Category: London Film Festival 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Better received than some of the recent Surprise Films at the London Film Festival, David O. Russell’s latest didn’t really do it for me. It’s the story of Pat Solitano, (Bradley Cooper in ‘I’m more than man candy’ mode) bipolar and just out of an eight-month stint in mental hospital, who refuses to admit his ex-wife has moved on. Pat moves back in with his parents (Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver – both on good form) and starts trying to put his life back together, and thus, he assumes, persuading his wife to fall back in love with him.

Pat befriends a similarly troubled girl (Jennifer Lawrence) who has become a depressed sex addict following the death of her husband. Then the two resolve their issues through the medium of dance. That’s about it. The mental health issues are what give Silver Linings its indie credentials but there’s a real struggle here – maybe because of the casting of Cooper – between wanting to be taken seriously and the slow slide into, well, into Strictly Ballroom territory. It just seems a shame that having potentially got one of De Niro’s best performances in years, and with great support from Jacki Weaver, the plot gets a bit bipolar itself.

I can see where Russell wanted to go with this but for me it doesn’t quite get there. It’s watchable, thanks to a standout performance from Jennifer Lawrence, but one of the key problems is that Pat isn’t particularly likeable, which makes it hard to see him as a hero of the piece. I suspect it will alienate the indie audience it’s trying to attract with the cheeseball ending, and put off  romcom fans because of its bleak first act. Oh, and potentially bore anyone without more than a passing interest in American Football. Overall, a bit of a missed opportunity.

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A Hijacking (Kapringen)

A Hijacking ended up as one of my top films at LFF this year – a tense, tightly directed drama from Tobias Lindholm, who scripted Borgen and co-wrote the excellent The Hunt which also screened at the festival. Regular viewers of BBC4 on Saturday night will know exactly what to expect – and will be glad to see some familiar faces here like Borgen’s amiable spin doctor Pilou Asbaek and Soren Malling who played the lovely Jan Meyer in Forbrydelsen and who popped up again in Borgen. Both are excellent here.

The story is fairly simple – a ship is taken hostage by Somalian pirates, and the shipping company enter negotiations to agree on a ransom. Crucially, Lindholm doesn’t show us the actual hijacking – in fact, he steers away from showing much in the way of action at all. This isn’t a film about musclebound heroes, it’s a film about how ordinary people react under extreme pressure. Lindholm focuses on two of the men involved –  family man Mikkel Hartmann, the ship’s cook (Asbaek), and shrewd businessman Peter Ludvigsen, CEO of the shipping company (Malling). We watch the story unfold from their alternate points of view, their responsibilities weighing heavy, their nerve crumbling as the hijacking drags on into months.

Lindholm builds the story expertly, ratcheting up tension bit by bit, switching from the increasingly fraught negotiations in the boardroom, where Ludvigsen comes under increasing pressure both from his board and from the crew’s distraught families, and the strange life on board where crew and pirates have to learn to co-exist and the threat of violence hangs heavy in the air.

It’s superbly done, but with so much impressive drama coming from the Nordics these days you’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Interestingly, the hostage advisor in the film turns out to be not an actor (to be honest, that was no surprise) but an actual maritime security advisor brought in to advise on the script. Weirdly, it works – he always feels like the outsider and it adds to the gritty documentary feel of Lindholm’s film.

Apparently there’s a Tom Hanks hijacking film on its way. I won’t bother.

Seven Psychopaths

This should have been a live one. Martin McDonagh’s follow up to In Bruges, full of names that you can salivate over – Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody  Harrelsen – Harry Dean Stanton for god’s sake. Alas no. Seven Psychopaths is a mess. And not a hot one. It’s a film that puts its foot down so hard on the crazy pedal that it runs out of gas before it’s even left the garage.

