Category Archives: LFF 2011

PPH @ LFF – The Final Reckoning

Just like that, the BFI London Film Festival is over for another year. It’s been a staggeringly enjoyable few weeks of film watching, note-taking, tiredness, putting Twitter handles to faces and socializing with some lovely, lovely people. Here, as promised, is a final round-up of LFF stuff: the good, the bad, the sad and the awkward.

PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET’S FILMS OF THE FESTIVAL

1. SHAME

My favourite film of this year’s LFF was Steve’s McQueen’s powerful sex addiction drama, which features an astonishing performance in the lead role from Michael Fassbender, who is emerging as one the very best actors of his generation. It’s not perfect (the final third veers perilously close toward moral melodrama) but it is exceptional, vital, haunting filmmaking, and New York has never looked like this before. [Read full review here].

2. DREAMS OF A LIFE

A good measure of how passionate you feel about a film is how you react when someone else criticizes it. So when a fellow writer sneeringly dismissed Carol Morley’s devastating documentary Dreams of a Life as “The Arbor for ITV viewers” and I flew into a Basil Fawlty-esque rage, it was pretty clear just how much the film had burrowed under my skin. In combining interviews, reconstruction footage and the director’s own research, Dreams of a Life is a  dizzying attempt to piece together the sad story of 38 year-old Joyce Vincent, a North London resident who lay dead in her flat for three years without anybody coming to check on her. It’s about a million things (community, memories, loneliness, love, music, race, London), it’s brilliantly put together, and it will bounce around your head for days, if not weeks. Sad, staggering and totally unmissable.

3. THE ARTIST

The audience favourite of the festival was Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrously uplifiting homage to the silent era, starring Jean Dujardin as a devilishly charismatic silent star left behind by the talkies. Although it flags a bit towards the end, it’s technically brilliant, incredibly funny (can dogs be nominated for Oscars?) and totally in love with the cinema.

BUBBLING UNDER…

I had a clear top three, but there were lots of other excellent films I saw that I was unable to organize into a coherent top five or top ten. They included…

TAKE SHELTER – A slow-burn drama featuring Michael Shannon’s blistering portrayal of a family man on the edge. [Read full review here]

THE KID WITH A BIKE – The Dardennes Brothers’ affecting, naturalistic tale of a troubled boy coming to terms with abandonment by his feckless father. [Read full review here]

MISS BALA – More Gomorrah than Goodfellas, a bleak, punishing, deeply ironic Mexican drama about the evils of the drug trade. [Read full review here].

THE DESCENDANTS – George Clooney shines in a moving, yet satisfyingly dark Hawaiian-set tale of hard life lessons from the reliably excellent yet lesser-spotted Alexander Payne.

SUPERHEROES – Michael Barnett’s consistently amusing, moving and surprising documentary about the ever-growing community of have-a-go caped crusaders that are taking, rather foolhardily, to the streets of America to enforce their own brand of justice. [Read full review here]

MOST OVERRATED FILM

I was debating whether or not to include this category, because a) the concept of ‘overrating’ something is essentially meaningless, and b) it just feels a bit like more needless negativity thrown in for good measure. However, when I heard that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had beaten the far superior Shame and The Artist to the prize of LFF Best Film, my mind was made up. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a weirdly middlebrow horror film, which overdoes the symbolism to a ludicrous degree, and offers practically no further insight into its characters than Eva: not very nice, Kevin: bit of a nutter, The husband: a bit of a twat. Not terrible, then, but certainly not a ‘best film’. A bizarre choice. [Read full review here]

DISAPPOINTMENT & TURKEY ROLLED INTO ONE OF THE FESTIVAL

After the 360 opening night boondoggle, I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d been exposed to the very worst that the LFF had to offer. At 10.06pm on Sunday 23rd October, however, as I stumbled out of the VUE cinema, confused and furious, it became apparent that I was wrong.

What was it that had discombobulated me so? Well, in a nutshell, a Surprise Film that had somehow managed to trump the previous years’ one-two punch of Capitalism: A Love Story and Brighton Rock for sheer disappointment. As surprises go, Whit Stillman’s appalling DAMSELS IN DISTRESS was less a turn up for the books, more like finding a cockroach in your soup.

It felt as though Stillman had begun writing it in the early 90s after watching Heathers, slipped into a coma while Clueless, Mean Girls and even, for Christ’s sake, Juno redefined self-reflexive, ironic teen-girl sass, and then farted this out in a half-sentient state after hoovering up the Wikipedia definition of ‘Mumblecore’.

It’s ostensibly a tale of four airheaded college girls at a privileged establishment, but the basics – coherent structure, narrative, characters you can invest in – are entirely absent, and countless scenes sputter to an unsatisfactory conclusion before they’ve really begun. If it deserves any credit, it’s for a singularity of aesthetic style, with the pastel colours and costumes and cloying TV-movie vaseline glow complemented by the relentless muzak on the soundtrack. (A plus point also for bringing The Wire’s tragic Dukie back to our screens in a small role).

