Category: London Film Festival 2011

Damsels in Distress

This was the Surprise Film at last year’s LFF, and by all accounts wasn’t terribly popular. Frankly it must have been an improvement on 2010’s Brighton Beach… but I’d chosen to go and see the woeful W.E. instead so who am I to judge. The first Whit Stillman film for 15 years though… that’s quite something, so it’s a bit disappointing to hear it got a lukewarm reception from London’s film fans.

The Damsels are four well-meaning college girls who take it upon themselves to improve the lot of their fellow students in all sorts of interesting ways – encouraging them to be less smelly, for example, and by running a suicide prevention centre which recommends tap dancing and doughnuts for the depressed rather than pills. They also believe in dating boys less attractive than themselves on the grounds that they are much more grateful than the good looking ones and you won’t have to worry about them cheating on you. It’s the dating that leads the damsels into distress, of course.

This is typical Stillman, a drily mannered script and characters that you might not entirely want to mingle with on a daily basis but who you can’t help but like. Greta Gerwig is particularly good in the lead role of Violet, and Bill Magnussen’s stupendous Thor deserves a special mention.

It’s an old fashioned world, but one that has plenty of humour and some gentle touches –  it’s unlike pretty much every other film you’ll see this year and all the better for it. It also provided the best leaving the cinema remark I’ve heard for a long time relating to the religion-based sexual beliefs of one of the boyfriends (let’s just say I’ll be looking at council gritters in a different light next winter). Hopefully we won’t have to wait such a long time for the next one.

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The Kid with a Bike

This is a little gem of a film – directed by double Palme D’Or winning Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne it’s the story of a young boy, Cecil, played by Thomas Duret (who reminded me for some reason of the young Thomas Turgoose) who is dumped in a children’s home by a waste of space father who has better things to do than look after him. The Dardennes tell the story very sparsely – we don’t know where Cecil’s mother is, dead or alive, and we learn the bare minimum about the characters Cecil interacts with, no ponderous back storytelling here. But that’s the great strength of their direction, we see all we need to know to understand each characters actions if not their motivations.

When we meet Cyril, he’s on the hunt for his absent father and refusing to admit that he’s been dumped for good. In an emotional visit to his father’s now empty flat, Cecil can’t believe that at least his beloved bike isn’t there and refuses to leave, clinging on to a stranger as he’s forcibly removed who seems slightly less perturbed by this than most people would be. She is Samantha, a single hairdresser who for some reason is moved enough by the small boy clutching desperately to her to track down and buy back his lost bike and return it to him. A curious relationship builds between the two, with Samantha giving him a home at weekends.

Of course there isn’t quite a fairytale ending, and the film takes us through some emotional ground as Cyril tracks down his errant father and, when he doesn’t turn out to be the role model he’s in need of, substitutes him with a local drug dealer who naturally turns out to be an even worse choice. Samantha, played with just the right amount of heart and balls by Cecile de France) takes it all in her stride and it’s in this relationship that Cyril eventually finds what he’s looking for.

It’s a tale that is beautifully and simply told, there’s no more information here than we need and the punches, when they come, are surprisingly hard-hitting. But there’s a lot of warmth here too, and a large dollop of hope.

The Deep Blue Sea

I adore Terence Davies, he makes films that are almost exquisite paintings, beautiful to look at and rarely anything less than an absolute joy to watch. So of course very excited by the news that he was directing the classic Terrence Rattigan play complete with Rachel Weisz, who seems to be going from strength to strength and doesn’t annoy me anything like as much as she used to. And it was picked to close the festival – perfect, there would be free chocolate too.

The Deep Blue Sea is undeniably lovely to look at, Davies daubs his scenes in rich muted colours giving a real sense of the post-war period. It’s dark and evocative and a bit dangerous – it should have been mesmerising. But it isn’t, it’s a bit fur coat and no knickers, as my gran would have said.

I think it’s that age old problem of translating from the stage – it’s hard to bring life to something that has been conceived as a play on the big screen no matter how stunning you make it look. Weisz tries her best but the flames of passion between Hester and Freddie (played by Tom Hiddleston) have long spluttered out and it’s hard to imagine that they were there at all – neither character really give us a sense of the passion that has supposedly driven them to such extremes and the one sex scene between them is strangely sterile. Freddie just seems a bit immature and annoying to me. He’s no Ryan Gosling, frankly. It’s also hard too to understand why Hester ever married William, Simon Russell Beale doesn’t really instil him with any sort of magnetism, he’s just an old grump. Which all makes Hester look a bit more histrionic than tortured and it’s hard to care much whether she sticks her head in the gas oven or not.

