58th BFI London Film Festival

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The 58th BFI London Film Festival closed on Sunday after offering an enormous range of films over 12 days across 17 venues (and other one-offs). The festival screened 248 features and 148 shorts. I managed 10 in three days. Even if I’d kept that up for the whole twelve days I would only just have scraped a bit off the surface. The only way to see four films a day (given that screenings tend not to start until 12.00 at the earliest) is to choose one you want to see and then work out the other titles you can fit round it. Even so, I found myself dashing between venues more than 30 minutes apart by public transport.

All the films I saw were worthwhile. Most were very enjoyable and some were painful  but still interesting. I think three of the ten will get a UK release soon and one of those is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Four of the films were directed by women and six of the screenings included Q & As with the director. Overall then the festival can certainly be made to work as a celebration of film culture. I’ve no complaints about what I experienced on screen. I do think, however, that since I first attended it some forty years ago the London Film Festival has become too big and too commercial. There are now as many ‘Gala’ screenings (mainly of UK/US films that will soon be released anyway) as high profile screenings from other festivals. The programme with its sections on ‘Love’, ‘Dare’, ‘Laughter’ etc. is very difficult to navigate. Archive restorations are buried in these sections and there is no easy way to find say Indian or Chinese films. In some ways, the festival is like ‘BFI Southbank’ as we are now supposed to call the BFI’s HQ – efficient, modern, ‘popular’ but also for me a little soulless and missing the excitement of smaller festivals. Of the screening venues, I was in NFT2 for three screenings and I think it’s time it was replaced – it’s a rather cramped rectangular shape with a screen that’s too small. I was lucky that four of my films were showing in the largest of the screens at the Vue West End and I enjoyed the CinemaScope presentations on the big screen.

Reviews to follow over the next few days.

28th Leeds International Film Festival

Celebrating 100 years during the Festival

Celebrating 100 years during the Festival

This year’s event runs from November 5th until the 20th. There is a set of WebPages (www.leedsfilm.com) and a printed brochure. I prefer the latter as it is easier to scan the programme for films that fit one’s interests. Note this year’s brochure has introductory briefs for the different sections of the Festival and then an A – Z listing of the films. I found the old format with the films divided into sections easier to browse. For the first time the Brochure also indicates films screening on 35mm – i.e. ‘reel’ film. I counted eleven of these. However, the Brochure does not distinguish between the various digital formats – DCP, Blu-Ray, DVD etc. There is usually a Catalogue available at the start of the Festival that provides this information. This year there are fourteen venues, though the core of the Festival will be the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds Town Hall, Vue Cinema in the Light and the Everyman. Its Centenary Year, the widest range of formats and the beautiful ambience of the Hyde Park should make this the star attraction.

The Hyde Park’s Centenary falls on November 7th. Its Open House will see films screening all day and an evening event that includes films produced in 1914, [though the BFI has only made these available on digital]. These screenings are part of a larger festival innovation – Free Screenings. There is a special page on the Film Website – Eventbrite – where reservations can be made.

The Festival programme is organised more or less in the established manner. So there is a range of new and contemporary films from round the world. The Festival opens with an adaptation of Vera Britain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, one of a number of films referencing World War I. Previews also include the Cannes Award Winner Winter Sleep. A friend in Italy, where the film was released last week, tells me that it is very long but very fine. There are also prize-wining films from the Venice, Karlovy and Annecy Animation Festivals. Plus popular style films from Iceland, India and Mexico (among others).

The Leeds Festival has a tradition of quality retrospectives. This year we have a series of films by or about the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. The programme includes two of his finest – Persona (1966) and Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961). Two lesser-known bur very able Spanish directors are featured – Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem. Both worked during the Franco dictatorship, when censorship was extreme. Films like Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, Berlanga 1952) and Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un Ciclista, Bardem 1955) offer intriguing possible subtexts. They are joined by Alex De La Iglesia, whose output is as little known in the UK. And there are two films by Soviet director Konstantin Lopushansky: that he worked as an assistant to Tarkovsky will give you some sense of his approach.

Unsurprisingly there is a section on War and Cinema. The key films in this programme are J’accuse (1918) directed by Abel Gance and La Grande Illusion (1937) directed by Jean Renoir. They are outstanding examples of the best in French cinema, though unfortunately the Gance seems likely to be on digital video. There is also a video installation with a range of film material from World War I at the Royal Armouries Museum – a welcome combination of a major event and a major exhibition centre.

Masters of Film Comedy offers sight of films from Buster Keaton, Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati. More intriguing is Hollywood Greats: European Origins, with directors like Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder represented by the films they made before they quit Europe for Hollywood. And there is the Hollywood bred Josef Von Sternberg working in Europe – with his muse Marlene Dietrich.

