Tuesday, 20 November 2012
The Leeds Film Festival is always a special occasion for me every November, not just because I work it, but it's my home city's cinematic platform. The biggest UK festival outside of London (that's bigger than Edinburgh) showcasing all the films I've been desperate to see since Sundance and Cannes, but keeping that fun, friendly Northern charm that makes it so accessible to everyone, and such a delight to be in its lively atmosphere.
And LIFF26 has been one of the greats - certainly the strongest line up I have seen since I started attending five years ago in my University days, and the audience response has matched that with more people voting, and voting highly, than ever before. Being at the venues every day, whether it's as a volunteer or as a viewer, and the following the festival's excellent social media, has allowed me to feel closer to the festival than ever before, and now it's over it's left a big hole in my day to day life (a free evening? What am I supposed to do with this? It's like the end of Wimbledon). So I'm feeling snugly proud right now, and can't wait to share with you some of my filmic experiences from the last two and a half weeks.
Before I get to my, very special, round of reviews, here are the awards winners and audience favourites from the festival:
Silver Méliès Award: Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal
Runners up: Sightseers, Thale
Audience Award: The Hunt
Runners up: In Search of Blind Joe Death, Ernest and Celestine
Audience Top 20:
1. The Hunt
2. In Search of Blind Joe Death
3. Ernest and Celestine
4. Wolf Children
5. War Witch
6. Morgan Spurlock's Comic Con
7. Five Broken Cameras
8. Robot and Frank
10. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
11. In My Mother's Arms
13. This Band is so Gorgeous
14. Seven Psychopaths
15. Laurence Anyways
16. When the Lights Went Out
17. Yadig? Presents Seven Signs
18. Jose and Pilar
19. Back to the Square
20. Beserk: The Golden Age 2
Due to the extraordinarily strong line up at this year's Leeds Film Festival, I had actually already seen a fair few of the big draws (you can find my reviews of Laurence Anyways, John Dies at the End, Antiviral, Rust and Bone and audience award winner The Hunt from here) and was thrilled the Leeds audiences took to my already nailed down favourites so passionately. With these in mind, and the excellent Opening Gala film Argo (it gets its own separate write up here), I still wasn't really prepared for seeing a film on the third day and for it to be a SIX CHEESE worthy film. And here I've been complaining all year about nothing quite coming close to blowing me away and achieving top marks, and one film has gone and re-written my whole scoring system! There is a special reason why though, and you'll come to it, once we stroll through the rest...
Here Comes The Devil
Fresh off a screening at the Toronto Film Festival and opening this year's Raindance, this Chilean chiller (hee) about two children who return from playing in a cave on a mountain somewhat changed has been on my to see list for a while. So much so I sacrificed a re-mastered, uncut screening of The Shining in Leeds Town Hall to see this - pity I'll be regretting that decision for some time. A creepy premise is let down by an incoherent script, cheap CGI and poor execution. The biggest drawback being - these children are not threatening. They're clearly not themselves, possessed by demons or shape shifting phantoms, but if all they're going to do is stare dead eyed at the television all day, as a parent that would be the least of my worries. Here Comes The Devil just isn't scary, nor is the atmosphere clogged by unsettling tension. More than a horror film (apart from one token scene of gore, where the parents let loose on an innocent man, thinking he's the cause of their lifeless children's 'trauma') this is more of a mystery, and the unrecognisable children and desolate mountain covered in mazes of caves and rock formations made me hark back to Picnic at Hanging Rock, though of course Peter Weir's haunting masterpiece trumpets all over this middle of the road genre piece. It juggles too many ideas - a serial killer in the opening prologue which precedes the events of the film, though seems to be completely unconnected by the end; hinted incest between the brother and sister which may or may not be part of their mother's warped imagination; the idea of significant and time affecting earthquakes; paedophilia and perversion; and the supernatural, the devil living amongst us. If only the film had stuck to one of these themes and run with it - instead layers are spread too thin and the result is ineffective. If these children are demonic entities, causing doors to slam, lights to flicker, and the children's bodies they are inhabiting to levitate off the ground (cheaply), then what is their plan? To scare the babysitter? They seem only menacing when poked at (and dressed randomly in party clothes), chiefly by their mother who through gaping holes in the script and no apparent logic has somehow managed to come to this horrifying conclusion unaided. The twist at the end made little sense to me, seeming to have neglected showing us a revelatory scene concerning the father, and negate any lasting ramifications on the character's friends and the community - who are made up anyway of incidental characters merely to steer the various plots cooking in the pot. It's the mark of a poor film when you start planning a much better one in your head, but at least director Adrian Garcia Bogliano gets the 70s nasty vibe in there - too bad we're in 2012. Kudos for providing me with one of the biggest lols of the festival though on, "what's causing those noises?" "rocks." Oh yes, EVIL ROCKS.
