Although the 55th BFI London Film Festival kicks off officially this Wednesday with Fernando Meirelles’ multi-character opus 360, there have been press screenings running for the last couple of weeks, and PPH has been lucky enough to get a sneak preview of some of the upcoming fare.
Here’s a brief round-up of what we’ve seen thus far, not including one particular film which a) is under embargo for a few days until its World Premiere, b) made me cry like Paul Gascoigne watching The Elephant Man while the ghost of a disinterested Raoul Moat chops onions in the background, and c) is a haunting, tragic, original and genuinely stunning masterpiece.
Restrained and thoughtful, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is an engrossing, slow-burning drama that deals sensitively with the day-to-day effects of burgeoning mental illness.
Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, an average Joe sand-mining worker who suffers increasingly apocalyptic visions in his dreams, and appears to be in the clutches of a severe bout of depression. Whilst trying to hold his life together, he resolves to construct a fortified shelter in his garden (hence the film’s title) to protect his wife and deaf daughter from the storm he is convinced is impending, incurring damaging financial costs and alienating his friends along the way.
In the wrong hands, this kind of material could easily have slid into tabloid sensationalism, or even silliness, but Nichols handles the material with a sure, steady touch and grounds the action in the believable, engrossing milieu of day-to-day family life punctuated by nicely observed details (back-yard jumble sales, the signing class that Curtis and his wife attend with their daughter). Take Shelter also feels topical, with Curtis’ actions taking on a tangible, terrible financial sting in the light of the current global economic crisis.
The tall, intense Shannon, who anchors the film with a superbly convincing performance, positively aches with the internal torment of a loving family man haunted by his own predicament yet helpless to halt the tide. He is eventually to recognize that he needs help, but repeatedly intones “I’m fine” to his wife in a classic sign of stoic denial. Furthermore, after watching approximately four and a half hours of Jessica Chastain do little but be bullied by domineering men (in The Tree of Life and Coriolanus), it’s refreshing to see her do justice to a meaty role as Curtis’ strong, supportive wife Samantha. She is luminous here, and her conciliatory scenes with Shannon are especially touching.
Curtis’ terrifying visions are impressively rendered with imaginative visual effects on a presumably not-massive budget, and the whole endeavour carries a satisfying emotional heft.
Showing as part of the LFF’s long-standing French Revolutions strand, Americano is the directorial debut of actor Mathieu Demy. Of legendary filmmaking stock (his parents are Agnes Varda and the late Jacques Demy), it’s no surprise that Demy has crafted a film in thrall to the art form with references abound, including cleverly integrated footage from an 70s L.A.-set short by Varda (in which Demy starred as the child version of Martin, his character here) and a cheeky, nose-related nod to Chinatown (“do you know what happens to nosy people, Jake?”). Furthermore, the wide-eyed, Eurocentric rendering of the vast expanse of America is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ in Paris, Texas.
In the wake of his mother’s death, the dazed Martin flies back to L.A. to clear out her apartment, only to find letters connecting her to a young Mexican woman with whom she had developed an ambiguous, yet close relationship. With that, he heads off in search of the mysterious Lola, and soon finds an ‘erotic dancer’ (played by Salma Hayek) at the bar ‘Americano’. But is she who she says she is?
This is a welcome return to the screen for the underseen Hayek, but she is hampered by an underwritten role, as well as Demy’s inability to restrain himself from objectifying her body through his camera. In another noteworthy turn, Geraldine Chaplin (Nashville) appears briefly to deliver a vaguely unhinged cameo as the neck brace-sporting friend of Martin’s late mother.
Americano is certainly not without charm, and is possessed of a shaggy-dog appeal. However, as the familiar movie tropes (seedy strip joints, mildly irritating sidekicks) stack up, the endeavour begins to feel a little tired. Matters aren’t helped by an ineffectual performance from Demy, whose rather lacklustre turn is excusable at the start of the film when he’s woozy, jet-lagged and bereaved, but less so as events progress and you are required to invest in him as a character. Americano is further undercut by a series of jarring tonal shifts in the final third which firmly suggest Demy is still learning his craft.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a largely gripping study of one young woman’s psychological distress following a traumatic experience, marked by an excellent central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley).
