Category Archives: Select Cinema

London Film Festival

On the Waterfront

Oops, no! Not the film!

The new novel by Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan was recommended to me by my favourite bookseller, Jessica at Primrose Hill Books NW1.

ManhattanManhattan Beach is set in the streets and clubs around the Naval Yards of New York just before Pearl Harbour and after. There are many characters but we see the whole picture through the experiences of three of them. Eddie Kerrigan, tall, unobtrusively handsome, husband and father to Anna and Lydia. His wife, Agnes, was once a Follies chorus girl, as was her sister, Brianne, who breezes in and out of the narrative like a breath of whisky!

Anna, who is a child at the start of the book, she is her father’s girl and often accompanies him while he is out and about, as a messenger for Donellen, a Union man on the docks. But once she reaches the nubile age of around twelve or so, he can no longer take her with him.

One of the characters that Eddie visits is Dexter Styles. A racketeer, owner of several bars and casinos, he is the principle pivot in this novel around whom things happen. Dexter is married into New York nobility (of a sort) although he is himself on the wrong side of the tracks in every sense: background, profession and the rest. However, his father-in-law, a wealthy banker has allowed the marriage to go ahead on some pretty stern limits.

As a young woman, Anna sees Dexter again, in one of his clubs. At the time she is working in the navel yards at a bench where she assesses the exact measurements of small widgets that are going into the building and repair yards for battleships, namely the USS Missouri and others. One day, she sees divers training off a barge in the East River and determines to train.

Not unlike The Woolgrower’s Companion, this is a book very much set in its time, the war having taken the men away so that women finally have an opportunity to do some real work, as opposed to housework. And in a similar way, this is also demonstrated in a film I saw at the London Film Festival, The Guardians about women on a farm in France during World War I.  Guardians

And as a complete coincidence, I saw the National Theatre production of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical; a completely overwhelmingly wonderful production, lavish, stylish and memorable. It must come on again sometime. Which chimes perfectly with the Manhattan Beach sisters, Agnes and Brianne.Follies

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61st London Film Festival Day 10.ii

My second film of the day was in some ways rather a disappointment. A documentary about a Zen Buddhist community in the South of France, Plum Village, known now because of its “mindfulness” programme and the philosophy of its leader Thich Nhat Hahn.

Walk with meWalk With Me sounded as though it was a meditative look at Zen Buddhist life, and indeed in some ways that is exactly what it was, but I expected something a great deal more abstract. While several scenes were of sky, clouds, trees, water and sunrise; there was also a considerable amount of busy-ness.

Walking mindfully, eating mindfully, teaching and listening mindfully – so far so good, except there was so much of it; no sooner had the camera focussed on one thing, when it switched to something else.

Mercifully there was no sound-track as such, so we heard the natural sounds and the gongs, bells and singing; but mindfulness is as much about breathing mindfully as anything else, and this left one with hardly any time to draw breath.

AND THEN…my worst fears: Benedict Cumberbatch sententiously reading extracts from the journals of Thich Nhat Hahn. I understand that Mr Cumberbatch does actually follow this mindfulness practice, so was probably the ideal choice in that sense, but the solemn, sepulchral tone was a mistake; the thoughts were themselves profound, possibly; personal, evidently; and spiritual, definitely and as such, they did not need any added depth of feeling.

Made by the same team (Marc J Francis and Max Pugh) as Black Gold (LFF 2006) this was a good idea which missed its mark, for me at any rate.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.ii

Angel wear white

Angels Wear White could not have been more different. Though also a film about exploitation, this is set in a seaside town in South China. Directed and written by Vivien Qu, it follows the lives of some young schoolgirls and their indirect relationship with a young girl working in a motel.

Brilliantly cast, with young girls who were not necessarily actors, this film explores Ms Qu’s observation that in modern China, where families are becoming dis-united, parents sometimes working in different cities, leaving children with grandparents, relatives or alone, there is a growing and disturbing rise in young people living rough on the streets, sometimes working in the sex-industry or simply giving “favours” for food and accommodation.

