Category Archives: London Film Festival

London Film Festival 2018/7

If yesterday was a marathon, today was a double marathon! I had not fully taken on board that the first film was three and a half hours long. Then they added a fifteen minute interval (which says a lot about the decision of the director) so my scheduling became critical.

The plan

The Plan that came from the bottom up is a documentary about labour relations in the 1970s, seen through the lens of the Lucas Aerospace company. Director Steve Sprung clearly believes in “slow cinema”. There was a huge amount of mood setting, relevant once or possibly twice but not more. The film started in Lisbon, in a terrible fog and then there was a billboard which stated in three languages, Portuguese, English and Chinese, that “you can buy this view”. Following that there was an equally magnificent aerial view of London, with the legend “London, open for business”.

I do not want to trash this film as it is important, both for its message about top down industrial management, about the level of government payback to big business (leaving aside the bank bailout of 2008) and how this affected both the workforce and manufacturing in Britain.

The talking heads were all one-time workers at Lucas. Now retired, (actually they were sacked) but who, when they were shop stewards created a cooperative committee who tried, but failed, to persuade the management that the workers were able and willing to diversify production to more community based products – like wind turbines. Unbelievably, Lucas Aerospace felt that this did not fit with the company image and turned it down, the workers also created a proto-type of an electric bus that could run on rail and road. Also vetoed, although it would save millions in under-developed countries because it would run on concrete, rather than rails, what’s not to like? But no, Lucas preferred making killing machines.

With substantial editing this would be, as it is described above, “a gripping essay”, reflecting on the darker side of capitalism. What is really astonishing though, is the level of behind the scenes collaboration between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the management of these vital industries.

There were figures, which I did not copy down, but which showed that after a turnover of tens of millions, what with cost of production and Labour government subsidies, Lucas Aerospace paid only £470,000 to HMRC in tax. Does anyone else immediately think of Amazon and Starbucks?

I wish I could say this was a must see. Maybe a four-part-series on television. Because what it has to say about our choked up cities, about climate change and industry, and the death of manufacturing, is important; because there are people out there who have ideas that would help, if only they had been listened to in the 1970s!!!

It was a rush to get to the next film, which was a shame and this was redoubled by the fact that my neighbour (not the friend I was with but on the other side) seemed oblivious to the fact that a garlicky, chilli wrap followed by smelly, crunchy tacos are not suitable fodder for the cinema. I felt like asking her if she thought she would starve if she waited to eat until after the film.

Bisbee

Bisbee ’17 was not exactly the film I thought it was going to be. 2017 makes it one hundred years since a mass deportation of striking copper miners and other supporters was effected in Bisbee.

The town decides on an re-enactment. This film is the result. And while shining a light on the trauma of a single town, is probably a good thing for the town, I suspect that there would have been better ways to do this for the cinema. It was fractured and over-sentimentalized, which rather drowned the horror of what actually happened.

In July 1917, over 2000 people, nearly all of them Central Americans and Eastern Europeans, were transported into the desert in cattle trucks and left to die. No amount of re-enactment is going to bring to life the absolute inhumanity of that act; yet Bisbee survives – with the visible scars of copper mining all around them and the Mexican border just a short distance away – what better reminder is there?

Finally tonight a beautiful French film set in Paris and India. Two men get off a French Republic flight and are greeted by François Hollande. In spite of public denials, these two are hostages freed with a slush fund, held under wraps for the French Government.

This is another film with a female director, Mia Hansen-Love. Beautifully realised and filmed, but a bizarre choice of music – as Gabriel wanders around Indian cities, throbbing with colour, noise and traffic – we are hearing Shubert – why?

Maya

After a few weeks, young Gabriel goes off to India, a country where he grew up until his parents separated. We travel to India with him and it is utterly gorgeous, as he also travels. Starting from Goa, where his godfather has a hotel, he travels throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Maya is both a love story and a commentary upon what tourism is doing to India, to the farming community and to the still unspoiled places, with unscrupulous developers forcing sales of land and houses by fair means and foul. And possibly a gibe at the French government whose aid programme is dwarfed by the funds paid out to rescue French hostages.

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London Film Festival 2018/6

A marathon three film day, meaning atrocious diet of coffee and Maltesers, plus a hurried sandwich, but I would not have missed any one of them.

First up was a fictionalized account of a South Korean spy working in North Korea. This was one of the only South Asia films in this year’s list, most of them have been hived off into a separate film festival of their own, which follows hard upon this annual London Film Festival, by which time I am filmed-out for a while. Pity, as those are the films I used to choose most.