There are certain magical film settings that can get away with anything with me, and Iceland is one of them - I'd pretty much watch any film the country produces, such is the guaranteed beauty of the cinematography and their coarse sense of humour. I've discovered some real Nordic gems over the years at LIFF, including 2009's White Night Wedding. But Stormland spills into melodrama, and has long ditched its ice black tone and humour before we arrive at the heightened, overly ridiculous ending. Our protagonist Boddi (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is angry with today's society, at the shallow wants of people not truly living as his Viking hero Grettir before him, and in particular his fury is directed at the local millionaire who acts and buys things "because he can" (finishing off sentences with what has to be the best laugh of the festival). But these feelings of resentment don't feel reason enough for his extreme actions later on in the film - he's well regarded in the small Icelandic town he lives in, if somewhat teased for his opinions. He writes an angry blog which leads to further amusement (a fat couple live in a fat town but their garden has skinny trees, and they want them to be fat too so they water them with cola) and there's a nicely built up character study here of ostracism and frustration. But then there's some dead mummy drama, some unrequited love drama, some baby drama and who's the daddy drama which all leads up to his big meltdown and his riding to Reykjavik on a horse with a gun to start the 'revolution'. This itself is played for laughs as for such a grand gesture he just ends up blocking the roads and causing a symphony of angry car horns. But the subsequent tragic turn of events in a wild last 30 minutes switches the tone of the film again, and my eyes started rolling. He's a turbulent character, a mini storm unto himself like the titular house he lives in - he is desperately looking for something to fill his life, but when things go wrong he can't control himself. But the slow motion destruction of his kitchen, his hallucinations of the dead, the panning out shot at the end of the film is too much, and it's hard to feel emotion for such a brawling and confused character. And the biggest sin - it didn't make me love and want to leave for Iceland immediately. If it was going for the authenticity, the grittiness, then why not keep the story real instead of piling on the theatrics? Stormland can't get the balance right.
In The House
Francois Ozon's new film is about storytelling, the power and perception of narrative. Adapted by Ozon from the play "The Boy in the Last Row" by Spaniard Juan Mayorga, it explores the fine line between fiction and reality, but in the case of In The House - unlike the other meta fictional film I saw at the festival which we'll get to later - it's too clever for its own good. I won't deny it's an intriguing set up, and for much of the film spins a darkly engrossing tale. An introvert outcast at school, Claude (played by a simmeringly good Ernst Umhauer), writes an essay that captures the attention of his English teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini, in Ozon's last film Potiche) about finally entering the house of his classmate Rapha which he has been dreaming about all Summer. He ends it cheekily with "to be continued" - a sign off he continues to use on the rest of his literacy exercises as he continues the story of meeting Rapha's family and learning about what goes on in the house ("he's given me chapter 2!"). What starts off as a giggle for Germain and his wife Jeanne (an excellent Kristin Scott Thomas, once again dabbling in French cinema) soon turns into an obsession, as Germain begins to meet exclusively with Claude to talk about his writing, and his advice on becoming a better writer - something Germain impresses on Claude, he himself a failed novelist - begins to spiral out of control, as the story's narrative is driven by Claude's own actions inside the house, and begins to play on his desire of having a love affair with Rapha's mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). What transpires is a fascinating dynamic between a jaded teacher and a student with a dangerous intelligence. Like a puppet master Germain begins to manipulate Claude and the story by demanding the events and tone as chief reader, but Claude is no ordinary puppet and is always one step ahead and soon it's difficult to tell what has actually happened against what Claude has fictionalised, peaking when he writes Rapha has killed himself and the next day he is absent from class, sparking Germain to rush in a flurry to the secretary’s office to ring the boy’s parents only to find he is ill with the flu. What does it say for this couple that a story a 16 year old boy creates in true serial newspaper style takes over their life? When they are alone, apart from the odd moan from Jeanne about her art career (an extraneous subplot), Claude and his story is all they talk about - the film is excellent in depicting the power of narrative and being able to change it, and the perversion of the voyeur. Claude is a smart manipulator, able to coerce those around him by inducing sympathy from his own parents break up, and suggesting awkward Rapha is secretly in love with him and Esther - the most bored woman in the world - shares a profound but illicit connection with him. There's humour too which works surprisingly well ("the singular scent of the middle class woman, her middle class curves... where do women learn to speak like that?") and the opening and closing montages are a visual treat. But as Claude struggles to find an ending, so does Ozon. Ironically at one point he gets it perfectly, emulating his protagonist’s own sentiment that a perfect ending should “surprise the reader but make them realise that’s the only way it could have ended.” There’s a moment when, at the climax of the film, we finally see Claude in his own home, how he cares for his disabled father – who has also eluded us – and we see his difficult home life. I WISH they had ended the film there – what better way to conclude the story of a protagonist finding his way into a house and infiltrating its inhabitants than us finally infiltrating his? But sadly Ozon keeps the camera rolling and there’s an incredibly clumsy and melodramatic ending were Claude finally gets into Germain’s house, and – it's implied – sleeps with his wife. Gah! It’s such a clichéd kop out, and spoils the knowing tone of the film. It could have worked – why not see him enter the house, the door close, and then the credits? It holds the mystery and makes the central character more compelling. The ending we are left with is neither surprising nor satisfying which is deeply annoying for a film with so much promise.
