Tag Archives: LFF

BFI London Film Festival 2013 | PPH Picks

By Ashley Clark

The 57th annual BFI London Film Festival takes place in a host of venues across London from 9-20 October. Tickets are on sale for the public on Friday 20 September. Since a fair few people have asked me individually for recommendations, I thought I’d put together a somewhat doc-heavy Top 10 of Tips! from stuff that I’ve already seen, and would strongly vouch for. I’ve left out the Galas and bigger films (many of which have already sold out; though don’t forget the standby queues) and focused on the smaller, less star-studded films. If I’ve written about the film somewhere already, I’ve included a link. The full programme, by the way, is here. Here we go, then.

At Berkeley (Dir. Frederick Wiseman)


A mammoth documentary about the inner workings of the California university. Essential viewing if you have any interest in the educational system or public policy. Further reading: Venice 2013: truth, lies and admin – American documentaries on the Lido – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Computer Chess (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)


A fresh and original drama-comedy about a bunch of nerdy computer programmers in the 1980s which begins as an hilarious docudrama but morphs into a haunting philosophical study. Further reading: Review for Grolsch Film Works

*    *    *

Cutie and the Boxer (Dir. Zachary Heinzerling)


A funny, moving and beautifully constructed documentary about the eponymous ageing Japanese artist couple, living in a cramped Brooklyn flat. Further reading: The digital deluge: Tribeca 2013 – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Let The Fire Burn (Dir. Jason Osder)


The best (and most shattering) documentary I’ve seen all year. A staggering found-footage collage detailing the awful incident in 1985 when the Mayor of Philadelphia sanctioned the bombing of the HQ of radical black activist group MOVE. Further reading: The digital deluge: Tribeca 2013 – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Locke (Dir. Steven Knight)


Tom Hardy goes full-on Welsh in a gripping and surprisingly moving high-concept thriller of the quotidian life, set entirely inside the eponymous builder’s car. Locke only has a hands-free kit to sort his problems out. Further reading: Venice Film Festival 2013: The Police Officer’s WifeLocke, & The Sacrament – Slant

*    *    *

Mother of George (Dir. Andrew Dosunmu)

Mother of George

Dosunmu’s beautiful follow-up to Restless City is a moving story of the desperate lengths one woman goes to conceive. A great portrait of New York’s Nigerian community.

*    *    *

The Rooftops (Es-Stouh) (Dir. Merzak Allouache)


A cleverly structured day-in-the-life drama set in a number of working class Algiers districts. It’s tough, funny and moving, and thankfully avoids the lame Paul Haggis-style impulse to tie all the strands together in a superficial way. Further reading: Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: A Means of Escape — African Cinema on the Lido – Filmmaker Magazine

*    *    *

Portrait of Jason (Dir. Shirley Clarke)

portrait of jason

Jaw-dropping 1967 performance piece/documentary focused on the eponymous Jason: male prostitute/raconteur/hustler/crooner. Showing in its newly restored version. Further reading: Review for Permanent Plastic Helmet

*    *    *

Teenage (dir. Matt Wolf)


Breezy, fascinating and beautifully structured collage doc (from the director of Arthur Russell doc Wild Combination) about the beginnings of the ‘teenager’ as first an idea, then a reality. Great soundtrack by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox. Further reading: Review for Grolsch Film Works

*    *    *

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (Dir. Sion Sono)

Play in hell

A berserk and hugely enjoyable love letter to the movies delivered in cult Japanese director Sono’s inimitable overcranked, Grand Guignol style. Insanely violent, with lots of shouting. Bring earplugs. Further reading: Venice Film Festival 2013: GerontophiliaTracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell? – Slant

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.



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].


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.


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.


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]


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]


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:


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]


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.


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.


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!


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


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.

*       *       *       *       *

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: 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.

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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.


“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.

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #1

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 Roads 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.


‘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.

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.


Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just seen the new remake of John Boulting’s 1947 spiv-thriller Brighton Rock and, let me tell you, it is one of the most pointless, plodding non-entities of a film I have sat through in a long time.

Serviceable enough for half and hour, and held aloft by Sam Riley’s performance (although he looks distractingly like Pete Doherty) as teen menace Pinky Brown, the film utterly loses content, threat and momentum, drifting into a grey, sludgy, suspenseless TV drama with inappropriate choral swells, a singularly unthreatening cameo from Andy Serkis and a vapid turn from Andrea Riseborough as the hopeless, put-upon female lead Rose: a one-dimensional, hugely frustrating vacuum of suffering, suffering, stupidity and more suffering.  Furthermore, if there was a good reason to update the film to the 1960s, other than to insert one deus-ex-machina scene about Mods on bikes, then it escaped me.

Watch the original, and scratch your head. It makes Gus Van Sant’s Psycho look vital. Why? Why? Why?

Bruising stuff

Joel Garner at full pelt

PPH @ LFF 2010

Fire in Babylon is a ridiculously entertaining new documentary which charts the ascension of the West Indian cricket team from likeable losers (“calypso cricketers”) in the early 1970s to the all-conquering centurions that dominated Test cricket for 15 ominous years with a deadly combination of powerful batting and searing fast bowling.

Director Stevan Riley cooks up an appetizing brew of tension, suspense and brilliant archive footage augmented by revealing, candid testimony from the era’s key players including Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, Sir Viv Richards, and the unforgettably deadpan Andy Roberts.

Absolutely crucial to the film’s success is its sound. The sound designers have a field day as every thwack on a helmet, blow to the torso of a hapless batsman or skittling of stumps (often, wonderfully, belonging to a pasty Englishman, bringing whoops of delight from the LFF crowd’s Caribbean contingent) is galvanized by a meaty thud on the soundtrack so intense that it caused me to wince in my seat on a number of occasions.  Riley and his editor have pulled off a major coup by imbuing a sport often mistakenly thought of as sedate and genteel with the visceral thrill evocative of the gladiatorial arena or boxing ring. As an audience member, you really feel how fast these bowlers were; how dangerous they were on top of their game. In addition to this, the film boasts a barnstorming reggae soundtrack featuring the likes of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and a host of captivating performances from locals.

Like any good sports film, Fire in Babylon is about much more than just the sport itself, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from the complex issues of identity, racism and the financial intricacies and pitfalls of professional sport. Informative about the pan-African unity which the team’s monumental success inspired and the post-colonial complexities inherent in the West Indies’ relationship with former “masters” England, Fire… also functions as a crucial history lesson.

Freddie Mercury. Colin Croft just out of shot.

While primarily charting the progress of the West Indian team as a collective, Riley skillfully weaves participants’ individual stories into the narrative.  Hence, there is graduation of the thoughtful, older captain Clive Lloyd into a pragmatic leader of steel, the maturation of a callow Michael Holding into the nerveless quick monikered ‘Whispering Death’, and the quintessential man’s man, Sir Vivian Richards, visibly moved when recollecting his endorsement by the great Nelson Mandela.

Then there is the sad story of fast bowler Colin Croft, who predated Freddie Mercury by breaking ranks and embarking on an ill-advised renegade trip to Apartheid-era South Africa.  His defiance and dogged explanation (“I needed the money”) can’t hide the sadness in his eyes and the pain of being ostracized.

The Aussies also get in on the act; in one hilarious piece of archive footage, we get a glimpse into Aussie fast-bowler Jeff Thompson’s ‘day job’, which appears to literally involve him jumping off a speeding truck in the desert to wrestle wild animals!

Fire in Babylon is an electrifying, frequently hilarious, instructive and ultimately moving experience, and will hopefully be picked up by a distributor before long.  It is sure to be a massive hit, especially with an opportune summer release, and (and now we’re really in the realm of the hypothetical) an overdue resurgence by the current West Indian team!

Fire in Babylon next screens at the 54th BFI London Film Festival on Thu 21 October.