“london film festival”

London Film Festival 2017

I went to a decent selection of films at this year’s London Film Festival, and overall was very impressed by the range and quality. There are obviously a stupidly large number of films that you can see, and while seeing some big hitters early is always nice, there’s also the opportunity to see films that might never get released in the UK at all.

One overall takeaway I had from this year’s festival is that film makers should be very careful in using non-English speaking actors to speak and converse in English. If an actor can’t really speak the language then it suddenly becomes very stilted and their acting qualities go out the window. Suddenly it’s enormously distracting.

Of course two characters may converse in English because that’s the only language that both speak. But a lot of the time you feel that it’s about producers hoping for better box offices down the line. And that’s a shame.

Anyway, with that little aside, and because I’ll forget what I saw unless I record my thoughts here, here are [relatively] brief reviews of the nine films I saw at the festival.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories ran on the London stage for years, although somehow I never quite got around to seeing it. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, this adaption changes some things but brings others into play.

While I didn’t see the stage version, I do know that it was presented in terms of a lecture to the audience. In this version, the construct is a character who has made his name in unveiling fakes on TV, investigating three inexplicable stories that he’s presented with by a mysterious character who disappeared from public view many years ago.

This framing narrative allows for a portmanteau structure of three different, yet linked, stories. Each of them is well constructed. We get Paul Whitehouse’s security guard, Martin Freeman’s obnoxious banker, and Alex Lawther’s teenager. All tell their tales, bringing with them plenty of shocks and frights that I won’t spoil here.

And of course, there is more to everything than there might at first seem to be. Great performances all around.

Rift

Rift is a nasty little Icelandic horror film, all shot in a remote region of the country. Gunnar heads off to a remote house, where his ex-partner has left a worrying phone message. Is he going to do something stupid.

It’s the lead-up to Christmas, and the two haven’t really been talking since the break-up. The message suggested that someone was trying to get in. Once in the house, there are strange and disturbing sounds from nearby. What’s real and what’s not?

The film is bleak, and told with a modern horror sensibility. That does mean that sounds are used a little too much to make you jump. But there’s plenty here that’s creepy enough. Figures appearing and disappearing. Knocks on the door in the middle of the night. Where is it going to end?

Our Time Will Come

Set during the war in occupied Hong Kong, Our Time Will Come is the story of a group of resistance fighters, trying to smuggle out those the Japanese are trying to intern or imprison, and disrupting the war effort.

It’s based on a true story, although with a good deal of added melodrama.

Zhou Xun plays Fang Lan, a teacher living with her mother, who also houses some academics. She gets involved with a resistance group led by Eddie Peng Yuyan’s “Blackie” Lau, who swashes more buckles than anyone in cinema since Errol Flynn. Sadly, this also means takes away from the film’s verisimilitude. Fang becomes ever more involved as the stakes get higher.

In the meantime, her boyfriend (Wallace Huo Chienhwa) has started working for the Japanese. Slowly, everyone gets deeper in their involvement, and the danger increases.

I really enjoyed the film, although I couldn’t quite get a handle on the pitch of it. At times it feels all too real, while at other times, it really doesn’t.

The parts of the film that really didn’t work are the faux documentary scenes surrounding the main film. Filmed in contemporary Hong Kong, but in black and white, we are to believe that some of these people were the protagonists of the action during WWII. While one child is explicitly said to be one of the adults, the rest too would have been children, or much older than they would appear here. I’m not sure the scenes add much.

That all said, this is a part of history I really know nothing about – maybe with the exception of wartime Shanghai as depicted in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. And the performances are excellent.

Call Me By Your Name

Just released properly last weekend, and like many other films getting a release over the next couple of months, attracting some Oscar “buzz”, this film from Luca Guadagnino is based on a novel of the same name. Set in the 80s, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is the son of liberal academic parents, and is largely bored throughout the long summer holidays in the beautiful part of Lombardy that he lives in.

He is sort of having a relationship with a French girl, but then the household is disrupted when a visiting academic, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for the summer. He’s literally freewheeling (borrowing a bike to get around), and instantly attracts the ladies – especially in a great scene in the local nightclub.

