Category Archives: Select Cinema

London Film Festival

60th London Film Festival – 12

The last day, no more dashing to the bus to get to the cinema, no more scrappy meals grabbed between films, more sleep and less stimulation – until October next year.

This has been a great festival, most of the screenings have been well attended, certainly the ones I have been at all through the week. Fewer people at the golden oldies, but that is understandable, I suppose.

Three films today, or four if you count the extra silent movie at the beginning of the day.


The short film was a comedy turn envisaging a world where the dominant sex was female, and the “blushing groom” was the one to be given away…it had all the expected gags and was very amusing. The main film though, A Woman of the World, joins several other films that I have seen this year with a feminist agenda – even in 1925.

Like animé, silent films are not for everybody. Compared to a modern film, the quality even when re-mastered is moderate, and the acting is overtly over-the-top. It is very much a case of “the eyes have it”. Expressions have to be exaggerated, and therefore look to us rather ludicrous. But setting that aside, there is often a great story as with this one, and Pola Negri is delightful as the countess…

On to more serious stuff then. My second film was the new film from Ashgar Farhadi.16-10-2-the-salesmanRight at the start of the film, everyone is having to evacuate their building because it is collapsing. It is chaotic and alarming, and one sees that diggers are excavating a huge hole right beside the building and cracks are appearing in walls and windows.

Two of the evacuees are actors in an amateur theatre company that is putting on Death of a Salesman.  Rana, played by Taraneh Alidoosti and Emad played by Shahab Hosseini, are homeless and are preparing to sleep on the set, but the manager Babak offers them an empty apartment that he owns. What he fails to mention though, is the nature of the previous tenant…

Any one who has seen previous films by this accomplished director will recognise immediately the tonal quality of the colours and the messages. Very conscious of social structures, obligations and rituals, this film has struck at the very heart of family life, trust and honour being paramount in Middle Eastern society.

This is a shocking story but a brilliant exhibition of some of the best actors from Iran, Shahab won best actor at Cannes, but his partner in the film Taraneh Alidoosti was also wonderful, expressing more in a single look than a thousand words. Everything about this film was vivid and remarkable.

As you might expect, this has already got UK distribution.

Finally an offering from Brazil, the new film by Kleber Mendonça Filho.


A beautiful, active and vibrant grandmother of 65 lives in an old apartment block overlooking one of the most popular beaches in Recife. We see one apartment full of people celebrating the 70th birthday of another resident, Tia (Aunt) Lucia. Then later, in a lower floor apartment, the one belonging to our principal player, Clara played by Sonia Braga, we see some of Lucia’s furniture, so we can assume she has moved out.

It then becomes apparent that all the flats are empty except the one in which Clara lives, and the developers who have bought all the other apartments in the block are hoping to pull it down to make room for a larger block. Clearly also, they have approached Clara before but she refuses to entertain their offers.

Slowly the menaces build up: noisy parties are held in the flat above, ordure is left on the staircase; a mass gathering of a religious group suddenly arrives. The family starts to worry…

Although his previous film was shown at the London Film Festival, it was very specifically Brazilian, which is not to say it was not a good film. Aquarius though has a much more universal message, in every city all over the world there is a similar situation, tenants are being moved on, moved out and bigger, more profitable buildings are replacing older housing stock. The threats and menaces of unscrupulous developers may be different, but the effect is the same – the weak go to the wall.

Added into the impressive story there is a shockingly sudden racial incident, the exact nature of which might not have struck a less well-attuned audience.

Mendonça Filho is like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in that he does a lot of work with people who are not necessarily actors, mixed with professionals like Sonia Braga, this can have a distinct downside. Still this is an expressive and dominating piece, and since Clara’s life is the main point of the film, this was not particularly an issue for me.

A great film, definitely worth looking out for.


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60th London Film Festival – 11

Two very contrasting films today, both in their own way documentary, just with very different methods and messages.

Daughters of the Dust is a fictionalised portrait of a group of slave descendants, now freed and making their way north to Nova Scotia; they have one last family gathering, with photographs and a re-telling of their history and then a group of them leave in a boat.

