So, The London Film Festival. Or LFF. Or, The London Festival of Film!
In a way, LFF seems to me to be a “greatest hits” of all the festivals that came before it. I mean, no one really cares about it in the way that they care about Cannes, or TIFF, or Venice, but it’s here and it’s showing a lot of potentially good films and we all should probably take as much advantage of it as we can.
Of course, the amount of advantage that I could take of it wasn’t that much compared to some. My purse strings stretched to six films, all of which I was fairly certain would be great, and considering I was only really disappointed by one, I’d say that’s pretty good going. It’s hardly comprehensive coverage of the festival, but here they all are. As you can probably tell from these reviews, Weekend was my clear favourite of the festival. It’s hard to express the impact it had on me without it sounding like hyperbole, especially for a film so slight, but it’ll be staying with me for some time and has shot to somewhere very high up on my favourite films ever list. However, if I was going to recommend you go and see any of these films, I’d probably have to pick The Loneliest Planet. It may have plenty of flaws, but it’s story is so unique, and the way it tells it so fascinating, that I really want more people to see it than inevitably will.
These were all originally posted as I saw them on www.mostlyfilm.com, which had pretty excellent LFF coverage across the board from a whole bunch of people who seem to really care and think about film, so you should totally mosey on over and check them out.
The Day He Arrives (Hong, 2011)
This is the first film I’ve seen by Korean director Hong Sangsoo, but it certainly won’t be the last. Shot in an elegant, economic black and white and clocking in at around 1 hour and 20 minutes, The Day He Arrives is a film that’s so slight and witty that you barely notice how technically rigorous and fiercely intelligent it is.
Sang-Joon is a filmmaker going through a creative dry patch. He returns to Seoul from his countryside home to visit some old friends and relations. In particular, he meets an ex-lover with whom he spends one emotionally fraught evening before they swear never to see each other again. When he encounters a bar owner who looks exactly like her (they’re both played by the same actress), he embarks on a brief romance, but it remains unclear whether they’re really falling for each other or if they’re just imposing their own ideals upon one another.
The Day He Arrives is what Certified Copy would have looked like had it been made by Woody Allen. The majority of the film consists of the same group of friends just talking and going to the same restaurant and bar over and over, each scene a variation on one that came before. It’s a film about coincidence and memory and how we mould the people around us to meet our own expectations, but its lofty themes and ambitions are explored through dialogue that sparkles with wit and charm – it feels like spending time with old friends. It’ll probably be too small a film to really register on anyone’s radar when year-end lists come around, but it’s an absolute gem and definitely worth checking out if you get the chance.
The Loneliest Planet (Loktev, 2011)
Two seconds of The Loneliest Planet change absolutely everything. Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a young engaged couple lazily hiking through Georgia, hopelessly wrapped up in each other while they take in their breathtaking surrounds. Then SOMETHING HAPPENS in a brief moment which rocks both of them to their very core and they spend the rest of the film desperately trying to work through their emotional response. To give away what happens in that central incident would spoil the whole film – suffice to say the impact that it has is absolutely massive and it’s almost certainly one of the very best moments in any film at this year’s festival.
Director Julia Loktev is interested in non-verbal communication and how people process major upheavals in their life as they happen. She charts the emotional terrain of her two protagonists as ably as she captures the breathaking panoramas of Georgia , creating an intensely intimate and personal film set against an epic, overpowering backdrop. Many scenes consist of the characters doing nothing but walking across these vast landscapes, all the real activity happening internally.
It could probably stand to be a little shorter – a huge part of the film’s aesthetic is an attempt capturing the monotony of travel, and the stark, lonely beauty of the wilderness, but I’m convinced that this could still have been achieved if fifteen minutes had been cut. Overall, though, The Loneliest Planet marks Loktev out as a director to watch. The way she visually captures the distance between the two characters is often subtle and striking, and the way she uses sound and colour is at times extraordinary.
Weekend (Haigh, 2011)
Weekend tells the story of two people. It’s important to state this from the start, because in the coming months it will be labelled a gay movie and presented as such. It is a gay movie – it’s one of the best, most important gay movie’s ever made and the first time contemporary gay life has been depicted with such accuracy and sensitivity – but first and foremost, it’s a story of these two specific people, at this specific time in their life, and what transpires between them.
Like a gay Before Sunrise, Tom Cullen and Chris New play two guys who, after hooking up at a divey gay club in Nottingham, decide to spend the rest of the weekend together before one moves to America for the foreseeable future. Director Andrew Haigh’s camera navigates their blossoming relationship with sensitivity and grace, shooting them as a voyeur in the crowd when they’re in public spaces, and with up-close intimacy when they’re alone, deftly highlighting the difficulties of being truly open and comfortable in a world that is still stiflingly heterosexual.