A very eagerly awaited film for me - Giorgos Lanthimos' follow up to 2009's Dogtooth which remains one of my favourite films of all time, a bizarre and marvellous masterpiece. Alps, which has been hanging around the festival circuit for more than a year (it's official release was finally November 16th), is co-written by Dogtooth scribe Efthymis Filippou and stars the eldest daughter from his first film, Aggeliki Papoulia, as a member of a group of adults who call themselves 'Alps' and stand in for the recently deceased as a coping method for the grieving family and friends. A creepy premise leads way to some dark as night humour we've come to accept (and morbidly delight in) from Lanthimos and Filippou, but also polarised the audience, leading to as many walk outs as there were five stars. The set up is not a million miles away from Dogtooth with the group led by a fiercely strict and menacing patriarch figure (Aris Servetalis) who controls and manipulates his group into taking on different roles - they are always acting a part here, whether it's a girlfriend, a teenager, a gymnast, and it's difficult to tell when the characters are actually playing themselves. There is no easing your way into Alps, Lanthimos likes to throw you straight in at the deep end, and it's your choice whether to sink or swim. The black comedy may be too much for some ("it looks like the girl is going to make it" "...shame") as may be the sporadic bouts of violence (the 'colour changing' club), but if you're a fan of his earlier work as I am there's much to admire about this weird and often chilling character piece. Apart from Papoulia, who again is given the lead role here as the rebel/betrayer of the group after she lies to their leader, the other characters do feel a bit thin on the ground, and could have done with more screen time. The structure and narrative is also less well developed than Dogtooth, feeling too episodic at times as we follow Papoulia's character on her various visits. It doesn't hang together as well, but that's not to say the individual scenes are not completely fascinating and filled with a subtle, clever deftness. Once again the characters show little emotion and seem detached from their actions, and when Papoulia's character is expelled from the group she is unable to react healthily. Lanthimos is fast becoming the Michael Haneke of Greek cinema, and continues his love of dance scenes in his films too, with a full on rhythmic gymnastic sequence here. Whatever your tastes, he's a bold and mesmerising talent and though Alps fails to rise above the Everest of Dogtooth I can't wait to see what he serves up next.