Furthermore, it’s not just unfunny, it’s actively offensive, making light of such delightful topics as anal rape and suicide without providing any context for doing so. It’s also rare to find a film that has as much contempt for its own characters as it does its audience; none of the characters seem to learn anything, improve or even develop. Unclear whether it’s supposed to be a parody of college films or simply of its own staggering awfulness, Damsels in Distress is would-be modish, pretentious, vapid garbage that’s destined to become the favourite film of people you’d jump in front of the 159 bus to avoid.

Despite my hatred of the film, however, the distribution company have been kind enough to provide me with its official trailer. Here it is:

DOWNER OF THE FESTIVAL

I’ve written about it here already, but it’s worth repeating that watching certain films first thing in the morning takes a bit of getting used to. The winner of the IT TOTALLY RUINED MY ENTIRE FUCKING DAY™ award this year was Justin Kurzel’s true-life Aussie crime drama SNOWTOWN. Its veritable cornucopia of paedophilia, incestuous rape, animal abuse and graphic scenes of torture were, quite frankly, a bit much for a 10 a.m. start. [Read full review here]

MOST AWKWARD MOMENT

As anyone who has ever been to the BFI will know, there’s a certain contingent of the audience who likes to laugh a little too hard and a little too loud at the most innocuous things, just to prove that they really got it. However, the daddy of all inappropriate laughs came during a screening of EARLY ONE MORNING in NFT1, a downbeat French drama concerning a depressed, humiliated banker who goes on the rampage. The film is barely two minutes old when said psychotic banker played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin (a hangdog genetic splice between Billy Bob Thornton and Iain Duncan Smith) storms into his office and guns down two colleagues in cold blood. You could have a heard a pin drop in the audience. Well, you could have, had it not been for the absolute bellend who let rip a monster guffaw at the first gunshot, probably imagining that by doing so he was striking a blow against capitalism, rather than embarrassing himself and shattering the spell of an incredibly powerful scene. Arse.

FILMS THAT I REALLY WANTED TO SEE BUT SADLY MISSED FOR WHATEVER REASON

Harry Belafonte in activism documentary SING YOUR SONG, Sean Penn Robert Smith-ing it up in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, low-budget love Brit story WEEKEND by Andrew Haigh, Werner Herzog’s death row doc INTO THE ABYSS and Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut WILD BILL. Hopefully the chance will come around soon for me to see all of these.

AND FINALLY…

I couldn’t be arsed didn’t have time to review everything I saw, so I’ve also given everything I did see a handy score, using the rating system of favourite culture website The A.V. Club:

Miss Bala B+

Take Shelter B+

The Black Power Mixtape B

Martha Marcy May Marlene B

Americano C

Coriolanus C

Dreams Of A Life A

360 D

The Kid With A Bike B+

We Have A Pope C+

Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai B

Eternity B

Shame A

Rampart B-

Snowtown B

I’m Carolyn Parker B

Carnage B

Alps B

Early One Morning B

The Artist A-

The Ides Of March B-

The Descendants B

Restless City B-

Superheroes B+

We Need To Talk About Kevin C+

Sket C+

Damsels In Distress F

A Dangerous Method B

And… that’s all folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed the PPH @ LFF coverage. I certainly have, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival which will be the first under new Artistic Director Claire Stewart, who replaces the outgoing Sandra Hebron. Thanks for the memories Sandra!

APPENDIX/LINKS

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #1

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #2

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #3

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #4

PPH @ LFF – Adrift in New York: A review of Shame

PPH @ LFF – The First Born and the Last of the Silent Era

PPH @ LFF – We Need To Talk About Kevin

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PPH @ LFF – Round-up #4

My fourth, final and briefest (I’m really quite tired) round-up of a thrilling London Film Festival takes a look at a group of films which concern themselves with American dreams and systems. This piece was intended to culminate with a review of Werner Herzog’s riveting excavation of the U.S. penal system; death-row documentary INTO THE ABYSS. Unfortunately, the organizers saw fit to hold the press screening of this highly anticipated film at the 36-seater Hospital Club and I was unable to squeeze my entitled blogger ass in there.* Consequently I can only speculate as to its riveting excavation-ness, but having picked up the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the LFF awards ceremony, I suspect it will certainly be one to see.

We’ll begin with RAMPART, an uneven yet compelling police corruption drama set in late-90s L.A., marked by a wired, intense and totally dominant performance from Woody Harrelson as Dave “Date Rape” Brown. Brown is a bad cop (the plot hinges around him being caught on camera administering a Rodney King-style beating), but his home life is just as unorthodox as his professional one. In an “L.A. creepy” twist, Brown lives with two sisters (played nicely by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) as well as two daughters he’s sired with each of them. In spite of his family commitments, however, he still finds time to go out on the pull.

Rampart is intriguing, but almost as wayward as its protagonist; there is a clash of styles and tones at work which clearly betrays the tension between James Ellroy’s original script and writer-director Oren Moverman’s radical rewrite. The consistently scorched, sun-baked look of the film is reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s chaotic U-Turn, but it’s full of odd, distracting stylistic flourishes including one truly ridiculous moment (at a multi-character meeting) in which the camera pans 180 and then resets at each cut to a new character. There are also minor niggles which riled my lurking inner pedant, for example the use of a contemporary Justice song in a nightclub scene, undermining the period setting and adding to an overall slapdash feel.

Rampart is an odd, disturbing work that feels like two or three different films squashed together. However, there’s enough to it to suggest that it might be one of those films which improves with repeat viewings.

Also, in my “research” for this piece, I discovered this rather LOL-some trailer for a never little-seen film of the same name. Ch-check it:

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Andrew Dosunmu’s directorial debut RESTLESS CITY puts a fresh spin on the classic American dream narrative, charting the efforts of a young Senegalese musician to make it big in New York City. Predictably, things don’t go to plan, and our hero finds himself inveigled into a web of romance, violence and criminality.

Restless City’s strongest element by some distance is the way it looks. It’s exceptionally well shot by DoP Bradford Young, and New York has perhaps not looked this vibrant since Ernest Dickerson bathed Do The Right Thing’s Brooklyn in an unforgettable, colour-saturated glow.

It’s an elliptical film which creates an impressively hazy, relaxed atmosphere. That’s fine in itself, but sits at odds with the thriller elements of the plot. Tension levels are low and the scenes of action and confrontation feel rushed, while lead actor Hervé Diese looks the part, but lacks charisma. It’s certainly a promising debut, and definitely worth seeing, but ultimately it feels more like a short stretched out to feature length.

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One of the unexpected treats of the festival was the HBO documentary SUPERHEROES, a non-judgemental take on the ever-growing community of average Joes who don costumes and take to the streets to enforce law and order on the streets of a collection of American states. It’s a brilliant subject for a doc, and is nicely structured around comic-book intertitles to give it an accessible feel.

As we are introduced to one eccentric character after another (including the dishevelled, alcoholic Master Leader) it becomes apparent that director Michael Barnett is a dab hand at pulling off the immensely difficult trick of engendering audience empathy towards what are, in many cases, pitiable, borderline insane individuals. There’s lots of laughter to be had here, but never once does the humour feel exploitative.

Superheroes is a fascinating, troubling account of a group of earnest, damaged people which raises a number of important questions around care in the community, the role of the police and vigilante justice. It’s a must-see, and timely in the wake of James Gunn’s misjudged, ultra-violent comedy Super, which was released to critical indifference earlier this year.

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Perhaps the most heartwarming film of the festival was Jonathan Demme’s documentary I’M CAROLYN PARKER, which focused on one remarkable New Orleans resident’s determination to return to her house in the Ninth Ward district following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. It doesn’t do anything extraordinary in terms of documentary filmmaking (it’s super low-budget, chronological, largely point-and-shoot stuff), but its subject is absolutely special enough. Parker is engaging, determined, witty, fearsome, and a living embodiment of the human capacity for survival in the face of adversity. She’s an advert for America’s own special brand of optimism.

On another note, however, as observed by blogger Your Turn Heather, the film’s poster is heinous, hideous and lots of other words that begin with ‘h’; it’s as though they sat Carolyn down and gave her fifteen minutes to design it herself using Paint. And another thing I’m cribbing from Your Turn Heather is her topical (Katrina-related) posting of KanYe West’s surprise broadside against George Bush, which provoked one of the greatest expressions in history from an unprepared Mike Myers. To quote commentating’s Barry Davies, “Look at his face! Just look at his face!”. Never gets old.

*In the interests of fairness, I must confess that I did have the opportunity to see Into The Abyss at a public screening, but jettisoned the returns queue to get a slice of pizza from Cafe Rimini opposite the Vue. I opted for pepperoni. It was essentially satisfying, if a little dry.

The final PPH @ LFF reckoning will be published tomorrow, and will feature reassuring lists compiling everything I saw and couldn’t be arsed didn’t have to time write proper reviews for. Until then…

PPH @ LFF: We Need To Talk About Kevin

While watching We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel, I was reminded specifically of two films. The first was Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers  (1987), an eerie black comedy about three sisters who all decide to drown their husbands. The second, improbably, was John Woo’s Blackjack, a failed pilot starring Dolph Lundgren as a bodyguard by the name of Jack Devlin who – and I swear I’m not making this up – happens to be petrified of the colour white and goes berserk if exposed to it.

So far, so tangential, but allow me to explain. Greenaway, ever the formal jester, inserted the numbers 1-100 into hidden crevices of his frame and invited the audience to participate in a counting game as the film progressed; a playful adjunct to the meat of his story. Ramsay, it seems, is such a big fan of the colour red and all it symbolises that she decided to put as much of it in her film as possible. So, very much like Greenaway asks us to in his film, I began, semi-unconsciously, to play a similar game: spot the red object.

We Need To Talk About Kevin opens with a scene at a tomato festival, in which Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of the titular monster, gets herself absolutely covered in the fruity (or is it vegetable-y?) stuff. It’s on her hands and everything! Turns out that tomatoes, when squashed, look like blood. And then, in the next scene, there’s red paint all over her house. And her car. Turns out that red paint also looks like blood. And it’s on her hands and everything! Then, there’s a red kettle! A stop sign! A bowl! A teddy bear etc… After a while of playing this game, however, I grew tired and ultimately, at the sight of red, became increasingly like Blackjack‘s Jack Devlin upon spying of a pint of milk: utterly distressed and eager to find the exit.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Ramsay overdoes the symbolism in her film to a blistering, absolutely maddening degree. You will hear and read all sorts of things about how We Need To Talk About Kevin is a “sumptuous banquet for the eyes”, but the visual overload – of which the heightened use of red is just the beginning – is not just irritating, it’s hugely damaging to the film; Ramsay is never able to free herself fully from the self-imposed straitjacket of artful composition, and consequently her film cannot breathe or evolve. For example, a potentially devastating scene in which Kevin defaces Eva’s painstakingly arranged map wallpaper with paint is composed like a Jackson Pollock masterwork, meaning that Kevin’s feral wildness is paradoxically undercut by Ramsay’s unceasing quest for pictorial beauty. There are nauseatingly fetishistic close-ups of food being destroyed or consumed and mouths and lips and, well, it all just gets a bit much. Consider Nicolas Roeg’s legendarily disquieting Don’t Look Now, which used a singular flash of red sparingly, yet consistently thematically, to subtly devastating effect.

As suggested by critic Matthew Sweet on BBC’s ‘The Review Show’, We Need To Talk About Kevin is essentially an “arthouse horror”, and it’s a shame to report that Ramsay’s film crashes between a number of stools, hamstrung by its visual beauty and also its central conceit: that Kevin, rather than being autistic or anything (a suggestion pooh-poohed by a doctor) is simply a total shit who behaves appallingly – demonically, even – from day one. Because Kevin is so utterly awful, and Ramsey is so preoccupied with imagery, there’s no room for sensible insight into issues like post-natal depression or child psychology. It’s safe to say that Eva isn’t the greatest mother in the world, so on some level the film could be taken as a dark comedy about the pains of motherhood, but Ramsey seems to have no interest in pursuing this line of thought either. The marketing campaign, leading with the lurid tagline “Mummy’s Little Monster” is effectively selling the horror film that We Need To Talk About Kevin might have been, rather than the muddled one it is.

Despite its flaws, there are reasons to recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin. There’s a clever scene in which Kevin acidically deconstructs the bland conventions of a conversation between disinterested mother and disaffected son. For once, in trusting dialogue rather than simply lush visuals, Ramsey provides us with a bracing glimpse of the fractures in their dynamic. It’s a jarringly effective moment that leaves you wanting more of its sort. The film is at its strongest in the well-observed scenes which deal with Eva’s painful reintegration into society; especially her attempts to get back into employment following the central event of the film (I won’t spoil it in case you’re the one remaining person who doesn’t know), and an excruciating office party set to the strains of Wham!’s evergreen ‘Last Christmas’.

Tilda Swinton as the unsympathetic Eva is convincing throughout, although John C. Reilly – a terrific actor with perhaps the least versatile of faces – is likeable but miscast; his thick-set everyman features and jovial nature clashing horribly with Swinton’s icy, poised androgyny. Ezra Miller as the eponymous evildoer certainly looks the part with his snake hips, curling lips and shock of black hair, but is frustratingly one-note.

Sadly, We Need To Talk About Kevin, to summon the ghost of Terence Trent D’Arby, ends up neither fish nor flesh. It’s what happens when a talented director becomes obsessed with creating pretty pictures and neglects to establish a proper tone; a missed opportunity. Luckily for fans of evil children, Richard Donner made The Omen 35 years ago, and, for those of you whose interested is piqued, John Woo’s Blackjack is (probably) available in all good bargain bins now.

PPH @ LFF: The First Born and the Last of the Silent Era

I was lucky enough this week to attend the London Film Festival’s Archive Gala, which presented us with the latest in line of the BFI’s fine restorations of neglected British films, Miles Mander’s directorial debut The First Born.

The reappearance of this fascinating 1928 silent drama is timely, as the LFF audience has been treated to Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant new homage to the dying days of silent film, The Artist. While Hazanavicius focuses on Hollywood, The First Born is a very British film which consciously reflects its era’s societal changes, while unconsciously finding itself in the midst of a vast sea change in the history of cinema itself.

Mander stars as the caddish Sir Hugo Boycott opposite a pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll, who plays his wife Maddie. With Maddie unable to produce an heir, and the couple quarrelling, Boycott leaves the country to travel to Africa. Retreating into London society, Maddie discovers a rather perilous solution to her problem, along with the attention of an admirer, and the film goes on to explore what were surely considered to be somewhat scandalous issues at the time with sensitivity and sophistication.

At the time that filming on the The First Born began, it would have been at the cutting edge of silent cinema. By the time of the film’s release, however, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, shot the previous year, had opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre and the age of the talkie had begun.  Just as The Artist covers a brief period when an established art form was about to be hit by the tidal wave of modernity, Mander’s film marks the end of an era in British cinema, while reminding us just how valuable much silent era British film was and is.

The issue of our attitudes to these films is reflected in the BFI’s excellent current campaign to “Rescue the Hitchcock 9”; the silent works of perhaps Britain’s greatest director, which have been much neglected and require substantial restoration. However, as Pamela Hutchison has observed in The Guardian (while previewing The First Born), the recent discovery of film reels by British director Graham Cutts in New Zealand was barely reported, and what coverage there was tended to concentrate on the footage’s Hitchcockian connections, rather than the reputation of Cutts himself. As Hutchison says, “by overstating [Hitchcock’s] influence we risk casting his peers into oblivion”. This new version of The First Born is certainly a step towards redressing that balance.

