun-drenched locations or the white-washed courtyard of the school in which many of the lessons take place. Or even the lessons themselves, in which the basic ideas are clearly introduced and you can see the younger, non-professional actors, starting to educate themselves after Ian’s inspiration.

It’s a brilliant film, a real hymn to life that’s smart, engaging, heart-warming and romantic too. Several scenes will stay with me for ages: a series of children concentrating on pouring water from a jug into a glass; Ian walking the school corridors, clicking his fingers and moving out of the way of a chest of drawers the kids have put in his way; the first cane-free venturing out; Eva and Ian’s shoe-shopping expedition; the final nail-biting trip to the harbor. These may sound on paper like prosaic events but that’s how good this film is – Jakimowski makes them more nerve-shredding than Argo could ever be!

There was a very different but equally intriguing account of partial sight issues in Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus. The first of three stories in the Mumbai-set film concerns a blind photographer who uses handheld colour-reading devices to sense what her camera is pointing at. She also uses software that produces ridged, tactile print-outs of her photographs. This character constructs photographs from her perception of sound environments – the enabling technologies available and the way they make you rethink the traditional hierarchy of the senses are astonishing.

18 October – Accenture Gala screening: Argo – Adam Hollingworth

It’s third time lucky for Ben Affleck’s filmmaking endeavours, as after two solid but unspectacular outings his latest film Argo, which can be broadly categorised as a comic political thriller, represents a wholly original, highly suspenseful affair which simultaneously boasts wit, originality and meta-cinematic tendencies.

The year is 1979, and Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers have taken control from the Shah, who is currently suffering from terminal cancer whilst in asylum in the USA. Demanding the Shah’s return in order to bring him to justice, the Iranian people storm the US Embassy and hold its inhabitants hostage, whilst unbeknownst to the rebels six diplomats escape the embassy and seek refuge with the Canadian Ambassador. With seemingly no way to extract the six Americans from Iran before their capture, and likely subsequent execution, CIA operative Tony Mendes (Affleck) masterminds a seemingly absurd scheme to sneak them out of the country masquerading as a film crew. To make the cover stick, Mendes enlists Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and old-timer producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to set up a Hollywood production office, purchase the screenplay to a camp and exotic sci-fi romp, entitled “Argo,” arrange a high profile read-through and advertise the production in the trade papers, alongside the news that Iran would be scouted for potential locations.

There is a fascinating and deeply ingrained interplay between the action in front of and behind the camera: though limited as an actor Affleck is interestingly cast as a man directing his charges as though they were actors so that they make a convincing film crew to Iranian eyes, whilst all the time Affleck the director guides the tone of what we’re seeing even whilst Affleck the actor takes charge of the on-screen orchestration of events. If that sounds like a vanity project be assured the film is exceptionally well-judged. The film takes off with the underplayed comedy of the process of publicising the production of the film-within-a-film, satirising Hollywood production very knowingly without descending into smug absurdity. Outside of the Hollywood milieu, the scenes in the CIA briefing rooms and later Iran feel moody and slow-burning, and whilst one initially itches for greater suspense by the time the film’s final act kicks into gear we realise that Affleck’s firm hand has been immersing us in the lives of the characters and their extraordinary situation before hurtling us into the melee. When he does, in the climactic extraction attempt, what follows is truly breath-taking: one of the most sweaty-palmed, nerve-wracking suspense set pieces of recent years, the conclusion to which prompted a spontaneous round of applause at the screening.

Supported by hilarious turns from Arkin and Goodman, and a supremely nervy dramatic turn from the great Bryan Cranston as Mendes’ CIA superior, this is a political thriller that sacrifices an overbearing agenda for subtle but incisive contemporary detail and tremendous entertainment.

18 October – The Late Great Graham Chapman – Dan Collacott

As a taster for the upcoming animated film A Liars Autobiography (based on the life story of Graham Chapman) this collection of Chapman’s non-python work, made for a nostalgic and gently humourous reminder of the late comedian’s genius.

Chapman was a difficult and very conflicted character with well documented issues, so it was quite hard to process this body of work without wanting more in depth insight into the man himself. Of course that job is best served by the upcoming film, this however did reaquaint us with much of his TV work alongside Tim Brooke-Taylor and the late Marty Feldmen (among others). His one man rant on the show ‘Opinion’ is something to behold and for me best summed up everything that was good about Chapman as well as everything that was erratic and unpredictable.

As was stated before the film began, ‘Graham Chapamn never had a life after Python’ this and the coming animated film will hopefully right this wrong and bring him back to our screens once again.

19 October – The Wall – Colin Dibben

Julian Roman Pölsler’s intriguing The Wall (Die Wand) is a satisfying mix of survivalist drama, visuals that update Caspar David Friedrich and some slightly essayistic philosophising.

