This week a look back to some of my highlights from this year’s LONDON FILM FESTIVAL.
How much dialogue do you need?
This was a brilliantly visual piece of story-telling. After a relatively gentle opening, once we’re into the story’s ‘inciting incident’, it’s gripping, pacy, visual, visceral story-telling. The wonderfully economical script by Gregory Burke certainly doesn’t betray his background as a playwright. There’s so little dialogue but what there is, is spare, telling and powerful. Every word of dialogue here counts. A great example of filmic story-telling. And brilliantly directed though it is by Yann Demange, Gregory Burke’s honed script should get just as much credit. Even more impressive is that underneath the non-stop thrills and dramatic action some fascinating political points are being made.
ifeatures film THE GOOB is similarly light on dialogue and all the stronger for it. An evocative study of a working-class, rural Norfolk family, written and directed by Norfolk native, Guy Myhill, the setting is absolutely central to the film – from the stock-car racing track, to the down-at-heel roadside cafe, the flat featureless country roads and the pumpkin fields – this is visually and atmospherically distinctive, with a great central performance from the very striking-looking first-time actor Liam Walpole. At the q&a afterwards one of the things Myhill say he learnt in the edit was to strip out even more of the dialogue – a lot of the dialogue shot, he realised they just didn’t need.
One thing these two UK films had in common was actor SEAN HARRIS, as antagonist in both films (he also played the shooter in Tony Grisoni’s wonderful SOUTHCLIFFE). He looked very different, and gave two impressively contrasting performance, coming across impressively as two entirely different characters in the two films but was equally brilliant (and scary) in both.
KELLY & CAL
The third film I saw on the day was US indie film KELLY & CAL, written by Amy Lowe Starbin. This was equally enjoyable, and while visually interesting, was, in contrast, very dialogue-driven – there were a couple of 8 minute two-handed dialogue scenes, neither of which felt over-extended, because the character dynamics of the scenes were so interesting. This film also worked brilliantly on its own terms – a really insightful, touching and funny character study of the relationship between a suburban housewife, struggling in her role as new stay-at-home mum (Juliette Lewis), and an 18 year old who’s just become wheelchair-bound after an accident (Jonny Weston). The way the two characters worked together was great – they really spark offed each other; and while the film has the structure of a rom-com, the ‘grown-up’, compromised ending completely and interestingly subverted rom-com conventions.
Very powerful, dark, atmospheric film based on an extraordinary true story. Throughout there’s a brooding, uncomfortable feeling to the story. Tonally this is striking and original. And the characterisation is really powerful, in particular the character of John E Dupont at the centre of the film – a fascinatingly flawed character brought brilliantly to life, by E. Max Frey and Dan Futterman’s script, and in a magnetic performance by Steve Carrell. This performance really demonstrates his abilities as an actor. After being so good in many comic roles – films like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, THE FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN and DAN IN REAL LIFE, it’s very impressive to see him being even more interesting and convincing in more complex, darker roles, first in the excellent THE WAY WAY BACK, now in FOXCATCHER.
From the sublime FOXCATCHER to the frankly ridiculous SERENA. After my evisceration of Luc Besson’s LUCY, I’d made a promise to myself to remain positive from now on, but I’ll have to make an exception for this film. A star vehicle for Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, this has sat on the shelf for a couple of years – and I can see why. A hokey, over-cooked, period melodrama, it does remind you that actors are only ever as good as their script. The two stars in question – normally so watchable – do not come out of this film looking at all good. Set in deepest rural USA, nearly all of the secondary roles were (bizarrely) played by Brits – Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Douglas Henshall, the ubiquitous Sean Harris and strangest of all Sam Reid, seen recently as camp toffs in THE RIOT CLUB and ‘71. Every time a Brit (particularly Toby Jones, who I’d seen recently being so good in MARVELLOUS and DETECTORISTS on the BBC) appeared on screen giving their best Carolina accent I half-expected (and hoped) that this was finally going to turn into the comedy it kept threatening to become. SERENA is almost worth seeing for its unintentional comedy value – there are particularly risible comedy moments involving an eagle, a snake and a panther – but intriguing as this may sound, I wouldn’t advise shelling out to see the film and satisfying your curiosity about these moments!
PING PONG SUMMER
Written and directed by Michael Tully. A charming, clearly autobiographical US indie about an adolescent boy’s coming of age summer in a Maryland seaside resort – a less sophisticated (but still enjoyable and funny) version of THE WAY WAY BACK.
SON OF A GUN
Feature debut by Australian writer / director Julius Avery, who built his reputation with a series of very highly-regarded short films (Budding feature film writers take note!). This is a violent, visceral crime thriller starring Ewan Macgregor, and it’s outstanding. Similar in some ways to US indie thriller BLUE RUIN (tonally and in the brilliance and flair of its story-telling), this film’s low budget seems to be a virtue rather than a restriction. It’s gripping – like ’71, this has pace, scale and a real sense of danger. The story is told from the POV of young JR (the excellent Brandon Thwaites) and we’re rooting for him to win the day. Full of surprises, twists and edge-of-the-seat moments, this is hugely superior to most Hollywood big-budget thrillers.
One film that I wish I had seen but missed was WHIPLASH, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, starring the under-rated but always watchable JK Simmons (OZ, JUNO) – which has been universally raved about by everyone I know who has seen it. Definitely one to look out for on its UK release (Jan 16th 2015)
AWAY FROM HER
I want to mention one other film I happened to see recently – it was on the BBC last week – AWAY FROM HER written and directed by SARAH POLLEY. I thought this was wonderful. I’d already seen Sarah Polley’s fascinating docu-drama STORIES WE TELL, an autobiographical film about her own family secrets, and about the nature of story-telling itself. AWAY FROM HER was her debut feature as writer / director (She is also a successful actor). It foreshadowed a lot of the themes and narrative techniques of STORIES WE TELL. It’s not easy viewing – about one woman (the wonderful Julie Christie)’s descent into alzheimers, as seen from the POV of her husband (Gordon Pinsent). It’s harrowing, very moving but at the same time beautiful and ultimately life-affirming rather than outright miserable. In my opinion the best film of the lot.
Until next week
All the best
Nov 14th 2014