The shadow of Alfred the Great does fall across this film all the same. Mander appeared in films including Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden and Murder!, and his filmmaking style is clearly influenced by the director, while Carroll made perhaps her most famous appearance in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The most important link to Hitchcock comes with Mander’s choice of co-writer, Alma Reville. Reville was married to Hitchcock, but she was also a long-established screenwriter in her own right and her work on The First Born showcases the thematic influence she would later bring to her husband’s films. Furthermore, one particularly memorable scene features a voyeuristically Hitchcockian handheld camera shot, as Sir Hugo searches for his wife through the marital bedroom; a cinematographic device which seems well ahead of its time.

The BFI’s restoration of The First Born, aided by the loan of a 16mm print of the film from George Eastham House in the United States, features expertly restored lost scenes and repaired damage, and returns the beautiful amber, pink and lavender tints which would have decorated 1920s showings. This makes for a compelling and good looking film, but one of the real stars of this new screening was not part of the original. A brand new score by composer Stephen Horne was performed for the first time as part of the Gala screening and provided a rich, unusual compliment to the film’s many moments of romance and suspense.

Performed by a three piece, including Horne himself on piano and various other instruments, Maddie’s melancholy and despair are reflected by a mournful oboe motif, while the trio manage to work up an edge-of-seat racket during moments of suspense and even segue into World Music-style percussion during the Africa sequence. The score also weaves in elements of well-known melodies, with the use of ‘Rule Britannia’ during a scene in which budding politician Sir Hugo unleashes his rhetoric on a crowd both effective and amusing.

The First Born’s denouement delivers a couple of delicious, unexpected twists regarding the fate of Sir Hugo and Maddie’s initial attempt to win back his love, and despite its vintage, it’s a surprisingly modern film, not least its refusal to cast judgement upon its female protagonist. This restored version offers a ringing endorsement of the BFI’s work, as well as confirmation that the era of British silent cinema deserves more of our attention, both as a record of a time of cultural and technological change and for the relevance and power it can still offer today.

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #3

The 55th BFI London Film Festival continues apace, and it’s time for another brief round-up of some of the things we’ve seen recently.

Though it would be morally repugnant to complain in any way about getting to see lots of films for free, it can still sometimes be a little jarring to be exposed to certain material first thing in the morning at press screenings.  A couple of years ago, for example, I watched the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and was so profoundly affected by its bleak, misanthropic take on life that I was unable to do any work for the rest of the day. (My boss simply didn’t understand).

My first instance of that particular phenomenon this year came in the form of SNOWTOWN, a relentlessly sordid Australian crime drama packed to the gills with graphic scenes of rape, torture and animal abuse, which I sat down to enjoy at 10 a.m. Needless to say, it comprehensively ruined my day.

Snowtown is the dramatisation of Australia’s notorious barrel murders between 1992 and 1999, in which 11 people – mostly suspected (not proven) paedophiles – were slain. 16 year-old Jamie Vlassakis, played by newcomer Lucas Pittaway, strikes up a friendship with a charismatic older man, who, sadly for him, turns out to be John Bunting, aka Australia’s most notorious serial killer (a fully-bearded, impressive turn from Daniel Henshall).

Snowtown is a harrowing, upsetting film; a dark and dingy wallow in the sad lives of some deeply disturbed individuals. It’s well-made, atmospheric and excellently acted, but I couldn’t personally recommend it, quite simply because I wish I hadn’t seen it. I’m by no means climbing aboard a moral high horse (if that is indeed a phrase), but there’s so much awful stuff that goes on in the world on a day to day basis that I feel I need more from films like this than to be essentially told: some people are bigoted and some terrible things happened once.

Whereas the tangentially connected (and far slicker) Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom explored themes of family, loyalty and trust within its thriller framework, Snowtown is largely insight-free, more focused on depiction than investigation. If you’re going to subject yourself to it – an act which involves being implicated in some of the grisliest on-screen violence in ages – you’ll need a strong stomach.

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Another early LFF start came with Takashi Miike’s new film HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, a companion piece to last year’s excellent 13 Assassins.  Other than an almost unbearably lengthy suicide-via-wooden-sword sequence, Hara Kiri is extraordinarily restrained stuff from the man who brought you such works of utter lunacy as Ichi The Kiler and Visitor Q. A remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 Harakiri, it tells the tale of a ronin samurai who arrives at the home of a feudal lord to request an honorable place to commit sapporu (aka ritual suicide). When the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who had arrived before him, however, a series of revelations take the story off in an unexpected direction.

Hari-Kiri… is a strong work, effective as both an elegantly crafted drama and a surprisingly fierce examination of the morality of ancient samurai codes and practices. Furthermore, there are modern parallels to be made in its unsparing depiction of a struggling working class and a desperate economic situation.

