These past couple of weeks I've been mostly holed up in cinemas, watching a load of films ahead of their UK releases. The good, the bad and the ugly. All so you don't have to. Aren't I good? I've also been sustaining myself exclusively on croissants and McDonalds so as to avoid cinema food, and narrowly avoided trashing a nacho stand with my rucksack. Others may call it clumsiness. I call it protest art.
If you're in any way interested in film, and/or you live in The London, you can hardly fail to have noticed that the 56th BFI London Film Festival has invaded the city over the last two weeks. Several of the films on offer are due for imminent release, and so the festival served as a good opportunity to garner some awards season hype; yet more, however, don't have any firm UK release details, and played in London looking for a little bit of distributor love. So here's my mini-reviews of the festival's top picks, along with a couple of the horrors to avoid if they should ever darken your screen...
Beasts of the Southern Wild
American cinema attempts to recreate the magical realism South American literature is so famous for. Set in the Bathtub, a water-surrounded area of the Deep South, this story of a young girl's attempts to survive amidst relentless poverty, a Katrina-style disaster and an increasingly sick father is an unusual tale, if not quite as mindblowing as the hype would suggest. However, told from Hushpuppy's viewpoint, the film is held together by a frankly remarkable performance from then 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis.
My German Friend (El amigo alemán)
This Argentine/German co-production tells the story of an epic romance spanning some 30 years. No, wait, come back! Sulamit (Celeste Cid) and Frederich (Max Riemelt) grow up on opposite sides of the road in 1950s' suburban Buenos Aires, their families - one Jewish, one ex-SS, both German - both divided and joined by their German roots. The young love that emerges between the two youngsters comes to encompass both the horror of Argentina's post-war history and the trauma of dislocated families, shining a light on Argentina and Germany's complicated post-war 'special relationship'. The film's currently shopping around for a UK distributor, but is doing well in its native Argentina so hopefully will hit our shores soon. I loved it.
Gael García Bernal leads Pablo Larraín's most accessible feature to date. Another true story that couldn't be made up, No retells the events that led to Pinochet being ousted from power in the 1988 Chilean plebiscite. What swung the vote? An advertising campaign. Yes, really. This is literally the story of a dictator being ousted by democracy, and happy adverts Don Draper would be proud of. It's a brilliantly executed plot, filled with black comedy - the Government's campaign's reactions to being continually outdone are increasingly severe and laughable in equal measure - delivered blindingly by a note-perfect ensemble cast. Of course, the film belongs to García Bernal, anchoring the film with a notably subtle performance that should cement his already stellar reputation. Ticking all the political vs. personal boxes, this one's a hot favourite for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar shortlist.
If you possess a certain kind of utterly twisted sense of humour, you will love Martin McDonagh's follow-up to In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths is an ultra-violent, blacker than space comedy about a gangster's kidnapped cutie-pie dog. Yes, really. Sharing certain similarities with his play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, McDonagh's added a more-meta-than-Adaptation plot, casting Colin Farrell as Marty, an Irish perma-sozzled writer desperately seeking inspiration for his film, 'Seven Psychopaths'. What's the male version of Mary Sue-ing it called, again? Also going nutso for a Shih Tzu are Woody Harrelson as a gangster/grieving dog owner; Christopher Walken on surprisingly sweet form as the leader of the dog-napping racket; and Sam Rockwell, who... well. Let's just say that after seeing this, your campfire stories are going to feel like dog turd without him. Sick as all get-out, but side-splittingly hilarious.
Fill The Void
A gorgeously unusual female viewpoint of Tel Aviv's uber-orthodox Hassidic Jew community, told from an insider's perspective. Fill The Void revolves around young Shira (Hadas Yaron), who struggles to discover herself in the wake of a family tragedy and the shadow of obligation cast by religion. The film highlights the community's overwhelming emphasis on marriage as an obligation, a young woman's failure to find a husband matched by the continual pressure placed on widower Yochai (Yiftach Klein) to remarry quickly, that us outsiders might otherwise find baffling. The world is so sharply drawn by director Rama Burshstein, however, that even the most alien-seeming customs feel instantly familiar. On the whole it's refreshing to see such a culture depicted so fully and (mostly) positively, reverberating even in the film's haunting final shot.
Rust and Bone
It won the Official Competition so I suppose I have to write about it, but honestly I found Jacques Audiard's latest effort, focusing on the relationship between a struggling single father and a woman recovering from a traumatic accident, frequently stinkier than an overripe Epoisses. It also has a spectacularly offensive misogynistic take on getting one's groove back post-trauma, literally presenting the message that all a woman needs to overcome major disability is a half-decent shag, regardless of whether the bloke's a complete tool or not. And Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) really is a tool. This leading man is an unsympathetic thug, frequently abusive to even his son, and yet he's deified into a demi-god figure audiences are expected to worship. Acting-wise the film can't be faulted, with Marion Cotillard once again demonstrating why she's one of the world's great film actresses. But even she can't save this film from its many flaws and overblown sense of its own importance, rendering the film merely a footnote nowhere near deserving of the praise critics - and, apparently, the LFF judges - seem desperate to lavish on it.