15-10-1-daughters-of-the-dustPlayed by actresses, this tells the story of three generations of Gullah women. It takes a fresh and rather different look at the experience of black women, as they remember and mythologise their arrival and departure from the sea islands off the coast of America.

Julie Dash clearly has a feminist agenda here, however this is not a polemical film. It states the case, the elderly great-grandmother explains what their lives were like, the growing, weaving and dying of the cotton, how their hands were permanently blue with the indigo dye; the hardships of feeding and survival and the ways in which they took care to remember their African background.

They serve a typical African American meal, a stew of fish and prawns with okra, plantain and sweetcorn. It is lush and colourful, although all but two of the women are dressed entirely in white.

Made in 1991, this film has been completely re-mastered with a refreshed sound track.

Following that was the animation of Raymond Briggs’ biographical book – Ethel and Ernest, which was the story of his own parents. How they met, married went through the war together, and lived. This animation is bewitching and captures all the beauty and detail of Briggs’ pictures.

15-10-2-ethel-ernestEthel and Ernest, the movie, keeps faithfully to the original with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the voiceovers as Mr and Mrs Briggs. The sound track is completely in keeping with the time of the film, immediately pre-and post-war Britain (including the voices of Chamberlain, Churchill and the first man on the moon). To animate such a story, and because it was so personal, to animate it with extraordinary accuracy took several hundred draughtsmen, some doing background and others doing the hand-painted character drawings, over 7000 of them.

I realise that animation is not for everyone, but this is such a beautiful story, ordinary people living an ordinary life with all its hopes and mysteries. Quite superb. We were privileged to have pretty much everyone in the audience with us, including Raymond Briggs himself, and I was able to thank him publicly for years of delight that he has given us and our children – the film was as good as any animation of his books, many now regular favourites like The Snowman.

It has UK release and venue and dates can be found on the website:





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60th London Film Festival -10

A marathon today, three superb films, each in its own way brilliantly crafted and filmed. 14-10-1-their-finestTheir Finest, a film by Lone Scherfig (another female director) with a glittering cast of stars, when I say that Jeremy Irons had a near walk-on part that lasted all of seven minutes, you will get the picture. Gemma Arterton plays a female scriptwriter, paid two pounds a week, engaged by the Ministry of Information in World War II. This out-fit was run for the purposes of information dissemination: what to do in an air-raid, how to make your rations go further, walls have ears and that sort of thing; the really interesting thing about the set up was that the film was able to show some reels of actual propaganda film made, some of which was not shown at the time for reasons of low-morale or off-message scripts.

Bill Nighy plays an ageing thespian, rather full of himself and very “actorly”, a part which got a number of laughs, he was superb. The twist in the tale was that eventually the Ministry hire a full-time studio to make a feature film about the rescue from Dunkirk, the idea being that this would play out in America and bring them into the war.

It is clearly a comedy of manners, it tells a fairly accurate story about the horrors of the London Blitz as well as telling the story of the importance of the propaganda machine, information was dealt with by showing short films between the B-movie and the main film of the day, [This will mean nothing at all to anyone younger than 65!], the idea being that they would be a captive audience as they would not be leaving the cinema before the main film.

It has an under-lying message about the opportunities for women that arose while the men were at war, and also the discrepancy in pay between the sexes – what a surprise!

14-10-2-brimstoneThe second film, Brimstone, was very different. A tightly woven tale of a mute midwife living in a religiously-minded community of Dutch-folk who have emigrated to America. Another film with a very strong cast.

Part of the OFFICIAL COMPETITION section, this was a tense drama which started at the end and then reeled back to the beginning. Set into actual chapters with titles, Exodus, Genesis, Retribution etc, it covered the life of the mute midwife, played by Dakota Fanning, from where she was within a community who respected her, which turned vile when a birthing went wrong and worse still when a new pastor arrived in the village.

Guy Pearce gave a sterling performance as the menacing, maniacal, diabolic preacher-man. It was as much his story as the midwife’s. The Dutch director, Martin Koolhoven, manipulated his audience with a taut series of events that told a story about as horrific as it could possibly be; he did not shy away from any of the issues but gave us just as much information as we needed without actually spelling it out, which is not to say that there were no graphic moments. A nail-biting and frightening pall hung over the whole film.