But the young Elio takes an especial interest in Oliver, and soon they are hanging around together a great deal. Elio is 17 and Oliver is older, but their relationship blossoms.

In some curious way, this reminds me a little of a TV series from the late eighties that I loved – Summer’s Lease (from a John Mortimer novel). And you could say too that it shares DNA with Stealing Beauty. All of those feature very middle class families, Italian idylls and coming of age stories.

There are heartbreaking moments in this, and some very funny moments as well. Not a film I think I’d have rushed to see, but one I’m glad I did see.

Winter Brothers

This is curious Icelandic film, although shot in Danish. The film opens in near darkness down a mine, men hard at work in light. Finally they emerge into the light, reaching the minehead. Then we’re introduced to the two brothers, Emil and Johan, and we begin to learn more about their lives.

They live in poor accommodation – perhaps some kind of camp associated with the mine – and there is clearly not much to do. But Emil has a sideline in producing some kind of homebrew spirit which he sells to colleagues. He’s also flirting with a girl in a nearby house. He’s also slightly obsessed with an VHS tape that teaches soldiers how to use their guns.

But one day someone who’s bought Emil’s homebrew collapses and is taken to hospital very ill. Suddenly, Emil’s life collapses around him.

This film is peculiar because it’s an experience as much as a story being told. The 16mm film it was shot on, the stark desaturated landscape, and the nothingness of the place. This might be set in Iceland, but it could be anywhere. At times this could be an experimental art film as much as film in the conventional sense. Yet it remains powerful.

Grain

Grain is something of an epic from Semih Kaplanoglu, set in a dystopian future in which crops no longer grow properly, and people live either within the confines of society, or outside it on the margins.

Jean-Marc Barr plays Erol, a scientist trying to find answers. He decides to go in search of Cemil (Ermin Bravo) who may have the secrets that can help.

The film is visually stunning, filmed in widescreen black and white in locales as distant as Detroit, Germany and Turkey. This is an allegorical film about a quest. Based in part on a chapter of the Koran, it has a philosophical tone throughout, and you are never quite sure where it is heading.

My only problem, as alluded to at the start of this piece, is that English is neither of the two leads’ native language, and it really shows. Perhaps the problem in part is that they’re being asked to speak using words with which they wouldn’t be comfortable in real life. Either way, it distracts from the film despite there being relatively little dialogue overall.

Most Beautiful Island

Ana Asensio has writes, directs and stars in this tale about life in the margins as an immigrant in New York. Luciana is from a non-specific Latin American country having to get by without having a social security number. She picks up various jobs when she can get them, but she’s about to be kicked out of her apartment by her roommate for unpaid rent, and her phone has no credit left. She meets up with a friend one day between babysitting gigs. Her friend Olga tells her that there’s a job on offer which will pay good money if she shows up in a smart dress.

Luciana is rightly reluctant, but in need of the cash to finagles a dress from a shop, and then has to follow a complicated series of instructions to be on time for the party she has to look pretty at.

We the audience are also beginning to get a little on edge. What kind of party is this? It can’t be good, with assignations below restaurants in Chinatown and back alley addresses. And I’m not about to tell you here either. But it’s clear that Olga has not been altogether honest about what’s required.

What this film does show, is perhaps a truer reflection of the diversity of life in New York City, and one that the TV cop shows set there tend to avoid. There are a lot of people in this film who don’t speak English natively, and as viewers, those conversations are not translated for us.

I really liked this film. It’s definitely uncomfortable, because you simply don’t know where it’s going to go. And while I’m not sure elements are a completely accurate reflection on life in the city, you can see how people desperate for money will do things that they mightn’t otherwise choose to do. Furthermore, others will prey on those people.

The Shape of Water

This is the new Guillermo del Toro film, and it’s a delight. We’re in fifties America, and Sally Hawkins is the mute Elisa, living above a cinema in an apartment that reminds me a little of Amelie. This may be the fifties, but Elisa is thoroughly modern even if her job is as a cleaner in a strange military site where strange undersea things are examined. She and her co-worker Zelda diligently go about mopping up the labs even as some kind of amphibious humanoid creature has been captured Michael Shannon’s evil Strickland.