The Spy

This was a brilliant start to the day. Although my knowledge of South Korean politics was limited, so that possibly some nuanced chicanery passed over my head, this was a spy drama of immense tension and interest. It will certainly lead me to do a bit of post-film research since the story, largely true though fictionalized, was of immediate interest in view of the current situation on that peninsula, right now.

But even without the relevance of today’s situation this was a marvellous look at the inscrutable East, being at its most opaque. Who was on to the bigger picture and who was not? Which of them was on the side of honour and which was the snake in the grass?

Brilliant acting, vibrant and astonishing glimpses of Korean politique and possibly even pictures of North Korea – though since the credits were not translated at all, it is impossible to know where exactly the film had been made.

The second film I am also glad to have seen, although it was a filler for a film I wanted to see but could not get tickets – a situation I might address later.

Putin's witnesses

This rather intimate picture of the Russian leader, is of Putin visiting his old school teacher in St Petersburg. She had twice been primed for this visit, the first time when Putin was meeting the British Prime Minister – Tony Blair, on that occasion for some inexplicable reason he failed to turn up, though his security turned up in advance anyway. The second occasion Putin was there for a funeral of his political mentor, not Yeltsin but someone else.

A great deal of this film was made before the country really knew who Putin was, and before Yeltsin’s sudden announcement on 31st December 1999 that he was retiring. Putin took over as Acting President from that moment, though the elections, at which he got 52% of the vote, were some months later.

He arrives with flowers and kisses. The genesis of this visit comes from an idea presented by the film’s director – Vitaly Mansky. Mansky is a well know and highly respected Russian documentary maker and he and his team got intimate and extraordinary access to both Yeltsin and Putin, especially before Putin actually became the Russian leader.

This was a thought provoking film, not least because in spite of being close to Putin, being invited several times for quite intensive interviews while Putin explained himself, Vitaly Mansky and his family now live abroad and not in Russia. At the Q&A Mansky made it clear that his exile was voluntary, but during the film, his commentary also made it quite clear that opposing the present leader can lead to significant difficulties and sudden death.

Manksy’s decision to leave with his family came after the Ukraine debacle.

Finally, a touching and tragic film about a family split by religion and ideology. Sami, the son of the title is seen suffering from acute migraines, for which there seems no obvious cause. But we know that all is not quite as it seems.

Dear Son

The father-son relationship is tender but complicated. Sami is clearly lying to his parents, who think he is studying for his baccalaureate. When he vanishes, Riadh finds that he is beginning to lie to Nazli. This is a family torn apart in a devastating and emotional roller coaster. The acting is superb, both parents show deep and convincing tenderness for their son, who acts like many another moody teenager – but with tragic consequences.

 

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London Film Festival 2018/5

A police procedural with a difference. Destroyer is a rather dark film in which two strands collide. The work of a policewoman and the responsibilities of a mother.

Destroyer

The film starts with the discovery of a body, shot several times and with a distinguishing tattoo. Who is he and who killed him? While the police are looking at the body in the early morning, along staggers a detective who looks drunk, possibly, and as if she has been sleeping in her car, definitely:  Nicole Kidman  playing LAPD detective, Erin Bell, with a decidedly chequered past. Which the film reveals in a series of backstory events and present day angst.

Completely brilliant, and one of the many films made under the direction of a woman (Karyn Kusama) in this year’s festival, this is tense and also quite violent. Erin Bell is an angry woman, but mostly at herself. By the end of the film, the title gives up more than one answer. Surely this will have UK distribution.

The second film of the day also had a good deal of familial anger and angst. Keep Going, a French film made in Morocco, though set in Kyrgyzstan, and loosely based on a novel of the same name.

Kepp going

The relationship between the young man and the young woman is rather ambiguous at first, but soon it is apparent that it is a mother and her son; riding across Kyrgyzstan for the Och horse festival.

The palpable anger in everything the young man says or does, becomes more and more unpredictable. The only secure element is his affection for the two horses.

For a director whose earlier films have been almost claustrophobic in the intimate spaces that he uses, this open landscape with sweeping views and beautiful scenery is something of a departure; the two cross it on horseback and camp beside a wood fire each night, though seemingly oblivious to the land they are travelling through, so intense is their discomfort with each other. At one point they agree “il est beau”: an understatement, it is absolutely gorgeous.

Intimate relationships is what Joachim Lafosse films best, the gradual development, in this case, of love between a mother – who abandoned her son to the care of his grandfather – and the son – whose life is steadily going off the rails. It is slow to develop into anything at all, except antagonism. Samuel is a moody teenager, cut off from his environment by his iPod, which is permanently drilling through his ears.

