Category: London Film Festival 2013

We Are The Best!

star_PNG1595star_PNG1595star_PNG1595star_PNG1595Five-pointed_star.svg

Lukas Moodysson’s new film is about what it’s like to be 13, too old for some things, too young for everything else and full of dreams that you haven’t yet realised won’t come true. It’s his first film since 2009 and much more in the vein of the joyous Together than the darker films he’s made since 2000. We Are The Best!, based on Moodysson’s wife Coco’s graphic novel, is a joy from start to finish – I’ve seen it twice now, having missed the last ten minutes the first time round because I had to run off to another, much duller screening, so I’m doubly sure it’s a blast.

Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin) aren’t exactly the two most popular girls in school, but they are best friends and happy to watch the more popular girls twirl their hair from a distance. It’s the early 80s but just as the world is embracing new romantic, they decide to form a punk band despite having no musical skill whatsoever. Of course that was generally a bonus for punk bands. Short of a guitarist, they persuade beautiful, Christian school nerd Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne) to join them and the trio become inseparable. Moodysson lets them go through all the things 13-year-olds go through – boy trouble, embarrassing parents (though to be fair, the parents here are more toe-curling than most) and the dawning realisation that you don’t have to be an outsider just because you don’t fit in.

It’s a glorious film, full of tender humour and moments of real joy – the girls put in three warm, natural performances that have you rooting for them from the start. And what makes it work so well is that Moodysson tells the story entirely from the girls’ perspective, so the adults only ever seem like the lumbering fools they are. I had no complaints about seeing it twice, it made me want to be 13 again.

 

Advertisements

Hide Your Smiling Faces

When I was young, one of the girls from my year at school died suddenly. She was the first person I knew who’d passed away and the realisation that we weren’t immortal shocked us all, though we were too young to really take it in. My memories of that time are jumbled up with all sorts of other snapshots of my childhood: racing my bike through the fields at the bottom of our road, making perfume from rose petals, watching from my bedroom window as dad buried another pet rabbit in the garden.

Director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s quietly wonderful first film, Hide Your Smiling Faces, is a look at what happens when death casts its first shadow on childhood. Brothers Tommy and Eric (Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones) are spending summer hanging out with their friend Ian and getting into the sort of trouble boys get into when they’re at a loose end. Then, a tragedy. The boys watch from a distance as the adults deal with loss in different ways and the remaining weeks of summer are overshadowed by thoughts of mortality and a grief the boys aren’t mature enough to express.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue, and the slow pace might not suit everyone, but this is an exciting debut from Carbone, stunningly photographed and with some very naturalistic performances from the young actors. It captures the fractured memories of childhood perfectly – I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards.

The Lunchbox

In lots of ways, this is standard romcom territory, but two terrific lead performances and some gentle, nuanced direction from Ritesh Batra turn what could have been You’ve Got Mail: the Prequel, into something really rather special.

Set in Mumbai, the story is simple enough. Ira (Nimrat Kaur) suspects her husband is having an affair, and trying to spice up her marriage through her husband’s lunchbox (yes I know). Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is a lonely widower heading for retirement, and expecting nothing special from the rest of his life. His daily lunch delivery is unremarkable, and when he receives the one destined for Ira’s husband by mistake, things start hotting up for both of them. The two start sending short notes to each other enclosed in the daily tiffin tin, and something long-buried is slowly released. A bit like auntie’s spices.

What’s key to the success of The Lunchbox is the underlying sadness that both characters carry and how they portray this. Kahn’s performance stands out – Saajit is full of melancholy and still grieving, we can see it in the way he shaves, the way he stares blankly through a train window and the way he half-heartedly scolds small boys. Kaur gives Ira a similar sense of loss, as she watches her husband come and go, unable to ask the question she needs the answer to and hoping to reach him through the food she lovingly prepares each day. When both realise there might be a bit more to life than they had expected, we watch them fill with the sort of glow you only get when you know somebody cares.