It irritated me from the very beginning – two sub-Tarantino hit men chit chatting (Quentin has a lot to answer for)  then, oh joy, here’s  Colin Farrell doing the ‘I’m a bit baffled’ look he does in every film he’s in (see my review of Total Recall… sorry Colin. It’s not personal, really). This time he plays Marty, who is a bit baffled about screenwriting, likes a drink and has a one-dimensional girlfriend (Abby  Cornish) who is so wasted as a character Marty probably wrote her himself.

It’s not long before we’re plunged headlong into a rambling tale of various psychopaths that doesn’t make much sense, has a few laughs and a lot of quite unpleasant violence. It all comes over a bit Adaptation gone baaaad. And not bad in a good way.

I’m sure they all had a ball making it, but it’s hard to find anything to like here – some amazing actors wading aimlessly through a plot that could have been written by the two dim mobsters at the beginning. I’m sure plenty of people at this screening would disagree, and have it down as an oh so hilarious take on the movie business. But frankly, if I’d been on the end of a row I’d have gone home and caught Coronation Street instead. Or the flu. Catching the flu would be an improvement. Cute dog though.

Argo

You know, this isn’t a bad film. It’s gripping, smartly directed by Ben Affleck (his third directorial outing) and studded with great performances from some of the best character actors in the business. It thrilled the crowd at LFF (who at once point burst into spontaneous applause) and is being spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for Oscar favourites. Yet I find myself not really wanting to give it a rave review.

Argo is based on the true story of six US citizens taken hostage in Tehran in 1979. They are holed up in the Canadian embassy but the Islamic militants are closing in and the American government need to find a way to get them out quickly. The CIA’s Tony Mendez (played by a miscast Affleck) has a plan – to sneak them out of the country by pretending to be a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for Argo, a sci-fi production. It’s a bit of a bonkers one, as plans go, but without any other realistic options, he gets the go ahead and with the support of his CIA boss Jack O’Donnell (the wonderful Bryan Cranston) and the help of Hollywood make-up genius John Chambers and producer Lester Seigel (John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both great as always), the plan comes together.

Affleck builds the tension expertly and not without some clever touches of humour, and by the climactic scene at the end, you genuinely will find yourself on the edge of your seat. It’s all a little bit formulaic for me though, there are too many of those annoying ‘just in time’ moments and some unneccessary cheese (cute Mendez jnr playing with his space toys? No thanks). But I think the biggest bum note is Affleck who never feels quite right as Mendez –  he just isn’t grizzled enough to make his hard working, hard drinking CIA man believable. A shame, when the rest of the cast is so strong.

So enjoyable, yes. A slick thriller, yes. But a great film? Not really. It feels like there is a much stronger story in here somewhere that hasn’t been allowed to blossom. Affleck clearly has the potential to do much better (maybe when he isn’t trying so hard to get an Oscar).

The Sessions

The Sessions is a glorious little film, full of humour and smart dialogue, topped off with two standout performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. On the face of it, it has the potential to be hideously mawkish – the story of a man in an iron lung trying to lose his virginity. And it could have been – imagine Tom Hanks and Kate Winslet in the lead roles for a moment and shudder. But in the canny writing and direction of the remarkable Ben Lewin, who had to borrow money from his family and friends to get the film made, and with top form Hawkes and Hunt, plus sterling support from William H Macy, this is one of the most enjoyable and uplifting movies you’ll see all year.

Based on an essay by poet and polio sufferer Mark O’Brien, the film follows his quest to lose his virginity before he dies by using a sex surrogate. O’Brien was almost entirely paralysed from the neck down and forced to spend most of his life inside an iron lung, which would inhibit your sex life a bit to be fair. But he was also blessed with a mind as sharp as a tack and a sense of humour that never seemed to desert him. Hawkes plays him perfectly, his physical appearance and the tone of his voice are spot on. And somehow, although he is flat on his back and immobile for pretty much every scene, he perfectly captures the lust for life that prompted O’Brien to seek out the services of Cheryl Cohen Green (Hunt), a sex surrogate.