A sublimely funny black comedy from writers and stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, with director Ben Wheatley bringing the gory horror - a winning concoction which is both more coherent and likable than last year's Kill List. Firstly, I have to take a time out to just single out what a glorious trailer this film has: the editing and soundtrack - a perfect slice of the full film - is standout amazing, and it's my favourite of the year so far:
Chris (Oram) arranges a holiday for his girlfriend Tina (Lowe) taking in the sights of the North from his beloved caravan, including Mother Shipton's Cave (yay, I've been there!) and the Pencil Museum (yay, I want to go there!). But things soon take a turn for the murderous, when Chris's unusual method of expressing his anger against litter louts, smug writers and Daily Mail readers begins to dominate their relationship, and their travels. It's a bonkersly brilliant off-kilter script and so very British too - loved the aforementioned litter lout earning a Cornetto at the Tram Museum just because, well, he's on a day out, and the caravan and camping banter and one-upness against the people they meet. It's laugh out loud golden too, managing to hit the right tone despite moments of genuine shock (ALWAYS PUT YOUR KNITTING NEEDLES AWAY). The performances are excellent - Oram and Lowe have been working away at this idea for years before they found a director in Wheatley so their characters seem almost part of them (in a cinematic way, of course). Lowe pips it for me though as the childlike but seriously unhinged Tina - it may be Chris who gets the blood flowing as it were, but in the end she turns out to be more crazy than he is, killing for his attention and for the fun of it, and he gets angry at her for being 'chaotic' - at least he has his justifications! But it's impossible not to like them - Chris, for all his violent tendencies, is so deadpan and such a nerd about British tourist attractions and new ventures in camping equipment and I am absolutely adored when Tina feeds her pasta sauce to the bin! Eileen Davies excellent too as the disparaging and selfish mother who doesn't want Tina to leave (she lies in a heap on the stairs waiting for her daughter to pick up on the phone so she can guilt her back home, but when she doesn't answer she just gets up again), and I don't want to miss out the film's other big star - Palme Dog winning Scruffy, who plays tragic Poppy and kidnapped Banjo. What a pooch! (and speaking of dogs, there was also an appearance by our very own dog mug Pink Hat - not sure when he nipped out of the cupboard to film that cameo, but all I'll say now is he's too big for branded teabags) The location shots were especially welcome for the Leeds audience too, and made the film much more enjoyable, and a fabulous soundtrack to boot too - inspired use of 80s power ballads as people get splattered on screen. And an apt ending which rounds their deranged mentalities off nicely. We were lucky enough to have Steve Oram there for the screening and a Q&A afterwards - he was very down to earth and affable, just don't mention John Craven's niece...
This year's Palme d'Or winner was the Closing Gala at this year's LIFF, and bore stark contrast to the opening feel good film Argo with its unflinching tale of love and mortality. Michael Haneke is hard-wired against the sentimental, yet I personally found Amour strangely comforting in its devastation, and with its increasingly "stunning but it'll leave you in a heap on the floor unable to move" reviews scaring people, I'd like to lay the case for it being a powerful but essential film for anybody who has ever unconditionally loved. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a happy couple in their 80's, retired music teachers living in their own home in Paris. One seemingly normal morning, Anne begins to act slightly odd, and a concerned Georges has her checked over by the doctors, where it is revealed she has had a stroke, and the resulting unsuccessful operation leaves her paralysed down her left side and unable to properly look after herself. Adamant she does not want to go back into hospital or into a care home, Georges begins to look after her in their home, with a little input from his neighbours and occasional visits from their distant daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who wants to help but Georges can't see how she can so treats her formally which upsets her. They are coping until Anne suffers another attack which leaves her almost unrecognisable and immobile and Georges is truly tested to the limit. Being a Haneke film, no moment is shied away from here, and we are forced to watch these two strong, funny, creative, intelligent, loving people crumble under the inevitability of death. But what's so defining here is Georges unwavering need to help Anne and care for her, no matter the exhaustion and the attention and the discomfort, all of which we are made to endure, just as much as he. It is a natural reaction to take this person whom he has loved all his life, who is part of him, and do all he can for her. His anger comes through because of frustration - he doesn't want to lose her, he cannot fathom nor bear to see her so fragile and dependent and confused as she was always so capable, but his love for her is indubitable. And perhaps this is why I find Amour comforting - if you share that assured and mutual love with somebody, you know you would be looked after in just the same way - it would be absolutely terrifying if her illness had repulsed him and he had abandoned her. This is probably as tender as you're ever going to get with Haneke. I didn't find myself welling up during the film itself but it's such a powerful and fierce imposition on the self that its impact on me meant the tears are a prolonged and lingering remnant after ward - I can't watch the trailer now without wanting to bawl my eyes out. Trintignant and Riva are extraordinary in this - perfect. I do have my favourites already for the acting awards come Oscar season, but after watching this film these two are untouchable and it would be a travesty if they do not win. I have worked in care homes for four years so I know the attention to detail and the nuances to their performances and what they manage to capture from this situation they are portraying is astounding - from lifting, to changing the bed, to eating and drinking, even the sounds. It's beautifully shot too - the vast apartment they live in has its own presence, and the film is full of striking symbolism too, such as breaking/entering, running water, open windows, and my favourite - the cheeky pigeon who manages to keep flying into the hallway, and Georges attempt to capture it coming just after Anne has died. I loved the night terror scene too (even though everyone in the row behind me gasped in fright!) - dreams and the way Haneke has woven this into the couple's reality is superb. There's a wonderfully ambiguous, open and reflective ending as well which provides a talking point on the way home, once you've managed to find your voice. A towering film, both important and necessary for your years to come.
