DVD & Blu-ray Festivals London Film Festival

The London Film Festival 2015

This year’s London film festival featured many high profile films primed for the awards season, yet many other delights were to be found.

The opening night gala Suffragette (Dir. Sarah Gavron) was a solid portrayal of how English activists fought to secure votes for women. Carey Mulligan was impressive in the lead role of Maud Watts, but there was all too brief cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and the direction by Sarah Gavron from Abi Morgan’s script felt a bit pre-packaged at times.

The effective tension of the climatic scene at Epsom Derby was somewhat lacking throughout the rest of the film. Although the core issues of this film are still undeniably vital, it doesn’t ultimately do them justice and feels too much like an undercooked BBC television drama.

A superior issue-based film was Trumbo (Dir. Jay Roach) which managed to deftly combine history and politics of a later era, namely the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters during the 1950s through the figure of Dalton Trumbo. In the title role Bryan Cranston does an excellent job, bringing charisma and a surprisingly comic edge, given the travails Trumbo and his family had to endure during the Hollywood blacklist period.

It also takes risks (which mostly pay off) by showing iconic Hollywood figures of the period, like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), which along with Jay Roach’s intelligent direction make this one to look out for.

One might suspect a documentary about British comedian Russell Brand’s rise to fame might be a PR exercise, but Brand: A Second Coming (Dir. Ondi Timoner) was anything but. Charting his early life and later rise to fame, from UK TV shows to moderate Hollywood success, radio infamy with the Sachsgate affair and later YouTube political activism, this is a fairly riotous affair, skilfully weaving news footage and more intimate interviews.

Surprisingly, Brand has distanced himself from the project, saying he was uncomfortable watching it when it premiered at SXSW in March. Perhaps it was the raw depictions of his personal life that he didn’t like. But this is far from a hatchet job, rather a skilful portrait of a media figure, balancing his somewhat  with a raw honesty and a wry wit.

Since the advent of digital cinema and smartphones, the possibility of shooting an entire feature film with a camera in your pocket has felt tantalising close for indie directors. That dream now seems to have fully arrived with Tangerine (Dir. Sean S. Baker), a low-budget film shot on iPhone 5S, with special lens adapters. It is the tale of a transgender prostitute (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just out of jail, who discovers from her friend (Mya Taylor), that her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransone) has cheated on her.

The resulting film is an energetic romp around nocturnal LA which uses the limitations of its budget wisely to create a film which made a splash at Sundance and the festival circuit. Performances are good all around and actually helped by the use of non-professional actors, which lend it a lot of charm and authenticity. The next challenge for director Baker is whether he will be able to repeat this winning formula on a bigger canvas.

One of the most extraordinary films of the year, perhaps the decade, was Beasts of No Nation (Dir. Cary Fukunaga) – a devastating portrait of child soldiers in war-torn West Africa. It follows the young Agu (an astonishing Abraham Attah) on his journey from innocent boyhood to gradual brutalisation as he comes under the sinister influence of a self-styled ‘Commandant’ (a brilliant Idris Elba).

Fukunaga proved his directing chops on Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2014), this is on another level in terms of content and style. Shot with a stark realism – aside from a few memorable deviations – this is a highly absorbing piece, layered with stunning technical work and horrific sequences shot on location in Ghana. Although it bears some similarity to Jean-StĂ©phane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), this is essential viewing.

There can often be interesting talks and events at the London Film Festival and for me the highlight this year was Screen Talk: Christopher Nolan & Tacita Dean & 35mm: Quay Brothers Meet
. A two-part event at NFT1, the first section was a lengthy discussion about the merits of shooting and projecting on celluloid film (especially 35mm and 70mm). As you might expect, Nolan gave a passionate and convincing case for the format he loves, going into detail about the benefits of shooting on film.

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Dean was equally effusive, as an artist who has worked in film her whole life. The panel could have benefitted with a digital advocate, perhaps Tangerine’s director Sean S. Baker, but nonetheless was an absorbing experience. The second part, three avant-garde shorts by the Quay Brothers introduced by Nolan, was more curious. One in particular sounded like a 10 minute loop of a helicopter exploding.

Sometimes it is easy to forget the simple pleasures of a solid, well-made documentary and Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dir. Kent Jones) didn’t disappoint on this score. An admirable compression of the lengthy interviews the two iconic directors conducted in 1962, it also managed to include sterling contributions from contemporary directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin, and Olivier Assayas.

A feast for cinephiles, both the choice of archive material and editing were all excellent. It would be fascinating if Jones could somehow make a series for pay TV or VOD platform that utilised the full interviews. Although the original interviews go into considerable depth about Hitchcock, the choice of questions by Truffaut are also revealing about the French director, who had only made three films at this point in his career.

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) prompted a mini-boom of graceful martial arts films (also known as ‘wuxia’) such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is part of this tradition of filmmaking, telling the story of a female assassin (an excellent Shu Qi) recruited to kill a key member of a rival dynasty.

It subverts the genre by introducing a slower pace with longer edits, minimal dialogue and a square frame (1:37 aspect ratio) which often makes characters look surrounded by the landscapes of 8th century China. A gorgeous film to sink in to with stunning costume work and production design, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has created a sensory feast. A polite warning: ignore anyone who says this film is ‘boring’ or ’too slow’. It richly deserves the prizes and praise it has collected since premiering at Cannes in May.

Although partly inspired by grim real life events Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a brave and incredibly moving film. Novelist Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel which explores the kidnap and imprisonment of a woman (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay). Potentially difficult themes are sensitively handled, with director and writer providing a solid platform for the main actors to do some terrific work.

Larson and Tremblay are both extraordinary, bringing a range of emotions to their roles: the former builds on her excellent work in Short Term 12 (2013) whilst the latter gives one of the best child performances in years. It is amazing how several sequences wring out such tension in enclosed spaces and seemingly regular locations. A tough watch, but a rich and rewarding one that shows that smaller, independent films can still pack a real punch.

Among the film-related documentaries to show at the festival was Listen to Me Marlon (Dir. Stevan Riley), a startling portrait of acting icon Marlon Brando. In form and content this film is impeccable, brilliantly blending Brando’s own personal audio tapes with archive footage and stylish recreation of locations. For those who only remember Brando as the sad, reclusive figure of his later years, this film is essential viewing.

Like a cinematic time machine we are transported back: to his early life in Nebraska (an abusive, alcoholic father but a loving, sensitive mother; then on to New York, where he came under the tutelage  of famed acting coach Stella Adler; and the his stage and film breakthrough, with roles like The Wild One (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) and later on The Godfather (1972). His seismic impact on acting and culture is well conveyed and the later tragedies of his life are handled with sensitivity and tact.

In a world of overblown franchises and dark arthouse material, audiences hungry for more elegant fare are often left feeling empty handed. However, the virtues of simplicity are evident in  Brooklyn (Dir. John Crowley), a skilfully crafted tale of immigration and love. Set amidst the contrasting landscapes 1950s rural Ireland and the New York borough of Brooklyn, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley powerfully bring to life Colm Toibin’s novel with care and affection.

This is aided by some convincing production design by François Séguin on a relatively low budget and the excellent costume work by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. But the real heart of this film is the acting, most notably Saoirse Ronan in the lead role as a woman torn between two lives but, also from Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Emory Cohen. A polished jewel of a film and one of the highlights of the year, let alone the festival.

Horror is a genre that has badly lost its way in recent times, from the endless slew of torture-porn to more smarty pants hipster work. But a new and striking wakeup call was The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers), a genuinely creepy period piece set in 17th century Puritan New England. When a family is banished from their home village they are forced to survive in a sinister wood where mysterious things start to happen.

Although there are shades of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), this retains its own distinctive flavour. What makes this debut from Eggers so interesting is that it eschews obvious cliche and instead uses suggestion, soundscapes and realistic touches. Grounded performances and excellent location shooting also made this another festival highlight.

An interesting hybrid of drama and comedy Youth (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino) is another fine example of the the kind of delicious cinematic banquet served up by Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. The setting is a Swiss health spa, where a famous conductor (Michael Caine) contemplates his life, amongst a variety of fellow guests (including Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz) and the backdrop of the Swiss Alps.

In a way this is a departure for the director, with none of the masterful intensity of Il Divo (2008) or the boozy magnificence of The Great Beauty (2013). However, the more muted and elegiac tone here is offset by some terrific performances (Caine in his best role for years) and the usual technical excellence Sorrentino and his crew provide. Whilst the film may divide audiences, alienating those who want a quick hit, this felt like something that may grow in stature as the years go by.

Stop frame animation got a new jolt with Anomalisa (Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson), screened in this year’s surprise slot. The problem in describing this marvellously inventive work is that there are few comparisons to turn to. As someone who generally agrees with the ‘Every thing is a remix’ idea (i.e. that no film can be 100% original, this stretched that notion to breaking point. The story depicts the stay of a successful but melancholy writer (voiced by David Thewlis) at a motel in Cincinnati, where he meets a woman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he connects with.

From the first frame to the last, one is struck with the craft and inventiveness on display. The dialogue, voice acting (including one treat I won’t spoil) and overall look of the film is stunning. In its own way this is ambitious as Kaufman’s last film – Synecdoche, New York (2008) – but perhaps Duke Johnson has helped add a slightly lighter tone to proceedings. There are scenes in this film which are as funny and truthful as any in recent memory.

Sometimes a film can be so audacious in content and style that it leaves you mentally exhausted. This one-take film Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper) is just that, a heist movie which gloriously upends the genre. When a young woman (Laia Costa) is approached by a group of men as she leaves a Berlin nightclub, she doesn’t realise the long and eventful night ahead of her. Although, the narrative takes time to build (and hinges on on some implausible moments) it is well worth the ride.

Although there is no conventional editing, cinematographer Sturla Brandth GrĂžvlen and director Schipper constructed a fluid shooting style that not only works like editing but also feels true to the story. It goes without saying the actors and crew all contribute to this exercise, but Costa here is the standout. A lot rests on her shoulders as the main character and she delivers with flying colours in what is a remarkable achievement.

The closing night gala Steve Jobs (Dir. Danny Boyle) was a mixed bag – a technically impressive work, undermined by a  misguided and flawed screenplay. It presents the life of Steve Jobs in three acts: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT system in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Each segment in shot on different formats (16mm, 35mm and digital), which gives them a distinctive flavour, and a neat way of showing how technology progresses.

However, Aaron Sorkin’s script is the elephant in the room. Not only does it have a highly selective approach to Jobs personal and professional life but is so littered with outright inaccuracies that the whole enterprise comes crashing down. The lead actors all do their best but sequences involving Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen border on the utterly ludicrous and there is no mention of cancer (the disease which killed Jobs) or Apple’s most iconic product, the iPhone. Of course screenwriters must compress, but here Sorkin took several liberties and in doing so wasted a golden opportunity, because the material he omitted was much more interesting.

> Official website for the 2015 London Film Festival
> Past winners of the Sutherland Trophy at Wikipedia

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

The story behind the film version of Mary Poppins (1964) is the subject of a clever and charming new film about the clash between the English author Pamela ‘PL’ Travers and famed studio head Walt Disney.

When we first see the elder Travers (Emma Thompson) in 1961 she is running short of money, due to declining book sales, and her agent is urging her to accept the offer of a trip to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the mogul who has pursued the rights to the project for 20 years.

Having promised his two daughters to turn their favourite book into a movie, he is very keen on the idea of a big budget musical, granting her full creative input into the project, something he rarely did.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t realise that Travers actively hates the idea of a musical and resists almost all the suggestions from the creative team at the studio (a trio played by Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).

Gradually, through flashback, we discover the reasons for her reluctance may lie in her childhood, when she grew up in Australia with a loving but troubled father (Colin Farrell).

On the surface, this may appear like another slickly produced Disney feel-good comedy.

Whilst it is certainly all that, the film has its own interesting backstory.

The origins of the project lie in a 2002 TV documentary about Travers, which eventually led to Allison Owen coming on board as producer and eventually a script credited to Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel made 2011s ‘Black List’ (an unofficial survey of the years best unproduced scripts).

Then, in a strange reverse parallel to the film, the producers had to persuade the notoriously sensitive Disney that they would not trample on Walt’s legacy.

Eventually, the Mouse House relented to the first ever depiction of Walt Disney on screen and the finished film is mostly a charming surprise.

This is due in large part to Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, whose constant sparring provides a lot of the comedic sparks.

Thompson’s Travers is a perpetually defiant English woman who manages to hide a troubled past, whilst Hanks plays Disney as a loveable, charming uncle who’s drive and ambition are never far from the surface.

To an extent, the film glosses over the thornier aspects of each character: there is no mention of Travers’ unconventional personal life or the darker side of Disney. However, this is not entirely a bad thing as a warts-and-all drama would have been out of the question for a mainstream Disney release.

But the end result is not just a sanitised product but a rather sly portrait of a spanner in the Hollywood machine.

It is in essence an exploration of ‘creative differences’ — that well-worn phrase so beloved of Tinseltown to maintain the idea that idea that raging rows were amicable disagreements.

Some of the funniest scenes in Saving Mr. Banks come in the rehearsal room, where Travers is aghast at some of the songs and suggestions that are now so beloved by fans of the 1964 film.

These are executed with a light touch that is unfortunately not true of the extended flashback sequences which dwell a bit too clumsily on her childhood.

Make no mistake, this is a manipulative film and the hiring of Thomas Newman to score it only adds to its seductive power, with his lush hanging strings and signature instrumentation providing a lightness to the comedy and emotion to the drama.

As Walt Disney ultimately persuades P.L. Travers to accept the idea of a movie, we can see what a driven man he was, whilst at the LA premiere we can be moved at the author’s reaction to the film, even if that may not have been exactly as presented here.

She told the BBC in 1977 that she had ‘learned to live with the film,’ which is a hardly a ringing endorsement.

But then maybe this film, like the musical and the original book, is just another pleasurable fantasy.

Is pleasure such a bad thing?

Saving Mr. Banks closed the London Film Festival on Sunday 20th October

(It opens in the UK on November 26th)

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: All is Lost

Robert Redford in All is Lost

One man adrift in the Indian Ocean is the premise for J.C. Chandor’s second film, a compelling tale of survival against the odds.

Opening with a brief, mournful monologue of an enigmatic sailor (Robert Redford), we hear a crash and are plunged back a few days to when his boat, the Virgina Jean, collided with a large metal cargo container.

We immediately see he is calm under pressure, scooping out water and doing the best he can under the circumstances: patching up the hole and trying to fix the wet radio.

Who is this man?

Cryptically listed in the credits as ‘Our Man’, perhaps he is a retired businessman who took up sailing. Maybe he is a professional sailor. Who knows?

Perhaps he represents any human being caught up in a desperate situation. The point of this film is to put us in there with him as he battles the elements.

Chandor and his crew slowly build the tension as we see all manner of obstacles: the leaking boat, storms and sharks.

Apart from a few words, it is free of dialogue, meaning there is a relentless focus on Redford and his situation.

This is surprisingly riveting, as previously routine acts such as putting up a sail or jumping into a raft become critically important.

But Chandor also has a few more tricks up his sleeve, most notably the casting of Redford. The movie star brings a grizzled gravitas to his part in what is his best work in years.

Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco brings an immediacy to the action on the boat, whilst visualising the beauty and danger of the oceanic environment.

Cleverly blending in location shooting with work in tanks and visual effects, it paints a hauntingly plausible scenario of what it is to be stuck at sea.

The sound design is outstanding and the large sound team, headed by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns, does sterling work in capturing the many different aural textures aboard the boat, life raft and ocean.

For writer-director J.C. Chandor this marks another remarkable film after his feature debut, Margin Call (2011).

That still remains the best feature about the financial crisis, and seems to be a world away from All is Lost.

But look closely and there may be parallel themes: crisis, dread and the aforementioned survival.

The building and firm in Margin Call which created their own financial problems could be a cousin to the boat in All is Lost – both are sinking fast.

With these two films Chandor has already created powerful parables for our time and the degree of skill and intelligence he applies to his work only makes me hungry for his future work.

All is Lost screened at the London Film Festival on Oct 12th, 13th and 14th

(It opens in the UK on December 26th)

> Official site, Facebook page and Twitter
> Reviews at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave

Chewitel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Based on the true life experiences of a free black man forced into slavery, Steve McQueen’s latest work is a stunning achievement.

The kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from 1841 until 1853 form the spine of this harrowing tale.

Northup endures a hellish odyssey as he is chained and sailed down to New Orleans, where he encounters the brutal truths of the slave trade.

One owner is relatively benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) but his psychotic assistant (Paul Dano) forces a sale, meaning Northup eventually ends up picking cotton for the ruthless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Amongst the other important people he encounters are a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who renames him ‘Platt’; a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o) and a sympathetic Canadian who may be able to help him (Brad Pitt).

From the opening scenes until the closing credits, fans of McQueen – and I remain a huge admirer of Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – will recognise his mastery of the visual and audio language of cinema.

But here, he and his collaborators are painting on a bigger canvas and the result is a stunning historical drama which is likely to be the definitive film on the subject for many years to come.

The production design by Adam Stockhausen and use of the Louisiana landscape gives everything we see a remarkable authenticity.

This in turn is aided by the superb ensemble cast who chew up John Ridley’s dialogue with relish.

At the centre of all this is an incredible performance from Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

We see him go through many episodes of mental and physical torment whilst maintaining his quiet dignity and hope.

It is a moving, subtle and rich performance which shows just what he is capable of with the right material.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbit continues his fruitful visual collaboration with McQueen and the beauty of the South is evoked alongside an air of dread and menace.

An agonising one-take sequence of a lynching is just one of many scenes that stay with you long after the film is over.

The icing on the cake is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, which at times resembles his orchestral work on Inception (2010) and The Thin Red Line (1998).

In addition the use of spiritual songs as the slaves work in the fields, adds another human touch, hinting at the defiance which would later spawn the Civil War and ultimately the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

There has long been a curious reluctance for mainstream US cinema to examine the dark chapter of slavery.

Aside from the stylised world of Django Unchained (2012), realistic films haven’t really been made about the subject.

Even this project took a British director and several production companies (River Road, New Regency, Plan B and Film 4) to eventually bring it to the screen.

Perhaps the oddest aspect is how this particular story was dormant for so many years.

Although it was published around the same time as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book remained a relative obscurity.

Maybe it was a reluctance to confront the ghosts of the past, or perhaps it just wasn’t good box office.

Intolerance still lies beneath the surface of American life, even in the age of a black US president, but this film is a powerful reminder of the cruelties of racism and the endurance of hope.

12 Years a Slave screened at the London Film Festival on Fri 18th October, Sat 19th and Sun 20th

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are in a more reflective mood for this beautifully crafted drama, set amongst the New York folk scene of the early 1960s.

Opening with folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performing in a Greenwich Village nightclub in January 1961, we soon discover he is a man struggling against the odds, in both his personal and working life.

His record label are useless in paying his meagre royalties, a hectoring ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) tells him she is pregnant (and she’s unsure who the father is), he frequently has to couch surf and also manages to lose a friend’s cat.

Despite all of these mishaps he plugs away in search of a bigger break, travelling to Chicago and back again in the winter, trying to convince people to take a chance on his music or a least help him out financially.

Wilfully subverting the traditions of the rags to riches music biopic, it focuses on a man whose existence appears to be an ever decreasing circle of fame and money.

Imagine if Bob Dylan hadn’t quite made it and you’ll soon get the idea.

If this seems like a gloomy tale, don’t forget that the Coens are past masters at mixing light and dark and this is along the lines of A Serious Man (2009) and Barton Fink (1991).

Like those movies, it features many funny scenes populated with memorable characters: two friendly academics (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett); a sister (Jeanine Serralles); singer and ex-partner Jean (Mulligan) who is now seeing a rival Jim (Justin Timberlake).

One of the most striking episodes – which may be related to the film’s title – is a road trip to Chicago where Davis hitches a lift with a silent driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a rotund jazz impresario (John Goodman), on the way to see a promoter (F. Murray Abraham).

This sequence, and the film as a whole, bears all the hallmarks of their very best work: immaculately shot by DP Bruno Delbonnel, it also features some stunning production design by Jess Gonchor, who recreates the era in meticulous detail.

At the centre of all this is an excellent performance by Oscar Isaac, who manages to capture the weary melancholy and outsider attitude of a struggling – and not particularly likeable – artist.

As for The Coens, this seems to be another of their more personal films where a Job-like protagonist is constantly struggling within a comically hostile universe.

But the aforementioned connection with Bob Dylan is an interesting one: like the legendary folk singer, they moved from Minnesota to New York and a scene near the end is perhaps more than just a tip of the hat to him.

As for the soundtrack, the Coens team up once again with executive music producer T Bone Burnett, who memorably collaborated on the O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) soundtrack, and the result is arguably as good.

One of the year’s most impressive films, it is a strong addition to the Coen’s canon and a memorable depiction of a struggling artist.

Inside Llewyn Davis screened at the London Film Festival on Tues 15th, Thurs 17th and Sat 19th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Listen to the soundtrack
> Reviews of Inside Llewyn Davis at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour

The winner of this year’s Palme D’Or is a frank but absorbing study of a young girl’s sexual awakening.

Running close to three hours of screen time this is an epic of the heart and disarmingly in-depth depiction of falling in love.

When we first meet the protagonist, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) she is a 15-year old girl about to begin her first serious relationship with a classmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte).

However, a chance encounter with an older blue-haired woman named Emma (Lea Seydoux), leads her to question her emotions and feelings towards her own sex.

But this is just the beginning of the long journey which director Abdellatif Kechiche takes us on, as emotionally charged highs are gradually mixed in with heartbreaking lows.

Despite taking place over a number of years – I would roughly estimate around six – Kechiche cleverly uses the narrative, so key episodes gradually fade into another.

These segments could almost be short films in themselves: an early encounter at a lesbian bar; a tender scene in the park; and two awkward dinner parties are just some of the memorable scenes as Emma and Adele fall in love.

This is all depicted with remarkable authenticity, with the telling silences providing a neat counterpoint to the natural, flowing conversations.

The intensity of the film is heightened by the decision to mostly shoot in widescreen closeups, with cinematographer Sofian El Fani capturing the emotions and actions with piercing clarity.

Even in exterior environments, which are relatively rare in the film, the focus is on the characters, especially Adele.

This depiction intimacy spills over into the explicit sex scenes, which have attracted a lot of media attention since the premiere in Cannes.

In truth there isn’t a great deal to discuss other than the fact that they are more brightly lit and longer than most movie sex scenes.

The fact that three scenes has coloured discussion of this film for several months perhaps says more about certain journalists than it does about what is on screen.

Whilst the bravery of the two actresses should be noted, it as part of a much wider story, with many tones and textures.

Just as notable is the film’s embrace of the complexities of sexuality and human relationships, with both characters behaving in believably erratic and confused ways.

The themes of commitment, trust and social anxiety are all explored as the film progresses, and it says much about the skill of writer-director Kechiche that none of it ever descends into cliche or pat conclusions.

He is aided by two outstanding lead performances from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, with the former taking the greater share of screen time.

Displaying a remarkable assurance in front of the camera, she not only has a natural screen presence but manages to convey emotion with the slightest of moves and expression.

Given that nature of how this film was shot – in searching, close-up compositions – it is a testament to their acting that the audience may feel like they’ve been in a relationship with the pair.

A rich, draining and highly accomplished drama.

Blue is the Warmest Colour screened at the London Film Festival on October 14 and 17th. (It opens in the UK on November 25th)

> Reviews at Metacritic
> IMDb link

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Short Term 12

Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12

Ditching the conventions of the indie coming-of-age genre, the second feature from Destin Daniel Cretton is a wonderfully bittersweet drama.

The independent film world is not short of tales involving journeys into adulthood and this year alone we had two come out of the Sundance Film Festival: The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now.

Whilst those had their charms, they pale in comparison to Short Term 12, which occupies somewhat similar territory but excels in nearly every department.

All of which makes it staggering to think it was actually turned down by this year’s Sundance festival, only to go on to triumph at SXSW in Austin a few months after, where it snapped up both Grand Jury and Audience awards. (The film is based on a short film Cretton had play Sundance in 2009).

Set at a foster home for at-risk children, it follows the relationships between the supervisors and children, focusing on Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) as tensions at the workplace spill over into their private life.

Among the kids they have to look after include: Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a young man who was forced by his mother to sell drugs; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a middle class girl prone to self harm; and Sammy (Alex Calloway) who regularly tries to escape.

Grace and Mason are not therapists but they are there to make the environment as safe and productive as possible for the young people under their care.

This they are good at, so much so that they understand the patients better than the on-site therapists, and their love for each other makes them seem a perfect couple, until a sequence of events starts to affect them in a profound way.

The delicate writing and direction means that cliches of this sub genre are tactfully avoided. No autistic savants, no magical redemptions – only normal people trying to cope with the abnormalities of life.

Drawn from his own experiences working in a foster home – and the little-seen Steve James documentary Stevie (2002) – Cretton manages to strike the perfect blend of comedy and drama: the former is never exploitative and the latter never overwrought.

Larson has been acting since she was a young girl, but this is a major breakout role in which she shows previously hidden depths, channelling anger, love and hurt with consummate ease.

Almost a match for her is John Gallagher Jnr (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jason Reitman), who accomplishes the tricky task of playing a genuinely good man – something not as easy as it sounds or looks on screen.

This is a very interior film, with Cretton and his DP Brett Pawlak going for a handheld visual style, increasing the emotional intimacy between the characters and the audience.

There are several disarming moments – some dark, some funny, others joyful – but this element of unpredictability and lack of cheap shocks elevates the film to a different level.

Several of the characters have surprising back stories and there is a genuine pleasure in seeing the narrative unfold, with each character displaying all the contradictions and complexity of genuine human beings, as opposed to the clichéd types often found polluting certain screenplays in the indie realm.

On top of all this, Joel P West’s distinctive staccato-like score is a perfect musical accompaniment.

Short Term 12 is ultimately a little bit like its lead characters: plucky, funny and sad, but a warm reminder of human beings ability to empathise and love one another.

Since the financial crisis broke five years ago it has been an extremely tough time for the independent sector, but films like this show that not only is creativity thriving in adversity, it is perhaps thriving because of that adversity.

Short Term 12 screened at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 15th October and will also screen on Sat 19th

(It opens in the UK on November 1st)

> Official site
> UK Twitter

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

A moving odd-couple road movie based on real events is powered by two outstanding lead performances and the return to form of director Stephen Frears.

Based on the true life tale of how former Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) came across the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman looking for the child she was forced to give up for adoption in the 1950s.

Their journey leads them from London to the original convent in Roscrea, Ireland and then on to Washington DC, where Sixsmith’s previous life as a BBC journalist comes in handy as they try to find out what has happened to her son.

The misery wrought on generations of young women by Irish nuns was also the subject of Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2012), but whilst Frears takes a very different approach, it is both subtle and clever.

Working with an intelligent script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, humour is frequently used to highlight the differences between the cynical, Oxbridge journalist and the (seemingly) naive Irishwoman.

But whilst there are some very funny scenes and memorable lines, Frears skilfully manages to slowly stitch together the two emotional strands, blending heartbreak and laughter with a precision rare in modern cinema.

Coogan is convincing as the highbrow journalist concerned that he is slumming it in a mere ‘human interest’ story, whilst Dench has her best role for years as the title character, bringing an innocence and wisdom to the part.

Even those familiar with the events of the basic outline of the story may be blindsided by key sequences, as the comic surface is often complemented by a depth and engagement with issues such as faith and regret.

The two contrasting lead characters mirror the film’s inner themes: worldly journalist versus innocent Catholic; atheism and religion.

One would think the film comes down on Martin’s side, but on reflection there is more to the story.

In its final act Philomena throws up a few surprises, both intellectual and emotional, and some of them stay with you after it is all over, which is rare for a film such as this.

It has the sheen of a BBC TV movie — and it was indeed part funded by BBC Films – but rises far above that level, not only as an indictment of an appalling episode in Irish history but of how different people can cope with complex problems of life and death.

Stephen Frears has long been one of the UK’s finest living directors but this marks a major return to form after the disappointments of Tamara Drewe (2010) and Lay the Favourite (2012).

Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is another bonus, with digital camera work used for the present and Super 16mm utilised for the 1950s flashback scenes.

The editing by Valerie Bonerio is very smooth and the score by Alexandre Desplat isn’t too obtrusive, although it’s a tad familiar to a lot of his other work.

After a wave of positive reviews at the Venice film festival, the Weinstein Co. – who have US distribution rights – will be busy preparing it for a long awards season campaign and it is hard to imagine it not being a contender, with Dench one of the frontrunners for Best Actress.

Philomena screened tonight (October 16th) at the London Film Festival and will show again on the 17th and 19th

(It opens in the UK on November 1st)

> Official Facebook page
> IMDb link

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Mystery Road

Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road

Director Ivan Sen makes great use of the sparse Australian landscape to create a brooding police procedural that almost functions as a contemporary Western.

When the corpse of a young aboriginal girl is found on a remote Outback highway (the road of the title), the investigating detective (Aaron Pedersen) slowly uncovers a web of indifference and sinister motives in his home town.

Although it contains familiar tropes of the conventional murder-mystery, the distinctive setting and approach give it an unusual flavour.

The gorgeously framed sunsets and blue skies are undercut by a sinister stench of indifference and corruption, which even appears to be infecting police colleagues, including his boss (Tony Barry) and fellow officer (Hugo Weaving).

Moving at a slower pace than is usual for this genre, the film may irk some impatient viewers, but the multi-talented Sen (who serves as the writer-director-cinematographer-editor) manages to create a compelling atmosphere.

He also proves himself as a fine director of actors, coaxing a nicely stoic lead performance from Aaron Pedersen, and some solid supporting turns from Weaving and Barry.

Pedersen makes an interesting lead as he could almost be as being a modern day Shane with his white hat and steely determination to root out wrongdoing.

But he also has a nicely laconic sense of humour and is a real presence on screen, showing an impressive range from intimate family scenes to a climactic shoot-out.

That particular sequence seems on the surface to be a homage to a traditional Western climax, but like the rest of the film manages to subvert the familiar whilst acknowledging it at the same time.

The ghost of Australia’s past is ever present with the issue of race always in the background. But the film manages to effectively weave these into the genre conventions with considerable tact and skill.

Clunky dialogue is refreshingly absent from the script and the power of silence is shrewdly used in key sequences where words have real importance, reflecting the anxieties simmering beneath the surface of everyday life.

When this atmosphere gets heated up by the investigation into the young girl’s death, implicating those close to the lead character, the film becomes more than just a murder-mystery and something symbolic about Australia itself.

Shot in the arid outback of Western Queensland, the locations gradually assume a greater meaning with the metaphorical title not only key to the narrative but also the major thematic concern of the film.

It might seem a strange or even foolhardy choice to attach such weighty issues as race to a hybrid Western/Mystery film but it turns out to be an inspired one, with Sen rapidly establishing himself as a talent to watch.

Mystery Road screened at the London Film Festival on October 10th, 11th and 19th (UK release is TBC)

> Official site
> IMDb entry

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity - Image courtesy of Warner Bros 2013

Director Alfonso Cuaron returns after seven year absence from cinema with an exhilarating journey into outer space that sets new standards for visual effects.

When a seemingly routine US mission to fix the Hubble telescope goes disastrously wrong, two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) find themselves floating alone above the earth.

Like his last film, the dystopian drama Children of Men (2006), Cuaron and his crew have come up with a highly inventive approach to story, using a stunning blend of camera work and visual effects to create a chilling plausible dystopian world.

Whilst his latest doesn’t have the thematic depth of that film, it remains a gripping thrill ride, utilising cutting edge technology to elicit human emotion and create a powerful tale of survival.

For most of the film we are with a stranded Bullock as she struggles to find a way back home and this is her best role in years. She makes a convincing astronaut but also channels a wide range of emotions from panic to resolve.

As for Clooney, his character is cleverly used and he brings his usual charm and screen presence to his role as a veteran spaceman. An off-screen voice cameo from Ed Harris is a tip of the hat to his famous role in the last major space drama, Apollo 13 (1995).

For Cuaron this is another step in his chameleon-like career, which has included genres such as fantasy, Charles Dickens, the road movie, Harry Potter and sci-fi. Here he takes a bold step into the world of digital cinema and 3D and the result is as impressive as his previous work.