Batra paints a colourful picture of  a city where amid the chaos, two strangers can find a certain stillness. The Lunchbox is a genuine pleasure.

(Obviously you’ll need a curry afterwards.)

Tom at the Farm

It must be really hard to be friends with Xavier Dolan and not want to poke his eyes out in a fit of unspeakable jealousy. Young, hot and extremely talented, and with three art house successes under his belt, Canadian director Dolan’s fourth film has a more restrained touch, which serves him well. Full of Hitchcockian touches and dark moments of suspense, it’s his most accessible film so far.

Set in the remote Canadian countryside, it’s the story of a family broken apart by grief after the death of eldest son and Tom’s boyfriend, Guilluame. His mother Agathe is the most obviously fragile, dealing with her grief by not dealing with it. Her eldest son Francis is the tough one, keeping their farm running and burying his loss so deep it resurfaces in bursts of rage. Not that he didn’t have enough rage before, as we are to find out.

Tom (Xavier Dolan) arrives on the farm looking like something the cat dragged in, expecting to gently mourn the loss of his lover and get to know the bereaved family he’s been kept apart from. However he quickly realises that Agathe is in the dark about her son’s romantic life and Tom keeps quiet, at first out of politeness but later out of fear. Francis has spun an elaborate lie about a girlfriend, who of course hasn’t turned up for the funeral. Tom is uneasy, but plays along and stays around to help out – as attracted by this dysfunctional family as he is repelled.

The real danger, however, isn’t Agatha finding out his secret. It comes from Francis – angry, bitter and repressed, he’s determined to keep his brother’s memory ‘pure’ and doesn’t think twice about using violence to ensure this. Francis is genuinely quite terrifying, lumberingly attractive and built like a brick shithouse: we don’t see him as anything more than a brutal loner. Despite this, we’re fascinated by him and whatever is driving his behaviour. Is it just an instinctive urge to protect his little brother or is he really battling his own hidden desires? And what’s the dark secret nobody will talk about? Truth is, we’re as sucked in by events as Tom is and we can no more leave the farm than he can. Never more than a heartbeat away from something dreadful, there are scenes when you can’t tear your eyes from the screen and some where you’re almost afraid to breathe.

Tom at the Farm is a film that doesn’t take the easy route, and doesn’t always give you the answers you expect, but that’s no bad thing and Dolan is a brave enough director to understand that sometimes less is more. Accompanied by a score that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Hitchcock’s finest, this is an accomplished look at the impact of bereavement and the narrow line between love and fear.

The Double

Having LOVED Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, this was one of the first tickets I had on my list at LFF last year. Man, was I disappointed. Even though The Double has a cast to die for, some impressive production design and a few darkly funny moments, I just couldn’t warm to it at all. It does look great, kind of like the future got stuck in a time warp in 1970s Belgium where everything has been painted by someone with a diarrhoea fetish.

Loosely based on a Dostoevsky story, The Double starts well enough, Jesse Eisenberg is an endearing lead and it’s quite fun to watch him try to wrangle James, the super cool new bloke at work, who turns out to be, well him. Frustratingly, nobody else seems to realise this and his colleagues treat James like the prodigal son – he’s much better at everything than Simon, in fact, he’s everything that Simon wishes he was, including a hit with the women. An uneasy friendship begins between the two which soon includes the object of Simon’s unrequited love, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Trouble is, the plot from here on is a bit thin, interrupted only by a string of distracting cameos and it all felt a bit tedious.

It does pain me a bit not to be raving about this, I genuinely believe Ayoade has real talent as a director, and he’s also a very nice man – but The Double feels so chock full of homages it’s as if he was worried he might never make another film so bunged all his influences (and friends) into this one. But to be fair if your influences include Gilliam and early David Lynch then you might well enjoy this one a lot more than I did. I’d quite like to have seen more of Paddy Considine’s tv show, mind you.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Aside from Mystery Train, and Ghost Dog, I always feel I should enjoy Jim Jarmusch’s films more. He knows how to put super-cool on film, and he can create a mood effortlessly, but frankly I like a bit more of a story. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception, although it’s probably his best for a while. It’s also all the L-words you can think of:  louche, languid, listless, lyrical… and slightly long.