There are the regular Underground Voices, Music on Film and Cinema Versa providing opportunities to see films that experiment in subject mater and form. There is a substantial number of titles from Fantasy Cinema and an Anime Day, Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead, always popular. And there is a selection of recent short films from around the World. Finally there are three films that dramatise The American Nightmare – possibly even more relevant given very recent events.

It looks like being a full, varied and exciting sixteen days. As usual the major problem will be the choices that have to be made. A number of the films get two screenings, so check the brochure carefully. One gripe though – the Brochure offers ‘four acclaimed British regional comedy dramas, one from each of the UK home nations’: there are only three ‘home nations’, and these only narrowly missed being reduced to two. Eire, including the six counties in the north, is a separate country if not yet a united state.

More thoughts on Maps to the Stars from Rona

I have seen reviews that focus on the film only as satire or as a Cronenberg film.  It’s as much Bruce Wagner’s (who wrote the screenplay) but it feels as if Cronenberg has subtly channeled his great visceral sensibility into this story of people’s suffering.  I agree with Roy, the characters are no ghastly types and are realised with great feeling, not least because the actors knew when to exercise restraint.  It might not be the kind of body horror of his earlier career.  Flesh, however, seems still of central importance.

After  Shivers (1975), one’s sense of bodily integrity lives in constant threat in a Cronenberg film.  This latest film was reminiscent of Dead Ringers (1988) in its air of tangible menace that fearsome (Freudian) drama of male dominance of female reproduction sustained.  People kept their clothes on in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg moved the conversation to desire (in our minds) rather than pure body invasion, although Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein begged for mortification at the hands of Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung.  This creates a neat lead into Maps to the Stars and Bruce Wagner’s insider script.  Havana’s visceral healing sessions with John Cusack – her crying out as he touches her ‘healing’ points  – seems to develop that idea (from Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein) that mental torture is expressed and expunged through the body – with complex results.  In Existenz (1999), Cronenberg explored a world where his characters could jack into various games and experiences through portals inserted into their physical bodies.  As the gamers found an increasing difficulty in distinguishing what was real or not, there is the same confusion for characters here. Compared to Existenz, this Hollywood world – with pills etc – means the jacking-in is cleaner, less messy physically whilst still devastating mentally.

This is, however, as much Bruce Wagner’s film, who explains his concept (in relation to ghost stories) in an interesting article here.  There has been great focus on how all the dialogue is drawn from situations in real life and the publicity has played up its ‘Hollywood Babylon’ credentials.  Sunset Boulevard (1950) is an obvious reference, in Gloria Swanson’s representation of a life that’s moved beyond reality and into the realms of fantasy.  In that film, we watched people being eaten alive (not least Erich von Stroheim in being cast at all) and felt ourselves separate from what Hollywood does to people.  In A Star is Born (1954) we celebrated the resilience (and loyalty) of Mrs Norman Maine in Judy Garland’s public declaration, rejecting the superficiality and callousness of Hollywood.  The Player (like Maps to the Stars) draws on a noir-ish air of the 1940s.  Mulholland Drive (2001)  (the road itself appears in this film) returns us to psychology in its descent into Naomi Watts’ subconscious – a piece of ‘dreamwork’ set in the dream factory.

Maps, though, felt more grounded than this.  By chance, I watched Hal Ashby’s great satire, Shampoo (1975), again this week, just after the Cronenberg.  Somehow Warren Beatty’s guru-hairdresser, finding his world unravelling at breakneck speed becomes a very ordinary man caught up in an unreal spiral.  Ashby’s context of Nixon’s election, his use of a clearer political context for the film, made an interesting contrast to the other-worldliness of Cronenberg-Wagner’s film.  And Maps does present its characters as a kind of freak show, sitting somewhere between the surreal fantasy of Lynch’s film and the debunking of Ashby’s.   But maybe more interesting (and relevant) questions spill out from this film –  about worlds where youth, constant self-representation, the need to sustain a profile – and their potential dehumanising effects – and how these aren’t (now) only the stuff of Hollywood nightmares.

’71 (UK 2014)

Private Hook (Jack O'Connell)  has a steep learning curve on the reality of life on the streets of Belfast

Private Hook (Jack O’Connell) has a steep learning curve on the reality of life on the streets of Belfast

“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is the pithy if not totally inaccurate verdict on the British Army made, in ‘71, by a character who had spent 20 years as an army medic. He is carrying out DIY surgery in the bedroom on Gary Hook, a young British Army private who has been left behind after a raid on a Republican area of West Belfast. Ironically, the life-threatening injuries are inflicted on him not by the initial beating by the crowd in the street but by a bomb accidentally set off in a Loyalist pub given by army intelligence black-ops operatives in order to get the Loyalists to set it off in a Nationalist area. This gives some idea of the twists and turns of the plot in this short but intense film, mostly set over the course of 12 hours in West Belfast in 1971, when the Troubles moved into a new phase.