I would say that this was a must see for anyone with strong nerves and if you like The Night of the Hunter, this is very much a film for you.

I have to say the Q&A after was a disaster! I have seldom, if ever, heard more stupid and mindless questions, one had to wonder which part of the film they did not understand? In my view he absolutely nailed it!

Finally, what must be one of the best foreign language films in the Festival. [Bearing in mind I only see about a tenth of the whole offering, nevertheless…].

14-10-3-the-innocentsAlso set in the aftermath of World War II, and based on the diaries of a young, French Red Cross doctor working in Poland, The Innocents is a film of extreme emotional integrity and impact. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is called out to a convent to save the life of a young novice, her assistance is requested by another Polish nun. (Agata Busek) At first, her request is ignored as they are extremely busy in the town’s makeshift hospital, but then in a break she sees the nun kneeling in the snow praying. Transfixed by this display of determination, Mathilde follows her secretly to the convent.

What she finds there is horrific and soul-destroying, especially for the nuns, and a tremendous challenge as the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) is set against her being allowed in at all to help. Marie, the nun who came to get her is punished for disobedience.

The director, Anne Fontaine, gave us  no explicit images of what had happened, the evidence was plain. Everything in the film was chosen with care, both for the truth and for its impact and the actresses playing the Polish nuns were indeed Polish. Shot in Northern Poland in winter, filming must have been very challenging.

It reminded me in some way of Ida (also Polish, hardly surprising as the Mother Superior in that film was also played by Agata Kulesza) and a bit of Of God and Men. This is superb and I would strongly advise anyone to see it if they can.




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60th London Film Festival – 9

Rather a weird day. Two very different films both of which needed percolating before I felt I could write about them.

12-10-2-the-ornithologistFirst The Ornithologist, a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues. The bird life, and the gorge down which the ornithologist kayaks is magnificent, a lyrical look at nature and its stupendous offerings in scenery and in fact. Using binoculars while drifting towards some fairly violent rapids has predictable consequences, and the kayak and its oarsman are swept away.

Thereafter the film becomes more and more hallucinatory. This is a journey through bizarre rituals: his Chinese rescuers have drugged and then bound him like a parcel, he escapes and his strange adventure begins with a pietà-like pose on a blue sleeping bag, for all the world like a religious painting (see above), its significance only becomes apparent later in the film; he finds half of his kayak has been used for a fetishized romp of some kind, and later sees the revellers, masked and with grotesque, but colourful, costumes capering around the woods and apparently killing a wild boar.

He wakes to the sound of goat bells and finds a deaf-mute goatherd…to say more on the plot or the next sequences would be too much of a spoiler.

His encounters and his interior journey become more and more symbolic and krypto-Christian. Nothing is quite what it seems, and even if it is what it seems, like the strangely damaged terracotta “Stations of the Cross” which he finds in a tangled woodland, the meaning as part of his journey is obscure.

Paul Hamy plays the ornithologist and his bemused expression vividly underscores the adventure he is having, he seems totally at sea – as I suspect were many of the audience.

12-10-3-hermia-helenHermia and Helena was equally obscure but in a completely different way. Mainly about two girls Carmen and Camila (Augustina Muñoz and Maria Villar) and their assortment of friends.  They are both studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one for acting and one for translation and as the film progresses their lives begin to resemble, more and more, the exigencies of the two female roles in the play.

Meetings get missed, or the two people are confused about arrangements and are in a different place, strange postcards arrive for a girl who has left, then the writer Danielle turns up but finds the wrong girl. Boyfriends seems expendable or exchangeable…

All readily recognisable from actions in the play, which my companion did not know well and the relevance went straight over his head. So as far as he was concerned this was a film about nothing very much – an epic fail in other words.

What got to me though was the music. A more inappropriate musical score could hardly have been chosen! Mostly, and recognisably, Scott Joplin and then suddenly Beethoven!? A further playful disjunction was the occasional written instruction that this was two or three months previously, what was never made clear was whether that meant that the film was forever running backwards, or whether it was flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Since all the characters seem to wear pretty much the same clothes the whole time (a wardrobe malfunction or a continuity failure?) it was pretty impossible to judge. If the audience is at a loss does this matter? Yes, in my view it does.