Coming to my favourite two films of the festival now, and the two that I saw twice because I loved them so much. One of the many things I meant to do before LIFF began was catch up with In Bruges, director Martin McDonagh's first film about a pair of hitmen stuck in the Belgian city after a job goes wrong. Smart, violent, and hilarious, I've heard fantastic things but didn't quite find my way round to watching it before it was suddenly time for Seven Psychopaths, his second feature film and my first foray into his blackly comic world. From the opening shot with Jimmy Darmody and Arnold Rothstein as mobsters talking on the bridge in some wonderful Boardwalk Empire reverie, I was on board (I can only imagine my uncontrollable hysteria if Michael Shannon had showed up). The story - and story is key here - focuses on our hero called Marty (Colin Farrell, teaming up with McDonagh again) who is struggling to write the difficult second screenplay. He has a title - Seven Psychopaths - but has no idea what happens to them at the start, never mind the middle and the end. By his side and urging him on is his best friend and biggest fan Billy (Sam Rockwell), who develops his own troubles when he kidnaps the shih tzu belonging to gangster and serious dog lover Charlie (Woody Harrelson) and is hunted down, bringing Marty into the fight with him, along with their friend Hans (Christopher Walken). What's genius about Seven Psychopaths is the script, and how McDonagh manages to cleverly dictate the action through the character's own ideas, which will then ultimately lend itself to the entire storyline of Marty's screenplay. McDonagh, himself a playwright, is so skilled at creating this tightly furled but creatively inspired plot that even when it begins to even slightly flag, the characters and dialogue he has created picks the pace back up again instantly. It's a technique which is much more successful than similarly structured In The House (reviewed above) - Seven Psychopaths is well-crafted storytelling, stories within stories, 'layers of a cake.' The way Marty's ideas for his screenplay turn out to be embedded in his subconscious through stories Billy has told him is so great; the double reveal the Quaker Psychopath story is actually Hans, even better. I loved how the psychopaths were introduced to the audience - each one is so unique, either as a key player in the prevailing action, or as a peripheral character separate to the action (such as the Vietnamese soldier) or looming in the sidelines (a fun Tom Waits, who gets a great pay off scene in the post credits). The cast are uniformly excellent. Farrell hilarious as the out of his depth writer who just wants to keep the peace, Harrelson game as the ruthless gangster who comes unstuck literally by his rubbish gun and his undying love for Bonny the shih tzu, and Walken often steals the show as the composed and deadpan Hans: "You're the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get tiresome after a while, don't you think?" But by far Sam Rockwell was my favourite - he is brilliant in this, completely outrageous and a little bit cuckoo but completely lovable as the cracked up Billy. Some of his mannerisms to nail the character down such as his beaming smiles are just hilarious, and his fine delivery - "life affirming, schwife affirming!" I could spend the rest of this review just quoting from the script: "Put your hands up!" "No" "...but I've got a gun." "So?" "...That doesn't make any sense!" and, "Can't you count back to 5?" "No I cannot just go back to 5!... OK, 5..." The comedy is really dark, especially interspersed with some genuinely shocking and violent scenes which in any other context would have cast a fog over the characters - but not in McDonagh's simultaneously shiny and dirty Hollywood setting. The scenes in the desert are beautifully shot too - with the quippy dialogue the characters throw back and forth bringing strong echoes of Tarantino in many places, but much more likable. The graveyard scene, Billy's ideal of what will go down in the final shootout of the screenplay (and of course, McDonagh's film), is my favourite scene of anything this year so far - it just culminates brilliantly inside Billy's warped mind, as he performs it to an incredulous Marty and bemused Hans round their camp fire. Christoper Walken bursting out of the crypt! Marty's girlfriend getting mown down - MOWN DOWN! Woody Harrelson's head exploding! I could just watch it again and again, it's ruddy marvellous cinema, and the audience (both times) were rolling in the aisles. Seven Psychopaths is one of the best experiences I've had in the cinema in a long time, a dark treacle treat. It would actually make a great double bill with Sightseers - question is would Bonny have beaten Scruffy to the Palme Dog had Seven Psychopaths screened at Cannes? She is the heart of this film, and her eventual connection with Billy - "give me paw" - is quite lovely. What a gorgeous scrunched up face she has, and what gleefully bloody chaos she instigates!