Hook’s abandonment follows a house-search operation in a Nationalist area by the RUC (Northern Ireland police) who are given back-up by Hook’s squad. The women of the area sound the warning by banging dustbin lids on the pavement and a crowd soon gathers. A riot ensues during which a young boy makes off with a rifle and Hook gives chase but is intercepted by the crowd. He gets beaten up despite the efforts of a couple of the women from the area but he does manage to escape. In a superbly-handled sequence, he runs through a warren of lanes, gardens, abandoned pubs and houses bombed out during the pogroms in the previous year. He hides in a toilet to wait for nightfall and partially disguises himself by taking some civilian clothes from a washing line.

He has to rely for help where he can get it, whether Loyalist or Republican, as he is stalked by a group of armed IRA activists. He comes across a garrulous young Loyalist boy who takes him to the Loyalist pub where Hook (but not the boy) survives the bombing and is seriously injured. A Catholic father (the former British Army medic) and his daughter find him lying on the street. Frightened, both for themselves and Hook, to take him to hospital, they take him home, which is in the famous Divis Flats on the Falls Road, and call on local IRA leader, Boyle, to get him to safety. (Just before this period, the IRA had what was effectively a cease-fire with the Army and Boyle is in contact with the military). However he is in dispute with younger, more trigger-happy elements in the IRA and things don’t go according to plan. From here the plot becomes even more tortuous, with double-crossing taking place among both the British forces and rival Republicans, the Official-Provisional IRA split having taken place a few months before.

Kids running through streets of fire in West Belfast

Kids running through streets of fire in West Belfast

Although the film starts off with a familiar trope from war films – rookie soldiers undergoing basic training before being sent into battle – it quickly becomes an urban thriller with a relentless tempo and a constantly tense atmosphere. This is the first feature film directed by Yann Demange, a Frenchman but brought up in Britain, and he has made an impressive debut. It is also the first screenplay by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke who wrote the acclaimed play ‘Black Watch’ (2006), based on interviews with soldiers serving in Iraq, which was highly critical of politicians and officers, a stance evident in the film. The cinematographer is Anthony Radcliffe and much of the camerawork is done with hand-held cameras which help ratchet up the tension. The production design gives an authentic feel of the early 70s Belfast – although the long hair and sideburns of the undercover soldiers are on the edge of caricature. But the aspect of the production that particularly impressed me was atmospheric pounding score written by David Holmes (who also scored Steve McQueen’s 20 film, Hunger). He dispenses with the  Celtic folk-ish music which is frequently used in films set during the Troubles and instead uses guitars and synthesisers. [Samples have been made available here:

http://www.hotpress.com/news/LISTEN--David-Holmes--soundtrack-for--71/12584905.html ]

The acting is also first class. I was familiar with Jack O’Connor who plays Gary Hook from Starred Up where he played a brutalised young convict in a violent prison but in ‘71 he is more not so much brutal as bewildered. Here he doesn’t have much dialogue to work with and has to do a lot with looks and gestures. Other notable performances are those of David Wilmot and Martin McCann, representing old and new Republicans; Richard Dormer as the former Army medic and Charlie Murphy as his daughter Brigid. Sean Harris carries his devious and ruthless persona from his role as Micheletto Corella, the Borgias’ hit man in the Showtimes television series The Borgias and is convincingly evil as Captain Browning, the officer in charge of the army black-ops team. A special word for the young actor Corey McKinley who plays the chirpy Loyalist boy with an assurance beyond his years.

Many films set during the Troubles in Ireland have been criticised for simply using the setting as an easy provider of tension and explosive violence rather than shedding light on the underlying causes of the conflict (I’m thinking in particularly of Fifty Dead Men Walking, directed by Karl Skogland in 2008, Shadow Dancer by James Marsh in 2012, and Harry’s Game, by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1982) and I think that is the case to some extent with ’71. Indeed, apart from some local detail, it could easily be set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Burke’s script doesn’t really lead to any real understanding of what The Troubles were about. Certainly we are shown the brutality of the of RUC police during the house searches but beyond that the film doesn’t probe too deeply into the economic and political origins of the conflict, beyond a simplistic potted history that the soldiers are given on arrival in Belfast. If there is a political position, it is that the conflict is simply due to sectarian rivalry and one side is as bad as the other. When Gary tells Brigid he is from Derby and she says she has family members in Nottingham, he tells her that people from these two counties don’t get on with each other but he doesn’t know why this is. The subtext is therefore that the conflict is due to irrational hatred.

As a thriller, however, this was one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in a long time.

Here is the trailer: