London Film Festival 2013

Posted: October 17, 2013 in Cinema

Abuse of Weakness** (France, dir Catherine Breillat)

At this screening, writer/director Catherine Breillat appeared, clearly still suffering the after effects of a stroke. The film concerns a female film maker who suffers a massive stroke and, during her recuperation, becomes obsessed with an habitual criminal, allowing him to drain her of her considerable funds. He abuses her for her weakness and she, in turn, abuses him, using her weakness as an excuse. Mostly she abuses herself. The biggest asset in this tortuously slow film is the superb performance of Isabelle Huppert as the central character. Breillat may be commended for wanting to share the psychological traumas suffered by stroke victims, but there is a lot more to admire in her film than there is to enjoy.

Don Jon*** (USA, dir Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stakes his claim to be the next Clint Eastwood with this macho comedy which he writes, directs and stars in as Jon, a young New York bartender who is obsessed with porn. The arrival of Scarlett Johansson on the scene threatens to break his habit and, thereby, turn the film into a predictable chick flick; thankfully, this pitfall is well avoided and, even if the script could benefit from touches of Woody Allen’s dry wit (“sex with someone I love”), it is sufficiently original to provide ample amusement. The appearance in a supporting role of Julianne Moore serves as a reminder that another film, “Boogie Nights”, once delved in to the porn industry; if this does not quite deliver the cynical humour of that film, at least it is not a rom-com.

Eastern Boys**** (France, dir Robin Campillo)

The boys of the title are a gang of young men from non-EU Eastern European countries, staying illegally in Paris and living off the proceeds from petty crime and prostitution. After they have descended upon the apartment of a gay man to rob him of all his possessions, one of their number returns to form an uneasy relationship with the man. Robin Campillo’s film is part human drama, part thriller and it works well on both levels. Olivier Rabourdin and Kirill Emelyanov underplay the main roles and the characters’ struggle to find a common language means that the dialogue is sparse; however, their failure to communicate their feelings to us actually works to the film’s advantage by making the unpredictable plot developments still more surprising. The film moves at a slow and meticulous pace, building to a superb climax that is both nerve-racking and emotionally satisfying.

Ida**** (Poland/Denmark, dir Pawel Pawlikowski)

This was voted the Best Film in competition.

Ida, is a young girl, sent as a small child to a convent and now ready to take her vows as a nun; but, before doing so, she is sent out to meet her only known relative, an aunt. Set in the early 1960s and beautifully shot, entirely in black and white, this film is a journey of discovery for the girl as she tries to unearth the truth about the fate of her Jewish parents. The Polish landscape in town and country appears bleak and unwelcoming; this is a nation that continues to be haunted by the ravages of World War II. Agata Kulesza plays Ida, showing little emotion. The film would have had more dramatic impetus if we could have known Ida better and had more insights into her inner thoughts, but her beauty and her stillness serve well to symbolise a nation that has had its heart ripped out. Very moving.

Like Father, Like Son*** (Japan, dir Hirokazu Kore-eda)

A gentle and heart-warming Japanese comedy concerning two married couples who discover that their 6 year old sons were swapped in the maternity hospital just after birth. As the mothers are both portrayed sympathetically, the focus is firmly on the fathers – one a high-flying architect who may, very occasionally, find time to spend with his family, the other a lazy, hard-up shopkeeper who is an attentive and loving parent. So, are genetic ties more important than the bonds developed during 6 years together as a family? Is it better for children to learn to play the piano or to fly kites? Should fathers be best at raking in cash or at mending broken toys? The film’s themes are fascinating and sometimes complex, but the writer/director approaches them with the lightest of touches and always keeps us entertained.

Mystery Road*** (Australia, dir Ivan Sen)

The unusual setting of the Australian outback gives a twist to what is otherwise a routine crime thriller. Aaron Pedersen, playing an Aboriginal cop is at the centre of almost every scene and there is a strong sub-text relating to the tensions between Aborigines and the white community. After the screening, the veteran actor Jack Thompson, who has a cameo role in the film, talked eloquently about these tensions and threw considerable light on the undercurrents to the narrative, thereby making what had seemed a very average film far more interesting. On the plus side, the cinematography is stunning and the unusual setting and characters give the film a distinctive feel. But, unfortunately, the languid pace and confusing plot are sleep-inducing, particularly in the early stages, and the film’s claims to realism are blown away by a ludicrous shoot-out finale.

Parkland*** (USA, dir Peter Landesman)

The writer/director has a background in journalism and has produced a well researched documentary style account of the ordinary people involved, by chance, in the Kennedy assassination – the hospital staff, security officers, the man shooting a home movie, the assassin’s family. Real footage is integrated well with dramatised reconstructions. Seeing Zak Effron at the head of the cast list was not encouraging, but the film is well acted and stalwarts such as Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Giamatti provide a touch of class. As there is no central focus, the film lacks a dramatic knockout punch. It is always interesting but it deals with footnotes to the pages of history and, just as they are easily forgotten, so will this film be.