Ernest and Celestine
And here it is - the first ever seemingly impossible six cheese film...and of course, it features a mouse! Ernest & Celestine is the best animated film I have seen in a long time, and is a must see for children everywhere - and the great thing is adults will love it too (and be hugely jealous they never got shown this as a child). It's just exquisite - fusing the poetry of The Snowman, the joy of The BFG and the madcap humour of A Town Called Panic. Directing duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar team up this time with Benjamin Renner, and though the hand drawn style is a long way from the stop motion of Panic, Ernest & Celestine only seems to further their talents. Based on the children's books by Gabrielle Vincent, this is a story of true friendship between a bear (Ernest) and a mouse (Celestine) which is frowned upon by their peers, as bears and mice shouldn't mix together. Young mice are taught to believe bears are ferocious and will eat them, and young bears are told how mice are pests which take over your home. But Celestine has always believed differently, a feisty plucky little thing on a dentistry internship (!), she is a creative soul at heart who lives to draw, and it's this passion she uses to bond with outcast Ernest, a struggling musician who longs for a never ending supply of marshmallows. After Celestine helps Ernest break into the local sweet shop, and Ernest helps Celestine break into the tooth shop (that is a thing), both bear and mice police are on their tail, so they flee to Ernest's little house in the woods to hide, and their friendship grows until they are discovered and taken to court. I fell in love with the film in the opening minutes, where we see Celestine and all her friends in their dormitory, listening to tales of the big, bad bear from the wise grey mouse, and the introduction of Ernest too, fighting with the cheeky plump robins over the last crumbs remaining in his kitchen. Refreshingly, the idea that Celestine is an orphan is never addressed, and her relationship with Ernest is purely platonic rather than the little mouse looking for a fatherly figure - she takes care of him as much as he takes care of her. Both characters are parallelled so beautifully: their crazy dreams ("I am not your nightmare") to the court room scenes (loved the giant bear trap the mice construct) - as individuals they are so charming and vivacious that together their friendship is completely endearing, so all the more heart-breaking when they are forced apart (and melts me to a mush when they are reunited). The mouse city in the sewers was AMAZING! The attention to detail just incredible: a wheel that acts as a lift, cheese fondue street sellers, mouse traps used as a training ground for young mice, The Mouse Weekly newspaper, and their main industry is dentistry, to highlight the importance of their incisors. It's just so clever, and watching it the second time around I was able to drink in more and more little touches. I was also able to enjoy my favourite scenes again and look forward to them with the bouncing energy of a small child: when Ernest and Celestine paint their getaway van to blend in with the background, and then Ernest immediately walks into it, or when the mice and bear police meet each other for the first time and slowly back away from one another; the chocolate biscuit who squeals "hurray!" when Ernest eats him; and my ultimate favourite moment, when Ernest initially tries to get rid of Celestine and keeps throwing her out the front door, only for her to appear instantly again in another corner of the room - the illustrators and directors play on the habits of a bear and a mouse so wonderfully! It just has that magic of a great children's film but yet is grounded in tradition. It will keep anyone of any age entranced. Kids films today can be so awash with gaudy and flashy CGI that it can tire you out so quickly - Ernest and Celestine is gentle, but sparky and inventive and excitingly, sets us up for more possible adventures (there are 25 books!). I ran home with a spring in my step and wouldn't shut up about it until I got to see it again - thoroughly deserving of its high audience ratings at LIFF. There's no official release date yet in the UK, but I am on it chaps. And as for this unprecedented rating, you better mousing believe it.
Wednesday, 7 November 2012
26th Leeds Film Festival Opening Gala @ Town Hall
Third time lucky, Ben Affleck has struck gold with Argo, which follows on from his earlier efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town (both excellent) to be his biggest film to date, and his most important. I think this will walk away with Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year - let me tell you for why.
