LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023
In early October, I made my usual pilgrimage to the London Film Festival. The LFF is brilliantly curated – the quality of the films they select is so impressive. And in some instances, it’s the only chance for us in the UK to see certain films.
For two Fridays in a row, I watch 4 LFF films – which is intense but inspiring. Here are my highlights –
The Bike Riders
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Adapted from / inspired by a photobook of the same name by Danny Lyon, the story was structured as a series of interviews by Danny Lyon (as a character in the film) of one of the wives of the ‘bike riders’. A slightly laboured narrative device. But it meant that this very male / macho story was told (interestingly) from a female point of view (the character played by Jodie Comer, who also starred in The End We Start From, a new British film that I saw later in the week – she is outstanding. This Jodie Comer character is more narrator than active participant – even though she is peripherally involved, this is very much a masculine story, almost a romanticization of the hells angel culture that sprung up in the US in the 60s – and the film dramatises how this romantic ideal is corrupted by a younger more straightforwardly criminal generation that came later. While the film was enjoyable, well-acted, well-written, the romanticising of a group of violent, unreconstructed macho bikers was questionable. What was interesting was the use of some of the photos from the original source material; and how these photos in the book inspired much of the story.
Adapted by Adrian Tomine from his own graphic novel and directed by Randall Park, this was a delight. Anti rom-com based around a central character who is an arsehole – but who is engaging because his negative qualities are so relatable – at least to me! This idea – having a rom-com structure but with a protagonist who acts (objectively) very badly is really interesting and worked so well in the film. Structured like a rom-com but ultimately anti romantic. Loads of laugh-out-loud moments and brilliant dialogue and character observations. One of those under-the-radar US indie films of real quality. (And it’s available to watch on Amazon Prime).
Adapted by Richard Linklater and lead actor Glen Powell from an article in Texas Monthly from 2001 about a part-time police technician cum college professor who in a crisis has to go undercover and pose as a hit man to entrap a criminal – but does such a surprisingly good job that he gets the gig permanently. Apparently Linklater had been aware of the story since 2001 but Glen Powell’s interest reignited the project.
Richard Linklater has an amazing track record as a writer and director – the 3 ‘Before’ films (Sunrise, Midnight, Sunset), School Of Rock, Boyhood, and many other brilliant films. For me Hit Man is right up there with his best – in terms of pure entertainment.
It’s tonally so impressively sure-footed – in his Q&A after the film, RL referenced Film Noir & Screwball comedy. The film steers a skilful line between laugh out loud comedy and an increasing sense of narrative tension as the plot thickens. The starting point is original, a brilliant dramatic conceit. And underneath the excellent comedy, it’s exploring some really interesting ideas about ego, performance and identity.
In Restless Dreams: The Music Of Paul Simon
The Variety review headline – ‘Alex Gibney’s Documentary is Very Long and Worth Every Minute.’
And I would absolutely agree with that. The film is 3 hours 29 minutes and at no point did I look at my watch or think about the toilet – which tells you how much I enjoyed it!
The film looks at Paul Simon’s long career from the early 1960’s to the present day – now as an 81 year old with his hearing failing, still writing and creating music. The film reminded me of both the quality and quantity of the wonderful songs he’s written over 60+ years – it reminded me of the power of music, how so many of his songs marked particular times in my own life.
There were loads of lovely, insightful moments – PS quoting his mother, who said to him early in his career, ‘You have a good voice but Arthur has a fine voice.’ Amazing how Paul Simon’s mother could make even him feel inadequate about his musical gifts!
The film shone really interesting light on the artistic and social tensions between Simon & Garfunkel.
It revealed Simon’s friendship with the wonderful Wynton Marsalis. A Wynton Marsalis quote from the film. ‘Without friction you don’t have motion’ – applied to music – but equally applicable to screenwriting.
‘Guitarists spend half their life tuning their guitar and the other half playing out of tune.’
The film also touched upon Paul Simon’s marriages in a way that felt, touching, insightful and not sensationalist – in particular his relationship with Carrie Fisher and his current marriage to Edie Brickell – they came across as a sweet, content, loving couple.
An 81 year old looking back over his music and his relationships – this is rich, emotive and the music is wonderful, even the less commercially successful songs.