Elisa begins to make friends with the creature, and she becomes more and more uncomfortable with how it’s being treated. The relationship is handled tremendously, Doug Jones playing the creature under layers of makeup. The relationship between them always feels real, even though the story runs perilously close to being silly. Yes – you have to buy into a world where this is possible. But it’s such a beautifully structured and believable world, that isn’t a simple one and has a seamier and nastier underside.

This is a lovely piece of work, and will be well worth watching when it gets a fuller release in a month or so.

Manhunt

This is the return of John Woo, the action director fondly remembered by many for films like A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, before he went to the US for films like Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. Of late he seems to have been making Chinese language potboilers, and this is his return to the action genre. Hanyu Zhang plays a Chinese lawyer working for a big pharmaceutical company in Osaka, Japan. He’s somehow embroiled in a plot from three years earlier in which he successfully covered something up. But now he’s wanted for a murder that he probably didn’t commit. The ingredients also include an evil boss and his son, two female assassins, a Japanese police inspector and his doting new assistant.

To be honest, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it took me a while to understand that. Yes, Woo’s big action set pieces have always been overly elaborate, but there was a certain serious world view in those earlier films. In this case, you hope, Woo has his tongue firmly in his cheek. But even then, the dialogue is as corny as hell, and it falls again into the trap of having people speak English when they really shouldn’t (the reasoning is communication between a Chinese and Japanese national). The plot is not even worth explaining, since it’s so corny.

There are a few good set pieces, with bad guys being killed in a range of inventive ways. And in one sequence where our two protagonists are handcuffed together (which goes right back to Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps), we are teased with a dovecote that we know will see the release of dozens of white doves.

The bigger issue for me was probably the video effects that make it feel at times it was a Chinese language soap opera. Freeze frames, and strange wipes, as well as corny video effects that we didn’t need to see. One shot appears to be been made with a consumer drone, and really looked bad on the big screen.

Action films have moved on since 1992, with Bourne and even Bond adapting. Sadly, it doesn’t feel as though Woo, now 71, has stayed up with it.

Northwest and Kon Tiki

The Northwest, or Nordvest, of Copenhagen seems to be rough part of town. Let’s put it this way, you didn’t see much of it in The Killing or Borgen. It’s where the impoverished working class live, with kids falling helplessly into a life of crime.

Casper is a young lad who burgles for a living. He looks at houses for sale online, and picks out expensive designer furniture and electronics that he wants to steal with his friend Robin. He then fences the stolen gear with Jamal, even though he knows he’s being ripped off.

Casper and his younger brother Andy live with their mum, and much younger sister in a tiny flat in the Northwest. Casper does what he can for his family, but his brother is trouble too even though their mum is trying to keep his nose cleaner than Casper has managed.

Then one day Casper meets Bjorn who’ll offer him much fairer prices. Before he knows it, he’s working full time for Bjorn delivering prostitutes around town and supplying drugs, having roped in his younger brother to help out.

We know that this is not going to end well.

The director has a background in documentaries, and it seems that for this film, he’s used a cast made up of unknowns and shot it in a documentary style with lots of hand-held camera-work. He’s got some great performances from his cast, including the two real-life brothers who have what are essentially the two lead roles.

The story does feel raw and real. Although it’s not without its own flaws. We know that the film is going to head into a certain direction, and it does so without fail. During one scene, I knew that Casper was going to get a call on his mobile because it had been telegraphed a mile off. Of course, he did indeed get that call.

But in spite of those flaws, it’s worth catching if it comes around. I can’t find a UK release date for the film.

I must be honest, having quite enjoyed the film, even though there were some flaws as I mentioned, I was left a little disappointed by the film’s director and co-writer, Michael Noer. He just seemed to be trying too hard. The reason he’d made the film, he told us, was because his first film had been set in a prison, and after that he’d made Facebook friends with loads of prisoners. He could get a stolen car or a gun no problem. Oh, and by the way, if you can’t find the film legally, he could tell us another way to get it.