Martina Gedeck (The Baader-Meinhof Complex, The Lives of Others) powers her way through this story of a woman trapped in an Alpine valley, who must act and transform her natural surroundings in order to survive. She befriends a dog, Lynx, who is her conduit into a higher communion with the natural world, which in turn gives her a greater understanding of her own human nature.

This is a film about the responsibilities of being human but the concepts and issues (there are references to the ideas of Schelling and Emerson) never overwhelm the strong drama. And there are many beautiful shots of the valley and the meadow above it, shot over several seasons. Pölsler has managed to capture some incredible, nuanced alpine light effects. He is apparently a bit of a nature nut, but what comes across here is the symbiosis between Gedeck, her actions and her increasingly resolute face, and the sublime natural environment. I was lucky enough to bag an enlightening interview with director and star, but you’ll have to wait until the film is released over here.

19 October – Tey – Colin Dibben

Senegalese director Alain Gomis has created a life-affirming, energetic, funny, realist hallucination of a film in Tey. The film tells the story of Satché (Saul Williams), a youngish man with a wife and children. At the beginning of the film, he wakes up and walks out of his bedroom into a hallway that’s crowded with family, friends and neighbours. They are all celebrating the fact that this is Satché’s last day on earth! He has been ‘chosen’ to die by his community.

For the film and its characters, his coming death is an accepted fact, so don’t expect a West African Logan’s Run. Satché spends the day walking around Dakar, meeting with friends and an ex-girlfriend, turning up late for a reception in his honour at the local town hall. There’s some satire here, but the overwhelming tenor of the film is a slightly detached, almost whimsical view of bustling West African urban life. My favourite dialogue from the whole festival occurs when Satché visits the man who will be washing his corpse the next day. In an unusual moment of self pity, Satché asks this distant relative: ‘Why me?’ The ‘uncle’ thinks long and hard and replies: ‘You know when you go into the kitchen for something, but when you get there you can’t remember what it is you wanted? … Well, you’re in the kitchen now.’ Like, great, thanks for that.

Immediately afterwards, there’s an astonishing sequence: the uncle shows Satché how he will wash his body, as if to say ‘hey, look, there’s nothing to worry about – it’s quite straightforward’. The camera focuses on the man’s hands as they pass over Satché’s body. It’s striking imagery and adds to the sense that the whole film is treating death as a communal affair, and that this communal sense somehow reconciles the individual to their mortality. The final scene of the film is beautifully artless and emotional.

 19 OctoberPost Tenebras Lux Adam Hollingworth

Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ latest film Post Tenebras Lux, by far the director’s most personal and deeply felt film, is likely to be ferociously divisive when, and if, it is released theatrically. Reygadas’ previous work has been compared in visual style and philosophical tone to the oeuvres of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick, and this piece operates on the same intimate-epic plane, and harbours the same metaphysical ambitions, as the films Mirror and The Tree of Life by those influential master directors. The experience of watching Post Tenebras Lux is by turns surreally baffling, repugnantly infuriating and heart-rending in its emotional impact. Yet by the time it was finished, I knew I had just witnessed a masterpiece.

The film’s narrative is non-linear and defiantly episodic, but the main thrust of the action follows a nuclear family living a superficially tranquil existence in the Mexican woodlands: father Juan (Adolfo Jiminez Castro), his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and their children Eleazar and Rutilia (played by director Reygadas’ own young children). Their private sufferings and misanthropy plays out alongside various subplots involving a plethora of deeply flawed, largely unrepentantly sinful characters, key amongst which is a local lumberjack called Seven, a lone handy-man whose associates are as eccentric as they are disquieting. As the various lives within the small rural township collide, the film explores the dream-lives of the characters, which may or may not include an English school rugby game, a bathhouse orgy, and the coming of a satanic beast to the family home.

Reygadas has shot the film in 4:3 aspect ratio, and most of the external scenes are filmed with a wide-angled lens that blurs and distorts the edges of the frame to create a fish-eye effect. This enhances the impressionistic visual aesthetic of the piece, consistently breath-taking in its beauty and Biblical resonances, but perhaps also comments upon the myopia of human perception, both of the world around us and of our true moral nature. The piece is so bleak and relentlessly troubling a portrait of mankind that it’s easy at first to interpret the film as a comment upon the beastly nature of humanity. However, a combination of three distinct endings opens up Reygadas’ meditations into something much more two-sided, forcing the audience to re-evaluate the whole work as a contemplation of the relationship between Man, God and Nature; as an impressionistic and deeply felt personal ode to the redemptive power of the family; and most importantly as an exploration of the eternal battle between good and evil.

To say any more, or to expound further upon my individual interpretation of Post Tenebras Lux, would be to deprive audiences of the opportunity to form their own unique relationship with a dense, rich masterwork. The Latin translation of the film’s title is “light after darkness,” and there is certainly a lot of darkness before the film offers any light, but once it did my response became less cerebral and more profoundly emotion: one scene quite literally reduced me to tears. This is a rare, sublime, magisterial masterwork.