It made me sad not to love it though. I had to come home and watch Of Time and the City again to remind me what a god Davies is. Now there’s a film.

This Must Be The Place

Paolo Sorrentino’s English language debut is a funny little film – I wasn’t really sure what to make of it though I did undoubtedly enjoy it a lot. It’s got a hilarious central performance from Sean Penn as ageing goth rocker Cheyenne, doing a slightly OTT campy stint as a faded star clinging on to the outer shell of 80s success – he’s very funny in parts and completely endearing.

In a lot of ways it’s a classic coming of age drama, although it’s a rather delayed coming of age for Cheyenne whose relationship with his strict Jewish family stalled when he started wearing lipstick and eyeliner. He’s now living in Dublin and happily married to a firefighter, played brilliantly by Frances McDormand who should really have been in much more of the film, it works best when she’s the adult to Cheyenne’s sulky teenager.

The film takes a bit of a strange turn when Cheyenne’s father is taken ill and he heads back to the US, arriving just too late to make his peace. He makes amends by going on a bizarre road trip in search of a Nazi who tortured his father in the war, taking along Judd Hirsch as some sort of Dog the Nazi Hunter – which he plays with real relish. It’s sensitively done, but from here, it’s a bit of a confusing and not entirely satisfying tale, enlivened briefly by an appearance from Harry Dean Stanton. The climax, when Nazi and Cheyenne come face to face, is strangely unemotional.

By far the best thing about This Must Be The Place – by a country mile in fact – is the appearance of David Byrne performing the title song – fabulous. Worth the ticket price alone. So as a film it’s not perfect, but as I said at the beginning, I did enjoy it, it’s got some laughs and some great performances so highly watchable.

W.E.

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Oh, Madonna, you with your puffy little chipmunk cheeks and sink plunger lips – you are fabulous. But what to say about this. Well, it was the most bonkers night I’ve ever had at LFF. By a mile. Two miles, even. The woman sitting next to me stole my chocolate. Oh, and I saw Valentino. So there’s a few things. And the much awaited arrival of Madonna on the red carpet caused a grown man to cry because she didn’t sign an autograph, and was followed by mass hysteria in the aisles when she swept inside – the woman next to me (face smudged with my chocolate) practically pole vaulted out of her seat. It was not your average festival screening, no. And in the middle of it all, there was a film.

So what to say. I didn’t buy a ticket because I was expecting a great film, to be fair, I was just curious and thought maybe I would be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t. It’s easy to take a pop at W.E. – the clumsy script, the whitewashing over some of the more dubious aspects of Wallis and Edward’s lives, the soundtrack that smacks you round the face repeatedly and the abysmal contemporary storyline are all obvious targets. There are plenty of other reviews out there that’ll fill you in on these pleasures in more detail, I’ll spare you it here.

What I will say is that Andrea Riseborough does an impeccable Wallis and you don’t once catch her rolling her eyes after delivering some of the more toe curling lines. And Madonna does have an eye for what looks good on camera, the sets and costumes are stunning. I half wondered whether if she’d focused on the W&E story, thrown out the seriously bad romcom bits and got herself a decent script editor, she might have got away with this. Then I remembered Wallis Simpson dancing to Pretty Vacant and my ears and eyes both started bleeding at once.

I can only think the standing ovation was because people were desperate to escape. Well, Madge, at least you got to work out some of that post divorce angst…

The Future

This one should probably come with a warning, beware kooky indie film narrated by feline. Or something. If you are a fan of Miranda July’s quirky style then you will know exactly what to expect – her first film since Me and You and Everyone We Know isn’t exactly a massive departure from her signature style. It’s the story of a young couple who are planning to adopt a sickly cat and worry that its arrival in a month will mean the end of their freedom.  So they decide to spend the month doing all the things they think they won’t be able to do as cat owners and jack in their jobs, turn off the internet (quite harsh I thought) and wait for new opportunities to arise.