To describe Gravity as science fiction doesn’t feel right quite right.

For most of its lean 87 minute running time it feels terrifyingly realistic, even if in retrospect some of the narrow escapes feel a little bit too last second.

But make no mistake, this is a truly groundbreaking film with highly innovative camera work from Cuaron’s regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and stunning visual effects supervised by Tim Webber of Framestore (a previous collaborator).

The extraordinary long take that begins the film sets a marker for what is to come with shots of the various space craft and earth below that are a marvel to behold on a big screen.

Using a complex mixture of camera rigs, LED lighting panels, groundbreaking CGI and even puppeteers from the stage version of War Horse, the zero gravity of outer space is brilliantly realised, with the earth below just as convincing.

Cuaron and his team have wisely opted to use technology in service of the central story, which was perhaps the reason they opted for such a lean premise, and the result is a pure fusion of technology and emotion.

Sound, silence and a dramatic score by Steven Price also play a critical role in creating the extraordinary atmosphere of the film.

Although time will inevitably lead to more advanced visual effects, Gravity will still represent a landmark in modern cinema.

In a time of great uncertainty and opportunity for the medium, it represents how more traditional directors can utilise digital tools to tell a spellbinding story.

Gravity screened at the London Film Festival on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 8th November)

> Official site
> Reviews of Gravity at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

Director Paul Greengrass returns to the tensions of the post 9/11 era, with a gripping account of the 2009 hijacking of a US cargo ship.

Based on the real life account of Richard Phillips, it depicts how he and his crew came across a gang of pirates whilst travelling the dangerous shipping lanes of East Africa.

Early on we see the contrasting figures of Phillips (Tom Hanks), as he leaves his wife (Catherine Keener) at the airport, and the skinny Somalian pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who is forced out to sea by his bosses.

In this we see a snapshot of globalisation: the well off captain of a US cargo ship and the poor fisherman with an AK-47, both conducting their own forms of business but ultimately caught up in events outside of their control.

Billy Ray’s script touches upon these issues but wisely skips ponderous, explanatory dialogue, instead opting for a lean depiction of a particular event.

Within this, the film touches upon the seemingly incongruous aspects of modern piracy, ships using water hoses rather than armed security as owners won’t insure them and the desperation of Somalis who face a choice between piracy and selling Khat.

Greengrass and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd do a highly efficient job of getting us quickly into the action and ramping up the drama without resorting to sentiment or bombast.

Ackroyd’s distinctive handheld style and Christopher Rouse‘s pacy editing gives the proceedings the necessary kick, helping to sustain the tension in the bright sunlight of the ocean or the dark bowels of the ships.

As it reaches its latter stages and the US military response cranks into life, the tensions kicks up a gear with the kind of precision you might expect from the director of the best Bourne movies.

Looking at the film overall, we see different genre elements at play: it quickly builds up steam to become a chase film, a hostage drama, a portrait of two clever but defiant individuals and ultimately a study in endurance.

Hanks is dependably solid in the title role, with one remarkable scene at the end which will surprise many and may secure him a lot of awards attention, and the rest of the cast are convincing, especially Abdi as the lead pirate.

After the relative disappointment of Green Zone (2010), this marks a return to form for Greengrass and in some ways could be seen as a companion film to United 93 (2006).

Both contain extended interior sequences and explore how people react under extreme, life-threatening situations. Whilst United 93 remains the superior work, Captain Phillips is another sturdy addition to the Greengrass CV.

It may lack the thematic weight of some of his previous films, such as Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93, but it shows his brilliant knack in wringing out tension and emotion from real life events.

Captain Phillips opens the London Film Festival on Weds 9th October and also screens on October 10th.

(It opens wide in the UK on October 18th)

> Captain Phillips at the LFF
> Official site
> Reviews of Captain Phillips at Metacritic

Festivals London Film Festival News

London Film Festival Award Winners 2011

The winners have been announced at this year’s London Film Festival Awards.

BEST FILM: We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)

On behalf of the jury John Madden (Chair) said:

“This year’s shortlist for Best Film comprises work that is outstanding in terms of its originality and its stylistic reach. It is an international group, one united by a common sense of unflinching human enquiry and we were struck by the sheer panache displayed by these great storytellers. In the end, we were simply bowled over by one film, a sublime, uncompromising tale of the torment that can stand in the place of love. We Need to Talk About Kevin is made with the kind of singular vision that links great directors across all the traditions of cinema.”

BEST BRITISH NEWCOMER: Candese Reid, Actress in Junkhearts

Chair of the Best British Newcomer jury, Andy Harries said:

“Candese is a fresh, brilliant and exciting new talent. Every moment she was on screen was compelling.”

SUTHERLAND AWARD WINNER: Pablo Giorgelli, director of Las Acacias.

The jury commented:

“In a lively and thoughtful jury room debate, Las Acacias emerged as a worthy winner, largely because of the originality of its conception. Finely judged performances and a palpable sympathy for his characters makes this a hugely impressive debut for director Pablo Giorgelli.”

GRIERSON AWARD FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY: Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death (Dir. Werner Herzog)

The award is co-presented with the Grierson Trust (in commemoration of John Grierson, the grandfather of British documentary) and recognises outstanding feature length documentaries of integrity, originality, technical excellence or cultural significance. The jury this year was chaired by Adam Curtis.

BFI FELLOWSHIP: Ralph Fiennes and David Cronenberg (as previously announced)

Greg Dyke, Chair, BFI said:

‘The BFI London Film Festival Awards pay tribute to outstanding film talent, so we are delighted and honoured that both Ralph Fiennes, one of the world’s finest and most respected actors and David Cronenberg, one of the most original and ground-breaking film directors of contemporary cinema, have both accepted BFI Fellowships – the highest accolade the BFI can bestow. I also want to congratulate all the filmmakers and industry professionals here tonight, not only on their nominations and awards, but also for their vision, skill, passion and creativity.’

Jurors present at the ceremony included: Best Film jurors John Madden, Andrew O’Hagan. Gillian Anderson, Asif Kapadia, Tracey Seaward and Sam Taylor-Wood OBE; Sutherland jurors Tim Robey, Joanna Hogg, Saskia Reeves, Peter Kosminsky, Hugo Grumbar, and the artist Phil Collins.

Best British Newcomer jurors Anne-Marie Duff, Tom Hollander, Edith Bowman, Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell; and Grierson Award jurors Mandy Chang of the Grierson Trust, Charlotte Moore, Head of Documentary Commissioning at BBC, Kim Longinotto and Adam Curtis.

> LFF official site
> Previous winners at the LFF at Wikipedia

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2011: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director Lynne Ramsay’s return to films after nine years is a dazzling and disturbing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel.

Cleverly adapting the epistolary form of the book with a flashback structure, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear have crafted a bold and unsettling drama that borders on horror.

It depicts the fears and anxieties of a middle class American mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) as we see her disturbing relationship with her son over a number of years.

There is the doubtful pregnancy, where she seemingly regrets the loss of independence motherhood brings, and the different stages of Kevin.

We see the young toddler (Rocky Duer), the creepy 6-8 year old (Jasper Newell), the malevolent teenager (Ezra Miller) and the period after where Eva must shape a new life for herself.

Along the way, we see how events affect her husband (John C. Reilly) and younger daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich) as things spiral out of control.

It isn’t an exaggeration to describe this as a kind of horror movie, as it not only channels classics of the genre such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) but homes in with laser-like precision on the darkest fears of motherhood.

It’s effectiveness is such that I would warn expectant mothers to realise that this may do for parenthood what Psycho (1960) did for showering in remote hotels or Jaws (1975) did for swimming on a beach.

Nonetheless, this only speaks to the skill with which the book has been visualised for the big screen and the core themes and questions are all still here.

How much do the formative early years of childhood shape a character? Is it possible for evil to be an innate characteristic? Do ambivalent mothers somehow transmit their feelings to their offspring? Do parents and children pick sides in a family?

It is to Ramsay’s great credit that she has dealt with these uncomfortable concepts with such verve, whilst preserving the ambiguous, tantalising details which continually make us question characters and their actions.

The film looks stunning with the director and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey opting for carefully composed widescreen images, which not only isolate Swinton’s protagonist but accentuate the little details which make up the visual fabric of the film.

Opting to use the colour red at every conceivable opportunity, the film seems to be referencing a similar visual motif from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1971), an idea made more intriguing when you realise Luc Roeg (Nic’s son) is one of the producers.

We Need to Talk About Kevin plays like a weird contemporary reversal of that film: instead of the death of a child bringing tragedy upon a family, it is the birth of one that causes all the problems.

The intricate look is augmented by a rich audio design by Paul Davies, which brilliantly accentuates key sounds such as Kevin’s collicky screams against a builder’s drill or the grotesque eating of food to create a memorable ‘second layer’ to the film.

There is also the editing by Joe Bini (a veteran of Werner Herzog’s documentaries) which delineates between the different periods with consummate grace and also provides the film with a narrative drive as it circles around a key, revelatory event.

Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score isn’t quite up to the level of his work on There Will Be Blood (2007) but it does give the film a discordant quality, which syncs nicely with the rest of the film.

Despite the excellence of its construction, the film is dependant on a key lead performance from Tilda Swinton who more than delivers as Eva, reflecting the doubts, fears and weary disappointment of a woman caught in a living nightmare.

It is a very tricky character to play, by turns sympathetic and cold, but she delivers some of the best acting of her career here, which given her past roles is really saying something.

The supporting cast suffer a little from Swinton’s domination of the screen: John C Reilly feels a little miscast and Ezra Miller at times overdoes the demonic act to the point where some scenes feel like he’s auditioning for Damien: Omen II.

If there is a problem with the film, it may be that it is too effective for its own good.

Due to the collapse in the upscale indie market since 2008, Ramsay and the producers had to rework the script and budget in order to get the final financing in place.

I’m glad they did because this is a film that will stand the test of time, but as for its commercial prospects one can only wonder what the core audience for this film will think.

It could be that they appreciate the skill with which Shriver’s book has been adapted but also appalled at the way it burrows into their deepest fears and then explodes like an emotional dirty bomb.

I’ve already heard a couple of reactions to this film where members of the audience seemed viscerally angry with the way it dealt with a topic in a way which is probably still taboo.

Perhaps for some it will be too much and in the current recessionary climate its box office probably won’t be reflective of the sheer quality on display.

But over time I suspect it will be gain a certain status as a daring film and in the privacy of their own home many parents will sneakily watch it in the same way they used to sneakily observe horrors their parents banned them from seeing.

This is a unconventional family movie played as a tangible waking nightmare: there are Kevin’s out there and sometimes they happen to the best of parents.

> Facebook page
> Reviews of We Need to Talk About Kevin at MUBi

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2011: The Descendants

A comedy-drama set in Hawaii marks a triumphant return for director Alexander Payne after a seven year absence and provides George Clooney with arguably his best ever role.

Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, it explores the thorny emotional dilemmas facing landowner Matt King (George Clooney) after his wife is involved in a serious boating accident.

He also has to deal with his two young daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and the lucrative sale of ancestral land but when secrets emerge about the recent past he is forced to reexamine his life.

It seems odd that after all the critical and awards success of his last film, Alexander Payne should take seven years to make another, but the late 2000s indie collapse may have played a part.

I’m happy to report that The Descendants maintains his remarkable run of films that begun with Citizen Ruth (1996) and continued with Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004).

Like those it masterfully blends sharp wit with heartfelt emotion, exploring the nuances of family relationships with an intelligence rarely seen in mainstream US cinema.

This has been a Payne trademark but the setting here provides a distinct visual flavour as well as an integral feature of the story, whilst the ensemble cast is outstanding.

Clooney in the lead role gives arguably his best ever performance, dialling down his natural charm to convey the confusion of a husband and father confronted with some harsh emotional truths about those he loves and – most importantly – himself.

Reminiscent of his best acting work in Out of Sight, Solaris, Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, he conveys a certain vulnerability whilst delivering the comic moments with consummate skill.

He is ably supported by what is one of the best supporting casts in recent memory.

The young actresses who play his immediate family members are terrific.

Woodley is a convincingly tempestuous but wise teenager, Miller as her younger sister is believably innocent and Clooney’s familial chemistry with them form the bedrock of the film.

There are also memorable turns from Robert Forster as a gruff father-in-law, Beau Bridges as a relaxed relative (seemingly channelling his brother Jeff as a Hawaiian Lebowski), Nick Krause as one of the daughter’s boyfriend, Matthew Lillard as an opportunistic real estate agent and Judy Greer as his loving wife.

None of these finely tuned performances would be possible without the screenplay by Payne (with credited co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) which laces the gravity of the central situation with some brilliantly executed humour.

The way the central dramatic scenario is blended with the characters and the wider themes of inheritance and time feel like a masterclass in screenwriting.

Payne’s directorial execution is exemplary.

He has always demonstrated a keen eye for small, revealing details: the ballot papers in Election, the letters in About Schmidt or the TV clip of The Grapes of Wrath in Sideways.

Similarly, The Descendants is also filled with wonderful, human flourishes.

Payne sprinkles them throughout the film with relish and without giving away spoilers, particular highlights feature a swimming pool, a black eye, a sneaky kiss and a farewell speech.

Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is reminiscent of his work on Sideways, creating interesting interior compositions and contrasting them with some gorgeous widescreen exterior work.

Hawaii isn’t always presented here as a picture postcard paradise – an opening monologue shrewdly debunks its glamour (“Paradise can go f**k itself”) – but nonetheless it forms a beautifully telling backdrop to the narrative as the climax nears.

Payne has admitted that he spent months editing the film with Kevin Tent and it pays off as the comic and dramatic beats are timed to perfection, whilst the Hawaiian flavoured musical score gives the film a distinctive mood and texture.

It is also an interesting depiction of the Aloha state, drilling deeper into the heart of the place than TV shows which have used it as a backdrop (e.g. Hawaii Five-O or Magnum P.I.) and even more recent movies such as Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which was partly set there.

His early work often focused on his home state of Nebraska, but he has always managed to find universal truths within particular locations.

This is the case in his latest film as the family dilemmas are at once specific and yet embedded within the culture of America’s newest state.

Mainstream cinema often can’t resist clichĂ© whatever the genre, so it is doubly satisfying to find a filmmaker who excels in combining light and shade whilst using intelligent humour to enhance the gravity of the central narrative.

Strangely, it also plays like a reverse Michael Clayton: both lead characters are lawyers with relationship issues, but have to deal with very different financial circumstances.

Payne has long been a fan of classic 1970s cinema and where Tony Gilroy’s film channelled the spirit of Alan Pakula, this goes for a more bitter-sweet vibe reminiscent of Hal Ashby.

With strong reviews on the festival circuit and the marketing skills of Fox Searchlight behind it, The Descendants is likely to be a major player in the end of year awards season, but it is much more than just token Oscar bait.

In what happens to have been a year filled with remakes and sequels from the mainstream studios, this shows that Hollywood can still produce work which appeals to the brain as well as the heart.

The Descendants screens at the London Film Festival on Sunday (23rd) and Monday (24th) before opening in the US on November 18th and in the UK on January 27th

> Official site
> Festival reviews of The Descendants at MUBi

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2011: The Artist

An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

One of the surprise hits on the festival circuit this year has been a black and white French film shot in Los Angeles with two relative unknown actors in the lead roles.

You might think that this was some kind of strange experiment designed exclusively for cinephiles, but is actually one of the most charming and audience-friendly films to be released this year.

Opening in 1927, the story charts the fortunes of a silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardjin) and a rising young actress (Berenice Bojo) as the introduction of sound into cinema threatens to disrupt the established order.

As an box office star Valentin is dismissive of the new audio technology despite warnings from the key people (and animals) in his life: a cigar-chomping studio mogul (John Goodman), frustrated wife (Penelope Ann Miller), driver (James Cromwell) and a loyal dog (Uggie).

The key trick which director Michel Hazanavicius brilliantly pulls off is that the film itself is a silent movie (with some crucial exceptions) that manages to simultaneously pay homage to and have fun with a now distant era of the medium.

Not only has he clearly done his research on the period, using modern technology to recreate older techniques, but he brings in a sense of fun that could make this an unlikely cross over hit with open-minded audiences.

Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Mark Bridges all combine to impressively recreate the 1920s, even if they slightly hold back on certain elements for effect.

