London Film Festival 2014: Round-up Part 1

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Dear White People (Simien, 2014)

It’s hard to comment on the ideas being explored in Dear White People, as I’m so far removed from them. As a white Brit I can only listen to director Justin Simien and take him for his word, but suffice to say that this satire, cartoonish in style though it may be, rings very true about racism in the US, particularly amongst the middle classes. Its Ivy League campus setting proves to be a fantastic sounding board for myriad ideas, and its exploration of the black experience – particularly the performance of race and the various ways that black people find to survive and assimilate into a predominantly white world and the politics of this – feel illuminating and vital.

It’s also very funny, and Simien has a remarkable amount of visual flair and ambition for a first-time director. Spike Lee will inevitably the first point of comparison, but he also touches on Kubrick in his framing and Altman in the way he deftly handles his huge cast of characters – all of them broadly written but as clear as a bell. The cast are uniformly excellent, but Tessa Thompson as the righteous-but-vulnerable Samantha White emerges a true star. One can only hope that Hollywood will find more roles for women of colour so we can see her shine again.

 

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The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Oreck, 2014)

This ravishing, poetic essay-film about the tension between the traditional and the modern in Eastern Europe, with its focus on mushroom foraging and folklore, is rendered all the more fascinating when you discover that its director, Jessica Oreck, is American, and this film is much more of an anthropological study than anything rooted in personal experience. Either way, it’s a hypnotic exploration of man’s interactions with nature and the traditions that keep a culture rooted in the land that it comes from, even in the wake of a century fraught with conflict.

The animated fairytale that she scatters in counterpoint throughout her film is lovingly rendered and has a clear purpose in illustrating the kinds of stories her subjects were raised upon, and her most powerful images, particularly those of the nearly abandoned, Chernobyl-adjacent Pripyat, with its overturned libraries and decaying ferris wheels, are indicative of a culture that had its heart ripped out attempting to rediscover its roots.

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White God (Mundruczó, 2014)

There was a lot of laughter in the screening of White God I attended, but I suspect that there were few moments of intentional comedy in the film itself. In fact, it may have been one of the most earnest films in the entire festival. The tale of a dog that gets put through the wringer after been separated from his loving owner  and emerges as the leader of a doggy uprising against humans, this Hungarian film by Kornél Mundruczó  somehow won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, despite being tonally baffling and ill-thought out in its internal logic.

The problem is that it tries to have it both ways when it comes to its canine protagonist, Hagen: he maintains his doggy instincts throughout but also seems to have the heart and mind of a human, meaning that we never feel on solid footing with our main character, who in one scene will be successfully conditioned into a snarling prize fighter, and in the next will seem so human you half expect him to start talking. Images of huge packs of dogs terrorising the populace are a lot of fun, but even in its satisfying third act the film is fraught with coincidences and ill-thought-out plot developments. Absolutely the best dog performance of the year, though.

 

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, 2014)

Billed as “The first Iranian vampire western” (though mostly American in design) LA-based Ana Lily Amirpour’s truly distinctive debut feature has bags of style and poise. Set in the fictional Iranian town of Bad City and shot in moody black-and-white, it tells the story of a lonely vampire (Sheila Vand) slowly falling in love with the hapless Arash (Arash Marandi), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night spends most of its time skulking through dark, lamplit streets and dim, decaying apartment buildings, to great effect. Amirpour devotes most of her time to shooting her lead actress with all the attention her astonishing performance deserves, and the film’s best moments are the ones where little happens and the film’s pervasive, lonely-romantic mood is allowed to take over.

The problem is that Amirpour seems more concerned with cool than she is with story, so the film falls flat when things have to happen. Early scenes involving a pimp drug dealer are far too broad to fit into the rest of the film, and the film’s actual plot is so ineffectual that it drags the more powerful, plotless sequences down with it. This film is based on an earlier short of Amirpour’s, and one can’t help but feel that there wasn’t quite enough material here for a whole film. Nonetheless, it’s a striking, satisfyingly unusual film and a director to look out for in the future.