There were clever scene changes, the girl walks into one underground system in New York and walks out into Buenos Aires, or into one provincial park and out of another. This is a clever and witty film, the scenes are interesting for themselves and the mirror imaging of the play is super-modern and subtle. The dialogue alternated between English and Spanish which was a healthy clue as to where we were, but without this distinction interior scenes would have been impossible to decipher.

It is definitely film to think about, but quite whether it worked on the impact level that the Director (Matias Pinero) intended remains doubtful.



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60th London Film Festival – 8

Marathon of a day today and the buses were all over the place; sat at one bus stop and no less that six buses, Route 29, came past in less than eight minutes, all but one terminating in Trafalgar Square, which was the next stop!

11-10-1-boundariesKicked off in the morning with a political/environmental satire, Boundaries, about a fictional island off the coast of Labrador. Three women, in quite different roles happen to meet during a session in which the island’s mining rights, its relationship with its larger neighbour Canada and its contract with an iron extraction company have ground to a halt. So one woman, played by  Emily VanCamp, is there as a mediator struggling with having to be away for long intense periods, leaving her young son with her ex-husband; Macha Grenon plays Danielle Richard, the Prime Minister of Besco, this independent island, she also struggles with work/life balance which she explains in the film as the tension between wanting to do good things for the country and for the future, her children’s future while finding that the job separates her from them and finally there is the idealistic young politician, part of the Canadian team, Félixe Nasser-Villeray played by Nathalie Doummar whose problems arise from the conflict between the reports and works that she has done, and supplied to the team only to have them ignored or misrepresented.

Each of these three strong women, passionate about their work but also about their lives are set against a male dominated, aggressive and bullying culture, needless to say the mediation fails and the island it set free to sort out its own goals and achievements.

This satirical look at the wheeling and dealing that is part and parcel of politics and big business today, focuses on the women but also shows the men as devious and arrogant – so it looks as though the environment is going to get trashed in the wake of big bucks with sweeteners of all sorts, not to mention a touch of blackmail – but Mrs Richards is made of sterner stuff…

The second film was precisely the opposite, from the Treasures of the Cinema listings we got a wonderfully re-mastered piece from 1957. Patrick McGoohan as a villain with a cast of young hopefuls that later hit the big screen – Sean Connery and David McCullum among others.

11-10-2-hell-driversThe premise of Hell Drivers was simple and male-dominated. A company of truckers moving gravel from one site to a building site elsewhere, are motivated by cash rewards for the most runs they can do in a day; vile shenanigans follow as the competition between the gang boss – Red (Patrick McGoohan) and Tom the new boy, played by Stanley Baker – hots up into a seriously dangerous game.

Considering the age of the film and the techniques and cameras available at the time, the breakneck runs between the depot and the site along narrow English lanes is little short of amazing. Every trick of camera work is in play here, to great effect as the view switches from inside the cab, to the view through the windscreen, the view in the wing mirror and the road ahead. A speed chase and race with heavy lorries; then it switches to the  view of the accelerator/brakes and clutch pedals and back to the speedometer. Hugely simplistic, the good guys and the bad guys and nothing much in grey or nuance, but what a film!

Finally tonight a documentary portrait of the Mozart of Chess – Magnus.  A young prodigy from Norway who from a very young age shows a natural aptitude for chess. The film follows the boy’s progress from national winner to world chess status over a period of three years, aged 19 to nearly 23 when he became the World Chess Champion in 2013, beating the current holder, Viswanathan Anand, in his home town Chennai.

11-10-3-magnusThis is the second documentary I have seen this Festival in which the whole film would have been considerably different had the outcome not been outstandingly successful (the first being The Eagle Huntress). Placed in the JOURNEY section, it is indeed a journey from triumph to triumph.

The need to know anything about chess is completely swept away by the quite sensitive and delicate filming of matches, though as it happens Magnus Carlsen plays chess at a quite prohibitive speed.