Shot in the Academy ratio of 1:33, the use of music and inter-titles give it an authentic feel, but Hazanavicius has a lot of fun with this world, sprinkling sequences with a sophisticated but heartfelt humour.

There’s also lots of lovely touches such as spinning newspapers, exaggerated facial expressions and even a dog who seems to have a natural gift for comedy.

The lead performances are outstanding: Dujardin is every inch the silent matinee idol (heavily modelled on Douglas Fairbanks), whilst Bejos makes a charming foil.

Without using their voices – one of the essential tools of modern acting – their physical expression through their bodies and faces works beautifully and blends seamlessly with the intricately crafted world of the film and – even better – the films within the film.

In supporting roles, Goodman and Cromwell especially stand out, although special mention must go to Uggie (trained on set by Sarah Clifford and his owner Omar Muller), who is the most memorable screen dog since Flike in Umberto D. (he even won this year’s Palme Dog award).

There is so much intelligence and charm packed into The Artist that I’m reluctant to reveal too much, but I will say that sequences involving a movie premiere, a nightmare and a house fire provide more satisfaction and humour than most contemporary comedies do in their whole running time.

It doesn’t just riff on the silent era but also appears to have many references to classical Hollywood movies: Citizen Kane, A Star is Born and Vertigo are just some of the many movie easter eggs that discerning audience members will delight in spotting.

There is also the ingenious conceit that lies at the heart of the project: the film both is a recreation and pastiche of a silent-era melodrama, with much of the film mirroring both the classical style of the period and the actual film-within-a-film scenes.

If all this sounds a bit too clever for its own good, don’t be alarmed – it blends this sophistication with a suprisingly light touch and injects plenty of inventive physical humour into almost every sequence.

Hazanavicius is best known for his spy pastiches OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio but this film marks a new chapter for him as a director, even though he is using familiar elements (Dujardin and Bejo both worked in his previous films).

Whilst it shares the cunning craftsmanship and wry humour of his previous work there is something more audacious here in venturing to Hollywood in order to remind it of the wonder of cinema, which France invented and America exported around the world.

A contemporary French production baked in its love of older American movies, it is an unusual beast: sophisticated but accessible; nostalgic yet contemporary – the end result is almost a filmic representation of those two cultures shared passion for the movies.

There are many fascinating parallels with the present day: as Hollywood undergoes a painful but necessary transition to digital technology, roughly equivalent to the advent of sound, the film may have an unexpected resonance with contemporary filmmakers and audiences.

The fact that the economic difficulties of the Great Depression closely mirror those of the current climate will only add to its lustre, following in footsteps of silent icons like Chaplin and Keaton.

A late addition to this year’s lineup at Cannes, I can now see why Parisian sales company Wild Bunch and The Weinstein Company (who acquired distribution rights for several territories back in May) were so bullish about this film: on paper it sounds eccentric, but in front of an audience it works like magic.

Although it lost out on the Palme d’Or, Harvey Weinstein must surely be rubbing his hands with glee.

Not only does this film resemble last year’s unexpected hit The King’s Speech (a well crafted, feel-good period film) but it is also the kind of foreign language title he excelled in marketing to Oscar voters back in the 1990s heyday of Miramax (Il Postino and Life is Beautiful are just two titles which spring to mind).

Veteran Academy members and actors (the largest voting branch) will find much to feast on.

Not only is it an inventive, loving tribute to their industry and town, but it also deals with the fears and hopes of performers in the same way that an Oscar favourite like All About Eve managed to do (although that used Broadway as a substitute for Hollywood).

The main challenge will be getting audiences outside of the art-house realm to see it, but the word of mouth on this could potentially spread like wildfire once people experience the film’s heady charms for themselves.

Not only does the genuinely uplifting mood and sparkling invention make it attractive to audiences in depressing times, but the silent movie aspect means it could potentially translate across several continents and cultures.

A glorious and highly inventive tribute to cinema, its playful cleverness and uplifting tone often hide the considerable invention it took to craft what is easily one of the best films of 2011.

The Artist screens at the London Film Festival tonight (Tues 18th) and Saturday (22nd) before opening in the US on November 23rd. The UK release date is TBC

> Official site
> Collected reviews of The Artist at MUBi
> Find out more about the silent era of Hollywood at Wikipedia

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2011: Shame

Steve McQueen‘s second feature is a stunning depiction of sexual compulsion.

Set in contemporary New York, it explores the life of an advertising executive (Michael Fassbender) who is struggling to cope with an addiction to sex and a needy sister (Carey Mulligan) who has just arrived to stay.

Like his astonishing debut, Hunger, this is bold filmmaking centred around an incredible central performance from Fassbender who manages to convey the pleasure and pain of a man in the throes of an all-consuming impulse.

Essentially a portrait of an addict enabled by the modern world (e.g. promiscuity, internet porn) the main character comes across as an unlikely combination of George Clooney in Up in the Air (surface charm hiding an inner emptiness) and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (inner rage finding an expression through physical activity), with a dash of Christian Bale in American Psycho (only without the blood).

Fassbender manages to balance the fleshy demands of the role (which go near the boundaries of what is accepted in mainstream cinema) with an impeccable surface charm and is completely believable as a modern day sexual vampire.

Mulligan provides a compelling counterweight as a messy, needy sibling and the carefully calibrated chemistry between them hints at a dark past, which may (or may not) explain their present behaviour.

It says a lot that despite their strange, unusual actions, these characters feel utterly authentic and their worlds utterly defined.

Visually, Shame is almost a companion piece to Hunger as McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit fill the screen with some stunning widescreen imagery.

Not only is there impeccable framing and the now signature long takes, including a breathtaking street sequence, but the use of lighting is also unusual – one night-time scene goes to the very limits of lighting and photography to great effect.

Despite the innate heaviness of the subject matter, there is also a surprising amount of charm and humour – after all the protagonist is someone who is necessarily seductive – and separate scenes involving a restaurant and an infected computer provide some clever light relief.

McQueen and Abi Morgan have written a screenplay which feels like a blue-print for a more visual style of storytelling, although some sequences – especially a telling, claustrophobic argument – are sharply scripted and allow the images on screen to say much more than words ever could.

The use of music is appropriately sombre and simultaneously epic, with Harry Escott‘s score channeling Hans Zimmer’s music to the The Thin Red Line (1998) – one signature piece is very reminiscent of Journey to the Line – whilst the use of Bach in places is restrained but highly effective.

New York provides an interesting metropolitan backdrop, as McQueen deliberately downplays the usual visual cliches (Empire State building, Statue of Liberty etc) to depict an urban environment which could actually be any modern city.

Apparently the filmmakers chose the Big Apple over London because it was easier to research sex addiction there, but it also provides a hauntingly sterile backdrop.

Production designer Judy Becker helps create interiors which match the emptiness of the characters, whilst the location filming brilliantly utilises trains, nightclubs and streets: all of the highs and lows of city living are displayed, with a visual attention to detail that is often jaw-dropping.

In the same way that Hunger used the 1981 IRA hunger strike to indirectly comment on modern day torture and incarceration, Shame could be seen as a telling metaphor for the soulless nature of urban living, fuelled by a self-destructive brand of capitalism.

In a month which has seen part of the city occupied by a younger generation puzzled and appalled by a global financial crisis partly engineered by their Baby Boomer parents.

Shame is a curiously timely film, even if its makers didn’t intend it to be.

There has already been considerable buzz about it on the festival circuit, due to the graphic sexual content and sheer quality of the acting and direction but, again like Hunger, it seems unlikely that this will break out of the urban art-house realm.

That being said, Fox Searchlight have acquired it (major kudos and respect to them) and are likely to make a big push for Best Actor for Fassbender.

Make no mistake, this is a performance that actors (the biggest voting block in the Academy) will be dazzled by.

After his breakthrough roles in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds, he has already demonstrated a remarkable command of screen acting: his physicality, voice and presence are something to behold.

Even if he doesn’t become a major A-list star that producers and agents clearly want him to be, who cares when he gives performances like this?

Older Oscar members might have a coronary at some of the sex scenes and those explicit, but never gratuitous, sequences are likely to pose an interesting dilemma for the distributor and the MPAA ratings board – many have predicted an NC-17 for this film in the US as the racier scenes are difficult to edit around, due to the way they have been shot.

Given that NC-17 spells commercial death for a film (it means reduced mainstream advertising and refusal of some multiplex chains to screen it) maybe it is time the ratings board grew up and gave this an R with no cuts?

After all, we live in an age when the most sadistic, violent junk is given the green light by the US ratings board but shots of a naked body are deemed to be immoral or unacceptable.

Or we would know this for sure if the MPAA was an open, accountable body, rather than the secretive shambles it currently is.

Despite the American setting, it is interesting to note that this is a home grown British production, with See-Saw Films teaming up with Film4 and some funding from the now defunct UK Film Council.

It is interesting to note that homegrown British films have undergone something of a renaissance in a terrible economic climate since 2008, compared to the Lottery funded disasters of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Is it an uncomfortable truth that bad social times lead to risk-taking directors with something to say?

Where Steve McQueen goes from here career wise is hard to call because I doubt he wants to take on the next big studio comic-book franchise, but if he can keep making films like this then discerning audiences will have much to be grateful for.

Shame screens tonight (Friday 14th) and tomorrow (Sat 15th) at the London Film Festival, opens in the US on December 2nd and in the UK on January 13th

> Shame on Twitter
> Reviews from Venice, Telluride and Toronto at MUBi

Festivals London Film Festival News

54th London Film Festival Lineup

The London Film Festival announced its 2011 lineup today with the usual mix of British premieres and acclaimed films from the festival circuit.

Running from October 12th-27th, it opens with Fernando Meirelles’ 360 and closes with Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea.

One of the advantages of the festival is that it usually cherry picks the most buzzed about titles from the year’s major festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto.

This means that although there isn’t usually the kind of excitement that surrounds a world premiere (such as The Tree of Life in Cannes this year), it can act as a useful filter for the festival hits and misses that year.

After scouring through the schedule here are those I’m most interesting in seeing this year, divided up into Absolute Must Sees, Definitely Worth Checking Out and Mildly Intrigued.


Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen): The director’s follow up to Hunger (2008) is the study of a thirty something man (Michael Fassbender) in New York with an unhealthy sexual compulsion who is visited by his sister (Carey Mulligan). Reviews out of Venice and Telluride were very strong and given that his debut was one of the best films of the last decade, cinephiles will be eagerly awaiting this.

The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius): This love letter to the days of silent cinema was (along with The Tree of Life) the most buzzed about film at Cannes this year. Set in 1927, it depicts a movie star (Jean Dujardin) threatened by the advent of talkies and the actress (BĂ©rĂ©nice Bejo) he has recently discovered. Likely to be the first Oscar contender in years to be shot in black and white and feature minimal dialogue. With The Weinstein Company releasing in the US, parallels to The King’s Speech are not far off the mark (i.e. heartfelt, old fashioned film storms in from leftfield to become a critical and commercial hit).

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (Dir. Werner Herzog): A Herzog documentary is automatically an event but when the German auteur explores violence and capital punishment through interviews with Death Row inmates, it automatically becomes a must-see. Raves at Telluride already suggest something special.

The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne): Payne’s first feature since Sideways (2004) is a comedy-drama about a father (George Clooney) living in Hawaii who is forced to cope with unexpected family issues. Strong reviews out of Telluride would suggest this is already an early Oscar frontrunner.

Alps (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos): The second feature from the director of the remarkable arthouse hit Dogtooth (2009) has attracted raves out of Venice, although some reccommend that you should know as little about it as possible. Intrigued? Me too.


Michael (Dir. Markus Schleinzer): Austrian film about a mysterious 35 year old man and his relationship with a ten year old boy. The tough subject matter – which seems to be inspired by real life cases in Austria – will make this a tough sell for even the arthouse audiences, but it has already drawn high praise after its debut in Cannes.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin): One of the most buzzed about films at Sundance deals with a seemingly pleasant commune in the Catskills, which slowly reveals a different side. Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Brady Corbet and Hugh Dancy it is likely to send urban tastemakers into fits of cultural rapture.

Snowtown (Dir. Justin Kurzel): Australian serial killer drama that freaked some audiences out at Cannes back in May. The film adaptation of Australia’s most notorious serial killer case has been described as ‘horrific’ and ‘incredible’. It even topped a Cannes 2011 Abuse Checklist, which this year is really saying something.

The Ides of March (Dir. George Clooney): The ‘other’ Clooney film at the festival (shades of 2009?) is an adaptation of Farragut North, the play which was loosely based on Howard Dean‘s 2004 presidential campaign. Starring Ryan Gosling as an ambitious press spokesman for a Democratic candidate (Clooney), it boasts an impressive supporting cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti) and reviews out of Venice were (mostly) solid.

Like Crazy (Dir. Drake Doremus): The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance was this tale of a young couple (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) who find themselves stuck on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Quickly acquired by Paramount after wowing critics and buyers in Utah, agents and casting directors are already obsessed with Felicity Jones and the studio have big expectations for this. The use of a Twitter hashtag in the trailer suggests they already think it will tap into the zeitgeist.

Anonymous (Dir. Roland Emmerich): This might seem like the strangest film project in years as the director of apocalyptic blockbusters uses the Shakespeare authorship question to explore political intrigue in Elizabethan England. I’ve already seen it (but can’t talk about it yet as there is a review embargo) but it may surprise people when it debuts in Toronto and London.

The Deep Blue Sea (Dir. Terence Davies): The fact that Davis has actually been given money to make a film is cause for celebration, but an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play makes for added excitement. A tale of relationship problems in the 1950s, the combination of Davies, Rattigan and two fine leads (Rachel Weisz and Simon Russell Beale) could make for something interesting.

Coriolanus (Dir. Ralph Fiennes): The directorial debut of Fiennes is a modern day update of Shakespeare’s rarely filmed play and stars Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave. Film fans may be excited about the presence of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who shot The Hurt Locker and United 93).


Wuthering Heights (Dir. Andrea Arnold): In a year which has seen another Bronte adaptation (Cary Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre), director Andrea Arnold takes on this novel with what promises to be a radical adaptation. After the richley deserved acclaim of Fish Tank (2009) it will be interesting to see Arnold tackle the realm of corsets and country houses.

Trishna (Dir. Michael Winterbottom): Winterbottom can be a bit hit-or-miss but he’s undeniably one of the most prolific andtalented directors of his generation. Here he returns to Thomas Hardy – after Jude (1996) – for an ambitious adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles which is set in modern day India with Freida Pinto in the lead role.

This Must Be the Place (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino): Although reviews were mixed out of Cannes this story of a retired rock star (Sean Penn) on a road trip across the USA has must-see value for both the star (in what seems a strange role even for him) and the director, who made the modern classic Il Divo (2008).

360 (Dir. Fernando Meirelles): His last film – Blindness (2008) – was a bit underwhelming but this is one of the few world premieres at the festival. Boasting a stellar cast (Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Anthony Hopkins) and a screenplay by Peter Morgan, it is modern update of Arthur SchnitzlerĂ­s play La Ronde.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 1999): Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel this sees Ramsay’s long-awaited return to the big screen after Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). The story of an American woman (Tilda Swinton), with a rather troublesome teenage son (Ezra Miller) probes into some dark areas and got mostly positive reviews out of Cannes.

50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine): The story of a writer coping with cancer (inspired by screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences) this stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role and features a strong supporting cast which includes Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston and Philip Baker Hall.

Dark Horse (Dir. Todd Solondz): Solondz may have recovered from a mid-career dip with this dark comedy about two dysfunctional thirtysomethings (Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair) planning to marry. Solid supporting cast includes Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken.

Any others you are looking forward to?

> LFF Official site, Facebook page and Twitter
> Last year’s LFF posts

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: 127 Hours

Director Danny Boyle returns from the success of Slumdog Millionaire with a vibrant depiction of man versus nature.

The story here is of Aaron Ralston (played by James Franco), the outdoor enthusiast who in 2003 was stranded under a boulder after falling into a remote canyon in Utah.

Beginning with an extended opening section, Boyle uses a variety of techniques (including split screen, weird angles, quick edits) to express Ralston’s energetic lifestyle as he ventures into a situation that would become ominously static.

He meets two women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before parting with them and climbing across an isolated canyon where he becomes trapped for the next 127 hours (look out for a killer title card).