Philomena**** (UK/France, dir Stephen Frears)

With an ever dependable director and much loved star (Judi Dench), this could hardly fail, but it turns out to be more than worth the accolades and success that will inevitably come its way. It tells of Martin Sixsmith, former BBC Washington correspondent who, after being “resigned” as a spin doctor with the Blair mob, takes on what he at first sees as a demeaning job, covering a human interest story. Philomena is an elderly lady who, 50 years earlier in Ireland, had given birth to an illegitimate son; she was forced to take refuge in a convent from which the child was effectively sold for adoption in America against her wishes. The film is produced and co-written (from Sixsmith’s book) by Steve Coogan who also plays Sixsmith. He is perfect for conveying the world weary cynicism of a journalist down on his luck and the humorous relationship between his and Dench’s characters as they search for the son is what drives the film. Being fact based, the story does not follow a traditional Hollywood format and is all the better for that. What is most surprising for what is essentially a lightweight comedy/drama is the strength and passion with which it denounces the Roman Catholic church for its pious hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Funny and very moving, this film is even better than its thoroughbred pedigree could have led us to expect.

Saving Mr Banks**** (USA, dir Lee Hancock)

Closing the Festival, that rarest of things – a quality film from one of the big Hollywood studios. This film about film-making is a mixture of comedy and drama which is sheer enjoyment from first to last. Emma Thompson plays PL Travers, author of “Mary Poppins” and the film covers her clashes with Walt Disney over the filming of her book. It also flashes back to her early days in Australia when she doted over her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and witnessed the pain of her mother (Ruth Wilson); and then a nanny landed on the family’s doorstep. Thompson and Hanks wring every possible laugh out of the culture clash comedy, but it is the haunting portrait of a woman severely damaged by childhood traumas that will live longest in the memory.

Starred Up**** (UK, dir David Mackenzie)

This won the award for Best Screenplay of the films in competition.

Jonathan Asser’s first screenplay draws from his own experience as a psychologist leading a prison therapy group. The central character, played by Jack O’Connell is a young offender, transferred to an adult prison because of his uncontrollable violent behaviour, who finds himself on the same wing as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). This taut, absorbing film is unflinching in its depiction of prison brutality and is shot in a naturalistic style, with the threat of violence hanging over every scene. Sometimes the dialogue is difficult to decipher, but the performances from a largely unknown cast are very strong and the insights into the psychology of violence give the drama emotional depth.

12 Years a Slave**** (USA, dir Steve McQueen)

Many films win Oscars for ticking all the politically correct boxes, but this does not necessarily make them great films. So is this, the current Oscar favourite, a great film or just a worthy one? Based on an autobiographical book by Solomon Northup, it tells of an accomplished black violinist who is abducted from his home in Saratoga, New York State and sold into slavery in Georgia in the 1840s. As would be expected of Steve McQueen, the cinematography is exquisite and every shot is perfectly framed; he creates many images in the film that are likely to prove unforgettable. He also draws magnificent performances from all his cast, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender as a demented plantation owner, although the latter exemplifies one of the film’s flaws, It portrays the slave owners and traders too simplistically as demonic ogres; if it is possible for us to accept that they believed in their rights of ownership and needed to protect their financial investments, we are given no help in understanding why they behaved with such extreme inhumanity. The other problem lies with a narrative structure in which the central point that slavery is an abomination is so overwhelming and pushed so relentlessly that all plot deviations and sub-texts are excluded. This results in the middle of the film becoming bogged down and predictable. The story needs something to hold us in suspense, wondering what the next development could be or how things will ultimately be resolved. Yet how can this be possible when even the title gives too much away? Nonetheless this is a story that needed to be told and needed to be told as vividly as it is here. With people trafficking rife across Europe, slavery is not a problem that was consigned to history in the century before last. Here, the depiction of slavery is graphic and unflinching, but, speaking in a quieter voice, the case aganst it was argued much more eloquently in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. This is a very good film, but not quite a great one.

Under the Skin** (USA, dir Jonathan Glazer)

A weird superimposition of surreal images on a very real setting, which sees an alien getting into the skin of Scarlett Johansson to roam around Glasgow and surrounding areas, picking up various stray men on her way. Several of the sequences would be striking as shorts, but, strung together and stretched out to feature length, they become repetitive. The lack of a narrative thread and an emotional heart to the film, leaves us uninvolved observers and it all becomes rather tedious.

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