Of course, given July’s tendency towards the eccentric, it’s not quite as straightforward as that and she throws in some interestingly surreal twists and turns. There’s a lot to think about here. And a lot to worry about, if you’re over 40… Is that really it? Does not having children stop you from properly growing up yourself? Or is the cat some sort of extended metaphor for pregnancy and the preparations for parenthood and the life changes that brings?

Some people will really properly hate The Future but I enjoyed it a lot – it’s cute and funny and I kind of hope July doesn’t leave such a big gap before her next film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

One of the most talked about films at LFF, Elizabeth Olsen plays a young girl who has escaped from a sinister cult and is trying to fit back into normal life. It’s an uncomfortable watch from beginning to end, and Olsen gives a superb and sensitive portrayal of someone who has lost all sense of right and wrong but barely realises it.

The story unfolds slowly after Martha escapes from the cult and moves in with her sister and her husband in a beautiful house in New England. As she struggles to adapt to her new life, more and more of her grim ordeal with the cult is shown through gently photographed flashbacks. There’s a slow build up of revelation and fear, and you can’t help but go on that ride with Martha as she tries to deal with the emotions she’s feeling without revealing where she has been for the last two years. There is a slow but sure build up of tension – we’re never far from Martha’s tormented memories.

John Hawkes is perfect as the charismatic and controlling leader of the cult, exerting an awful sexual power over its members, and Elizabeth Olsen could well find herself on the Oscar merry-go-round for an astonishingly assured performance here. Some might find the ending unsatisfying, at my screening there was some crazy shouting as the credits rolled.. but it’s a promising debut from Sean Durkin and well worth seeing.

 

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Werner Herzog’s take on death row is one of my festival top three. It’s done in his own unique style and although it’s clear he opposes the system, you get to see all sides of the argument from the prisoners to the families of the victims to the executioner. Herzog, a bit like Nick Broomfield, has the knack of getting his subjects to really open up to him in a short space of time, whether it’s the slightly bumbling sounding questioning or some sort of documentary making magic powder, whatever it is, it works. ‘Please describe an encounter with a squirrel’ for example, leads to some of the most moving testimony from the death row chaplain. There is plenty to chew on here, although the grim facts of the case – that three people were murdered because two not very intelligent young men wanted their cars – are hard to argue with and Herzog doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal reality of the crimes.

Apparently Herzog’s initial plan was to focus on a few different inmates, but having stumbled on Michael Perry he obviously decided there was more than enough material in his story. And indeed there is. Perry was convicted of three homicides with his friend Jason Burkett. Burkett’s father, a lifelong jail inhabitee himself, made an impassioned speech in court and managed to save Jason from death row but Perry wasn’t so lucky and we meet him a week before his execution date. He’s a childlike and not particularly likeable man who has never admitted his guilt and whose conversion to christianity seems to have expunged any fear of death. It’s a shame we don’t hear more from him, although whether there is any more depth to him than Herzog finds through the glass wall in the prison is debateable.

Everyone in the film has a remarkable and terrible story – one woman’s list of the dreadful things that had befallen her nearest and dearest in the space of a few years was so unrelenting it sent a ripple of laughter round the audience. And the revelation towards the end of the film that Burkett has fathered a child from within prison raises all sorts of questions about smuggling and turkey basters that thankfully we don’t get too much information on.

Herzog has found himself in the centre of a whirlwind of crime and tragedy which only abates when we meet the man whose job it was to oversee the executions. To him, it was a day job which he took pride in doing well until, after he executed his first female prisoner (and 125th in total), he had a breakdown and quit his job immediately – now he’s a very vocal opponent of the death penalty. It’s pretty clear from the stories here that it doesn’t exactly act as a deterrent.

There’s so much to think about here, and it’s dealt with in a style that sometimes makes you want to look away and sometimes makes you laugh – it’s hard not to see the justice system here as anything but barbaric, but Herzog lets his subjects tell you that, even though sometimes they don’t realise they are saying it.

Wuthering Heights

I had high hopes for this one, Andrea Arnold is one of the most inventive directors around and I was keen to see how she would bring a contemporary edge to the classic tale of love on t’ moors. But I hated it. Really hated it. Firstly, I’m well over jerky cam, it just makes me feel a bit seasick. Secondly, the shots of beetles climbing through the grass etc etc really got on my tits and it felt like they were getting in the way of telling what should be a rollicking good tale. I know they are on the moors, Kate Bush mentioned it once or twice. And thirdly,  I know I am being a bit squeamish, but there was way too much animal slaughter for my liking. We can see Heathcliff is a bit of a bad ‘un without seeing him break the neck of a rabbit thank you. And as for hanging all those dogs… enough.