Runaways without ID are also vulnerable to exploitation and do menial work in hotels and restaurants, low paid and borderline work which is neither legal or safe.

In this film the setting is a coastal town, there is a huge funfair at the gates of which is a gigantic statue of Marilyn Munroe (who some might also see as an icon of exploitation) in her famous dress malfunction pose in Some Like it Hot. Her high-heeled shoes are just about the same height as the first girl that we meet, the runaway hotel worker.

The story focuses upon bribery and corruption in the highest echelons of the justice service, and the behaviours which lead to blackmail and beatings. It is a compelling look at the underworld and although set in China, it has a universal message about how young people are treated in the 21st century.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 8.ii

The second film of the day was completely different. A re-mastered documentary from the 1960s. New technology had transformed the possibilities of this medium. No longer the images with a voiceover, it became possible to film and record simultaneously and two masters of the art, Albert and David Maysles with a consummate editor, Charlotte Zwerin made a series of cinéma verité or “real life” films and Salesman is one such.

This is a film that puts The Bible into Bible-belt America! We follow four salesman flogging Bibles and Catholic Encyclopaedias through Boston and then through Miami. On the way they are given pep talks and instructive lectures on the “good work” that bringing the Bible into people’s lives is going to do.

With their promotional material and sample bibles, they are also evidently provided with cars: in snowy Boston they all have identical saloons, in Miami suddenly, open-topped Cadillacs!

A premier salesman gives an inspiring talk about Jesus saying “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business”, and this salesman equates flogging Bibles to people as just that “our Father’s business”. The double-entendre was not accidental!

These men are going into homes of people for whom the word ‘dirt-poor’ is no exaggeration. The terms of the deal is $1 a week payment for one year. But many of them cannot even raise that amount. There is an absolutely desperate scene in which the woman can hardly bear to say no to this frantic saleman, and even though she already has a Bible, she faces a complex problem. She doesn’t want to say no, but she doesn’t have the money to say yes. The emotional agony for both of them bleeds from the screen.

There are four salesmen that we follow, and they have varying success, but one has clearly lost his mojo, and the final shot of him, the final screen shows his face: an absolute picture of defeat and misery.

Made in conjunction with the Mid-Western Bible Society, this is cinéma verité at its most telling. A powerful and woeful story.Salesman

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61st London Film Festival – Day 6

Guardians

I went in to this screening without reading up my notes, so I had forgotten that I chose this on account of the director, Xavier Beauvois. The Guardians comes from the same place in the heart as his previous film Of Gods and Men (LFF 2010). In the former film, it was the monks who were taken hostage.  In this film it is the women: farmers’ wives, daughters and cousins, left with only the old men while their young men fight in the First World War, it is they who are hostage to the exigencies of farm life in an age when farming was manual labour.

Early scenes show Hortense, a woman of around seventy (at a guess) labouring across a field ploughing with a horse, sometimes even with oxen. It is hard work, men’s work but these women must keep it going or starve.

The film concentrates on a single farm run by Hortense, the matriarch. It becomes apparent that she has two sons at the front and a son-in-law, Clovis. His wife works on the farm with her mother, but eventually they need more help, which arrives in the form of Francine, an orphan – therefore protected by the State until she becomes 21 – but who is an excellent worker, durable and honest.

The casting is magnificent: Nathalie Baye plays Hortense, and her real-life daughter, Laura Smet plays her daughter, Solange. But the newcomer Iris Bry, who plays Francine, shines out like a torch. Her subtlety of movement, facial expression and air of dogged goodness makes her story in this profound meditation on hardship and grit and grief all the more telling. Very many of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Hortense’s husband is played by Gilbert Bonneau, who makes his film debut at 78.

The cinematography is exquisite, with slow panning views across the farm at different seasons; the farm itself is lovely, gorgeously rural, well-set stone dwellings, with dark, cramped interiors. But for all that, somehow very compelling because it meant that many of the interior scenes were close up to the actors, so every lip tremble and tear was right there.