Even if the film feels slightly overlong, it is powerful, expertly structured stuff and a worthwhile addition to the Miike canon. There is one major gripe, however: the baffling use of 3D. You can’t blame an established, restlessly innovative director like Miike for wanting to experiment with new toys, but it adds absolutely nothing here. One or two weather sequences spring to life, but the film has a mostly dark, murky palette of blues and blacks, and the 3D actively takes away from the film in the final sequence, as an extended fight becomes incredibly blurry. For the most part, it’s only really the subtitles that stand out.

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Thankfully, the title of Roman Polanski’s brisk, four-character comedy of manners CARNAGE is the most distressing thing about it. A Manhattan-set adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s French play, Carnage exhibits the fallout of an incident in which one schoolboy badly injures the other with a branch. In a nice touch, the incident is shown underneath the opening credits in a Haneke-esque static long take.

The boys’ parents (the perpetrator’s played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, the victim’s John C Reilly and Jodie Foster) convene to sort out the mess, but before long they are arguing with other, and riffing on all sorts of issues of class, wealth and relationships. Also, it seems that deep down, they all really, really hate each other.

At just 79 minutes, Carnage is lean, but even so starts to feel a little stretched by the end, as the escalating hysteria of the characters (inspired by copious whisky consumption) becomes a touch enervating. The underlying theme is that adults are just as capable of behaving as appallingly as children, and the cast demonstrate this with absolute relish. Christoph Waltz has a field day as the unctuous, smug lawyer Alan, and Kate Winslet gives brilliant drunk. Jodie Foster’s portrayal of a neurotic writer feels rather forced, but it’s a type of role I’ve never seen her play before, and is least a refreshing change.

Although (*COLOSSAL INSIGHT ALERT*) Carnage feels rather stagey and contrived, the dialogue is sharp, the apartment set feels appropriately claustrophobic and there are plenty of laughs to be had, the majority of them excruciating. Fans of movie vomiting scenes will also be delighted to hear that there is a sequence (sickuence?) which nearly matches Team America: World Police for comedy/gross-out value.

*       *       *       *       *

Also deserving of a mention – and in a totally different vein to the above – is ETERNITY, a sweet, moving and treacle-slow tale of courtship, love and death from Thailand which is clearly very personal to director Sivaruj Kongsakul. With a pace that reflects rural life, it’s the kind of film that would give Oliver Stone nightmares, a heart attack, or both; there’s probably no more than 100 cuts in the whole film.

It’s always good to go into a film without knowing too much, but in the case of Eternity, it would probably have helped to have known something. I didn’t read the blurb, and consequently I must confess to not knowing exactly what was going on for a fair amount of the time, for example that the prologue features a ghost riding a motorcycle! That I still enjoyed it speaks volumes for a film rich with beautifully observed moments and lush imagery. Eternity is a hidden treat, and highly recommended.

Permanent Plastic Helmet’s dedicated coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival will continue regularly throughout the duration of the event. You can follow us on Twitter @pplastichelmet, and subscribe to email updates by clicking on the +follow button at the bottom right of the homepage.

PPH @ LFF: Adrift in New York – A review of Shame

“The subway is a porno / The pavements, they are a mess / I know you’ve supported me for a long time / Somehow I’m not impressed” — ‘NYC’ – Interpol

“These little town blues are melting away / I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York” — ‘New York, New York’ – Liza Minelli

There is a scene in Steve McQueen’s searing drama in which Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the suicidal sister of sex-addicted Brandon (Michael Fassbender), brings a bar to a standstill and her brother to tears with a sombre rendition of the Liza Minelli showtune ‘New York, New York’. It turns out that McQueen has always read this ostensibly jaunty number as a blues; a tragic, ironic precursor to crushed dreams and being swallowed whole by an impersonal city that doesn’t care. This decidedly melancholy approach bleeds into every frame of Shame, an elegant, humane and explicit film about addiction, repression and the failure to connect. It could also be that very British McQueen has made one of the great New York – and specifically Manhattan – films; the famed borough a character in itself, with its glacial apartments, criss-crossing streets and after-hours bacchanalia framed with elegant precision, bearing down on its trapped, lost protagonist.

In recent times, for reasons of planning permission, logistics and finance, an increasing number of filmmakers have taken to filming in Toronto in place of New York. Shame – every inch a New York movie – could be set nowhere else. Although research for the film began in London, the filmmakers found that sex addiction was barely recognised in the UK, and in relocating to New York found a network of groups far more willing to divulge information and a confessional culture more in tune with ideas of self-help and therapy.

When we meet Brandon for the first time, he is far away from that stage of self-recognition. His story begins with the pursuit of anonymous sex on a subway, his shark eyes flickering with automated lust at a pretty girl sat across from him. The encounter has a fly-on-the-wall danger, and is shot with the rough and ready rawness of a of Bruce Davidson photograph.

Before long, we’re introduced to the corporate blandness of his work existence which recalls the sour milieu mined in Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’, with its yuppie jockeying and casual objectification of women. In another NY nod, Brandon’s self-destructive nocturnal impulses and addictive, repetitive behaviour also echo the protagonist of litearary enfant terrible Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel ‘Bright Lights, Big City’. His numbing routine of porn-surfing, onanism and emotionless sexual encounters is established briskly by McQueen, so that within the opening five minutes, a shot of a closing cubicle door becomes visual shorthand for Brandon masturbating. In the scenes in which Brandon goes out on the town, the modernity of the era is subtly constrasted with an evocative feel for New York’s more outwardly sleazy past through the carefully selected soundtrack. Blondie’s ‘Rapture‘ and Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love‘ hark back to the Lower East Side grime of the pre-gentrification early-80s. Later, in Brandon’s apartment, Chic’s propulsive ‘I Want Your Love‘ goes even further back to the late 70s and the exuberance and openness of the Midtown-focused pre-AIDS disco era.