Although it was a widely publicised news story at the time, there is a dilemma when discussing the events of this film.

Some will go in knowing what happened, whilst others will not.

For the benefit of the latter, I’ll refrain from revealing the full details but it is worth noting that the film is not a gory exploration of Ralston’s distress and audiences might be surprised at the overall tone of the film, which is far from gloomy.

An unusual project, in that so much of it revolves around a central location, Boyle contrasts the vital specifics of Ralston’s confinement in the canyon with his interior thoughts as it becomes an increasingly desperate experience.

The details of the situation are expertly realised as a penknife, water bottle, climbing rope and digital camera all assume a vital importance with a large chunk of the film feeling like an existential prison drama.

This gives it a slightly unusual vibe, as the audience is effectively trapped with Ralston in a claustrophobic way.

Using two cinematographers (Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chedia) working in tandem, the ordeal is powerfully realised using a bag of visual tricks to delve deep into his physical and emotional trauma.

Before we get to the canyon, the sun filled landscapes of Utah are shot and edited with a vibrancy and panache recalling some of Boyle’s earlier work, notably Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire.

There are also some poetic details that enrich the atmosphere: the distant planes above cutting through the blue sky, insects nonchalantly roaming free and the colour of the rocks themselves which look startling in the sunlight.

Once he actually becomes trapped, a variety of different shots and perspectives help give the situation different visual flavours: the interior of his water bottle, the bone inside his arm and video diary footage on his personal camera, become important in breaking up the gruelling monotony of his predicament.

His interior thoughts are brought to life with memories, flashbacks and hallucinations: a break-up with a girlfriend (Clemence Poesy); visions of his family and childhood; a strange chat-show monologue with himself and a flash flood.

There are times when it feels the filmmakers are over-compensating for the limitations they chose, and more doses of stillness would have been welcome, but overall the visual and audio design helps us get inside Ralston’s physical and emotional situation with clarity and empathy.

But the most brilliant decision of all was the casting of James Franco. His surface charms and hidden depths as an actor provide a perfect fit for the role, as he impressively navigates the emotional ride of his character.

With an unusual amount of screen time he hits all the notes required: exuberant daring as he cycles across Utah; determined ingenuity as he tries to escape the canyon; and the desperate, haunted pain as he stares into the face of death.

A.R. Rahman’s score is a bit looser than his work on Slumdog Millionaire, but it makes for an emotional backdrop to the events on screen and Boyle’s use of songs (notably Free Blood’s ‘Never Hear Surf Music Again’) is effective in cutting together with the images on screen.

Although 127 Hours feels longer than its 93 minute running time (well, it wouldn’t it?), this is actually a sign that Boyle’s gamble in dramatising this material has actually worked.

It is an unusual project in all sorts of ways, eschewing narrative conventions and revelling in its creative rough edges, as it focuses relentlessly on one man’s physical and mental struggle.

There is something in Ralston’s struggle that is both primal and fascinating. Inevitably we ask what we ourselves would have done in the same situation.

But this film version is not just a technical exercise in outdoor survival. It is a reminder of the basic need to survive in the darkest of circumstances.

By the end 127 Hours becomes a transcendent film about the power of life in the face of death.

127 Hours closed the LFF last night and goes on US release on Friday 5th November and in the UK on Friday 7th January.

> 127 Hours at the LFF
> Official website
> Reviews from Telluride and TIFF via MUBi

Documentaries Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2010: Inside Job

Charles Ferguson’s documentary explores the global financial crisis with devastating clarity and paints a deeply troubling picture of the relationship between financial and political elites.

Within the space of just two hours, using interviews, graphics, impressive editing and a sober narration from Matt Damon, Inside Job takes us through the causes of the current economic meltdown.

Beginning with a startling prologue examining how Iceland’s economy was essentially ruined by big finance, it sets up in microcosm the the wider story of how, over a period of 30 years, successive governments have allowed large financial institutions to inflate an economic system until it eventually burst in the autumn of 2008.

Interviewing a variety of experts and policy makers including Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank and Christine Lagarde it takes us step-by-step through the deregulation of the financial industry under successive presidents from Regan onwards.

We are presented with a non-partisan examination of how Republicans and Democrats were seduced by financial sector: the Reagan-era deregulation of Wall Street, which led to the Savings and loan crisis; the Clinton administration’s numerous mistakes in repealing key laws designed to minimize risk in the financial sector; the lack of regulation under Bush; the rise in derivatives (increasingly complex and dangerous financial ‘innovations’); and finally the Obama administration, which made the mistake of employing Clinton-era officials who were part of the original problem.

Although a lot of the information presented here has been explored in other books and TV programmes (such as the BBC’s The Love of Money), to see it presented in a single film is both constructive and chilling.

Ferguson himself cross-examines a number of government and private sector officials – though many of the key culprits refused to be interviewed – and his probing questions elicit some revealing requests to stop filming when they appear unexpectedly thrown by certain questions.

One startling aspect of the film is how much academics, supposedly independent from Wall Street banks, are actually paid by them for opinions or even serve on their boards – a clear conflict of interest which several of them appear oblivious to.

Using a sober tone throughout, the narration, interview footage and graphics all collate and explain the financial jargon of CDOs, credit default swaps and the policies which left much of the public scratching their head as they tried to process the full extent of what happened.

But this is more than just an academic primer: featuring widescreen lensing, aerial shots of New York and some appropriate music (the opening credits feature Peter Gabriel’s ‘Big Time’) it is a cinematic experience, which visually reflects the gravity of the subject.

The relentless approach is both appropriate and effective, although it also reveals some ghoulish comedy when exploring the widespread use of cocaine and prostitutes on Wall St and the stuttering angst of interviewees caught out by Ferguson’s well-researched questions.

One of the most damning aspects to arise from Inside Job is the incestuous nature of the relationship between Washington and Wall Street.

The revolving door connecting the political and financial worlds, along with figures such as Henry Paulson, Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, has effectively shielded large banks from any effective regulation.

The result of this has been the largest financial crash in history, which almost brought down the whole banking system in 2008 and resulted in millions of people losing their jobs and homes.

The only thing that prevented a full scale collapse was the bailout of the banks at the taxpayers expense.

But this was essentially socialism for the rich, in which the public paid the price for the irresponsible actions of political and financial elites.

Inside Job might appear to be an incendiary title, but it is wholly appropriate: two years on from the averted meltdown, there appears to be no meaningful financial reform and the governments appear to have little taste for prosecuting those who helped cause the crisis.

Partly this is down to the power and influence of the large banks, whose ex-employees litter government and shape policy, as well as pay for political campaigns.

Could the embattled Obama administration, currently suffering because of the economic collapse, find renewed energy in restoring the financial regulations lost over the last thirty years?

Bringing those responsible for the fraud that triggered trillions of dollars in losses would certainly be a vote winner, even if the Wall Street backlash was severe.

That may or may not happen, but in the mean time this documentary is a worthy call to arms: in examining the root causes of the crisis and emphasising the importance of restoring honesty to the global financial system, it is one of the most important films of the year.

Inside Job screened tonight (Oct 27th) and plays tomorrow (October 28th) at the London Film Festival.

It is currently out in the US in limited release and opens in the UK on February 18th February 2011

> Inside Job at the LFF
> Official site
> Detailed press notes for the film (essential reading)
> Reviews of the film at Cannes from MUBi

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Biutiful

A powerful depiction of life on the edges of a modern city, the latest film from Alejandro Gonzålez Iñårritu is a full on experience featuring a dazzling central performance by Javier Bardem.

Marking a break from his triptych of films with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Biutiful is the more linear tale of Uxbal (Bardem), a father struggling in the slums of contemporary Barcelona.

A fixer of sorts for illegal immigrant labour in the city, he sets up jobs, smoothes over ‘relations’ with the local police and deals with various figures involved in this hidden economy, including his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) and business partner Hai (Taisheng Cheng).

He is also a devoted father to his children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), and in addition to caring for them, struggles to cope with his bipolar ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) and an immigrant Senegalese woman (Diaryatou Daff) he feels responsible for.

There is more to the story and clocking in at 138 minutes, Iñårritu doesn’t hold back in showing us a kaleidoscope of problems as Uxbal deals with health issues, emotional anxieties and a deep sense of his own mortality.

The film’s grim milieu is expertly realised and, to its great credit, doesn’t shy away from showing the stark reality of a modern metropolis built on cheap labour and the suffering of the poor.

Rodrigo Prieto’s handheld camerawork captures the exterior and interior worlds of Barcelona with remarkable authenticity, and there are shifts in aspect ratio and camera speeds which add to the rich visual architecture of the film.

Stephen Mirrione’s editing is another standout element, stitching the action together with considerable skill – one sequence involving the police chasing an immigrant gang is a masterclass in construction and pacing.

The sound design by Martin Hernandez is also highly effective, used to accentuate the reality of Uxbal’s world but also employing unconventional effects to take us inside his mind.

After the globetrotting nature of Babel, Innaritu seems to have become more interested in a single place and a central, unifying character who acts as a nexus for the themes and events of the story.

Uxbal is an intriguing protagonist of considerable contradictions: he uses people, whilst also helping them; is angry but loving with those closest to him; and appears to be both resigned to and in denial about his ultimate fate.

The character is brought vividly to life by an incredible central performance by Javier Bardem: in addition to his magnetic screen presence, he convinces as a shady, underworld operator but also conveys his interior emotions with remarkable grace and authenticity.

It is one of the most affecting portrayals of fatherhood I can remember seeing on screen: the chemistry with his children is touchingly real and the emotional latter stages are almost hard to watch.

But whilst Bardem dominates the film, other actors also leave their mark: as Uxbal’s ex-wife, Alvarez convincingly alternates between her moods; and as their children Bouchaib and Estrella display a realism and maturity rare amongst young actors.

Iñårritu is a director who likes to deal with big themes on a wide canvas, which can run the risk of seeming grandiose or self-important.

But Biutiful – the title comes from a misspelling within the story – is admirable precisely because it tackles huge subjects with an unusual intensity and a refreshing lack of distance or irony.

Although he seems to be returning to similar themes in his films – love, death, existence – Iñårritu has considerable skills as a filmmaker and uses his full armoury to open these subjects up for the audience to process.

Not everything works – a diversion into the supernatural is perhaps a step too far – but the barrage of elements presented is wildly ambitious and admirable for its naked, emotional quality.

In exploring life in a modern city through one character he manages to find something universal in the particulars of a man’s life and it ends up being more than just a supercharged retelling of the Book of Job.

Biutiful is not a film that will please everyone or reach a massive audience, but it features one of the great modern screen performances and in exploring the rawness of existence, reaches a level of transcendence rare in modern cinema.

> Biutiful at the LFF
> Reviews from Cannes and TIFF at MUBi
> IMDb entry

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2010: The Kids Are Alright

A perfectly pitched comedy-drama about family tensions, director Lisa Cholodenko’s third film is also a showcase for some stellar acting.

When a Los Angeles lesbian couple, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), discover their two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), have got in touch with their biological father (Mark Ruffalo) it causes various complications.

As with Chodolenko’s previous films, this is very much a character piece exploring the intricacies and complications of human relationships.

But it is a step up from her last two films, applying a light touch to potentially heavy issues, and much of the enjoyment comes from the actors fitting snugly into their roles, especially the two leads who have their best parts in years.

Bening is excellent as the career-orientated matriarch. As an uptight, wine-loving physician she manages to convey a genuine warmth and affection for her family that often seems hidden beneath her surface anxieties.

Moore gets to explore a more vulnerable side, as someone less interested in a career and who strays of the beaten track in looking for someone to spice up her domestic routine.

The chemistry between the two is striking and they paint a convincing picture of a genuinely loving couple who are nonetheless susceptible to the insecurities and problems of everyday life.

Already attracting awards season buzz, it will be interesting to see which categories both actresses are submitted for. At the moment the smart money is for Bening, but it seemed to me that Moore had slightly more screen time.

In the key supporting roles, Wasikowska and Hutcherson provide a nice contrast to their parents with their charming levelheadedness, whilst Ruffalo exudes a relaxing, easy charm as the man who is a catalyst for unexpected change.

The screenplay, by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, manages to flesh out the characters and impressively depicts underlying tensions, be they of gender, sexuality or background.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how purely enjoyable it is to watch, moving from scene-to-scene with witty dialogue and organic humour generated from the interaction of the well-drawn characters.

This has the added bonus of dramatic moments arriving with unexpected force and when they do, it is with a lack of bombast unusual for films dealing with relationship problems.

For an independent film, albeit an upscale one, the look and feel of the production is convincing and special credit must go to editor Jeffrey M. Werner who helps move scenes along with an understated ease and fluency.

Added to this is an excellent soundtrack, which seems to reflect the different tastes of the family: for the parents there is David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and The Who, whilst for the kids, we get tracks from Vampire Weekend and MGMT.

Comedy-dramas (or dramatic comedies) can often be a hellish thing to get right, but here Chodolenko strikes just the right balance, with a tone that never takes its characters too seriously, whilst still treating them with respect.

Although the issue of gay marriage is still a contentious one in America, this film goes a long way in putting forward the idea that a happy family doesn’t have to be a conventional one.

Without resorting to grandstanding polemic and instead just showing the bittersweet ups and downs of a loving family, Chodolenko has made a convincing case that the kids will indeed be alright.

The Kids Are Alright screens at the London Film Festival (Monday 25th, Tues 26th and Weds 27th) and opens in the UK on Friday 30th October

> The Kids Are Alright at the LFF
> IMDb entry
> Reviews at Metacritic

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of an obsessive ballerina is wonderfully intense experience, powered by a standout performance from Natalie Portman.

Set amongst a New York City ballet company producing Swan Lake, it focuses on the psychological and physical tribulations of Nina (Portman), a dancer desperate to impress her demanding director (Vincent Cassel) and possessive mother (Barbara Hershey).

After she wins the lead role we see Nina’s ambition and drive turn into something much darker.

She begins to have suspicions about her predecessor (Winona Ryder), a fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) and herself as she becomes burdened with all kinds of psychological and physical problems.

Incorporating a variety of influences that include The Red Shoes, Repulsion and David Cronenberg, it also riffs heavily on the raw source material of Swan Lake itself.

Tchaikovsky’s original work is given a modern day twist, as the trials of a young princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer get unsettling and often surprising parallels.

At one point Cassel’s director says of his staging of Swan Lake:

“It’s been done to death, I know, but not like this. We’re going to strip it down and make it visceral and real”

This might also be Aronofsky talking, as that is exactly what he does with Black Swan.

Clint Mansell’s score also emphasises this, expanding on Tchaikovsky’s original compositions but taking it to a more sinister place, which, allied with some highly effective sound design, makes for an arresting audio backdrop.

Intriguing parallels with The Wrestler abound: both examine the physical and mental costs of being a performer; show the pressures of ageing; feature a character’s desire to connect; and climax with a grand flourish.

Black Swan goes further in cranking up the tension and, along with a paranoid, unreliable narrator, there is an unusual amount of visual effects shots that depict the crumbling reality of Nina’s world.

Mirrors are a recurring motif throughout and shots in rehearsal rooms are designed so we don’t see the reflected cameras; people and body parts morph in creepy ways; and a variety of subtle effects are used to make us question what we have just seen.

Part of what gives the film such an exhilarating kick is Matthew Libatique’s handheld visuals, shot on grainy 16mm. Like in The Wrestler, his work has a fluid urgency which really pays off in the dance sequences and also the claustrophobic world of Nina’s apartment.

But the heart of Black Swan is Natalie Portman’s captivating central performance. In what is easily the best part of her career, she conveys a believable kaleidoscope of emotions – including fear, aggression and pain – in a relentless push for artistic perfection.

Performing well outside of her comfort zone as an actress, her work has a certain meta quality that reflects the journey of her character, although we can safely assume the actual film production wasn’t as gruelling as the fictional ballet.

In supporting roles, Vincent Cassell is brilliantly arrogant as the manipulative director; Mila Kunis is a charming foil; Barbara Hershey conveys a suffocating and vicarious ambition, and Winona Ryder has a small but juicy role as a fading star.

Since establishing himself in the independent sphere with films such as Pi (1998) and Requiem For A Dream (2000), Aronofsky has carved out an impressive niche for himself with thoughtfully crafted character portraits that have included mathematicians, drug dealers and wrestlers.