Competition chess is rather different from a friendly match down at the pub. There are timing rules, mind games and presumably money, though interestingly the sums that Magnus has won were never mentioned.

This is a great film, a beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of professional games playing. UK distribution is 25 November, just as Magnus undertakes his third defence of his title.

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60th London Film Festival – 7

Another two challenging films today. Christine by Antonio Campos attempted to put a backstory to the true life drama of Christine Chubbuck who notoriously shot herself live on a local television news channel.

The macabre and lurid myths that have arisen as a result of this shocking act needed to be toned down and examined, whether this film quite succeeds is debatable – though this film is in the DARE section, not the DEBATE section where it more probably belongs.

10-10-1-christineI would have liked to see the other film about Christine Chubbuck that is also in the Film Festival this year, Kate plays Christine by Robert Greene, but it did not fit in with my schedule which is already quite overloaded.

Rebecca Hall puts in a storming performance as the troubled tele-journalist, whose private life seems to be a mixture of the terrifying and the fantasist. Suffering already, though this was only referred to, in a career move brought on by a nervous disorder, Christine is now working in Saratoga television, attempting to produce issue-based news bulletins; her boss however, with a view to the bottom-line, wants more ‘blood and guts’ stories; when she attempts this though, once again she misfires because her item concentrates on the human angle of a fire and rescue story, not the more vivid filming of the fire itself.

The health issues she is suffering from are further exacerbated by the news that she has an ovarian cyst, which accounts for the acute abdominal pain she has been putting down to stress for several months. Sadly, since Christine internalises many of her problems, her flaky mother, with whom she lives, does not have a sympathetic attitude at all, although clearly aware that her daughter is emotionally unstable in some way. Christine makes to-do lists, but this is a displacement strategy and she doesn’t actually do them, apart from thinking of story lines for her two hand puppets.

The happiest moments in the film show Christine in a home for ability challenged children playing out ideas and conversations between these two puppets. Tangerine is a wise advisor to the other puppet, and between them they often externalise some of the problems that Christine knows herself to have: “how to be bold and brave; how to show other people qualities that you know that you have, but that they seem unable to appreciate”.

It was telling, if accurate, that she used the second weaker puppet, her ‘needy’ voiced puppet in which to hide the pistol that she eventually used to shoot herself.

While, in my opinion, this was a brave undertaking, I suspect that it failed significantly on engaging the emotions of the audience. One fully understood the limitations, two hours to portray a complicated and troubled woman whose career suicide was exactly that. There was not enough time to establish a connection between her desperation to do serious work, her fantasy emotional life which was hinted at, left undeveloped and then dealt with in one short, obscure and brief scene and the depths to which she had sunk in order to end her life so publicly and dramatically. There was too much to say and not enough time to say it.

The second film of the day was a photo-essay mostly about Mount Fuji in Japan. This was the EXPERIMENTA SPECIAL PRESENTATION. This mysterious (and holy) volcanic mountain in Japan has long attracted mythical stories and illustrations, many early manuscripts and early Japanese woodcuts, especially those by Katsushika Hokusai have images of Mount Fuji in them. [Though I was a bit amazed to hear Fiona Tan say in the introduction that she had never noticed Mount Fuji in his most famous woodcut The Great Wave, since this belongs in a series called Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji.] Those same woodcuts which so entranced and influenced Vincent Van Gogh that he and his brother Theo ended up with about 400. [They also entranced my grandfather, who was the Cultural Attaché to Burma and the Far East and we have ended up with rather fewer than the Van Gogh’s but nevertheless some very, very fine ones.]

10-10-2-ascentThe EXPERIMENTA section can be tricky, and it would not be the first time that the offering was less interesting than watching paint dry. But this was quite, quite different: an elegiac meditation on the mountain, its image and its myths. The genesis was an invitation to visit a vast image library in Japan, with many previously unpublished pictures including some of military personnel grouped for photographs with the mountain in the background.

This was a surprise to Fiona Tan because after the capitulation of the Japanese in the Second World War, all images referring to conflict which included the mountain were banned.