The film music swings, sometimes quite violently between a proto-classical vibe, with a lot of oboe and a sudden burst of modern, possibly House, music – and we see Samuel high on a cliff top wildly dancing to an insistent beat. Music that his mother, Sybille, cannot hear obviously.

She meanwhile, records her thoughts in a black notebook. This too, will almost certainly get UK distribution as Lafosse has a track record of successful films.

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London Film Festival 2018/4

Thrills and spills don’t get any worse than this, I imagine. Seeing The Quake in BFI IMax is to say the least, fully immersive.

Quake

This Norwegian catastrophe movie begins by reminding us of the director’s previous film The Wave. There is a national news report of the disaster and the man who saved so many lives is invited on to the programme. Then we see the geologist, Kristian, waiting for his daughter, Julia. His life, still in the same valley as before, is clearly chaotic and although he saved his entire family, three years down the track he still feels unbearably guilty for the 200 or so he did not save that night.

But that was then. Soon after he has prematurely sent his daughter back to Oslo, a colleague dies in one of the road tunnels beneath the city – having sent Kristian a phone message which he has, perhaps fatally, ignored.

These two things send Kristian to Oslo, where in the study of his friend and colleague he finds his worst fears amplified. There will be another earthquake and it looks as though it will be soon.

See this on the big screen, IMax if at all possible. Although in some ways less convincing than The Wave, this was a nail-biting thriller and the special effects were especially effective. If you read the script at the end, you will see that Norway has more seismic activity than any other European city, so if you are staying there – use the stairs!!!

 

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London Film Festival 2018/3

Two more very unusual films. One Indian and one French.

Soni

Soni follows the careers of two policewomen in Delhi. This film has a very #MeToo feel about it, but this may be quite coincidental, and probably has more to do with a growing anxiety about violence against women in India generally.

The relationship between Soni and Kalpana is very tender, even though Kalpana is the superior officer and Soni, her junior officer, is of an unpredictable and fiery temperament, which more than once results is her being consigned to the police call centre rather than street duties.

Clearly though, Soni is motivated and intelligent and Kalpana does her best to get her re-instated. The Director, Ivan Ayr, spent time with the Delhi police on the beat, and the work that they are doing in trying to clear the streets so that it is safer for women is real, and notionally effective; what breaks it down is the behind the scenes corruption and power-mongering, so that influence still prevents victims receiving full justice and drunk or drug fuelled youths frequently pull strings to escape punishment.

There are also domestic tensions in Soni’s life and these have an explanation which is revealed eventually, such that it underlines the relative powerlessness of women in Indian society.

A very moving and profound film, with Netflix money behind it.

non fiction

The Director, Olivier Assayas told us that this is exactly the sort of French film that we should avoid. He was joking, of course, but that said this is a very typical French film, in that it opens, not much happens and it ends and there is a great deal of conversation.

This is a very script-heavy film, with several scenes in which groups of people talk about books, ideas and politics – Alain is a publisher and he has just rejected the next novel by author Léonard; partly he says later because he feels the book objectifies women in a distasteful way. What he does not know is the identity of the real person who has been fictionalised and debased in this way (it is in fact the character played by Juliette Binoche – looking as unlike herself as one could possibly imagine).

The debates range between the incipient spread of the internet and digitalisation in publishing, and whether this is a good thing or not. The nature of fiction, is it always autobiographical, and if so does the “real” person have any say in this – generally not and is this fair? Then there is a political angle, because Léonard’s wife works for an aspiring member of parliament (French, of course).

Then socially, we also see the vagaries and implicit cruelties of domestic life, affairs and so on, and the gossip and speculation that arises when real lives are mined for the purposes of literature. Of course, everyone wants to know who is behind the fiction.

With these very dialogue-rich French films, sub-titling becomes a bit of a let down, partly because if you know enough French you see the elisions and if you don’t you are not watching the faces of the actors while they are talking. But when asked, the director firmly rejected the notion of dubbing, though the very reason he gave – the importance of body language and facial expressions – seems to negate his defense of sub-titles.

This film has UK distribution and will appear in the Curzon Group cinemas sometime next year.

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London Film Festival 2018/2

UnsettlingThe first film that I saw today was a documentary, Unsettling. The clue is in the title, since this was an exploration of how people feel living, as they do, in the West Bank settlements in Israel/Palestine.