Black Swan is probably his most daring film yet: the bold mix of genres, combined with a dark sensibility may put off some audiences, but is also a reminder of how rich and rewarding his work can be.

Black Swan played at the London Film Festival today and screens on Sunday 24th and Monday 25th.

> Black Swan at the LFF
> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: The King’s Speech

A superbly crafted period drama about the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist provides a memorable showcase for its two lead actors.

Beginning in 1925, the film traces how with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), The Duke of York, enlisted the help of an unconventional speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helped him overcome a crippling stammer as he eventually assumed the throne and helped rally his people during World War II.

The bulk of the film explores the relationship between the stiff, insecure monarch and the charmingly straightforward Logue, his loving and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the royal relatives who may have contributed to his problem.

Having spent his life in the shadow of his domineering father, George V (Michael Gambon), the shy Albert struggles with the responsibility of assuming the throne when his headstrong brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), decides to abdicate.

The screenplay by David Seidler deftly weaves these domestic tensions with the wider drama of the challenges of speaking in public, as the development of radio and newsreels create new expectations and pressures.

It is to director Tom Hooper’s credit that he keeps focused on the relationships at the heart of the film and steers well clear of the ponderous self importance that can afflict British period dramas.

Much of the appeal lies in the culture clash between Lionel and Albert: the Australian-born failed actor and the heir to the throne make for an amusing odd couple, but the connection they gradually form over the years is believable and touching.

Their sequences provide an impressive showcase for the two lead actors: Firth convincingly depicts the underlying frustration and pain of someone suffering a stammer, whilst Rush is delightfully irreverent as the one person who can engage him.

Firth seems to have been re-energised by his work in last year’s A Single Man.

Although this role might seem like a return to the repressed English gentleman he was often typecast as, he brings real nuance and feeling to the role, which could have easily slipped into cliched bluster.

Rush is magnetic as an eccentric whose wit and empathy gradually erode the aristocratic barriers blocking his patient.

Combined, their chemistry is a joy to watch as they depict the social hangups of the British class system as they gradually form a deep bond.

In supporting roles the standouts are Bonham-Carter, who is pleasingly restrained and dead-pan; Michael Gambon as an imposing George V; Guy Pearce as the smarmy Edward and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel’s loving wife.

Hooper demonstrated with his work on HBO’s John Adams that he has a great eye for period detail and the interior lives of historical figures: he achieves the same level of intimacy here with the main characters and crafts a believable recreation of the era.

Danny Cohen’s camera work is a key part of this, artfully framing the characters with a wide lens, whilst also using a Steadicam to give certain sequences an intriguingly fluid feel for a period piece.

The technical contributions across the board are excellent: Tariq Anwar’s crisp editing keeps things moving smoothly; Eve Stewart’s production design is richly detailed and the costumes by Jenny Beaven are first rate. (The only slight lapse is some CGI work near the end).

‘Crowd-pleaser’ is a term that can often signify something sentimental, but The King’s Speech is likely to give a lot of pleasure to audiences across a wide spectrum.

An astutely observed social comedy, it also has great depth as a drama, beginning and ending with sequences of considerable weight and tension.

The film has already proved a hit on the festival circuit this year and it is very hard to see audiences and Oscar voters resisting its classy blend of history, humour and emotion.

The King’s Speech premieres at the London Film Festival tonight and screens on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th. It opens in the UK on January 7th 2011.

> The King’s Speech at the LFF
> IMDb entry

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Ken Loach Keynote Speech

Ken Loach recently gave a keynote speech at the London Film Festival where he discussed the current state of British cinema and the role of the national broadcasters in supporting a healthy UK film culture.

Here are some edited highlights:

You can watch the full speech at BFI Live by clicking here.

> Ken Loach at the IMDb
> Ken Loach Films on YouTube

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Tabloid

A former beauty queen, a Mormon missionary, British tabloid newspapers and cloned dogs all provide Errol Morris with some riotous material for his latest documentary, which ranks alongside his finest work.

After two serious documentaries about figures involved in US military conflicts – The Fog of War (2003) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008) – Morris has returned to the quirkier territory of earlier work like Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981).

In the late 1970s when a former Miss Wyoming named Joyce McKinney, caused a tabloid scandal in England by allegedly kidnapping a Mormon missionary in Surrey and ‘enslaving’ him in an episode which was soon dubbed the ‘Mormon sex in chains case’.

The resulting media feeding frenzy increased when she was arrested and imprisoned only to later escape to the US, where she surfaced many years later in a very different story.

Morris explores this bizarre tale through extended interviews with McKinney herself; Peter Tory, a journalist for the Daily Express close to the story; Kent Gavin, a photographer for the rival Daily Mirror who had a different take on McKinney; Troy Williams, a Mormon activist who provides religious context; and a Korean scientist who clones dogs.

Using his trademark Interrotron camera, which creates the effect of the subject talking at the audience, Morris elicits revealing testimonies which relay events like a compulsive, page-turning novel.

He certainly struck gold in finding McKinney: energetic, talkative and at times seemingly delusional, she has a turn of phrase which is infectious, ridiculous and hilarious.

Providing a nice counterbalance is Tory, who gives a more sober account but also has an intriguing part in the story he reported on.

Not only was he MacKinney’s unofficial ‘minder’ for the Express, accompanying her to a film premiere for publicity, but his recollections are not always what they seem.

Another perspective is provided by Gavin, who as a deadly rival to Tory, embodies the tenacity of old-school Fleet Street veterans. His relish and glee at uncovering certain photos is as revealing as McKinney’s delusions.

But tabloid is more than just the hilarious recollections of a juicy story: it is a shrewd dissection of tabloid culture itself through its use of inventive graphics and judicious editing.

One dazzling technique used throughout is the accentuation of the interviewee’s words with on screen graphics, highlighting the way in which tabloids interpret language for effect.

Morris also uses graphics to visualize the story, as archive tabloid coverage comes alive with headlines, pull-quotes and cartoons cleverly synced with the words we hear from the people on screen.

Seeing the fonts of various English newspapers flash up on screen conveys the hysterical, funny and often cruel nature of how tabloids present information to the world.

It nails the peculiarities of the British tabloid press: the screaming headlines, bitter rivalries, fascination with smut and the overblown, self-important nature of their coverage are all deftly conveyed.

The editing by Grant Surmi is also outstanding and the film flows with consummate ease between the different interviews, often punctuating them with marvellous audio and visual flourishes.

On a deeper level Tabloid is about how stories and events are remembered.

There are different points of view on MacKinney’s story and the film is fascinating precisely because it leaves room for our own conclusions.

Ironically, this is the polar opposite of tabloid coverage which seeks to paint things in black and white, and provide a definitive viewpoint on even the most contentious of matters.

Morris takes quite the opposite approach and by probing the details of this odd case, appears to suggest that the attention seeking subject reflects the very culture that showcased her.

But Tabloid is by no means a cerebral, academic exercise.

One of the most purely entertaining documentaries in years, it makes you think whilst you laugh and is another reminder of why Errol Morris remains one of the best filmmakers working today.

Tabloid played at the London Film Festival over the weekend but a UK release date is TBC

> Tabloid at the IMDb
> Official website of Errol Morris
> Reviews of Tabloid via MUBi
> Tabloid at the LFF

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Another Year

Mike Leigh’s latest film is a pitch-perfect ensemble piece revolving around the friends and family of an ageing married couple.

Nearing retirement age, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) live in North London and seem genuinely happy as they work, tend to their allotment and play host to an array of characters who come in and out of their lives.

These include: their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who is still close to them; Mary (Lesley Manville), a needy divorcee with relationship problems; Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend with a taste for food and alcohol; and Katie (Karina Fernandez), a therapist who forms a relationship with Joe.

Each section of the film is titled with a season and as they change, so do the characters to varying degrees as they deal with the stuff of life: love, death, humour, despair, loneliness and friendship.

It follows the familiar Leigh formula of finding drama in lives of distinctive characters in a particular setting and, like his previous films, relies heavily on the actors to make it work.

The good news is that nearly all the cast bring something distinctive to their roles, creating a rich tapestry of emotions and memorable situations.

Broadbent and Sheen play their couple with just the right amount of affection and tenderness. Their deep love for one another, shown through subtle body language and speech is so good you might not notice it at first.

Lesley Manville is especially outstanding in what initially might seem a clichéd role. But as the film progresses, she conveys the piercing frustrations of her life whilst also managing to be funny, annoying and sympathetic, in what is one of the performances of the year.

The other supporting actors also fill into their roles with an ease which is often a hallmark of a Leigh ensemble and there are also small but perfectly formed turns from Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis.

Not every character is minutely dissected, nor has their conflicts neatly resolved, but we get to observe them at close quarters as time gradually changes their lives, for the better or worse.

Small talk is present in much of the dialogue, but Leigh finds a way to make it revealing, as people either gradually get to the point or reveal their true feelings with a look or gesture.

This means that everyday locations are a theatre of emotions: a dinner featuring Joe’s new girlfriend is awkwardly hilarious; a living room after a funeral becomes a sombre venue for old family tensions; an allotment in the rain seems like the happiest place for a family to be.

Mainstream cinema can be a medium prone to the obvious and bombastic, but the subtle drama Leigh shapes in this film is a master class in exploring the emotional temperatures of everyday life.

These qualities are mirrored in the quietly excellent technical contributions, which feature Dick Pope’s lean and elegant cinematography and Simon Beresford’s convincing but unobtrusive production design.

After coming out of Another Year, it was hard not to think of Secrets and Lies (1995), which, in an already acclaimed career, was arguably Leigh’s creative and commercial high point to date.

The humanity and sheer pleasure of that film is mirrored in his latest, a wonderfully executed exploration of the ups and downs of everyday existence.

Another Year screens at the London Film Festival this week (Mon 18th-Weds 20th) and opens in the UK on Friday 5th November

> Another Year at the LFF
> Another Year at the IMDb
> Reviews from Cannes via MUBi
> Find out more about Mike Leigh at Wikipedia and Screenonline

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Carlos

An epic project depicting the career of an international terrorist, Carlos is one of the most riveting films in recent memory.

Director Olivier Assayas has brilliantly recreated the life and times of the Venezualan revolutionary (Eduardo Ramierez), born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez and later nicknamed ‘Carlos the Jackal’, to paint a fascinating portrait of a historical figure.

It charts his early years as a violent revolutionary in Europe as he proves his worth to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); missions for states such as Iraq, Libya and East Germany; an infamous kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna in 1975 and his gradual decline as he sought refuge in Eastern Europe, Syria and Sudan as he struggled to cope with the end of the Cold War before finally being caught by French agents in 1994, where he currently resides in jail under a life sentence.

An ambitious French TV project, it is getting two kinds of theatrical release: a three part five and a half hour cut and a shortened 165 minute version.

It will then get released on DVD and Blu-ray soon after along with a variety of on demand options in several countries.

Despite its origins, it was shot on 35 mm film and to all intents and purposely feels like a sprawling historical epic. Assayas doesn’t just recreate the period, he plunges us head first in to the era with an exhaustive attention to detail.

The production design is especially outstanding, with costumes, locations and sets all used to present the period with remarkable authenticity.

At the centre of all this is a captivating central performance from Ramierez, who not only bears an eerie resemblance to Carlos, but anchors the film as it criss-crosses through many years and locations: he captures the vanity, obsession and physique of the man rarely in a portrayal that rarely hits a wrong note.

The supporting performances are also strong with stand out turns from Juana Acosta (as an early lover); Alexander Scheer (playing his longest serving colleague) and Nora von WaldstÀtten (as his increasingly beleaguered wife).

Discerning viewers should catch the full version as the editing gives sequences a fluid sense of movement and pace which belies its long running time. Although the third part sags a little compared to the first two, it moves with an incredible fluency and pace which makes many 90 minute films seem ponderous by comparison.

Some memorable set pieces include his first mission, a botched airport attack, a betrayal, an extended kidnap sequence and the final entrapment of Carlos as the net gradually closes in.

Based on extensive research, with the filmmakers allowing for an interpretation of some events, the attention to detail reaps rich dividends because it never feels burdened by obvious movie tropes.

Many sequences are intercut with news footage from the time, which provide a counterpoint to the perspective of Carlos and his inner circle, as well as rooting us in the historical record.

The handheld cameras and sound design all helps give the action an added urgency which is tingling throughout, and neatly conveys the anxieties of a life on the run.

Also interesting is the widescreen lensing by Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir: some sequences have an epic feel which is contrasted with others that are more much claustrophobic and intimate. Throughout the visuals are handled with a dynamism and skill rare in modern cinema.

In the last decade the gap between television and cinema has narrowed. Not only have higher end shows become more like films, but cinema has struggled to compete with the range and narrative scope offered by series like The Wire and Mad Men.

Carlos represents an interesting hybrid: it screened at Cannes just before premiering on Canal+ in France but in many countries will be seen as three part film project.

It is very hard to imagine a US or UK broadcaster (even HBO or BBC) making a project as ambitious as this: not only is the protagonist a revolutionary terrorist, but it makes no concessions to being obviously ‘prestigious’ or uplifting, in the conventional sense.

But the lift comes from the audacious way in which Assayas and his creative team have relentlessly focused on a character who in some ways, reflects the creeping ambiguities and dangers of modern terrorism.

Although a period piece, Carlos asks awkward questions about the nature of terrorists and does so by featuring an enigmatic central figure: What made a Venezuelan Marxist so passionate about the Palestinian cause? How much of his motivation was vanity over ideology? Is terrorism at its core, a form of narcissism? In what way do nation states use terrorists for their own ends?

These are never fully answered but teased out for audiences to form their own perspective. A running theme seems to be that Carlos was both a practical tool used by various governments complicit in his activities (such as Iraq, Libya) but also a useful myth whose frequently botched acts were more about perception than reality.

This is contrasted with his own motivations, which often seems to be an egotistical individualism at odds with his professed solidarity to the global Marxist struggle.

As the film draws to a close and Carlos becomes like a faded rock star shunned from countries once sympathetic to him and his mystery actually deepens as the enigma fades.

Had he merely stopped serving a purpose after the Cold War ended? Or was it merely a matter of time running out and his crimes catching up with him? Was Carlos an individual who hijacked causes for his own egotistical ends?

The questions are tantalising and although after five and a half hours the audience might be expecting some answers, the film is satisfying precisely because it avoids lazy conclusions, almost reflecting the mysteries and myths that grew around the man himself.

The use of post-punk and new wave songs (especially Wire’s anthem Dot-Dash) provide bursts of energy throughout, whilst the lack of a conventional score infuses others with a raw sense of immediacy and tension.

A mammoth logistical undertaking compressing over thirty years of history into around 330 minutes, Carlos is also an absorbing portrait of a mythological figure, who seems to embody the unsettling mysteries and reality of terrorism.

More than just an accomplished historical biopic, it is also an essential drama about the times in which we live.

Carlos screened at the LFF on Saturday and Olivier Assayas gives a screen talk on Saturday 24th October

** The extended and abridged versions will both be released at UK cinemas on Friday 22nd October **

> Carlos at the LFF
> Carlos at the IMDb
> Pre-order Carlos on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Never Let Me Go

The film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is an exquisitely crafted but emotionally distant meditation on mortality.

Set in an alternate timeline of England where science has cured many illnesses, a young woman named Kathy (Carey Mulligan) looks back on her childhood when she grew up with two friends, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield).

As youngsters they attend Hailsham, a boarding school sheltering them from the outside world, and as they grow older it slowly dawns on them that they have been excluded from mainstream society for a reason.

From the opening credits director Mark Romanek establishes a carefully controlled mood, and for the early section we see younger actors (Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe) convincingly play the three leads as children in 1978.

Hints are dropped fairly early on about the mysterious nature of their youth, alongside a developing love triangle as Kathy realises Tommy, who she bonded with from an early age, is in love with Ruth.

The recreation of an ageing English boarding school is thoroughly convincing, with some first rate costume and production design, and the transition to their teenage years in the mid-1980s is fairly seamless.

Romanek handles the material with considerable skill and technically the film is exquisitely made: Adam Kimmel’s widescreen cinematography and Barney Pilling’s editing all help to create a rich mood of sadness and regret.

As an American, Romanek was an interesting choice to direct the material and he gives it a crisp sense of movement, far removed from the ponderous nature of many British productions which can drearily linger on their period settings.