The film begins with our heroine Martha escaping a commune in the Catskills to find refuge in the house inhabited by her elder sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by the very English Hugh Dancy). Gradually, it is revealed that the troubled Martha has extricated herself from a sinister cult presided over by the shamanic Patrick (John Hawkes) and populated by a host of servile young women and none-too-bright young bucks.
The film cross-cuts back and forth from past to present, augmented by some terrific, slinky transitions from editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier that blur the line between real and imagined, whilst an abstract threat constantly lingers in the background thanks to the atmospheric use of sound and a discordant score.
Olsen is superb, alternately fierce, cocksure, naive and vulnerable, and it will be no surprise if lazy journalists (not me, you understand) begin to refer to her as this year’s Jennifer Lawrence who, of course, gave good woman-in-backwoods-peril opposite Hawkes in the Oscar-nominated indie Winter’s Bone. Hawkes as Patrick cuts a wiry, even disturbingly thin, figure and has a charismatic verve, though his rent-a-cult aphorisms begin to pall after a while, and the commune itself is particularly thinly drawn.
Within this tense thriller there are some interesting themes, for example the binary opposition of Martha’s past and present living conditions. A heavily influenced and naive Martha seems to conflate the rural simplicity and routine of the commune with freedom despite the various abuses she has suffered, and rebels against the monotonous materialism personified by the bland domesticity of Sarah and Ted’s married life. Dancy (whose stiff, declamatory Englishness is used for something approaching comic effect) delivers a pompous dinner table defence of capitalism which goes some way to underlining her mistrust of such conformist living.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, is far from perfect. Even with the knowledge that much of what happens is filtered through the unreliable psychological state of our heroine, there are one or two nagging plot inconsistencies that undermine the drama to damaging effect. It would be wrong to give too much away, but you will certainly be wondering why the cult let Martha get away so easily when you find out what they’ve been up to, and perhaps even more frustrating is Lucy’s howlingly irritating disinterest in finding out about the details of her younger sister’s ordeal – it takes over an hour for her to conclude that the clearly distressed Martha “might need help”, and she never seriously enquires about what she has been through.
Despite its flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth seeing, and marks a promising debut for writer-director Sean Durkin.
THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-75
‘Black Power’ – the subject of this piecemeal, entertaining documentary – as a movement, is a peculiarly amorphous, hard-to-define beast which comprises a multitude of political ideologies, movements, historical touchpoints and key players. Following the ostensible zenith of the Civil Rights movement in the American South which culminated with the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, many black Americans remained disenfranchised, and sought – particularly in the North – a clean break from the tactics of non-violence epitomized by Dr Martin Luther King and the Christian church. It was in this climate that the seeds of ‘Black Power’ flowered.
From this jumping-off point, Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson (Am I Black Enough For You?) presents a documentary comprising reams of archive footage from Swedish news reporters, soundtracked by audio clips of prominent, often musically-themed African-American cultural luminaries including Harry Belafonte, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Kathleen Cleaver commenting on a range of topics related to the footage. The period covered includes the assassinations of both King and Malcolm X, the rise to prominence of the charismatic activist Stokely Carmichael (of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committe), the founding of the militant Black Panther party in Oakland, CA, and an ever-shifting socio-political landscape.
There are some utterly riveting sequences in the Mixtape, none more so than the prison interview with activist and academic Angela Davis (pictured) who takes a hapless Swedish reporter to task over his line of questioning. Also of interest are the sequences which provide a fresh Swedish angle; the report on one American TV guide editor’s displeasure at how his country is represented by the Swedish press is particularly amusing and instructive.