Based on a true story, which remained classified by the American Government until 1997, Argo dramatises the events of the 1979 US hostage crisis in Iran, and the attempt to rescue 6 foreign office workers who have separated from their colleagues and are hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador's house in Tehran. With convoluted ideas bandied around and then shot down, it's the wackiest idea yet that will win out: trained exfiltrator Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)'s idea to construct a fake movie, entitled 'Argo', which will send them location spotting in Iran where he can pick up the six captives and assimilate them into his fake production crew and fly them back out to America. To do this he needs support from a major Hollywood studio - cue John Goodman and Alan Arkin - and support and cooperation from the CIA (channelled mainly through Bryan Cranston). All is progressing well, until at the final hour Mendez is informed the operation has been cancelled and there will instead be a military rescue for the captives. Defying orders, Mendez forges ahead with his plan and takes the six to the airport, where they must pass several check points with their fake passports, whilst at the same time the CIA and the White House rush to resume the original plans and the Iranian officials are closing down on the identities of the escaped Americans.
Affleck immediately makes the story accessible to the mainstream audience, but without dumbing it down. The voice over at the start tells the history and the background to the current situation, using a comic book-eque technique that will echo the storyboards later used in the film for the fake 'Argo'. Middle Eastern relations and government agency politics can be tricky and weighty viewing, but he manages to humanise the characters and the situation to make events not only easy to follow, but coherent in a global sense. This is a very talky, quippy film - a brilliant first time script from writer Chris Terrio - but there is great humour here too which is pitched perfectly, particularly from Goodman and Arkin, the comic relief duo of the film. You'll be shouting "ARGO FUCK YOURSELF" like Father Jack for weeks after, and for my benefit there was even a rights joke in there which I lamely cackawed at - "You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA." HAHAHAHHAHAHAHA... er, right?
A brilliant ensemble cast makes the film shine - as well as the fabulous Goodman and Arkin (who almost steals the show, with his delivery), I'm hoping Bryan Cranston can nab a Best Supporting nod as he was wonderful as the hard nosed yet loyal colleague at the CIA. Strong casting with the captive Americans in Iran too - Clea DuVall continues to bulk up her CV, Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice), Tate Donovan (Damages) all great too. But it's the married couple within the group who make the biggest impact: Kerry Bishe as Kathy delivers the most engaging performance as she is the most vulnerable throughout, and her husband Joe (Scoot McNairy, Monsters) is generously allowed his own character arc - he goes from biggest sceptic to saviour, as his knowledge of the language allows him to confidently converse with the Iranian officials at the airport, and it's his selling pitch of the fake film that gets them on the plane. Overdone? Yes, but it's one of the most memorable and heart swelling moments of the film.
For all his skill behind the camera, oddly Affleck is dull in front of it. His portrayal of Mendez feels generic and bland, especially when thrown in with such alive and kicking characters. He's the integral cog in the operation, but lacks charisma and his marital issues in the background feel tacked on and under developed - whether this was Affleck's intention to make his character understated, but you can't help but feel another actor cast could have turned this role into an Oscar winning performance. The Academy will take note with Argo but Affleck will be circling the Director's award instead.
It's interesting watching this film on two accounts: it's a very North American story, about the rescue of Americans but the lengths the Canadian Government went to protect them as well (there have been complaints this has been watered down in the film, which led to Affleck having to change the post script at the end of the film just before release), but also to see how much Affleck has changed from the true life events. Affleck is not a political director in the same way his co-producer here George Clooney has become - his focus is more on the thrill and suspense element of the drama, which is why he uses the real life event as a platform for this drama. As you watch the final half an hour unfold with Mendez and the captives in the airport, in the moment the suspense is electric and you're fully invested in everything he throws at you - from missing paperwork in the airport to the CIA flying around wild trying to get a sign off from President Carter ("REFRESH THE COMPUTER!"). It's impressive how effectively he manages to pull this off, when you know there is no real danger here of them not getting away successfully. And having slept on it, you'll smile in bemusement at the contrivances, but you'll remember those emotions he brought out in you, and that's what makes Argo a triumph. I won't deny I didn't shed a tear of pure relief when they are up in the air, and they clear Iranian skies.
There are other scenes of excellence too: a great opening scene as the US Embassy is first attacked is frightening and disorientating, and a read through of the Argo script - complete with actors in sci fi costumes - is inter cut with an Iranian woman on the television delivering Iran's statement to the world's press. It's very well put together - a brilliant mixture of archive footage and reconstruction, and the pace zips along - two hours just fly by. The 1970s era is captured perfectly too and I loved the retro credits at the beginning, and the photos of the real life individuals compared to their fictional equivalents at the end - they are so alike.
It's an astonishing real life story, so Affleck is already 50% of the way there before he's begun, but through dramatic embellishment he has made an enjoyable film of real power. He is the one of the most exciting and classy directors working today, and I still think there is more in him yet - Argo will not be his best, but it's his most complete work to date.