The alternative version of England is depicted with unusual precision.

Look carefully at the school, the countryside, the towns and vehicles and you will notice a piercing eye for detail, which enhances the realism despite the sci-fi backdrop.

There are also some memorable images: the creepy beauty of Hailsham, the wintry isolation of an empty beach and the clinical interiors of a hospital are just some of the startling visual backdrops.

Added to this is a standout central performance from Carey Mulligan. Her work here is on par with her lauded turn in ‘An Education’, demonstrating a rich vein of emotion along with a captivating screen presence.

As the film moves in to the 1990s, she depicts a maturity beyond her years, perfectly suited to the material, and also delivers a potentially tricky voiceover with just the right nuance and feeling.

But there is a paradox at the heart of Never Let Me Go, which is that for all its impeccable craft, there is an emotional distance to the audience.

Alex Garland’s screenplay, which otherwise does a fine job at extracting and shaping the ideas of the book, shows its hand early on, so there is a sense of inevitability to the story.

Whilst this emphasises the notion of fate, it also means the revelations are blunted and end up lacking an intellectual and emotional force.

This is typified in Rachel Portman’s lush orchestral score which despite containing beautiful flourishes, is deployed too heavily throughout, and ends up blending into a collective sound of despair.

Added to this, there is no escaping that the material is an emotional downer: a reminder of the transience of existence, it goes against the feel-good optimism of many mainstream releases.

This is actually to its credit, as precious few films even attempt this, but it may be a reason audiences either don’t respond or simply stay away.

Going in to the awards season this was being touted as a major contender and, after dividng critics at Telluride and Toronto, has died an early box office death in the US with its platform release evaporating into thin air.

In the language of the film it has already ‘completed’ and this is disappointing, as films displaying this level of craft deserve a better fate.

I suspect some US audiences were instinctively repelled by the way in which the characters ‘accept’ their condition.

This is of course an underlying theme of the novel and film – that human beings resign themselves to social conditioning – but it clearly hasn’t caught the mood, even amongst more discerning audiences.

Certainly a film about death, which focuses on the underlying cruelty of a society dedicated to the greater good, is a tricky sell in an era of recession and general gloom.

Time may be kinder to Never Let Me Go.

Despite certain shortcomings, it is a worthy adaptation which conveys the profound sadness of the novel and marks a welcome return for Romanek to the director’s chair.

Never Let Me Go opened the London Film Festival tonight and opens in the UK on Friday 21st January 2011

> Official site
> Reviews of Never Let Me Go at Metacritic and MUBi
> Find out more about Mark Romanek and Kazuo Ishiguro at Wikipedia
> Never Let Me Go at the LFF

Festivals London Film Festival News

London Film Festival 2010 Lineup Announced

The full lineup for this year’s London Film Festival has been announced and the selection of films will feature feuding ballerinas, an unconventional speech therapist and an immoveable boulder.

It will open on October 13th with Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go and close just over two weeks later with Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, but in between will also feature Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Palme D’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Here are some key films to look out for:

  • Never Let Me Go (Dir. Mark Romanek): The opening night film is a story of love and loss based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel starring Caerry Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley. Already heavily tipped as an Oscar contender.
  • The King’s Speech (Dir. Tom Hooper): The story of King George VI (Colin Firth) and an unconventional Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) who helped him overcome his stutter. Was very well recieved at Telluride recently and is already regarded as a strong Oscar contender.
  • Another Year (Dir. Mike Leigh): An ensemble drama set in London exploring the lives of a married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and their various familes and friends. Got a lot of critical buzz in Cannes back in May.
  • Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky): A psychological thriller set in the world of the New York Ballet about a dancer (Natalie Portman) who struggles to meet the demands placed upon her. Co-starring Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassell and Mila Kunis, it premiĂšred at the Venice film festival recently and is likely to get some awards recognition.
  • Biutiful (Dir. Alejandro GonzĂĄlez Iñårritu): A contemporary drama set in Barcelona’s underworld about a single father of two struggling to survive.
  • 127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle): The closing night film is a drama based on the real life story of mountain climber Aaron Rawlston (James Franco) who became trapped by a boulder in Utah back in 2003. It screened at Telluride recently and is expected to be an awards season contender.
  • The Kids Are Alright (Dir. Lisa Cholodenko): Family drama about a couple (Julianne Moore and Anette Benning) whose life becomes more complicated when their adopted children try to find their bilogical father (Mark Ruffalo).
  • Miral (Dir. Julian Schnabel): A drama examining one woman’s experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Of Gods and Men (Dir. Xavier Beauvois): Lambert Wilson and Michel Lonsdale star in this in this drama set in a monastery in North Africa.
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul): The unexpected winner of this year’s Palme d’Or involves a gathering of humans and ghosts around a dying man.

Other films of note looking out for in the Films on the Square section include:

  • The American (Dir. Anton Corbijn) which stars George Clooney as an enigmatic assassin in Italy
  • Carlos (Dir. Olivier Assayas): An epic biopic of infamous Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Dir. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden) A coming of age tale about a troubled Brooklyn teenager (Keir Gilchrist)
  • Let Me In (Dir. Matt Reeves): The US remake of Let The Right One In, about the relationship between a young boy and a vampire;
  • Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris): The latest documentary from Morris is the story of Joyce McKinney and the case of the ‘manacled Mormon’.

Following last year’s inaugural ceremony, the BFI London Film Festival Awards return for a second year to celebrate the finest films within the festival.

This year the awards will take place on October 27th at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, before a panel of judges representing the international film community. (The full Awards shortlist will be announced on September 28th).

For a full list of films showing at the festival, including the New British Cinema, French Revolutions, Cinema Europa, World Cinema, Experimenta, Treasures from the Archives and Short Cuts and Animation strands go to the official LFF website.

You can download a calendar of events at the festival as a PDF file here.

The 54th BFI London Film Festival runs from October 13th until October 28th

> Official LFF site
> Coverage from last year’s festival

London Film Festival News

Never Let Me Go to open the London Film Festival

Never Let Me Go will be the opening film at this year’s London Film Festival on October 13th.

Adaptated from Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestselling novel, it stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and is directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo).

Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) wrote the screenplay and it is the story of three young adults and an English boarding school which hides a dark secret.

A co-production between DNA Films, Film4 and Fox Searchlight, it is likely to feature in the end of year BAFTA and Oscar nominations.

Sandra Hebron, the Festival’s Artistic Director has said:

‘It is a great pleasure to be able to open the festival with a film as accomplished and imaginative as NEVER LET ME GO. It combines impeccable film making, outstanding performances and a deeply moving story, and I couldn’t wish for a stronger or more appropriate opening night.’

On having the film’s European premiere at the Festival, Andrew Macdonald of DNA Films said:

‘We’re delighted that NEVER LET ME GO has been selected to open this year’s festival. It has been a privilege to be involved with bringing Kazuo Ishiguro’s remarkable novel to the screen, and to work with such an exceptional British cast. We look forward to unveiling the film in London.’

Director Mark Romanek also adds:

‘I think I can speak for the entire cast and crew when I say that we are deeply honored and excited to have been selected to open this year’s festival. For me personally, it seems the perfect way to celebrate the conclusion of an incredible filmmaking experience in the UK.’

The full programme for The 54th BFI London Film Festival will be announced on Wednesday 8th September and it will run from 13th-28th October 2010.

Fox Searchlight are seasoned pros when it comes to getting films attention in the awards season and the first trailer was an impressive first glimpse at what can be expected:

Never Let Me Go will be released in the UK on January 14th 2011.

> Official site
> Never Let Me Go at the IMDb
> BFI London Film Festival

Festivals Images London Film Festival

LFF 2009: Photos

A Flickr slideshow of photos I took during this year’s London Film Festival.

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2009: Nowhere Boy

Aaron Johnson in Nowhere Boy

Despite a plethora of potential pitfalls this drama about the early
years of John Lennon is a stylish and engaging biopic.

Nowhere Boy explores the teenage years of Lennon (Aaron Johnson) and the two important women in his youth: his aunt Mimi Smith (Kristin Scott Thomas) who raised him and his mother Julia (Anne Marie Duff). It also charts his early forays into music as he forms The Quarrymen with a younger guitarist named Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster).

Bringing a cultural icon like John Lennon to the big screen was always going to be a tricky affair but director Sam Taylor Wood (making her feature debut) has wisely focused on the intriguing family dynamics of Lennon’s childhood and how they fed into his career.

But perhaps most importantly there is a craft and intelligence here that pays tribute to Lennon’s art without indulging in histrionics or clichĂ©s.

The opening of a film can nearly always reveal something about its quality and the nice use of a famous Beatles chord to kick everything off indicated to me that things were going to be OK.

It is inevitable that most of the attention and focus of the film would fall on Aaron Johnson, as filling the role of Lennon is perhaps one of the more daunting tasks faced by an actor in recent times.

But he does a good job at capturing the youthful intensity of the young songwriter and although it is a little rough around the edges, that feels appropriate given the emotional tumult of his home life.

Part of the strong bedrock of the film is an admirably tight script by Matt Greenhalgh (who wrote the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control) which treats Mimi and Julia as central characters rather than just peripheral support.

Based on the memoir ‘Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon‘ by Lennon’s half sister Julia Baird, it focuses quite tightly on their influence on Lennon’s formative years and his burgeoning friendship with McCartney.

Scott Thomas nicely captures the stern but ultimately loving adoptive parent whilst Duff is excellent as the energetic and erratic soul mate Beatles fans have long read about in various biographies.

Wisely the film – unlike some British efforts – looks properly cinematic by being shot in 2:35 widescreen and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who has a considerable experience of music vidoes) shoots with taste, tact and intelligence.

The locations have a richness and vibrancy to them that is similar in some ways to Control and the recreation of 1950s Liverpool is entirely convincing. It is also a relief to see parts of the UK (specifically the North West) presented with a touch of class.

Taylor-Wood might have seemed an odd choice to direct a film like this
but if Steve McQueen’s Hunger proved anything last year, it is that artists from different disciplines (she came to prominence in the 1990s as a conceptual artist) can give cinema something of a creative kick up the arse.

Her artistic background doesn’t always leap at you from the screen, apart from one time-lapse sequence of Lennon learning the banjo, and in general this shows admirable restraint as the style rarely overpowers the emotional content.

In any musical biopic, be it The Buddy Holly Story, The Doors or Walk The Line, there is usually that moment where the principal characters play ‘that song you know’.

Here the equivalent moments are when John first meets Paul and when they first play together with The Quarrymen at a local fete (Shea Stadium was still a while off).

Although this could have been cheesy, but it says a lot about the strengths of the film that it feels natural and convincing. My first reaction on seeing Paul was ‘doesn’t he look young?’ but given that he was 15 at this point, he probably did look young.

There is one moment towards the end when a certain character is about to say the phrase ‘The Beatles’ and doesn’t, which was the moment when it occurred to me that it hadn’t been said at all.

It’s a shrewd move and emblematic of the film, which fills in the emotional gaps whilst not retreading the well worn images of the early Fab Four.

The audience I saw it with was an early morning press and industry crowd and it would be fair to say they didn’t applaud or go for it in the way they did for last year’s LFF closing film Slumdog Millionaire.

Whilst there will always be doses of cynicism and schadenfreude amongst these kind of crowds I was surprised they didn’t go for it a bit more. (I overheard one person sitting in front of me profess dislike for Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2008 short film Love You More despite being “very well made”.)

Maybe this is me being optimistic but if this is marketed well then I can see some very healthy box office ahead for Icon (the UK distributors) and The Weinstein Company (who have the US rights).

After all it is a film about the adolescent pain which fuelled some of the most popular songs of the 20th century.

Nowhere Boy closes the London Film Festival tonight and opens in the UK on December 26th

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2009: A Serious Man

Michael Stuhlbarg and Adam Arkin in A Serious Man  Image courtesy of Universal and Focus Features

A Serious Man is a personal and exquisitely crafted black comedy that explores the pointless nature of suffering in 1960s Minnesota.

One of the handy things about winning a clutch of Oscars is the collateral it gives you to make a personal and defiantly anti-Hollywood film with no name stars.

After the critical, commercial and Oscar success of No Country for Old Men, this is precisely what Joel and Ethan Coen have done with their latest project.

Beginning with a bizarre extended prologue set in an Eastern European shtetl, it moves on to explore the hellish suburban existence of a Jewish maths professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Minnesota, during 1967.

With a hectoring wife (Sari Lennick) who wants a divorce, her annoying widower lover (Fred Melamed), a leeching brother (Richard Kind), a pothead son (Aaron Wolff ) into Jefferson Airplane, dithering academic colleagues, an awkward Korean student and a succession of perpetually useless rabbis, he appears to living in a modern day version of The Book of Job.

All of this is filmed with a precision and defiant, dark wit that is a hallmark of the Coens at their very best.

If you enjoyed the pointless, bumbling criminality in Fargo and the satire of Bush-era stupidity in Burn After Reading then you will probably love this. If not, then you probably won’t.

But even those put off by the tone of the film would be hard pressed not to admire the sheer class on display behind and in front of the camera.

A Serious Man posterThe performances are mostly note perfect, with Stuhlbarg especially outstanding in the lead role and a supporting cast filled with fine contributions, although keep a special eye out for George Wyner and Simon Helberg as two contrasting rabbis.

On a technical level, it is up to the very highest standards of modern cinema.

Regular collaborator Roger Deakins shoots with his customary artful precision whilst the production design, art direction and costumes are flawless.

Watching it on a beautiful digital projection, I was already thinking how great this is going to look on Blu-ray.

As usual the editing (by the Coens under their regular pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) is splendid and listen out for how they way they’ve mixed the sound, be it Jefferson Airplane on a portable radio or the way a family slurp their soup.

Part of the richness of the film lies in its uncompromising take on suburban angst. There is no let up, no cheesy uplift and the characters are mostly a succession of grotesques there to torment the protagonist. But really, it is funny.

For some this will merely be a pointless exercise in misanthropy but there is something deeper here that the Coens are targeting, namely the false comforts and rules in which many place their trust.

Religion, family, career advancement, philosophy and consumerism are all subjects which get thoroughly skewered over the course of the story. The comedy that comes out of this, is one rooted in recognition and pain rather than goofy, slapstick relief. The laughs here are muffled but highly acute.

In the hands of lesser filmmakers this could easily be a mess, but with the Coens it feels just right. In fact it feels so authentic that one can only presume that much of it is rooted in their personal experience of growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Back in 1998 I remember reading an interview where they talked about signing up for a record club as teenagers and anyone who watches the film with this in mind will feel a twinge of recognition at one of the sub-plots.

Bob Graf, the Coens’ longtime producer said to the Star Tribune last year that:

“It’s a story inspired by where they grew up, things that they remembered from their childhood”

Whilst assistant art director Jeff Schein has also commented on the time period:

“It’s a mental travelogue of 1967, and for me, since I grew up near the Coens in St. Louis Park, it’s a childhood story.”

Aside from the autobiographical aspects, it will be interesting to see how Jewish audiences react to the film, with its richly detailed observations about Jewish life.

Not only do we have an startling prologue spoken entirely in Yiddish, but there are sequences involving a large gallery of Jewish characters: waddling secretaries, puzzled dentists, shouting wives and cryptic rabbis are all going to evoke twinges of recognition, laughter and – amongst some – disquiet.

But although it is drenched in Jewish culture – specifically that of the Midwest – it isn’t exclusively about Jews or Jewishness.

Ultimately one could put forward a compelling case for saying that the film is about throwing the enigma of religious teaching back on itself. This is effectively a non-parable made up of parables, that highlights how the ‘answers’ of Judaism (and organised religion) merely lead to more confusion and chaos.

My guess is that this will not be the awards slam dunk that Fargo or No Country For Old Men turned out to be and some will be put off by the slow pace and darkly poetic humour.

But this is the Coen Brothers operating at their very best, a heartfelt and beautifully constructed piece of cinema that is likely to reward future viewings.

A Serious Man is out at UK cinemas on Friday 20th November

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2009: An Education

Carey Mulligan in An Education

An Education had a gala screening at the London Film Festival this week and gets released next Friday (October 30th).

I reviewed it in full a couple of weeks ago, so click here to read it.