The essay contained many dazzling images of Mount Fuji, in all seasons, from all angles, at all times of day, both in black and white and in colour; the collection was further augmented by ordinary Japanese people being invited to send their own images via a specially opened website – Fiona Tan ended up with over 4000 photos.

Except for very occasional moments, the essay was made up entirely of stills which through brilliant cutting bled and faded one into another, while the voiceover on English by Fiona Tan and in Japanese by Hiroki Hasegawa told stories about the mountain, and recorded the thoughts of a Western artist and a male writer who had personal relationship with Mount Fuji. The soundscape and the music added another level of beauty and depth.

It was also a Westerner’s threnody to a lost Japanese friend, someone who had been much valued and loved and who had sent some of the images by way of a message about himself and the mountain. This was the emotional axis of the film, haunting, arresting, mysterious like Mount Fuji – changeable, distant and photogenic.

Although this does not yet have a fixed agreement for UK distribution, it is to be hoped that this will be forthcoming soon. You would have to see the film to fully appreciate the wonder and delight that can be achieved in this brave and experimental manner.


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60th London Film Festival – 6

Just a single film from the Treasures of Cinema DARE section – films that are in-your-face, up-front and arresting: films that take you out of your comfort zone.

9-10-1-junoon Billed as a re-mastered version of a well-known and highly respected film from India, made in 1979 by Shyam Benegal and produced by Shashi Kapoor, this film lived for many years in the garage of the house, after the Bengal Studios closed. Re-mastered from negative and sound tape by Shashi Kapoor’s son, it is probably the best film about the Indian mutiny of 1857 to come out of India, or indeed anywhere.

Using members of the Indian acting community as well as dragooning members of his own family, Shashi Kapoor (who plays Javed Khan) brings a vivid reality to this terrifying moment in the history of Indian independence from Britain.

Muslim Soldiers in the British Army mutinied against the use of the cartridges which were wrapped in oiled paper, which had to be ripped open with their teeth because the fat used to oil the paper was either from cows or pigs – both of which are haram (forbidden). This was followed by a mass rising, engineered over all of Indian by passing secret messages in chapattis (flat breads into the pockets of which messages could be inserted).

A brave Muslim, Lalal Ramjimal played by Kulbushan Kharbanda, hides three female members of a British family (Jennifer Kendal, Ismat Chughtai and Nafisa Ali) in his house, but an influential Pathan, Javed Khan has become obsessed by Ruth, the daughter (Nafisa Ali) and insists on moving them to his house.

The book from which this film is made is called The Flight of the Pigeons by Ruskin Bond, but this could easily also be called a cat among the pigeons, placing these three English women in his household causes endless conflict among the women already there. And eventually he submits to the advice of his ‘aunt’ to take them away to her estate.

The scenes indoors where much of the action is shown through layers of screens (made from rush and lowered to keep the house cool, and to shield the women of the household from any visiting males) adds another texture to the layers of relationships, the sadness and jealousy (understandable) of Javed’s beautiful wife, the sharp tongues of his sister and sister-in-law (also in the house because their husbands are fighting) and finally the more placating tones of his aunt.

Javed is determined to marry Ruth as his second wife, which as a Muslim is permitted, but Ruth’s mother and indeed the girl herself, still traumatised by the events of the early scenes which include a massacre in a church where the father is killed, are completely against the idea. The tension between these two, Ruth and Javed, a fascination and a repulsion which dominates all the action of the film is palpable and brilliantly played. Javed’s frustration at his bewitchment creates a coil of anguish within him which occasionally overwhelms him, and this is brilliantly portrayed.

The battle scenes, which are many and furious, during which two opposing sets of horsemen charge towards each other, bearing lances, guns and swords, followed by much fierce sword fighting on horseback, must have taken some skill to film quite apart from anything else, there was such a melee of horses hooves that filming soldiers falling off as they were ‘killed’ must have presented quite a challenge in terms of ‘health and safety’.

For the Caucasian English viewer this was an interesting film because, of course, all the ‘English’ characters were in fact played by Indians, except Jennifer Kendal who was Shashi Kapoor’s wife (and the sister of Felicity).

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