Iris Zaki set up three cameras and had several conversations with young people who had either been born in Tekoa or had moved there. The cameras were deliberately unmanned, she set them running together, two on the face of the subject and one on her. In the Q&A she revealed that the conversations went on for up to an hour or an hour and a half, and covered numerous topics: dating, childcare, schools and also the feelings of the settlers, their awareness of the Palestinian village just nearby, and whether they met each other.

There are panoramic landscapes and pictures of the settlement and indeed of the Palestinian village nearby; the inevitable queue of workers at the Tekoa checkpoint; plenty of barbed wire. Houses tenaciously clinging to the hillsides, like their inhabitants.

It was very important for Iris that the conversations were not conducted like an interview, which was part of the decision not to have a cameraman. The table with two chairs was outside a local shop, which also seemed to sell coffee and other drinks.

This is an important film because it does give a very open view of the vast differences of opinion between the people living in this one place. Tekoa was settled first in around 1978, and deliberately invited both strictly Orthodox and non practising Jews to live there. Now those people are elderly and it is their children whom Iris most wanted to speak to.

She rented a flat in Tekoa; it is clear from the beginning of the film that she is not entirely welcome and it does take quite a while before anyone will engage with the project, but when they do, one can see what a very complex, diverse and difficult situation they have to deal with.

Some people are fearful, some arrogantly entitled, some conflicted themselves – one young man who was not religious actually felt bad about living there, but the schools were good and his wife had family and friends, so he decided that they could live there, but not in a new house – in other words he was not prepared to advance or enlarge the existing settlement; on the other hand, a young woman who had grown up in Hebron had no empathy for the previous inhabitants of the land, they were Arabs and they had no business to be on “our” land; there was another remarkable woman who had even been attacked and stabbed by an Arab – this she saw as a message from God, a way of making her think differently and to act differently, and so she and her family are actively seeking rapprochement with Palestinians, indeed after the attack a group of Palestinians came and prayed in her house and asked for forgiveness; the shopkeeper who had let Iris set up more or less on his premises, had grown up with Arabs, his family farm was mostly worked by Palestinians, even to this day.

While filming, a Rabbi and his family were shot at, the Rabbi was killed and the mother and two children were seriously injured; then Iris discovered that her neighbour in Tekoa was their eldest daughter. This too, put another perspective on the film.

This is a thought provoking film. It is provocative but not a polemic. Unsettling indeed.

The Old Man

This is brilliant and there are so many reasons why everyone should aim to see it. The casting is unparalleled. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek had never acted together before, indeed hardly knew each other and yet the rapport between them is tender and authentic; the cops are a wondrous bunch, straight out of Keystone school of policing, but Casey Affleck as the detective, John Hunt, is understated, determined and finally frustrated.

While filming was actually going on Robert Redford announced that he was retiring and if this is really his last film, it could hardly be better. It is an all round heist caper, based on a true account that Redford read about in the New York Times and thought would be fun to make.

The cinematography is brilliant at evoking the times, but also captures something of the essence of Redford’s entire career. Quite outstanding and a highly, exceptional and poignant swan song. Do not miss it. UK distribution will start on December 7th.

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London Film Festival 2018/1

ArcticThere is not a lot one can say about a survival film, except that it will either end well or badly, so it matters a great deal what happens in the middle.

Arctic starts rather mystifyingly with a man digging in the snow. What is he doing? Making a road? It is only when he walks away and the camera pans over the landscape that the viewer sees the bigger picture.

From then on it is a man against the elements, hoping for rescue. Everything is against him, the weather and the landscape. The film is shot entirely on location in Iceland, which makes it starkly dramatic: pristinely white with black rocks, and always overwhelmingly empty and cold. The sky is sometimes cerulean blue and sometimes deeply threatening.

This is the first feature film by director Joe Penna; he has made a mighty leap from YouTube videos and some advertising into this full length film with Mads Mikkelson as one lone survivor.

So it is not belittling the film to say that as a vehicle for a small cast, to have MM is not unlike getting Robert Redford to star in All is Lost. Both of them are mesmerising in their own unique way, convincingly rugged, determined and hopefully not doomed.

I do find it remarkable that the audience questions at the end always include at least one person who wants to know if the ending is happy or not. An ambiguous ending is a challenge, but films are not fairy stories and who believes the “happy ever after” bit anyway?

The photography is intelligent and clever, and apparently filming was complicated by the extreme weather changes, three seasons in a day; so that blizzard scenes might suddenly stop and a sunny scene would have to take its place, continuity must have been a real challenge.

I found this a deeply moving and finely nuanced film and I loved it and the music was unobtrusive but sonorously beautiful. The film was well received at Cannes, so that means it is not a Netflix film and may get UK distribution. If so, I would recommend it.

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