Archive for October, 2011

LFF 2011 – a round up

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by alexlarman

So, the LFF draws to a close. As usual, there are several big films (A Dangerous Method, The Artist, The Descendants, The Deep Blue Sea) that timings didn’t allow me to catch, but no doubt there will be other screenings before too long. However I did see a few others, and my thoughts in brief are below.

There was a plethora of starry attendees this year, but the sense remains that the London Film Festival is remarkably low on genuinely unique premieres – most of the hottest films on display had already screened at Venice, Cannes or elsewhere, and those that did appear first tended to be extremely low-key. Still, there’s no denying the quality of much of what did appear, such as:

Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut is bold, an effective precis of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and demanding plays, and, in its Balkan setting, makes some grimly effective parallels between a failing Roman empire and modern-day Eastern Europe. An obviously extremely low budget stifles its ambition to some extent (Fiennes was very candid in a post-film Q & A about the near-impossible strictures that he was working under), as does Fiennes’ inexperience behind the camera, but excellent performances from a committed cast (including Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and, surprisingly, Gerald Butler) and the essential strength of the material carry it through.

Carnage

I didn’t like Roman Polanski’s last film, The Ghost, at all, and was amazed at the positive response it got. He’s on far safer grounds with this adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s play about two sets of warring New York couples, one of whose child has injured the other. It’s very stagey, but not in a bad way, and it’s impeccably acted by Jodie Foster (as an anguished, impotent liberal), John C Reilly (as her boorish husband) and Kate Winslet (as an uptight control freak). What skews the material is that Polanski’s sympathies clearly lie with Christoph Waltz’s sardonic corporate lawyer, forever tied to his mobile and coming out with cuttingly Albee-esque one-liners when he’s not. His best (to Foster) is ‘I saw your friend Jane Fonda on TV the other day. It made me want to go out and buy a Ku Klux Klan poster.’ And, at 79 minutes, it’s blessedly short.

The Ides Of March

Clooney does politics. That will no doubt be recommendation enough for many, but this well-made, sensitively written and excellently acted film suffers from a certain flatness and ‘is that it’ quality, in its account of the shenanigans behind the choice of the Democratic presidential contender. As the conflicted campaigner, Ryan Gosling is as good as ever, and Clooney does wonders with a small role as the candidate who might be considerably less upright than he appears, while a reliably excellent supporting cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei) all bring their A-game. But one longs for something more bitingly satirical and complex.

Anonymous

I didn’t see Madonna’s apparently dire W.E, but in terms of unremitting tosh there can’t be anything else at the festival to touch Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. Revolving about the Shakespeare authorship question, the film takes it as a given that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans,tormented) was the author of the greatest canon of drama in the Western world, and that Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, playing the part like he’s in a comedy) was a boorish, barely literate drunk. Fine – an examination of the relationship between the two men, each mutually symbiotic, could have been a nice little chamber piece about talent and jealousy. But Emmerich makes BIG FILMS and so there’s an enormous conspiracy theory plot that explains why, precisely, de Vere had to keep his real name schtum. It’s ludicrous from start to finish, mostly pretty enjoyable if you’re in the mood for this sort of hokum, and Edward Hogg as the hunchbacked villain Robert Cecil deserves some sort of award for keeping a straight face beyond the call of duty.

Hunky Dory

Here we go again – ‘inspirational teacher puts on a show with various troubled pupils against the wishes of the stuffy authority figures, and the pupils have their own issues’. But Marc Evans’ film offers something genuinely fresh and rather affecting amidst the myriad cliches and the odd twist – the headmaster, for instance, is mostly supportive of the maverick teacher, even down to taking the lead role in the play. The main action revolves around the staging of The Tempest complete with 70s songs performed by a school orchestra and band, which offers glorious renditions of classics including Life On Mars, The Man Who Sold The World and Strange Magic, amongst others. Minnie Driver, as the teacher, offers a very affecting rendition of the Carole King standard Goin’ Back at the end. It might be worth skipping the film, but the soundtrack will be one to pick up.

Shame

Posted in Film with tags , , , on October 14, 2011 by alexlarman

Ah, Michael Fassbender. Currently enjoying something of a meteoric rise to fame, courtesy of eye-catching roles in everything from Inglourious Basterds to X-Men: First Class, he is on record as saying that he owes it all to Steve McQueen (the artist-turned-director, rather than the actor). His breakthrough role, as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in McQueen’s directorial debut, Hunger, showed his remarkable versatility, as well as a desire to push boundaries and challenge audience’s expectations. Along the way, he’s been remarkably prolific, collaborating with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott, and attracting a great deal of tabloid attention due to what’s been rumoured to be a turbulent love life.

Following on from his appearances as Rochester in Jane Eyre and Magneto in X-Men, Fassbender now essays his third role in a year as a charismatic, magnetic figure with troubling secrets and a dark past. As Brandon, he plays an apparently successful, affluent man who is beset by crippling sex addiction, manifesting itself in near-constant sex with prostitutes and casual flings, a heroic amount of pornography, incessant masturbating at work and an apparent desire to be in continual carnal congress. When his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly comes to stay, it sends him into overdrive, the only result of which is further degradation and self-loathing. Hence the title.