Brandon and Sissy’s relationship is also framed and informed by geography; neither are native New Yorkers. Sissy is peripatetic, having wandered in from L.A., while Brandon reveals on a date that he was born in Ireland and relocated to New Jersey before coming to New York. These are the “bridge and tunnel” kids, a derisive term native New Yorkers reserve for those who come in from the suburbs. It’s a small detail, but underlines their outsider nature. “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place”, says Sissy, the scars on her wrists testament to her turbulent past.  McQueen and co-screenwriter Morgan are not given to over-exposition, refraining from providing anything so straightforward as “a cause” for Brandon’s – or indeed Sissy’s – behaviour. We don’t know the details of their upbringing; their emotional dislocation is simply amplified by their outsider nature.

The scenes between Mulligan and Fassbender carry an unsettling charge, enhanced considerably by their close proximity and McQueen’s intimately tight framing. While never quite reaching the levels of incestuousness exhibited by Al Pacino’s Tony Montana toward his younger sister in Brian de Palma’s Scarface, one cannot help but make the unsavoury connection because sex is always on Brandon’s mind. The scene in which Brandon’s boss seduces Sissy in Brandon’s apartment, while Brandon listens in is a masterpiece of jittery, unresolved tension, and brilliantly acted by Fassbender.

In the astonishing sequence which follows, a furious Brandon goes for a late-night run to burn off energy. The camera tracks Brandon across at least five avenues from East to West, and is striking in its revelation of the relationship between space and character. The neon ‘Landmark’ New York of Times Square and Manhattan Mall is teasingly relegated to the backdrop, reminiscent of the poetically realised London of Mike Leigh’s Naked. The camera leaves Brandon as he continues into the night, westward toward the Hudson which separates him from the Jersey of his past. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brings a steely, metallic gleam to everything he shoots, recalling David Cronenberg’s psycho-sexual odyssey Crash, and enhancing the film’s Ballardian psychogeography; Brandon’s mental state is inextricably linked to his environs.

Although McQueen’s style here is more conventional than in his film debut Hunger, he nevertheless remains a striking formalist, with repeated use of long takes (including a memorable, funny date scene shot with a near-static camera in real time; think arthouse Sex and the City) and exceptional framing, including the painterly opening shot of a contemplative Brandon partially wrapped in an electric blue blanket. Structurally, Shame plays as a series of city vignettes, as days blend into night and rote encounters unfold in the melancholy half-light that mirrors Brandon’s emotional dislocation. Late in the film, one bravura, disturbing sequence that signals Brandon’s sexual breaking point (and, with just a hint of moral prurience, nods toward William Friedkin’s gay S&M-themed Cruisingplays cunningly with chronology and would make a fine short on its own.

Indeed, in mainstream (studio) cinema, perhaps only Richard Brooks’ disturbing Looking For Mr Goodbar (still unavailable on DVD), in which a schoolteacher embarks on a ‘liberating’, doomed quest for anonymous sex, and the aforementioned Cruising, have matched McQueen’s film for adequately conveying the conflation of sex and danger inherent and seemingly interwoven in the city’s underbelly. New York is there for Brandon to use, and he takes advantage, compulsively; down low under bridges, up high in glassy apartments.

At heart, Shame is nothing less than a modern tragedy in which the commodification of sex is internalized, effecting a coruscating death of the soul. Whereas the LFF’s dismal opening film 360 made a facile nod to the “interconnectivity of the modern world” with startling revelations including: people use mobile phones, search engines and aeroplanes, Shame investigates, in explicitly honest fashion, how access inspires excess and spiritual remoteness within a vast metropolis. This in itself is not a revolutionary idea, yet the key is in the formulation of Brandon’s character. Neither swivel-eyed social malcontent nor buccaneering predator like his married boss (who peddles the yuppie lechery of ages), Brandon’s evident social skills and outward charisma underline the locked-in nature of his problem, and Fassbender’s extraordinary, chameleonic performance communicates sadness and, yes, shame with heartbreaking accuracy.

Although Shame is a bleak film, it’s not without hope as we can discern from a teasingly ambiguous coda that harks back to the opening scene. What is certain is that McQueen has coaxed a stunning performance from a third lead alongside Fassbender and Mulligan: New York itself, in all its angular, criss-crossing, sleazy, metallic glory. The city that never sleeps can be a lonely, lonely place.

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #2

Over the next two weeks on PPH you’ll find a mixture of festival reviews, round-ups, news and features, and perhaps – if you’re lucky – some full-colour photographs too! Today’s round-up includes a look at 360, the rather surprising choice for the festival’s opening night gala screening, and two new works from leading European directors; Italy’s Nanni Moretti and Belgium’s Dardennes brothers.