The filmmakers never claim to present an authoritative picture of the politics and sociology of the period, so it would be unfair to be critical of them on this point. However, the lack of authorial perspective jars, and at times it really is just like watching a string of clips on YouTube; some are good, some less so, and there’s not a great deal to connect them together. Events move chronologically (marked visually by a slightly irritating ticking timer) which effects an illusory sense of holistic progress and inadvertantly serves to suggest that things are a lot cleaner and simpler than they were. Furthermore, the segments seem reductive of the so-called African-American experience, to wit: here’s the “drugs” bit, here’s the “prostitution” bit, here’s the “prison” bit.
There’s easily enough excellent material on show to make this recommended viewing, especially if you are unfamiliar with the period and the politics, however it left me wanting more; specifically a more rigorous work that illuminates and expands upon the legion complexities and characters of this fascinating period of modern American history. As singer Erykah Badu opines in the voiceover, “We should be telling our own stories”. She’s right. Let’s see it.
Loosely based upon real incidents that occurred in 2008, Miss Bala is a dark, sombre and haunting Latin thriller that’s more Gomorrah than City of God, and uses the surface sheen of a beauty contest as an ironic prop to explore the murky depths of the destructive Mexican drug wars.
In the opening sequence, our heroine, the 23-year old Laura (played by the fearsomely impressive model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman) announces to her father that she intends to take part in the Miss Bala beauty contest. Wary, he warns her against it, but off she goes regardless, and so begins her metaphorical descent into hell. A party that Laura attends with her friend goes horribly wrong, and she finds herself inextricably inveigled in a rapidly escalating situation between drug cops, drug gangs and politicians.
As the plot kicks into action, unbearably tense sequence follows unbearably tense sequence where neither journey nor destination is ever safe. The numerous in-car sequences are particularly riven with claustrophobia and elsewhere there is excellent use of tight framing, often focused on the back of Sigman’s head in the same bracing, unsettling way that Matthew Libatique shot Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
Model-turned-actress Sigman pulls off an immensely tough trick in the lead role; although ostensibly passive, she communicates a range of emotions (though predominantly terror) with her facial expressions and taut physicality. There is also excellent support from Noe Hernandez as the menacing muscular, limping, drug lord Lino.
The sheer depth of the corruption on show is such that at times the labyrinthine plot becomes rather confusing, and the pace begins to drag somewhat towards the end, but this is powerful drama; excellently shot and acted, fiercely moral, and highly recommended. This is one beauty contest you would not want to enter.
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s original play by John Logan (Gladiator) and shot on location in Serbia, Coriolanus is the story of the titular soldier (Fiennes) whose seditious nature sparks a mass riot, political discontent and then… lots more fighting and shouting, with added Gerard Butler.
Though handsomely mounted and competently shot, Coriolanus is erratically paced and edited, and suffers from a tentative contemporary makeover which languishes in a semi-realised halfway state between past and present, without a concerted effort to connect the text (which retains the original Shakespearean language) to modern topical themes or create its own individualised universe, a la Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet or – love it or hate it – Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.
Despite this, Shakespeare’s story is typically chunky, so Coriolanus relies for added impact on its central performance. Unfortunately Fiennes, who here resembles a distressed Tim Vine, is unable to bring enough dimension to the role to transform a hugely unlikable character (Coriolanus openly despises “the poor”) into a complex, conflicted anti-hero. As director, he’s also acquired a worrying habit of making absolutely everything else grind to a halt when he is speaking, lending further weight to the creeping feeling that this is all a rather weighty vanity project. Matters are not helped by Fiennes’ dogged insistence on emphasising the “ANUS!” at the end of his name every time he refers to himself (FYI, this happens a lot).
Although a number of other cast members acquit themselves with some dignity (especially Brian Cox, as ubiquitous as he is redoubtable), Vanessa Redgrave is the stand-out, and is absolutely nailed-on for a Best Supporting Actress nom as Coriolanus’ mother. She shines here, and if anything is too good; it’s a little like Lionel Messi turning out in League One.
For all its scale and epic ambition, Coriolanus is an inessential affair; watchable and competent yet curiously rote, and nowhere near resonant enough.
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