How had he got the dialogue right for his young actors? He’d hung out, smoking weed, and playing Fifa with them until he was accepted and could tell how they sounded naturally. He knows more about gang culture in Denmark than his once estranged father who is a policeman. And one of the actors in the film? He’s back in prison now.

It was almost as though he was trying to be the cool kid at school. He’s got all the mates. He can sort you out.

Maybe it was just honesty. But it came across as showing-off.

When I was a child, there was a big old bookcase in my bedroom that housed lots of old novels that used to belong to my parents. There were lots of orange penguins, and a collection of Pan editions of James Bond dating from the sixties. In amongst all of them was a curious book that I never got around to reading much further than the back cover – Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft – written by someone called Thor Heyerdahl.

And essentially that’s all I really knew about this actually rather famous voyage that took place during 1947. I knew that it had been ridiculously dangerous. And the fact that the author had managed to write a book about it, kind of suggested that he probably didn’t die en route.

Kon-Tiki was actually one of the nominated films in the Foreign Language category of the 2013 Oscars (losing out to Amour). The film is a dramatic telling of that crossing, as Heyerdahl leads a small crew of mostly Norwegians across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia. He had become convinced that prevailing wisdom was wrong, and that the islands had not been inhabited from Asia, but from South America.

He decided, in a strange post-World War II world – to try to prove that theory by using the currents of the Pacifc to get to the islands without the means of modern technology.

The mostly Norwegian cast is led by Pål Sverre Hagen who ably portrays Heyerdahl. Seemingly he was selected as the preferred actor following a newspaper asking Heyerdahl’s sun who should play him. The film is well directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (who apparently have landed the next Pirates of the Caribbean film as a result).

The film looks superb, and effects are well woven into the narrative. It’s always hard to stay the course with a slow voyage like this that lasts over a hundred days. But the structure works in its favour for the most part.

What I was surprised to find was that the film was in English throughout. From what I could tell, most of the money seemed to originate in Scandinavia, and the richness of the film would suggest that it was one of the more expensive productions to be made in that part of the world. But the fact that the first production credit was from the Weistein Company perhaps explains a good deal. Jeremy Thomas is a key producer on the film, and this seems to have been something of a labour of love, with him having met Heyerdahl before his death, and having worked on getting this made for more than 15 years.

In fact, it seems that there are actually two versions of the film – the English version that we saw, and a version in Norwegian. On stage this was explained to us as simply a matter of repeating the same scene first in Norwegian, then in English, and perhaps then again in Norwegian. Norwegians, of course, are largely fluent in English. However it does seem that the Norwegian language version of the film is significantly longer too. That doesn’t make it better, a common misconception being that the longer a film is, the better it is, but that’s an interesting fact of itself.

I fear that the flaws that I think the film has perhaps come from too much interference in the international version of the film. Occasionally you feel as though the script is on autopilot. Even though this is a remarkable true story, at times it feels as though we’re watching a TV movie of the week, with tensions heightened needlessly. Indeed we learnt that one key scene was entirely made up for the film, even though it painted a fundamentally flawed picture of that character.

At times, it did feel a bit schmaltzy. So we have to open with a “defining” moment in the young Heyerdahl’s life when he’s saved after falling through the ice on a frozen lake. Then we have his poor wife, left behind for months on end in Norway.

But in the end, I did enjoy it. And if nothing else, it makes me want to read the book that I never got around to.

And there is one standout scene that I absolutely loved in the film that came out of nowhere. We’re looking at the raft in the moonlight as the camera pulls back upwards, way way into the sky, through the clouds, and then finally into space where it twists around to show as the stars and our galaxy before spinning once more and returning to earth. It’s a beautiful moment (and a little reminiscent of the other night’s Gravity).

Oddly enough, the film opened over a year ago in Norway, and it’s taken this long to get around to a British screening. Indeed, the film has long gone in most territories, yet I can’t actually find a release date for the UK. It would be a shame for the film to end up solely on DVD since, whatever it’s failings, it does look beautiful.