A film about film making, by a man who knows how to make films.
Thursday, 1 November 2012
The above picture provides just one of the many striking images first time director Benh Zeitlin brings us in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year as well as making a name for itself in Cannes. Wildly ambitious, with a premise that evokes both fairytale and apocalypse, it's a shame the film's loose narrative and incoherence towards the end fails to deliver the magic.
Six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a southern community known as the Bathtub. Her mother has long since deserted them, and Hushpuppy has been brought up to fend for herself from a very early age, and due to long absences from her father has learnt to cook for herself and keep house. When a storm threatens the area, herself and her father hide in their home and re-surface to a changed world: everything is underwater, and soon plants and livestock begin to die. Naively believing by draining the floodwater things will go back to normal, it just leaves more carnage and Wink is injured during the attempt. The survivors are then found and 'rescued' by a group of aid workers who order them to leave their devastated land and come to the rehabilitation centre, where Hushpuppy is washed and dressed and her father is put onto medication and treated for what is assumed septicaemia. But unhappy with this 'modern' way of living they break out and return to their homes, where Hushpuppy declares she is going to look for her mother. After a chance meeting in a bar with a woman she believes is her mother, she returns to the Bathtub to look after her dying father.
I struggled when I came out of this film to find a word that accurately described it - it's not a bad film and I didn't want to give any negative connotations to it. However the film it reminded me of the most was Where the Wild Things Are - more about 'play' than narrative, dreamy surreal landscapes, told from a child's POV, large creatures (here the giant warthog Aurochs - above) which are representations of ourselves. It was definitely less tiresome and annoying than Where the Wild Things Are, but shared its core problems. And the word I finally decided upon was "overreaching" - it's a film punching above its weight; a mouse trying to be a bear (and hey, I can relate to that). The ending for all its pertained epicness amused me, "one day history will know that a Hushpuppy lived here with her father in the Bathtub" - no they won't! It's a small, remote community and its their story. Trying to pile on the grandeur and scale feels amiss.
Things do happen in the film, but there isn't really any sense of development. I wanted a fairy tale, but it was too meandering. Very pretty to look at, yes - the cinematography around Louisiana where it was filmed adds to the laconic atmosphere. But there is only so many shots of the river I could take before my concentration began to drift. I desperately wanted to go on a journey with this film but it feels so sporadic. I liked the storm and its aftermath (very timely, too) but hated the direction it took after that - it was too static, and then the 'rescue' by the volunteers didn't go anywhere either, it just seemed to serve a point that Hushpuppy and Wink are indigenous to their land, to the wild, and can't be doing with clean clothes, medicine and technology.
I found the whole sequence where she goes off to find her mother just bizarre. This is where the fairy tale element seems to fit the most - though we never know if it's her real mother or not whom Hushpuppy connects with, the idea of magically being drawn to her despite knowing nothing about her exists. But it didn't work for me - the strength Hushpuppy draws from it (to be able to stand up to a Auroch, when the film reminded me of something Miyazaki might do) she had within her anyway, we didn't need a sojourn like this to learn that. It's the scene where Wink is eating his last meal - Hushpuppy has to feed him he's so weak - and they are crying when I knew this film's heart had passed me by: this is the moment when you bawl your eyes out, but I was oblivious to any emotion except for the tiny bit of joy in knowing we were quite near the end.
Quvenzhane Wallis was great as Hushpuppy and had a lovely line of detail to her performance - she could say so much with her eyes alone. But it's just her age giving her acclaim here: she is really good, but it's not an Oscar winning work. I did enjoy the relationship she has with her father - both are fiery animals, he'll hit her, she'll hit him straight back - and he talks to her more as a man and a 'king of the Bathtub' than as a girl, as his daughter. Combined with her fierce spirit and independence it's hard to feel the heartbreak for Hushpuppy, and this is where my disconnect came in.
There were moments and details that I really loved, such as Hushpuppy's 'cave' drawings on her cardboard box, and the loungey 20s music soundtrack (which really reminded me of The Caretaker) was something of a surprise and complimented the film well. But it was more of a pleasant while away the hours than an essential viewing experience for me. Not one I'd watch again - too much vision for me, and not enough on the ground storytelling. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a bit like its young spirited protagonist: a girl trying to be an adult, this is a small film trying to be big, but it has lofty ambitions it can't quite grasp.