19 October – Citadel – Dan Collacott

Hoodies and tower blocks seem to be taking over from zombies and vampires as the new stablemates of modern horror. We’ve had the brilliant Heartless and Attack the Block, as well as Eden Lake and even a film itself called Towerblock!
Scottish director and writer Ciaran Foy, now brings us Citadel, a gritty council youth horror partially based on his own life experiences.

Accomplished new comer Aneurin Barnard plays Tommy, a young father who loses his girlfriend after she was attacked by hooded thugs. The trauma of the attack leaves Tommy with extreme agoraphobia, struggling to look after his daughter, and still living in the shadow of the tower block where the evil occurred. When the feral hoodies return to take Tommy’s daughter only a deranged priest and his blind adopted son Danny can help Tommy stop them.

First thing to note is how the bleak concrete graveyard setting really gets under your skin with it’s boarded up houses, deserted streets, dark underpasses and intimidating towers. Foy admitted that the dreary landscape was digitally touched up, but the Scotland tourist board will still not be happy.

Citadel on the whole has a very professional and accomplished feel, nothing is dumbed down.The film has plenty of interesting ideas, perhaps to many, as some hit the mark but some also ricochet wide. In particular James Cosmo’s Priest lurches from the sublime to the head scratchingly befuddling as Foy over-relies on him to try to explain the origins of the demon hoodies. On the plus side Wunumi Mosaku is excellent as Tommy’s love interest Marie, and child actor Jake Wilson puts in a stellar performance as Danny.

Despite it’s shortcomings there is plenty to admire in Citadel, the acting and script are tight and the agoraphobia angle gives the film a creepy and claustrophobic feel. In fact the very real sense of fear and dread throughout and the fact it avoids cheap scares really sets this film apart.

19 October – Seven Psychopaths – Adam Hollingworth

If In Bruges was a metaphysical morality thriller with infusions of Tarantino, albeit with less pop-cultural thrust and more knowingly politically-incorrect dialogue driving memorably outlandish characters, Martin McDonagh’s latest comic-thriller Seven Psychopaths takes a quantum leap forward in meta-cinematic ambition without losing any of the riotous entertainment of his previous film. Indeed, the film begins with a statement of intent as an elaborate panning shot, from the Hollywood sign to the LA Hills, rests on Boardwalk Empire alumni Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg engaged in just the kind of conversation McDonagh’s In Bruges hit-men may have had, only to be shot dead after about a minute.

Colin Farrell plays Marty, a struggling actor and borderline alcoholic aspiring screenwriter, and possibly a doppelganger for Martin McDonagh himself as he attempts to acquire the inspiration needed to pen a meaningful action thriller called “Seven Psychopaths.” His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is another struggling actor running a dog-knapping scam with the mysterious and effete, cravat-wearing Hans (Christopher Walken), who uses the money to help his cancer-stricken wife. However, when Billy kidnaps the beloved Shi-Tzu of demented mafia psychopath Charlie (Woody Harrelson), the trio are forced to go on the run, with Marty still persevering to pen his screenplay.

This is a film boasting many, many layers, as McDonagh takes a multi-textual approach to the construction of fictional narratives. Marty constantly re-states the point that he wants to write a psychopathic thriller which is “really all about love,” much to the chagrin of Billy whose gung-ho, sadistic imagined scenarios contrast Marty’s more intellectual, subtextual approach. In these two characters’ friendship and opposition, McDonagh overtly states his own ambitious intentions for the film, and explores an allegorical opposition between mainstream and art-house genre-filmmaking. Yet the film is even more meta-cinematic than that, with Marty and others narrating regular self-contained narratives, which strongly recall the self-conscious attention to the act of story-telling in McDonagh’s play The Pillowman and which feed into both Marty’s and McDonagh’s versions of the Seven Psychopaths screenplay. They may or may not have actually occurred, may or may not relate to actual characters in the narrative proper, yet all cohere to a vision which questions the nature of psychopathy, and which even allegorically suggests the opposition of various religious faiths and perspectives.

If that sounds rather heavy-handed, rest assured that it never overwhelms the consistently raucous comedy and barnstorming performances present in the film: Christopher Walken in particular gives perhaps his funniest performance ever in a role as touching as it is bizarre, one destined to be quoted in every Walken impression from here on in. Seven Psychopaths is a treat of a movie that may not have the same immediacy of impact as In Bruges, but which may well better repay subsequent viewings, and in any case it’s still the funniest film I’ve seen this year.

20 October – Dare Gala: The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Colin Dibben

Mira Nair’s epic tale deserves to play well in cinemas. It’s an approachable, engaging and, in terms of message at least, pretty nuanced film.

Changez (Riz Ahmad) is from a relatively impoverished middle-class family in Lahore; his star seems to be on the ascendancy when he is poached from university by a management consultancy firm. Under the mentorship of a senior partner, (Kiefer Sutherland), Changez is soon a high-flying Manhattanite with a rich artistic girlfriend (Kate Hudson). But then the World Trade Centre is destroyed and Changez’ life changes again. Eventually he finds himself flirting with Islamic fundamentalism.

The acting is all grand, especially the central performance, with Ahmad’s intelligence and ambivalent emotions pulsing from his slightly sulky face. Perhaps the flashback function is a little clunky but clunky’s okay in small doses, especially when it’s building up a serious human drama like this. This may sound patronising, but for a cynical reviewer always banging on about ‘product’, it’s great to see the big ethical and political issues of our time getting an airing, an airing that might actually reach a lot of people.

If there is one problem with the film, it’s that the message (that there’s a big distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic cultural pride) will overtake the drama. And this message is perhaps a bit too easy: the film  ultimately compares the sophisticated greed of Western finance sectors with the manipulations and violence of Islamic fundamentalism, on the basis that they both refer to ‘fundamentals’ – of a religious or market variety. Hopefully, you can find this film engaging whether you find that argument convincing or not. Don’t be side-tracked by the subject matter, this is popular cinema at its very best.

20 October – Love Gala: Amour – Carlie Newman 

The most moving film at this year’s LFF must be Michael Haneke’s Amour.  It stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Emmanuelle Riva as his wife, Anne.  The devoted couple, now in their eighties, have a good life together, enjoying music and attending to the preparation of their meals together. The couple have money but that doesn’t do much to alleviate their troubles when Anne suffers a series of strokes, which leave her progressively less capable of moving and speaking.

Although the couple’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) visits, Georges finds her presence unhelpful especially when she suggests her mother goes elsewhere to be looked after.  He has promised his wife that she will not return to hospital.  Even the music, which they both love, provides no comfort and Georges struggles to cope. At one point Anne refuses to drink although her husband points out that she will dies without liquid.

Unsentimentally, the director shows Georges struggle to look after his wife and also to do what is best for her within his own capabilities.  The two lead actors perform with grace and tenderness towards each other and with their individual situations.  A truly excellent film, sad but filmed with compassion, it has marvelous performances from Trintignant and Riva.

21 October – Closing Night Gala: Great Expectations – Carlie Newman

Mike Newell’s take on Charles Dickens’ novel is not only visually stunning but acted with supreme confidence by a cast of well-known British thespians.  Pip, a 10-year old orphan boy living with his grumpy sister and kindly brother-in-law, Joe, is accosted by an escaped convict who makes the frightened Pip steal food and a tool to remove his chains. The convict, Magwitch, is captured and taken back to his prison ship. Pip is later employed to be a companion to beautiful Estella, the 12-year-old ward of wealthy Miss Havisham, who has lived in her dilapidated house since she was abandoned at the altar some 30 years ago. Pip falls in love with Estella and longs to become a gentleman in order to win her love.  Pip’s childhood dream ends when he is apprenticed to Joe, the village blacksmith.

Suddenly, ten years later, Pip, now a young man, learns that he has “great expectations” having been given a huge fortune by an unnamed benefactor and he leaves Joe and moves to London to be educated as a gentleman.   Not all is as it appears and Pip discovers that his benefactor is, in fact, the convict Abel Magwitch.  Pip still pines after Estella but all does not work out smoothly there either.

Jeremy Irvine (so good in War Horse) is excellent as the adult Pip – he has an innocence and suitable air of bewilderment as events unfold, not always to his liking.  Irvine’s younger brother, Toby, plays Young Pip.  Another fortuitous piece of casting is Jessie Cave’s (Biddy) younger sister, Bebe, who plays Young Biddy: the two are almost exact copies of each other.  Estella, brought up by Miss Havisham to be cold and haughty and a heartbreaker, is well-portrayed by Holliday Grainger. Helena Bonham Carter takes on the role of the eccentric Miss Havisham and Bonham Carter manages not only to age throughout the film but also show how she repents, how she becomes aware of the damage she has caused both to Pip and Estella.  Ralph Fiennes is evil Magwitch.  Unlike the usual portrayal of the violent convict as a big, burly character, the rather slight Fiennes has a constant undercurrent of violence and it is understandable that everyone is frightened of him.

Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) directs with real feeling for the period setting (Dickens wrote it in 1860) and the setting, especially the streets of London, and the costumes and make-up, bring out the squalor of the city and the way in which people of all classes lived at that time. The director manages scenes of quiet romance as well as exciting fight scenes including a struggle in rowing boats.  He manages to show different points of view so that the story is not all told from Pip’s perspective.

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Colin Dibben

Author: Colin Dibben

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