It’s the story of Adam and Eve, two vampires who got married centuries ago and are finding the being around forever aspect of vampiring a bit wearying. They are quite bored of each other but still somehow madly in love. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is hanging out in Tangier, exquisitely dressed and gliding through the streets at night like an exotic spectre while being brought top notch blood by Kit Marlow (John Hurt). Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, on the other hand, looks like he hasn’t had a bath for a while and is utterly fed up with the state of the world and particularly repelled by the ‘zombies’ as he refers to the unfortunate living people he is forced to hang around with. I suppose if you’d spent your life chewing the fat with Byron and writing symphonies for Schubert you might find the average Joe a bit less than cultured too. He fills his lonely hours roaming round a crumbling Detroit mansion filled with expensive guitars and vinyl, ever the rock star, and fretting about what will become of the things he loves in a world hell-bent on destruction.

Eve flies to Detroit to lift Adam from his despair, and the pair spend their nights driving round this beautifully desolate city – the images of downtown Detroit are nothing short of stunning – and deep in conversation about their past. It takes the arrival of Mia Wasikowska as Adam’s sister Ava to liven things up – she prefers to drink blood fresh from the source (oopsy) which causes a spot of bother. She disappears too soon, sadly.

Only Lovers Left Alive is beautiful to look at, easily has the two hippest vampires ever seen on screen – and it’s very funny. But to be honest, the ten minutes of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! that I missed to get to this screening on time weighed heavy on me.

Under the Skin

Genuinely still not entirely sure what to make of Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s third film – it has divided audiences at festival screenings and it’s easy to see why. It’s science fiction (admittedly not my favourite genre) but not as we know it – free from the over the top CGI effects that seem to take the place of plot and character these days. Not that there isn’t a bit of that going on, of course. But it’s much less showy.

Glazer has made what I think it most easily described as a 70s science fiction film for the next generation, it reminded me of Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who crossed with the opening credits from Tales of the Unexpected, complete with dancing bare lady. Look, if you don’t believe me. It’s fascinating and never less than watchable but if I’m honest, left me a bit unmoved (at the same time as being a bit enthralled, I told you I didn’t know what to make of it).

Shot in some of the less salubrious areas of Glasgow, Under the Skin follows a woman as she travels round in a van picking up men. This isn’t just any woman however, it’s an alien being from an undisclosed planet played by Scarlett Johansson in a very bad wig. We don’t learn anything about her, all we know is that her mission in Glasgow is to find men to send back home for a purpose which is also never really explained. She’s followed round by a leather-clad motorcyclist, presumably another alien, who mops up when she makes a mistake, or foolishly develops a bit of human conscience.

The scenes where Johansson picks up her victims are subtly done – along with much of the film, they’re shot using hidden cameras so most of the people we see in clubs, shopping malls and on the streets of Govan aren’t actors. Most of the men had no idea that the lady chatting them up from a big old van was indeed a Hollywood starlet – so these scenes give the film a really naturalistic feel. What happens to the blank faced men she picks up is slightly less natural mind you, and strangely mesmerising, accompanied by a superbly emotive and chilling 70s sc-ifi style score.

There’s little dialogue, and we don’t learn much about Johannson’s character, except that somewhere under the skin, she has the same longing to be accepted that we all have. It says a lot for the power of Glazer’s direction, and Johansson’s perfectly understated performance, that we care at all about what happens to her. But as I said before, am not sure that I did care all that much – slick and clever as it is, emotionally there’s a big black hole.

Ultimately, it’s a film that will leave you puzzled but one that will stay with you – and one that I suspect will continue to divide opinion, as it has mine.