I’m not sure the film has a UK distributor yet but if you’re a Paul Simon fan, look out for it – I can’t recommend it highly enough.
There was a fascinating Q&A with director Alex Gibney after the film. He is another director with an extraordinary filmography – he has made so many brilliant documentary features over the last few decades.
The Zone Of Interest
As the 4th film made by Jonathan Glazer, this was something of a film event – and it didn’t disappoint. The BFI festivals director, Kristy Matheson, in introducing it, talked about the impact it had made on her – how it’s a film that redefines the grammar of cinema, that it vibrates through you, that not a single frame is wasted – bold claims! But she was absolutely right – this is a memorable, outstanding film. I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you too much. It’s (loosely?) adapted from a Martin Amis novel. The idea at the heart of the film is brilliant, subversive and provocative. Writer / director Jonathan Glazer at the post-film Q&A talked about how he didn’t start writing until he had undertaken vast amounts of research; and that virtually everything in the film is based on the detail from the research. This feels right. It feels almost impossible to have dreamed up such strange, uncanny detail if it hadn’t been based on some sort of truth or recorded event.
Thematically and conceptually the film asks profound and fascinating questions about the nature of evil, about man’s ability to rationalise and justify the undertaking of unspeakable acts. The things the central characters have done, the things they are able to do while living in other ways, ordinary – if highly privileged lives – are chilling. And all the more chilling because in this film’s treatment, they are made credible.
The film works on the basis – literally – of not seeing the things that are going on behind the garden wall. As with so much of the best writing, it instead invites the audience to fill in these gaps with our own imaginative leaps.
And there really isn’t a wasted frame. Almost every single shot is beautifully composed and memorable; as are many of the superficially banal, throwaway lines of dialogue that, in context, are chilling and horrifying.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like it. It’s not thrilling or emotionally engaging in the way the best – conventional – film narratives are; but it will stay with you, it’s a deeply satisfying and memorable piece of cinema, which I’m very grateful to have seen in a cinema on a very big screen; and before I’d read any gushing pre-publicity (so I hope this rave won’t spoil if for you! I’ve tried to steer clear of story detail – but do go and see it!)
Right before this I had seen One Life which was a contrastingly conventional piece of film storytelling – cutting between two timelines, one in 1938, the other in 1987, telling the true story of Nicholas Winton’s heroism in enabling the kindertransport of hundreds of Jewish children from Prague to London. I found the film deeply moving, a really effective, well-realised cinematic story. And Anthony Hopkins is such a great actor.
My LFF experience was rounded off with the first two episodes of a new BBC series Grime Kids created & written by C4 screenwriting course alumna Theresa Ikoko. For me, this was a great way to round off my LFF experience. Theresa is a brilliant, ground-breaking writer – and it’s great that the BBC are now telling this story that is so specific to a very particular culture in East London. This is the sort of story that simply hasn’t been on our screens – or only incredibly rarely – until recently. And the great thing about the show is that it feels so inclusive. I’m about as far away from the intended audience profile as it’s possible to get but I thought these first two episodes were joyous – a charming celebration of a very specific community – that felt universal because of its very specificity, because of how clearly rooted it is in a particular community.
I feel privileged to have played a tiny part in Theresa’s journey to this point; and you will be hearing plenty more from her in the next few years (she has two other TV series green-lit).
One of the things I loved about this year’s LFF was seeing new films by some of the outstanding writer / directors – Richard Linklater; Jonathan Glazer; Alex Gibney; Jeff Nichols; while also seeing films by outstanding new talent (Theresa Ikoko, Mahalia Belo & Alice Birch – director & writer of The End We Start From).
One other observation – not one of these 8 shows I’ve discussed were original screenplays – they are all inspired by or adapted from other source material. It’s really interesting to me to see the wide range of different source material for all these films – a photo-journalism book, a graphic novel, an article in Texas Monthly, autobiographical books. The idea that these excellent films are all riffs on an idea. How the writers have vanquished the tyranny of the blank page by taking source material and bending it to their own creative shape.
It demonstrates just how outstanding and impactful an original idea has to be to get financed and made.
Until the next one,
Friday October 20th 2023