360

“In a bad film”, writes The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “something goes awry: The script is convoluted or the third act is a mess or Anthony Hopkins is playing a black man for some reason”. Well, substitute “whole damn thing” for “third act” and give Hopkins some credit for leaving his shoe polish at home, but otherwise, in Fernando Meirelles extraordinarily banal 360, you have the very definition of a bad film. A really bad one, in fact.

Filmed in eight separate countries and loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, 360 is a cosmopolitan, would-be opus about how people connect with each other in this technology-dominated modern age. The huge cast of one-dimensional characters (including Hopkins, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) chase, betray, and have (largely miserable) sex with each other. And that’s basically it for two hours.

The whole interconnecting stories thing has been done before to much greater effect by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman and on a global scale by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (with the overwrought and schematic but far superior Babel), and 360 brings nothing new to the table. Peter Morgan’s dialogue positively clangs with exposition and cliche, and the writer is particularly fond of populating his story with occurrences that simply would not happen in real life (for example Hopkins’ character leaving the intimate case file of his missing daughter in plain view on an aeroplane table).

The inconsistencies and unintentionally funny moments in 360 are simply too legion to itemize, but special mention must be made of the ludicrous storyline concerning a convicted sex offender (Ben Foster) who all but begs his case worker (Secrets & Lies’ Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to keep him locked up because he is palpably still capable of bad deeds. Instead, she positively encourages him to get out there, and before you know it, fate has presented him with a drunk, emotional recent dump-ee for him to test his mettle against. And that’s not all. Before he enters the hotel room with the girl, Meirelles lingers pretentiously on his cross tattoo, and then the door number 316 (in reference to John 3:16, one of the most frequently quoted references from the Bible). Is this guy some kind of latter-day saint? Who cares as long as there’s a portentous religious connection wedged in there. It’s just that kind of film.

Other than the dubious underlying message that says simply “take a chance”, even if this means unleashing a jittery sex offender onto the world, or abandoning your imperilled prostitute sister to jump into a car with the first hunky minder that claps eyes on you, there is little of substance or meaning on show.

Yes, it’s well shot and competently made, but so are most car adverts. 360 might just have passed muster as a series of one-act ITV dramas, but as cinema, it’s stillborn, and a colossal waste of time for all involved.

*      *      *      *      *

We Have A Pope

Following the torpor-inducing 360, PPH was looking for improvements, and found them in the Dardennes Brothers’ drama The Kid With A Bike, and to a lesser extent We Have A Pope, the latest effort from Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room).

We Have A Pope boasts a super premise – what if the newly announced Pope simply can’t face taking on the job? – but ultimately ends up as lost, if not more so, than its wayward papal protagonist.

The film begins strongly. In the Vatican, scores of cardinals collect together to cast votes to elect the new Pope, and the process is presented as an amusingly glorified cousin of a third round F.A. Cup draw. The surprise victor is the unnassuming Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). Just before Melville is due to make his commencement speech, however, he falls victim to a crippling attack of self-doubt, and declares himself unable to do the job. Consequently, a top psychoanalyst (played by the charismatic Moretti) is called in to assess him.

Just when the scene is set for a potentially riveting showdown between Moretti and the would-be Pope, Melville runs away, leaving his inquisitor alone with the rest of the cardinals, and the Vatican’s communications team with an almighty mess to hide from the watching world. This plot point is an unfortunate turn of events which all but deflates the film, for while we get to enjoy the amusing scenario of God’s representative on Earth chilling out on a bus, Moretti is reducing to playing card games with the eccentric cardinals and – I kid you not – organising a volleyball tournament.

The Kid With A Bike

There are some very funny, nicely observed moments along the way, yet the whole affair is so gentle that if Moretti is taking a massive swipe at the Catholic church, it’s extremely difficult to notice. Other than the belatedly brave ending, and the Pope’s suggestion at one stage that he wants to “make changes” (giving a hint that he be of a reformist bent), there is very little incendiary on show here. We Have A Pope is watchable and entertaining, but overall registers as a missed opportunity.

Far better was The Kid With A Bike, centred around an extraordinarily natural performance from Thomas Doret as Cyril, a sprightly, temperamental 11-year old boy who sets out to find his bicycle and then his father, who left him at a children’s home and did not return.

Having struck gold in the past with the likes of Rosetta and L’Enfant, the brothers bring their trademark blend of naturalism and hard-won, low-key emotion to this tale. There are few instances of pyrotechnics, rather a series of tough truths played out with little fanfare and great skill by the perfectly chosen cast.

If there is an issue with the film, it’s that Samantha (Cecile de France), the saintly hairdresser who takes in Cyril, is almost too perfect a character, subjugating her own personal life to look out for the kid, but perhaps that’s just me being cynical. Her relentlessly magnanimous actions are essential to the story, and provide a heartrending counterpoint for the troubled Cyril to bounce off.

After the painful protractions of 360, it was refreshing to be in the presence of such unforced, moving drama. Make sure you see it.

Permanent Plastic Helmet’s dedicated coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival will continue regularly throughout the duration of the event. You can follow us on Twitter @pplastichelmet, and subscribe to email updates by clicking on the +follow button at the bottom right of the homepage.