London Film Festival 2014: It Follows (Mitchell, 2014)

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Any child of the 90s will tell you that sex = death in the horror movie, that the moment the virgin (and we’re only talking women here) pops her cherry, she signs her own death warrant. It’s a trope that hasn’t yet borne much scrutiny: Scream highlighted it but did nothing to dismantle it; Cherry Falls attempted to flip the script on it but failed by not being very good. So, it’s a huge relief that we now have It Follows, one of the first horror movies to really examine the idea that teens need to be punished for having sex, and one of the best, scariest, and most visually ravishing horror movies in years.

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The Guest (Wingard, 2014)

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Adam Wingard is fast becoming one of the most distinctive voices in horror, taking familiar stories and exploding them with a stylistic gusto that many directors lack the skill or conviction to pull off. His latest film The Guest, appearing at this year’s London Frightfest this week, is admirable in many ways: the performances, particularly from lead Dan Stevens, are fantastic, its soundtrack is at times jaw-dropping, and its best moments carry a thrilling sense that anything could happen. Its flaws are plentiful, but it never fails completely, pulling the fun out of even its most disappointing missteps.

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Harold and Maude (Ashby, 1971)

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Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude would not be made today, and not because a studio wouldn’t back it: no one would even want to make it in these cynical times we live in. Its sweet, almost-syrupy-but-not-quite earnestness could only exist in 1971, when the younger generation, despite being killed in their thousands in a war that no one wanted, could still find it within themselves to believe in peace and love. It was largely panned upon its initial release, dismissed as hokey and simplistic and all too strange, but it found a cult following in later years from those who wanted to live in the world that its two protagonists share. It’s a world of intimacy and love, of the promise that no matter how dismal it may seem, life is still worth living. There may never have been a film before or since that addressed life and death with such ease and high spirits – you can’t help come away from Harold and Maude without having its wide-eyed optimism brushed off on you.

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Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)

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Boyhood has no interest in declaring its ambitions. Shot in short spurts over twelve years as its lead actor Ellar Coltrane aged from seven to eighteen, it is the grandest undertaking that director Richard Linklater has yet attempted, but it never feels any less relaxed and casual than his other films. Coltrane’s Mason doesn’t come of age so much as he ambles into it, the transition from boyhood to adulthood portrayed as a slow journey made up of moments large and small rather than one defined by a three-act structure. No grand epiphanies, just small realisations. 

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Short Term 12 (Cretton, 2012)

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If you had blinked you might have missed Short Term 12 when it was released in cinemas here in the UK last year, but that comes with the territory with this kind of film. Small-scale, extremely American in its earnestness, and heartfelt almost to a fault, Daniel Destin Cretton’s film, based on his own experiences working at a facility for troubled teenagers, is a moving, lovingly-crafted little indie, its faults stemming only from its overzealousness to make you care about its characters.

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Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)

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A failure by conventional standards, Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is fascinating in the degree to which it goes against the grain of the Hollywood disaster movie. Entirely spectacle-driven, to the point that it has next to no interest in building blocks of narrative storytelling like plot and character, Edwards has created a film that works only on the level of mood and tone, conjuring up ethereal, almost serene images over and over out of the mass destruction of major cities, out of monsters beating the crap out of each other, out of countless lives being lost.

As it’s been noted elsewhere, Edwards was an interesting choice for this project from the get-go. His first film, the modest indie-hit Monsters (2010), demonstrated his ability to tell a story featuring giant monsters, sure, but it was nothing like a summer blockbuster, telling as it did a small-scale, character-based allegorical story against a larger-than-life, alien creature-filled backdrop. It didn’t quite work – its characters were never quite interesting enough to follow them around for 90 minutes – but it was easy to warmly recommend due to its atmosphere, its palpable tension tempered with a sense of wonder and awe. Godzilla both fails and works for the same reasons, only here both sides of the coin are magnified – the characters are wafer-thin, the plotting is harebrained, but it may be the most visually ravishing big-budget monster movie in recent memory.

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