I didn’t feel the passion between Cathy and Heathcliff, which should be the whole cut and thrust of Wuthering Heights – some poor acting and a total lack of chemistry between any of the actors really let this down although not to be entirely negative, the two young leads do have some potential. It gets even worse when the cast changes, and the adult versions seemed to have even less chemistry than the young ones – it feels like you’ve jumped into a totally different story. It’s also fair to note that Heathcliff seemed to do a reverse Michael Jackson, getting darker, growing an afro and a wider nose as he aged.

Such a shame, as the costume drama is ripe for some reinvention, but to be honest if I hadn’t been sitting right by the Heathcliffs I wouldn’t have stayed to the end. Lets hope it’s just a blip on the radar for Arnold, and there’s another Fish Tank on its way.

Dreams of a Life


Joyce Vincent’s body was found in a small flat over the Shopping City in Wood Green after lying dead for three years. Her skeletal remains were surrounded by the Christmas presents she’d been wrapping and the telly was still on, tuned to BBC1. It’s one of those stories you can’t help dwelling on – how awful, for someone to have been lying there all that time, while we were all buying pants and toothpaste just minutes away. So I was keen to see Carol Morley’s film, it seemed like she was as intrigued as I was by the fact that someone can just drop off the radar of life. Like most people, I assumed it must be a loner, a druggie – someone who society had been happy to let disappear.

The truth couldn’t be more different and, setting aside the question of how Joyce might have felt about her life being the subject of such scrutiny, the story – told through her friends and colleagues, is poignant and at times heartbreaking. I was a bit worried about the dramatic reconstructions, which can often be a bit naff, but here Zawe Ashton has done a terrific job of bringing spirit and warmth to the mysterious dead woman. It’s a perfectly judged performance and one that takes the film out of the realm of the usual drama-doc and into something more.

Morley did an amazing job of tracking down Joyce’s story, something her family and even the press hadn’t managed to do. Thanks to her determination, we hear from friends who knew a very different girl to the one left alone for so long, and their stories really make you wonder what can have gone so wrong in her life. We do have a fair idea of course, but there are plenty of unanswered questions – her relationship with her family, the fiance who didn’t want to be filmed, not least the authorities that forgot her. The story is fascinating and unbearably sad and it’s a testament to the skills of all involved that at the end, the blurry clip that Morley finally uncovered of Joyce with Nelson Mandela can’t help but bring a tear to your eye. As the credits play out to a soundtrack of her singing, you’re already wondering if that could happen to you, or someone you know.

Along with Into The Abyss, this is one of the films from the festival that stayed with me long after I’d left the cinema – I wandered through the shopping city today and couldn’t help looking up to the miserable flat she spent her last days in. We never really find out why she ended up there, and why she seems to have cut herself off from anyone who cared about her, and we probably never will. But thanks to Carol Morley, she won’t be forgotten again.

The Descendants


I’ll own up straight away that I was underwhelmed by Sideways, so I wasn’t as beside myself with anticipation as some people were about Alexander Payne’s first film for something like seven years. This seemed to go in my favour though, as Payne himself asked the audience to forget about everything he had done before and come to this fresh. So fair enough.

It was la Clooney’s second red carpet of the festival, but with wrestler in tow and looking a lot more stunning than Mickey Rourke would in a frock, I steered clear. The Descendants is a simple tale of Matt King, a man dealing with some tricky revelations after his wife is left in a coma by a watersports accident (no sniggering at the back please). He has to reconnect with his daughters to find a way through the story that unfolds and the realisation that maybe he hasn’t been the best husband or father as well as dealing with a property issue that harks back to his ancestors and involves a whole field full of relations.

The story is deftly handled and adds more than a few laughs to the mix – not least from Nick Krause who plays Matt’s eldest daughter Alexandra’s best friend and gets some of the best lines. In fact, the strong cast (which I was delighted to see included Robert Forster) tackle their parts with warmth and raise the film from what could have been cheesy shmaltz into something much meatier.

It’s also fair to say that at one point Clooney does the best running ever seen in a film.