12 Years a Slave

This was the only film I saw at the London Film Festival that got a standing ovation, after the audience had taken a minute or two to get their breath back. It’s a harsh and unforgiving examination of slavery, a bit like Django Unchained without the laughs.

Steve McQueen’s first two films were about men in the grip of something terrible – be it incarceration or sex addiction – now he has turned his attention to American slavery. This is a bit off piste for him, it feels more movie than art house. And it’s all the better for that – he’s given slavery the film it needed, something that doesn’t distract from the brutal truth with a neat soundtrack and some funny one-liners (not that Django was wrong to do that, it’s a cracking film). McQueen gave a short Q&A after the screening and said he’d wanted to do a slavery film for some time but hadn’t quite found the right story, then his wife tracked down Solomon Northup’s book and he knew immediately he’d found it. And whatever the horrors revealed in 12 Years a Slave, the biggest one of all is that this is someone’s life. It’s that knowledge that makes everything seem a million times worse than when you’ve seen it before.

Chiwetel Ejiofor eats up Solomon Northup’s story and spits it right back out again – he’s a revelation here, his first leading role and one that should pick him up a few major awards. Northup is angry, frustrated, downtrodden but never defeated as the free man who is abducted and sold back into slavery leaving a wife and family behind him. You feel every bit of his frustration and his fury – and his inability to do anything to rescue himself or his fellow slaves. Most notable among these is Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) who will probably have a few award nominations of her own to contend with. And as for Michael Fassbender – he’s superb here as notorious slave breaker Edwin Epps, an unspeakably cruel man on the very edge of sanity who has taken Patsey as his mistress. In a throng of gentlemanly villains, he’s the one that terrifies the most, maybe because he truly believes he is still somehow a good man. Although Northup’s first owner, Master Ford (creepy Benedict Cumberbatch) is just as disturbing somehow, a slave owner masquerading as a good, caring man but ultimately no better than the rest.

McQueen has done what American cinema couldn’t bear to and looked slavery right in the eye, making a film that doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t know, but puts it in a context that makes it seem much more terrible. There’s a quiet dignity here, in the direction, the screenplay and the cinematography, and the but most of all in the lead performance which will make Ejoifor a name to reckon with come awards season and beyond.

Blue is the Warmest Colour

Blue is the Warmest Colour is one of the sweetest first love films you’ll see. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is just at the age where she’s beginning to bloom into a beauty, all pudgy cheeks, bee-stung lips and tousled hair, in true French fashion. She’s dating boys, but a chance encounter with a blue-haired stranger in a local square stays with her. Her first nervous trip to a gay bar throws up another encounter with the same girl, Emma (Lea Seydoux) and they begin a passionate affair.

The two come from contrasting backgrounds, Emma is older and an art student with a family who eat oysters (yes I know) and welcome their daughter’s partner like an old friend. Adele’s family are a bit rougher round the edges, and she’s not exactly open with them about her new acquaintance and what they are getting up to after lights out. Indeed what they do get up to (mainly with the lights on) has been much discussed – there are a couple of quite explicit sex scenes, which don’t feel at all gratuitous in the context of the girls’ relationship and are only really notable for being between two girls. They’re not the sort of thing you might feel comfortable watching with granny, mind you.

Exarchopoulos is mostly filmed in unforgiving close-up, and indeed the romance is often charted through the amount of snot pouring from her nose. The close-ups give the film a very intimate feel, you’re right in there with Adele’s emotions and you experience her heartbreak entirely – by the end of the film you feel as exhausted as she does. It’s a wonderfully honest performance from both girls, but particularly Exarchopoulos. It says a lot for Abdellatif Kechiche’s exquisite direction that it doesn’t feel like a three-hour film, the story – though simple – keeps you there, up close and personal with Adele and her runny nose.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is beautiful, elegiac and touching, both lead performances are perfectly nuanced – and though we know now that Kechiche might have pushed the girls a little to far, what he got from them is surely worth the pain. 