But it’s the dialogue, and those two central performances, that make Weekend truly special. Cullen and New simply are these characters, and watching them explore each other and discover themselves is never less than a wonder, even when the film is at its most emotionally devastating. Their conversations are candid, funny, insightful, and eventually overwhelming, and by the time the film closes you feel as though you know these two people, inside and out.
I truly hope Weekend transcends its gay pigeon-hole and finds a wider audience. Make no mistake, there’s no way this could have worked with a straight couple as the focus. But in the highly specific nuances and details of these two characters Haigh has found a way to capture the full breadth of gay experience in 2011, and possibly something even more universal than that. Hopefully it will establish him as one of the most important British directors working today.
Miss Bala (Naranjo, 2011)
The director of Miss Bala, Gerado Naranjo, is nothing if not a craftsman. The majority of the film is made up of long, long tracking shots, meticulously and intricately choreographed, resulting in a handful of virtuoso sequences where calm explodes into Heat-inspired action without pausing breath. There’s no doubting Naranjo’s technical prowess – on a visceral level, Miss Bala is thrilling. The trouble is, he seems far more interested in visual acrobatics than crafting a story about actual, recognisable human beings.
Not that he doesn’t have the best intentions. Stephanie Sigman (who puts in a tremendous, expressive performance) plays Laura, an aspiring beauty queen who, after witnessing a gang-related shoot-out in a club, gets dragged against her will into the grimy world of drug trafficking. Naranjo obviously wants to highlight the human cost of such sordid activity, but his emphasis on visual technique has a distancing effect and suffocates any real emotion, meaning that we never really care about his protagonist. Even when he puts the camera right in Laura’s face, he fails to get inside her head, meaning that despite all the horrors that are visited upon her, you never really understand her state of mind.
What’s worse is that Laura is far too passive a character to put at the centre of a film like this. Yes, she spends a lot of her time afraid for her life, but the fact that she never puts up a fight or even questions what she’s forced to do is infuriating, especially during an extremely problematic rape scene which I’m having a hard time seeing as anything but overtly misogynistic. I’m not saying that she needs to be Buffy, but at times her passiveness almost implicates her in the crimes that she’s unwittingly dragged into, and if she had had some level of indignation or disgust at the things she’s forced to do it would have made her story something far more vital and affecting. Instead, Miss Bala is the worst kind of failure: a self-important, worthy film that doesn’t know how to make us care, all flash and no feeling.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Durkin, 2011)
With any luck, Martha Marcy May Marlene will one day be looked back upon as the film that introduced the world to two major talents in independent cinema. Director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen both smash it out of the park, her as the girl who escapes a cult not knowing who she is anymore, and him as the director who captures her splintering mind on film with breathtaking virtuosity.
The film open with the titular Martha fleeing to her sister and brother-in-law’s country home after spending two years living in a cult led by a man called Patrick (the terrifically creepy John Hawkes), who has renamed her Marcy May. She doesn’t tell them where she’s been and seems to assume she’s going to be fine, but it soon becomes clear that she isn’t. What begins as fairly generic cutting between the past and the present quickly devolves into a cacophony of images as Martha falls apart, time and experience fracturing and folding in on itself until it’s unclear what’s real and what isn’t, what’s happening now and what happened then.
I only wish Martha’s family weren’t so generic. Durkin wants to show us how Martha’s left one oppressive, overbearing family for another, but her sister and brother-in-law’s reactions are too rote and predictable for a film with such an unusual premise and approach. It’s a small quibble though, when the focus is so squarely on Olsen as Martha. And in her we have a truly startling talent, her desperate, vacant eyes providing a window into the maelstrom of her mind just as much as Durkin’s camera. Just don’t mention her more famous siblings.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (Herzog, 2011)
Werner Herzog is rightfully revered for his fictional films of existential dread and terror, but for me, he’ll always be a documentary maker first and foremost. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss, may not have the dense layers of Grizzly Man, or the razor-sharp focus of Litter Dieter Needs to Fly, or the beauty of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but it’s still a welcome addition to his canon, and a surprisingly heartfelt statement against capital punishment.
Focusing on one triple murder case and the devastating effect it had on those left behind, Herzog interviews the two perpetrators, one on death row and one jailed for forty years, as well as their families and the families of the victims, trying to show us that no matter how devastating a crime can be, there should still be opportunity for reform. Herzog has always been a leading interviewer, but he’s never been so transparent as here, consciously trying to draw the most emotion-filled statements out of his subjects, even going as far as making them hold up photos of their loved ones as they talk about them. This doesn’t hurt the film too much – he still takes care to give equal time to those who find catharsis and justice in the death sentence – but it does give it a curiously direct tone for a director that’s usually so interested in artifice and abstraction.
In the end, though, Into the Abyss doesn’t make much of an impression until it’s final closing moments, when his interviewees speak directly about capital punishment, some of them movingly unaware of the profundity of their words. It’s not so much angry and polemical as it is sad and reflective, displaying Herzog’s talent for tapping directly into our humanity. It may not be one of his best films, but it’s certainly one of his most compassionate.