It’s all strongly reminiscent of American Psycho, as the protagonist’s division between his corporate life and his innermost desires comes to dominate him entirely. However, with one notable exception, the emphasis here is on sex rather than violence, with Fassbender’s face contorted in silent screams of despair reminiscent of Bacon’s paintings. It’s not an erotic film to watch, but it’s weirdly fascinating to see the various acts of fucking (and there is no other word for it) shown in such unflinching detail. I imagine it’ll be passed uncut as an 18 in the UK but some of the more outré material, including a threesome towards an end, will no doubt give the American censors, amongst others, headaches.

McQueen, directing from a screenplay by himself and Abi Morgan, prefers to keep the storytelling almost entirely visual, which works splendidly. Favouring long takes allows time for the performances to develop at their own pace, whether it’s Fassbender’s brooding protagonist, occasionally erupting in terrifying moments of verbal violence, or Mulligan’s sad, touching portrayal of an obviously damaged woman whose relationship with her brother may, or may not, have been rather too close for comfort in the past. Filmed in a New York utterly stripped of glamour, it’s tragic in the Aristotelian sense, with Brandon’s plight evoking both pity and terror. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an extremely accomplished sophomore feature, and one looks forward eagerly to more collaborations between Fassbender and McQueen.

 

The Awakening

Posted in Film with tags , , , on October 3, 2011 by alexlarman

Ah, that old standby, the period ghost story. For an apparently moribund genre, there have been quite a few of these over the past few years, including The Others and The Orphanage. (Clearly it’s obligatory that the title begin with ‘The’ – one thinks of The Shining and The Sixth Sense, though those two were cleverly set in contemporary times.) One looks forward to certain pleasures, such as character actors doing Their Bit, sinister red herring bit part appearances, immaculate settings and some ‘made-ya-jump!’ shocks. One also looks forward to convoluted stories with clever twists, almost redolent of mystery novels as much as supernatural thrillers. What one doesn’t tend to expect are edge of seat thrills, genuinely terrifying moments (although The Orphange had at least one sequence, involving Geraldine Chaplin, that’s about as scary as anything I’ve ever seen) and superb acting.

The Awakening, directed by TV veteran Nick Murphy, surprises on one front. The acting, especially from Rebecca Hall, is quite superb. As ghost hunter and hokum debunker Florence Catchcart, an independent woman out of place in a 1921 Britain still reeling from the first world war, she is good enough to convince you within moments that she’s a real human being, not just some artificial and anachronistic construct (a la Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw in BBC’s The Hour). This is just as well, as the film teeters on the fine line between being an involving, clever and unexpectedly moving piece of classy drama, and a derivative and absurd mish-mash of clichés. If it ultimately comes out on the side of the former, it’s a close-run thing.

Florence Catchart, after a well-done opening that sees her expose a fraudulent séance, is visited by schoolmaster and war veteran Robert Mallory (Dominic West), who asks her advice in discovering what appears to be a haunting at his school.  A confirmed sceptic, Catchcart soon finds a logical explanation for the appearances. However, once the pupils disappear on half term, she realises that something altogether more sinister is going on. Might kindly matron Maud (Imelda Staunton) be involved? Why is there only one pupil left behind? And does dodgy groundsman Judd (Joseph Mawle) know more than he’s letting on?

Anyone who’s ever seen more than one film like this will guess many of the developments. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s co-written by genre specialist Stephen Volk, whose credits include the infamous Ghostwatch, Ken Russell’s Gothic and the Andrew Lincoln TV series Afterlife.) The ‘boo!’ moments are competently handled, if occasionally nonsensical, and Hall does an excellent job of managing to make a fairly rote character seem entirely convincing. West broods convincingly, perhaps suggesting a darker side (although one bit doesn’t make any sense, at least not on first viewing – if you need a clue, it involves him saying something off-camera in his room) and Staunton is reliably warm and excellent in the sort of role that middle-aged character actresses excel in.

The problems come with some of the final revelations. I’m fully in favour of films that choose to tie up the supernatural goings-on in a more psychologically grounded way – practically all the best ones do – but the eventual flood of explanations for what happens, including some very credibility-straining actions from characters, stretches believability about as far as it will go. It’s also slightly unfortunate that the denouement bears a startling resemblance to a pivotal scene in the Peter Jackson-directed The Frighteners. All the same, it pays off satisfyingly enough on a narrative level, and there’s a rather sly visual joke in the final scene that perhaps suggests that the film isn’t nearly as po-faced as it might appear to be.

So not a flawless triumph – but well worth a watch, if only for Hall who, on this evidence, could probably make reading the telephone directory a compelling and affecting experience. Repeated viewings will tell whether it holds together, but this is solidly entertaining fare nonetheless.