God love Helen Hunt, she spends quite a lot of screen time in the nip. Brave isn’t the word (especially as the most we see of Hawkes is his chest). It’s no surprise that both of them are being spoken of as potential Oscar nominees – their performances have a tenderness that give the (often quite awkward) sex scenes genuine warmth and intimacy.

This is most of all a very funny film – thanks in no small part to William H Macy’s priest, who is understandably uncomfortable giving out advice on sex, but seems to enjoy O’Brien’s adventures in the sack almost as much as he does. But the thing that makes The Sessions such an outstanding film is its refusal to be overly sentimental – you feel for Mark O’Brien, you admire him for his refusal to let his condition define him, but you never pity him.

For a film that nobody wanted to finance, I think it will do rather well.

The Hunt (Jagten)

Thomas Vinterberg has made a few duds since Festen, but his latest film finds him right back at the top of his game. The Hunt is scripted by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm – who wrote tv drama Borgen and directed A Hijacking, which also screened at LFF. The two clearly work well together, this is a smartly written and timely (in the UK at least) look at the impact of an accusation of paedophilia on a small rural community in Denmark.

Mads Mikkelsen puts in a mesmerising performance as Lucas, a handsome and recently divorced kindergarten teacher whose world falls apart when one of his over-adoring young charges falsely accuses him of exposing himself to her. As word spreads around the village, we watch as he loses his job, his new girlfriend and his best friend, whose daughter Klara it is that has made the accusation. Mikkelsen is the perfect choice for Lucas, a good man who has been slowly putting his life back together only to watch helplessly as it unravels. His persecution at the hands of people he thought were his friends is utterly heartbreaking to watch, the last time I felt such stomach churning rage at injustice was during Dancer in the Dark, which I’ve never dared watch again after an embarrassing wail on a Virgin Atlantic flight.

We know that Lucas is innocent, and we understand why Klara has made the accusation. Which makes it even harder to tolerate the brutality of the speed with which the villagers close ranks against him. It could be a much harsher watch than it is, but Mikkelsen infuses Lucas with dignity, and clever touches of humour (mainly coming from Lucas’s one remaining friend) and two superb and very human performances from Annika Wedderkopp as Klara and Lasse Fogelstrom as Marcus, Lucas’s son, give the film the heart it needs to stop you gnawing your own arm off with rage. [Vinterberg explained in a Q&A after the screening that they’d fully explained the story to Wedderkopp, hiding nothing from her, but explained her very natural performance was more down to her desire to play table tennis between takes.]

As an unflinching look at the hysteria such accusations provoke this is masterful storytelling. As a taut character study of a man in freefall, it’s superb. And as a film about man’s inhumanity to man, it will break your heart.

Amour

My first film of the 2012 Festival could well turn out to be the best – Michael Haneke’s heartbreakingly beautiful Amour. This is masterful film making, helped in no small part by painfully resonant performances from Jean-Louis Trintrigant (Georges) and Emmanuel Riva (Anne) as an elderly well-to-do couple living out their days in a beautiful Parisian apartment.

We watch as the couple’s lives slowly disintegrate. Anne is hit by a stroke which paralyses her down one side and her condition deteriorates both physically and mentally. Driven by pride and dignity, the couple struggle to carry on, allowing nurses to help out when it becomes too much for Georges, but shutting out their emotional daughter (another superb performance from Isabelle Huppert).

Haneke is never shy of taking risks and Amour is emotionally brutal, never turning away from the realities of watching someone you love get lost inside their own body. It’s an intensely intimate watch – for the most part you are inside that apartment with them, doors shut tight against a world that Ann is slowly forgetting.

At the film’s climax – which shocks although it’s not entirely unexpected – I found myself doing those dry heaving sobs that you can’t control. Apologies to the man next to me. And at the end, a cinema full of people left in silence. Powerful, magnificent stuff.