Inside Llewyn Davis

star_PNG1595star_PNG1595star_PNG1595star_PNG1595star_PNG1595

Watching the trailer here for the first time reminded me just how much I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s a real gem from Ethan and Joel Coen, easily up there with their best. I think it was my favourite at LFF this year, though it had some strong competition.

Llewyn Davis (a beautifully gentle performance from Oscar Isaac, rocking a corduroy jacket and beard in the sexiest way possible) is a folk singer in 60s New York. Newly solo after losing his singing partner, he’s flirting with a solo career, reluctant to give up the chance of success. This vague hope is all that he has – Davis has never really grown up. It’s as though he is expecting success to make him a man, and the lack of it has stunted his emotional development. He doesn’t have a home, relying on friends to put him up on their lumpy couches and helping himself from their larders. When he’s rude to one friend, he just moves onto the next, assuming that they’ll have forgotten how rude he was last time he outstayed his welcome. They usually have, there’s a charm in Davis that seems to carry him through. And which carries him a bit too far when impregnates one half of a folk duo (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, also rocking tremendous jumpers).

There’s a heavy sense of what might have been about Davis, he’s a man who can see off any glimmer of hope that appears, leaving a trail of self-pity in its wake. It’s as if he has failed so much in life that he expects nothing else, and soaks up each new blow with the stolidity of a boxer. You’re torn between wanting him to make a success of things, and thinking that he really doesn’t deserve to.

That all makes it sound a bit sombre, but fear not – the Coens have filled the darkness with plenty of their trademark humour as well as some memorable performances (John Goodman pops up as a frankly quite terrifying jazz musician). The songs are perfect and will make you want to listen to folk music, at least for a short while, when you leave the cinema. If you can sit through Hey Mr Kennedy without giggling and tapping your foot then you’re dead inside. There’s a great cat too, which for a while lets Davis show his caring side. Only for a while though.

Inside Llewyn Davis is nothing short of wonderful – I hope Oscars shower upon it.

Philomena

I got a last minute ticket for this one – right next to the toilets. You’d be amazed how many people pay a visit while the film’s on. On the plus side, the person next to me was a no show so I got two goody bags. On the minus side, my cat has already shat in one of them. Everyone’s a critic.

Judi Dench is Philomena Lee, a determined Irish mammy who wants to track down the son that was taken from her by nuns 50 years ago. Taken from her and sold for adoption as a wonky sort of punishment for having sex before marriage (this was in an orphanage, the nuns didn’t just sneak into her house one night and steal him, that would be bonkers). It’s a horrendous story, made more awful by the fact it’s true – the presence of the real Philomena at this screening was a stark reminder of that.

Steve Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, the ex-Labour spin doctor in need of a career boost, who takes on the challenge of tracking down Philomena’s lost child against his better judgement and can’t quite believe where it leads him. The two make a sparky couple, although the Dame has all the best lines which she spits out with relish. Both performances are excellent, although to be honest, sometimes I found it hard to see beyond Coogan and Dench doing the acting. That won’t stop Dench picking up an Oscar nomination I shouldn’t imagine, they love people doing the acting.

Philomena is wittily written by Coogan, and Stephen Frears a safe pair of hands to direct: it’s classily put together – funny, moving and just the sort of thing your mum will enjoy shedding a tear to on Christmas day when she’s had one sherry too many. Frears knows exactly how to tug on your heartstrings and the film plays on this a bit too much for my liking – it’s got a couple of those YOU WILL CRY HERE moments that always leave me cold. I’m ashamed to admit I remained dry-eyed throughout, though I laughed a lot to compensate. Not at the sad bits, obviously, I’m not a monster.

It’s not a bad film by any means, but maybe a bit too emotionally calculating for me. For sherry-soaked mums on Christmas day though, perfect.