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2009: Paracetamol update


Instead of watching films at the London Film Festival this week I’ve been mostly in bed with a heavy cold taking paracetamol.

Which means I missed Bright Star, The White Ribbon, The Boys Are Back and Chloe.

I’m going to try and catch up with these films over the next few weeks as they get general releases.

Hopefully, normal service will be resumed tomorrow as I see Starsuckers, a UK documentary about tabloid newspapers getting duped in to running false stories.

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Thoughts

LFF 2009: Up in the Air

Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

The recession, human relationships, jobs and travel are just some of the issues explored in this smart, funny and thoughtful adaptation of Walter Kim’s 2001 novel.

When we first meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air we discover that his job is to inform people that they no longer have theirs. Employed by an Omaha based company, his life is spent flying around the US firing people in a smooth and efficient manner because bosses want to outsource this awkward process.

Free of human relationships, he has become attached to frequent flyer miles and the buzz of being a master at living out of a suitcase. But when his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that he must train a new recruit (Anna Kendrick) who is advocating firing people via video-link, things begin to change.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Up in the Air is how it makes you ponder gloomy subjects whilst you laugh at the jokes. Much of the film is a breezy, observational comedy with finely honed lead performances and sparkling dialogue. It feels like a road movie set amongst airports (a ‘plane movie’, in a sense) as the characters go on a literal and emotional journey across America.

Underneath the witty, often hilarious, surface lies a more serious and perceptive exploration about losing work and finding love. The script even updates the themes of the book to the current era (one sequence is dated as happening in February 2010) by having recently fired workers essentially play versions of themselves.

This potentially clunky device is weaved in skilfully (some audiences may miss it first time, although subconsciously it will register) and sets us up for the latter stages, which show an admirable restraint from the usual Hollywood resolutions. But before we reach that point, there is much to feast on.

Up in the Air PosterOne of the key selling points is George Clooney, a Hollywood star with the charm and wit of a bygone era. Given his commendable passion for doing different kinds of films (some behind the camera) it is easy to forget what a magnetic presence he can be as a screen actor.

With its one liners, speeches and sly underbelly of emotion, this is a role he was almost born to play and he delivers the goods in spades. Not since Out of Sight has he been this Clooneyesque. One line in particular (actually scripted by Reitman’s father) is an absolute zinger delivered to perfection, which you’ll know when you hear it as the whole cinema will be laughing.

In the key supporting roles Anna Kendrick (who first stood out in 2007’s Rocket Science) shows excellent timing as the peppy graduate keen to prove her worth whilst Vera Farmiga is a superb foil for Clooney as his air-mile obsessed love interest. Jason Bateman adds some sly touches as Clooney’s boss and there is a nice cameo from Sam Elliott (which may or may not be a reference to the 1988 thriller Shakedown – released in the UK as Blue Jean Cop – which also involves a plane and Elliott).

The technical aspects of the film are first rate across the board; with Dana Glaubetman‘s editing worthy of special mention as it helps keep proceedings ticking along beautifully. Jason Reitman co-wrote the script with Sheldon Turner and directs with an energetic but delicate touch. Compared to his previous films, it has the delicious wit of Thank You for Smoking and the unsentimental emotions of Juno, but actually surpasses both in terms of mixing up the light and heavy elements.

Unlike a lot of book to screen transitions the film arguably improves the central drama by throwing more profound doubts at the protagonist. I won’t spoil the final movement by revealing key details (because that would be silly) but I can’t help feeling it will provoke an interesting kaleidoscope of reactions.

When I saw it, an audience member in front of me was laughing loudly at some of the firing scenes (presumably unaware that the people on screen were drawing on recent painful experiences) and it raised some interesting questions. Is this a comedy or a drama? Is their laughter in pain and sadness in humour? How will mainstream audiences in a recession – for whom cinema is traditionally an escape – react to such a film?

Perhaps the human experience of life, work and relationships is bitter-sweet, no matter how rich, employed or happy you consider yourself to be. But that a film from a major Hollywood studio would probe such areas in such an entertaining way is refreshing, particularly as the laughter here provokes genuine thought rather than providing simple relief.

One idea that some audiences will possibly mull on as the end credits roll is that human relationships are what really counts in an increasingly impersonal and technology driven society. But I am not so sure that is the case, even if it is what the filmmakers intended. Wisely, the film leaves out the pat focus-group approved resolution.

Finally, if you actually stay until the very end credits (which audiences often don’t) you’ll hear something unexpected. I won’t reveal what happens but it sounds like the essence of the film, that of connections trying to be made in a world where they are increasingly drying up.

Like the movie, it is funny, sad and makes you think.

Up in the Air screens tonight, Monday and Tuesday at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on December 4th (wide release on Dec 25th) and in the UK on January 15th

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Thoughts

LFF 2009: The Road

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road / Icon

The film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s devastating 2006 novel is a haunting tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world featuring two outstanding lead performances.

The Road depicts the journey of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they struggle to stay alive in an America which has descended into savagery after an unspecified environmental and social collapse.

Part of the story’s raw power is the absence of any explanation as to why the world is collapsing, which shifts the focus on to the central relationship and the day to day struggle to survive.

Given that the story involves suicide, cannibalism and humans acting like savages you have to give credit to director John Hillcoat (who made the wonderfully gritty Australian western The Proposition in 2005) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (author of the acclaimed play Blue/Orange) for properly translating the horrors and emotions of the novel into a film.

Central to why it works is the focus on the day to day struggle to survive and the resistance of  horror movie clichés which have stunk up the cinema in recent years with the plethora of zombie movies this decade and the likes of Saw and Hostel which contain plenty of gore but little genuine emotions.

Key to making this film so affecting are the two  central performances which convey the love, anguish and desperation of their appalling situation and their deep love for one another. Mortensen as the unnamed father is (as usual) terrific but Smit-McPhee is more than his match, especially as the film progresses and he gradually becomes the moral heart of the piece.

The visual look is particularly striking: cinematographer Javier Aguirresa opts for a brownish palette to depict the harsh, ash-ridden environment. The art direction and production design also makes very clever use of rural US locations to create a chilling post-apocalyptic world.

Audiences unfamiliar with the novel may be taken aback by how bleak the story is and the film certainly doesn’t pull its punches: roaming gangs of cannibals, potential suicide and houses filled with half alive bodies are just some aspects that will disturb, although the most notorious scene from the book is omitted.

But the oppressive tone is there for a reason as it is part of the book’s power. It adds to the tension of the journey but also makes the stakes for the father and son all the more real. Unlike horror films where victims are meaningless pawns, the characters here are rounded people you desperately care about.

Another thing to look out for is the interesting supporting cast, which is filled with excellent performances –  most of which are extended cameos – from Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis  strikes an appropriately mournful tone with a notable piano motif reminiscent of Arvo Paart.

The Road was supposed to come out in the US last year and there has been some chatter that it was a troubled production the US distributors The Weinstein Company were nervous about. Given that the novel was one of the most acclaimed of the decade, no doubt they felt they had a good shot at awards glory.

When it premiered in Venice, it divided opinion but it really is an admirable film on many levels. The filmmakers have preserved the uncompromising nature of the McCarthy’s source material but also crafted a deeply moving drama of love in a time of death. In McCarthy’s words they have ‘carried the fire’.

The Road screened today at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on November 25th and the UK on January 8th 2010

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Thoughts

LFF 2009: The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats

Loosely adapted from Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book about bizarre US military practices, The Men Who Stare at Goats mostly hits the spot as a satire.

For anyone who hasn’t read Ronson’s book, the title comes from a secret Army unit founded in 1979 called the ‘First Earth Battalion’ who conducted paranormal experiments which included staring at goats in order to kill them.

Why was US taxpayer money being used in this way? After the trauma of Vietnam and Cold War paranoia still in the air, it seems that the military brass were willing to allow a unit to pursue paranormal experiments and all kinds of New Age ideas.

With names changed and details tweaked, the film uses a fictional framing narrative of an Ann Arbor journalist (Ewan McGregor) who hears about these strange practices and when he goes to cover the Iraq war in 2003 he encounters  a former member of the unit (George Clooney) who provides him with more stories.

In flashback we learn the history of  the unit created under Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) at Fort Bragg which trained soldiers to be ‘Jedi Warriors’ with special powers. (Note the irony of McGregor not playing a ‘Jedi’ here despite the fact that he played the most famous Jedi of all in the Star Wars prequels).

Amongst these are Lynn Cassady (Clooney), Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and General Hopgood (Stephen Lang). As McGregor’s journalist slowly uncovers their history he begins to see how their methods connect to George W Bush‘s war on terror.

Fans of the book should be prepared for something a little different from the film but credit should go screenwriter Peter Straughan who has done a clever job in incorporating the details into a narrative framework and weaving many of the best details into certain scenes. There is quite a lot of voiceover from McGregor, but the fact that he’s a journalist helps soften what can sometimes be a clunky storytelling device.

The tone here is somewhat similar to the dry, knowing slapstick of the Coen Brothers (such as Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski) and director Grant Heslov manages to mine the source material for plenty of laughs.

The theme of the film seems to be how the US military will embrace any idea – no matter how whacky – in the pursuit of its goals and how the insanity of Cold War simply fermented such thinking. As the film reminds us, Ronald Regan was a big fan of Star Wars (one of his missile programmes was nicknamed after it) and even had a wife who believed in astrological readings.

The logic in creating a unit of ‘Jedi warriors’ during the Cold War seemed to come out of paranoia that they had to do it before the Russians did – even if was crazy.

But much of the satire comes from the inherent absurdity of war itself, which is why the training camp sections and modern day sequences in Iraq dovetail more neatly than you think. Lest we forget, US troops blasted Iraqi prisoners-of-war with the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur and played Eminem to detainees at Gauantanamo Bay.

Heslov and Straughn seem to be channelling the spirit of such films as Dr Strangelove, Three Kings and Catch 22 for the War on Terror generation. The cast is uniformly good with the standout performance coming from Clooney (who is perfectly deadpan throughout), although why directors seem hell-bent on casting McGregor as an American is a mystery given his wonky US accent.

The Men Who Stare at Goats (poster at the Vue after LFF press screening)

However, the chemistry between Clooney and McGregor works well in their extended sequences together and the film is consistently funny, if not flat out hilarious or possessing the political savvy of the films that inspired it. Impressively, the events of the book are compressed neatly into a highly watchable 93 minutes, with precious little fat or waste.

On the tech side, the visuals look impressive for a mid-budget movie, whilst special praise must go to cinematographer Robert Elswit (one of the best currently working in Hollywood) who shoots some of the locations superbly with New Mexico doubling for Iraq and Puerto Rico standing in for Vietnam and other places.

Quite how this will do at the box office remains an open question. Despite being very accessible and featuring a stellar cast, the fact that it is effectively an indie (made by Overture Films and BBC Films) might mean it lacks the marketing power of bigger funded studio rivals.

The surreal nature of the story might baffle people – as an opening title says: “More of this is true than you would believe” – which leaves the question as to how much you do actually believe. That said, I can see it playing well with audiences and UK distributor Momentum Pictures can expect it to do well if enough buzz is created.

The Men Who Stare at Goats screened tonight at the LFF and goes on general release in the UK on November 6

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Thoughts

LFF 2009: Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox

An animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book seemed an unlikely project for director Wes Anderson but it captures the charms of the source material and is likely to be his biggest box office hit.

The premise of Fantastic Mr Fox involves – believe it or not – a fox (George Clooney) living underground with his wife (Meryl Streep) and family (which includes Jason Schwartzman).

However, he can’t let go of his wild instincts and regularly raids the chicken coops of the irate local farmers (Michael Gambon, Adrien Brody and Brian Cox) who declare war on him.

In some ways the film is a curious hybrid: a recognizable Anderson film with his usual kooks and quirks; an adaptation of a beloved book and a mainstream animated release from a major studio (appropriately enough, Fox).

Anderson’s films over the last decade have been the Hollywood equivalent of gourmet food – undeniably tasty but a bit too refined for mainstream tastes and sometimes too rich for even his admirers.

His best work remains his earlier films: Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) as they combined his style, wit and taste with a tangible pang of emotion.

Fantastic Mr Fox - UK Poster

Since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) his films have become too trapped within their own stylistic tics: British invasion soundtracks, privileged characters with parental issues, distinctive clothing, Kubrick-style fonts and so on.

Films like The Life Aquatic (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) have certainly above the Hollywood standard – and in places quite brilliant – but the sense of Anderson not quite taking his work to another level has been hard to shake off.

What makes Fantastic Mr Fox refreshing is that although it bears some of his stylistic trademarks, the switch to animation has given him a new lease of life.

Clocking in at just 89 minutes it moves briskly and has a nice, breezy attitude, embodied by the central character who remains coolly charming even in the most perilous situations.

There is a charm and simplicity to the central characters and – unlike some of Anderson’s recent creations – they feel more rounded and less like stylistic puppets, which is ironic given that they literally are puppets.

Schwartzmann’s voice over work is especially noteworthy, hitting a precise tone of innocence and weariness as a young fox trying to find himself in the world.

The original book was accompanied by the distinctive artwork of Quentin Blake and Anderson – and his creative team – have opted for their own bold approach, using stop motion animation instead of CGI.

Instead of the smooth textures of Pixar and Dreamworks, the visuals here bear a resemblance to Coraline, Corpse Bride or the work of Nick Park and Aardman animation.

The low-fi aesthetic reaps considerable dividends as it gives the characters and their surrounding world a distinctive visual flavour. The foxes especially look especially great in close up with their hair moving a bit like King Kong in the 1933 version.

There is the odd Anderson-style indulgence (watch out for a scene with a wolf) but these can be forgiven as the film works it’s magic and charm on a visual and emotional level.

Listen out too for some nicely off the wall musical choices which include: The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Burl Ives, Jarvis Cocker (who has a cameo) and some Ennio Morricone style musings.

It will be interesting to see how this plays with family audiences when it opens in a couple of weeks. Although based on a famous source, it has gags and references that may fly over the heads of younger audiences.

Despite that, it contains enough visual delights for audiences of all ages and may catch fire at the box office, especially in Britain where Roald Dahl is still very popular with a huge amount of readers.

It won’t do the same numbers as Up or Ice Age 3 but there is definitely potential here for some decent global box office.

Intriguingly, Anderson directed most of the film remotely from Paris whilst it was shot at Three Mills Studios in London, which perhaps demonstrates how technology is affecting what happens off screen as well as what we see on it.

Fantastic Mr Fox opened the London film festival tonight and goes on gneral release on October 23rd

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 10

BFI Southbank

Today was more of a quiet day in which I finally caught up with a film that had been eluding me for about a week. 

It is a French drama called The Class which I was meant to see last Saturday when it had a press screening before it had it’s gala screening in the evening. 

But it didn’t happen as I was pretty tired after the Quantum of Solace screening on the Friday night.

Anyway, one of the handy things about the Delegate Centre at the BFI Southbank is that journalists can catch up with films on screener discs, which you watch on nice, widescreen monitors.

It is a little bit like a library and although I always prefer watching films on the big screen, with so much going on it can prove a very handy way of catching up with films you would otherwise miss out on.

Anyway, the film itself is the deceptively simple tale of a French teacher (François Bégaudeau) at a state school in Paris.

The actual French title is Entre Les Murs, which translates as ‘Between the walls’ which is apt as the film never (apart from one shot at the beginning) strays outside the confines of the school.

It is adapted from the 2006 novel of the same name by Bégaudeau, which in turn was based on his own real life experiences teaching in a Paris school.

Directed by Laurent Cantet it scooped the Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier this year and is a rich and deeply satisfying film.

Not only does it scrupulously avoid the cliches that can dog films set inside schools but it manages to offer a plausible snapshot of modern French society by focusing tightly on a class of pupils and the people that teach them.

Although it is shot in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35, the camera hangs tight on each character and never really gives us a look at the French city landscape.

Although this might sound claustrophobic, it makes the lessons and world inside of the school (the staff room, the corridors, the playground) all come alive.

The performances are uniformly excellent – especially from BĂ©gaudeau and a very special cast of non-professional teenagers – but the film also has a tremendous sense of humanity to it without ever slipping into cheap sentiment.

This is one of those rare films that touches the heart whilst engaging the brain – a gem that I would urge anyone to go and see when it gets released in the UK.

>  The Class at the IMDb
> BBC News report on the win at Cannes in May