I have no idea where this was filmed, but I suspect not in France. But wherever it was – I want to go there.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 5

Loveless A new film, Loveless, by a much lauded and prize-winning Russian director. Winner in 2014 for Leviathan a broad brush look at corruption in Russian bureaucracy, Andrey Zvygintsev  has come back with a much more intimate, universal film about dysfunctional families. One family in particular standing in for many.

A warring, divorcing couple are both stuck with their original flat, trying to sell it before moving on to their own new lives; Zhenya to her much richer, older and childless Muscovite and Boris to his heavily pregnant girlfriend, living with her mother and another child, a small boy of about 4 years.

But apart from all their other problems, Zhenya and Boris also have a son, aged twelve. Neither of them particularly want him. Zhenya because he reminds her of her mistakes and Boris because there simply will not be room for yet another child in his already overcrowded new life.

While they are bickering about this, the young boy, Alyosha, goes missing.

It would seem, in Russia, that if there is no particular evidence of “wrongdoing”, this is not a police matter. Only if, at a later date, it turns out to be a kidnapping or a dead body appears, will the police take action – meanwhile there is a volunteer association, Arkhangelsk Regional Rescue Service that will help if they are contacted.

In the Q&A afterwards, heavily translated so much may have got lost in translation, the director indicated that two ideas coalesced, one the story of a family in which the child slips between the cracks in a broken relationship and also the existence of these voluntary groups, 25 in all Russia, who specialise in looking for lost people, a search in which generally they are successful, that is 89% of the time.

This film starts in a beautiful, but cold, winter forest, it ends there a year later. Indicated throughout the film by the changing seasons. In between we see how little Zhenya interacts with Alyosha. She only ever speaks to him in the imperative: “tidy your room; eat your breakfast; say thank you” and nearly all the time she is looking at her mobile phone…recognise that anyone?

Boris, who works in a large office, comes in late or not at all and in the whole film, we never see him with the boy, there is one painful scene in which neither parent realises that the boy can hear them, while they argue about where he is to go…

And ‘go’ he does. Be careful what you wish for…

Once they are involved with the rescue service, they are less inhibited in what they call Alyosha, none of which is lost on the leader, Ivan. It is a gruelling, painstaking process and only once, when they are required to look at a dead child, do either of them show any sign of remorse or breakdown. Otherwise, it seems it is just a dratted nuisance.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Another famous Russian’s take on the situations like this. [Tolstoy]

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61st London Film Festival – Day 4

You haven’t missed anything, I went a whole day without going to the cinema!! The LFF means lots of late nights and lots of inadequate meals, and I was working on Friday as well.  So, unusually for me, took a break from screenings.

DarlingBack on stream today. Saw Darling, a new film by the Danish director Birgitte Stærmose, award winning and versatile, this is her first feature film. Set in the competitive environs of the Royal Danish Ballet Company, we see the new prima ballerina, “Darling” played by Danica Curcic and the new director, Frans played by Gustaf Skarsgård arriving to start work on a new production of Giselle.

This is a work of great intensity and drama, ballet is full of pain and this in no exception. Neither is the competitive nature of the jostling for rôles at the highest level. Every dancers’ dream is for the superstar to fail so that they can step into their ballet shoes. In reality no one wants to be the ‘willis’, they all want to be Giselle, herself.

This film is also about success and failure, physical and mental and the enormous stress of fame, and the end of fame – the nothingness that follows a career broken off suddenly by ill-health or accident.

I think this film could do with some closer edits and some corrective continuity, there were some very awkward transitions where the editing was all too obvious and one really terrible continuity gaffe. But that is to be extra picky, this is a very interesting and well acted film. Danica is not a dancer, so her transformation “into” a prima ballerina is nothing short of miraculous.

Her training with a real ballerina was gruelling and meticulous, which probably helped with her later role as dominatrix over the dancer, Polly, who replaces her Giselle, played by Astrid Grarup Elbo, a real ballet dancer from the Royal Danish Ballet Company.

This is a much better film than Black Swan, but similar in the intensity of the identification with the character and the dancer/actor. Personally, I could have done with more of the ballet, but that is my opinion only.

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