Nebraska and Pioneer

As the London Film Festival gets into gear, I’ve been trying to catch a few films before heading to Salford and the Radio Festival.

Nebraska is the new film from Alexander Payne, whose breakout film was Election, but who has also made About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. I’ve not seen all his work, but did love both Election and Sideways. Payne is himself a native of Nebraska, but this film, unusually for him, was not self-penned.

The film is a road movie – in many ways a classic of the genre. Will Forte plays David Grant, a man with a life not going anywhere fast. He sells home theatre set-ups in Billings, Montana. He lives in the same town as his brother Ross, and his parents Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate (June Squibb). But his father is exhibiting early signs of dementia and the opening shot finds him walking along the hard shoulder of a highway before being picked up by a friendly policeman. He’s had a prize draw leaflet through the mail, and believes that it has made him a millionaire.

His sons and wife explain that it’s just a marketing exercise to drive magazine subscriptions, but he’s determined to head to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the company is based, to collect his winnings.

Eventually David agrees, and they head out on a trip – notably stopping in Woody’s old home town not far off the route. Unfortunately, Woody is letting it be known everywhere he goes, that he is indeed a millionaire.

This is a gentle comedy of families – of a son’s relationship with his father, and of extended family friendships. The film happens at a stately place, and the beauty of states like Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska itself are beautifully rendered in black and white. Payne said in a Q&A afterwards that he’d fought quite a battle to shoot in black and white, and it had meant that he’d had to work to a smaller budget than he’d have had otherwise. But the fight was worth it. It’s a thing of beauty.

And this is a funny film. There are some terrific lines, and a couple of wonderful set pieces. In particular June Squibb gets a lot of laughs at a cemetery of all places, as she lays into the true characters of some of the people now resting there (And did I spot a “Payne” headstone in that cemetery? I was too nervous to ask in the Q&A).

Payne has also used a mixture of non-professional actors alongside stalwarts like Bruce Dern, who won at Cannes for this performance. A couple of imbecilic cousins who think mostly about how long it has taken Woody and David to drive 850 miles. And some of Woody’s elderly friends from his home-town. They feel real because they are real. Payne explained that he used some unconventional techniques to recruit people to his film targeting local newspapers, and advertising on really small local radio stations listened to by farmers.

The film opens properly in a couple of months, and is an absolute treat.

Pioneer is a seventies conspiracy thriller in the classic mode. Well it would be, had it actually been made in the seventies. But it’s certainly set in that decade.

The story is based on true events surrounding the discovery by Norway of North Sea oil, and their need to learn new diving techniques to build a pipeline to bring it back onshore. There was a need for divers to work at depths of between 300m and 500m, and that meant learning more about the mix of gas they had to breathe at those kinds of depths to work safely.

Petter works with his brother Knut as divers, alongside an American diving company whose scientists have developed new techniques to allow work to be carried out at those depths. But on a test dive, there’s an accident and Knut dies. What unfolds after that is every bit the conspiracy thriller that you might expect. There are cover ups and uncertainties about who is telling the truth and who is lying.

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg also made the Norwegian original version of Insomnia – the only other of his films that I’ve seen. But strangely there are some shared traits between this film and that earlier work. In Insomnia, a character is slowly being driven mad by his failure to get enough sleep in the perpetual daylight of summer in the Arctic. Here, there’s a similar claustrophobia at work, both literally within the confinement of the diving bells and decompression chambers that they have to spend so much time in, as well as in the way the film is shot and the possibility that something rather more permanent has happened to some of the divers. The camera never moves far from Petter’s (Aksel Hennie) face.

The mood is kept in place with nicely done detail, and some very subtle CGI work to present a sometimes ethereal quality to the underwater footage. In a Q&A afterwards Skjoldbjærg said that they tried to film as much of the movie as possible for real, and that some of the water that they shot in was in an Icelandic lake where the water comes from a glacier which is then filtered through sand. The result is some of the clearest waters you’ve ever seen.

A very interesting piece that will get a wider release next year.