Ernest & Celestine
Utterly charming tale from the Franceland, based on the children's books, about the friendship that develops between a grumpy bear and a young mouse, against the rules of both bear and mouse communities. A sweet story about the need for tolerance with gorgeous animation, if you have any love for Studio Ghibli, or just fancy reverting to childhood innocence (oh, don't we all), you could do much worse than spend an afternoon with this film.
Robot & Frank
An elderly man (Frank Langella) struggling with illness is bought a 'butler' robot by his struggling son (James Marsters). Hilarity ensues as friendship develops between man and robot. It's a delightful film, particularly watching the man corrupt the robot (er... no, not in that way), but also heartbreaking in its depictions of dementia wreaking its worst kind of havoc. Frank Langella is on top form here, ably assisted by Peter Sarsgaard as the somewhat sardonic robot.
Ostensibly a 'warts and all' examination of the Rolling Stones' early years, Crossfire Hurricane starts off reasonably well, if a tad predictably, before collapsing under the weight of Mick Jagger's leather trouser stash. There are some interesting moments, such as Jagger engaging openly with a TV pundit psychologist about the fan phenomenon, and discussion of the infamous Altamont fiasco, but crucially, absolutely nothing new. Suffering enormously from a lack of critical insight, the presence of Jagger as producer is all-telling, with any potential personality having been wiped out in favour of yet another rehash of the 'official' Stones story. What could have been an incisive examination of the Stones phenomenon has been reduced to little more than a puff piece, providing little in the way of analysis or even an outside viewpoint. A wasted opportunity if ever there was one.
A father and daughter move from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City in the aftermath of the mother's death, the 'Lucía' of the title. At first Alejandra seems to be settling in with the school's 'cool kids' with ease, until a weekend away turns everything on its head. The film's considerable power lies in the sheer disbelief of what happens next, so it would be unfair to go into more detail, except to say that it is, most definitely, not for the faint of heart. Or stomach. While the film veers off the deep end a little towards its conclusion, for the most part it's an alarmingly effective work. Just don't make any plans to eat any cake anytime soon...
Ginger & Rosa
Duller than exams, seen-it-all-before representation of teenage girls' personal and political coming of age in early 1960s' London. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are lifelong friends, doing everything together until Ginger's father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) gets in the way, inspiring in his daughter a fervent intent to single-handedly end the Cold War, whilst leading Rosa to her own, somewhat more earthy, discoveries. To say 'squick', given the recent Jimmy Savile news stories, would be considerably under-egging how uncomfortable it is to watch Roland's appalling behaviour presented as Rosa's 'sexual revolution'. The likes of Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt and Annette Benning are wasted in roles too small to really land, while Christina Hendricks is saddled with an utterly thankless role. It's wholly predictable, staid stuff, worth watching only for a knockout performance from Fanning.
The We And The I
Michel Gondry's latest so worth a punt by default, this is the complete antithesis of The Green Hornet. Set almost entirely on a bus, the film follows a group of Bronx high school kids, making their way home after the last day before the summer holidays. Gondry's standard calling card of mad visuals is dialled right back here, dwelling instead on the relationships between the high school kids, and how their individual needs to be accepted by the group often leads to unintended cruelty. The We And The I is a lot of fun, although goes a long way to explaining why you couldn't pay me enough to be a teenager again. And as you'd expect, the soundtrack is genius.
It's 1980, the Iranian siege of the local US Embassy is in full swing, and the Government find themselves stuck with six escaped embassy workers. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, also directing), and an idea even Hollywood's finest screenwriters couldn't have dreamed up: create a cover story presenting the embassy workers as Canadian citizens scouting Iranian locations for a sci-fi film shoot. A fake sci-fi film. What follows is an often hilarious satire on the film industry, a thrilling, West Wing-style political labyrinth and a masterclass in nail-destroying tension, all deftly contained within one quick-witted, smart yet immediately accessible picture by Affleck's expert direction. A surefire Best Picture Oscar nominee, and deservedly so.
All in all, despite a few missteps, this year's LFF selection has proven very popular; I unfortunately missed out on the likes of The Sessions, Wadjda and Amour, all of which festival audiences loved. And I'm still quietly sobbing to myself over not getting to be in the actual same room as actual Bradley Cooper for the Surprise Film, The Silver Linings Playbook, but that's a different matter...
Now we're getting into the time of year where films are actually exciting, and not the wasteland of barren dreams that was Prometheus, there's loads more great-looking films coming up. SO THEN: what are you most looking forward to? Including The Master, although I think that's kind of a given...