Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Six Films From The London Film Festival

I was lucky to be in London this October and so was on hand to catch a few movies at the 57th London Film Festival. And to catch a serious dose of celeb-paparazzo fever! For there were clearly a few players in the business who were happy to take up the offer of a free junket holiday in the UK, as some of world's most famous directors and actors were on hand to mumble incoherently about the films they'd help produce.

A brief recap of what I saw.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Thousands of kilometres above the surface of the planet, a small team of astronauts work to repair a malfunctioning satellite. When an unexpected catastrophe decimates the crew and leaves their spacecraft prone, two survivors - plucky but inexperienced Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and cocky veteran Matt (George Clooney) - battle the relentlessly hostile environment as they struggle to make it back to Earth.

As far removed from a conventional Hollywood depiction of space exploration as you could probably get, Gravity seeks to provide a realistic representation of life and work in a zero g environment;  the difficulties, the frustrations and the amazing view are all given their due. And then things start blowing up. Once the plot is in motion, the rest of the film is an almost unbearably tense scramble against the tightest of time frames, showcasing some of the most amazing visuals ever seen in a cinema. Director Alfonso Cuaron and his team spent three years in pre-production on this and it shows. See it in 3D on the biggest screen you can find and then pick your jaw up from the floor afterwards. The characters and dialogue are all cardboard, but its impossible to care much while this thrill ride is going. A unique cinema experience.

Where: BFI Imax; a spectacular, cylindrical building near Waterloo Station.
Celebs?: Cuaron introduced the session and politely thanked everyone for coming.


Rates:  *  *

Laura (Scarlett Johansson) is a recently arrived alien on an inscrutable mission; she drives around northern Scotland in a panel van chatting up horny young men, luring any she deems suitable back to her lair (a succession of run down tenement houses), where she traps them in a kind of viscous substance before heading back out on the hunt. But an encounter with a tragically disfigured sad sack breaks the pattern; Laura feels some pity for this man and lets him go, then has to flee her own alien co-conspirators who are clearly displeased with this deviation from plan. On the lam, Laura gets to experience a little of everyday human existence.

Nine years after his last feature film, lauded independent director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) returns with this highly stylized, but disappointingly empty, piece of cerebral sci-fi horror. The imagery that Glazer has conjured up is frequently striking, and his reserved tone is effective for a while in creating a sense of mystery, but it is quickly apparent that the slim story is not really going anywhere. The abduction scenes in the first half of the film become repetitive and it is difficult to connect with Laura's emotional awakening in the second half. Her character's motivations are entirely withheld from the audience and with them goes any chance that what she experiences in the latter scenes will have any resonance. Johansson does her best and the film is odd enough that it may find a cult following, but this would have to rank as a major disappointment.

Where: Odeon, Leicester Square; a stock standard, chain cinema.
Celebs?: Glazer introduced the film and then returned for an earnest Q and A after.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbish trapped in a low grade nightmare; he has a dull job, a cramped apartment and a crush on a pretty girl who ignores him the same way as everyone else. He's unhappy, frustrated and trapped. And then he meets... James Simon (Eisenberg again), an exact doppelganger who's diametrically opposite in every behavioural way. The two become friends, but Simon quickly realises that beneath James' breezy exterior some very dark things are at work. In short order, James finds himself sucked into an escalating battle to defend his life and sanity.

Based on Dostoyevsky's story of the same name, up and coming director Richard Ayoade's second feature is an assured comic puzzle box. The drab, grey and brown production design radiates just the right tone of mild urban hell, the perfect backdrop for the increasingly obtuse events onscreen, and the director deftly chooses his moments to ratchet up the tension and spring surprises. Eisenberg clearly has a ball playing twin parts, and the impressive supporting cast features neat turns from Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor and Wallace Shawn. A darkly funny, highly original treat.

Where: Hackney Picture House; a funky set of cinemas in east London, with some of the best cinema seats I've plonked myself in.
Celebs?: None.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a talented mess; a singer songwriter with a sweet voice and a short temper who lives to play music and is otherwise barely able to function. Davis is right at home in the East Village of 50's New York, where he is just one such character among many doing the rounds; crashing on a rotating series of couches, cadging favours, ignoring responsibilities, playing in underground dives for whatever the crowd offers afterward.

The eagerly anticipated new film from the Coen Brothers has just the barest thread of a plot, but this is enough for them to hang much rich detail on in this entertaining character study. The production design, cinematography, sets, costumes and (especially) the soundtrack are all of the highest order and work together to create a fluid, absorbing world. And Oscar Isaac has produced a charismatic lead performance (and lovely singing) that will undoubtedly make him a star. It's a little disappointing then, that all of this fine craft is in the cause of a movie that meanders and, ultimately, seems to have little overall point. The details are intoxicating, but the eventual whole left me unsatisfied. A movie of many fine elements that just misses.

Where: Odeon, Leicester Square.
Celebs?: Overload! There were hoardes of people and many aggressive photographers outside trying to get a peak of... Ethan and Joel Coen! Oscar Davis! Justin Timberlake! Carey Mulligan! JOHN GOODMAN! They all came on stage for a Q and A after the screening (when the ushers advised that there were no microphones on the top level and that people up there would have to come down to ask a question, Goodman roared 'Don't let them screw ya!').


Rates:  *  1/2

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are well meaning ideologues who have decided to turn words and sentiments into action. Together they plan and execute a minor piece of eco-terrorism, but their satisfaction at a job well done soon gives way to doubt and fear when they learn of their act's tragic consequences.

American director Kelly Reichardt has dazzled the festival circuit with her last two features - Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy - and her latest represents an effort to marry the nuance of her earlier films with a more narrative driven story. Reichardt's previous movies had a loose structure that allowed her character's plenty of room to move as she slowly teased out the key elements of their personalities. While she tries this same approach in Night Moves, the plottier story clashes with the introspective tone and the film ultimately feels unrealised in both respects; it is neither exciting enough to work as a thriller nor insightful enough to work as a character study. While Reichardt deserves praise for trying something different, unfortunately her effort to carve out some new artistic territory just doesn't work. The actors try hard, but the movie seems stuck in first gear from the outset.

Where: Odeon, Leicester Square.
Celebs?: Reichardt and Eisenberg were on hand for a Q and A afterwards, with the director fielding 95% of the questions and finding it almost impossible to talk coherently about any subject. From her answers you would have thought she wasn't clear why she had made Night Moves, what it was about and whether she thought terror acts in the greater good were justified or not. Puzzling.


Rates:  *  *  1/2

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a straight talking foreman and happily married family man, content with his life and about to oversee a particularly important piece of construction work. Out of the blue, he is contacted by a former one night stand, who tells him she is pregnant with his child and about to give birth. Obeying his instincts and trying to uphold his principals, Locke gets in his car to drive to the woman's side for the birth, trying to manage the other threads of his private and professional life via a series of phone calls en route.

Tom Hardy is the whole show in Locke, onscreen for the film's entire running time and the only character seen throughout. He offers a stoic, focused performance (and a slightly iffy Welsh accent) and does a mostly successful job depicting a man who has a lot of inner turmoil beneath a calm facade. Although how interesting you find his plight is probably a matter of taste. The film itself is more of a concept than a fully fledged movie experience. It deserves some praise for originality, but this is not enough to overcome the static nature and limitations the idea imposes. Being stuck in a car with this odd, pedantic character for a hundred minutes is finally more wearying than anything else.

Where: Odeon Leicester Square.
Celebs?: Hardy and writer-director Steven Knight took a Q and A after the screening, and the smartly dressed Hardy enthusiastically posed for photos with people while they were leaving. 

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