Sep 8, 2013

London Film Festival 2013: Preview Part 1 - Galas and Competition

It's that time of year again, for the tenth year running - my fourth as a member of the press - I'm plotting out my trip to the London Film Festival.  The run up to this year's festival has had its controversies (press passes are, for the first time, subject to a small charge) and the press experience is something you are likely to see a few complaints about, due to a change of venue.  Perhaps mindful of this, BFI seem to have gone all out to deliver an incredibly exciting version of their usual mission statement; a digest of the festival year, with the films being accessible to the public as much as to the press and the industry.

The usual mainstream and semi-mainstream suspects are present and correct (Tom Hanks, the Coen Brothers, Terry Gilliam, George Clooney, and many more) as are the popular choices from the festival year and a lot of well regarded auteurs.  Happily there is also much that looks interesting that goes off that well beaten path.

This is the first of three posts in which I'll pick up to five films I think look especially interesting from each of the strands of new feature films at the festival, as always these are purely personal choices.  The only thing I won't preview is the Experimenta strand, because I have absolutely no interest in artist's film and experimental cinema, it does nothing for me, and my thoughts would be of no use to you.

Do let me know if you buy tickets for any of the films based on these previews.

In this first post I'll be looking at the Gala screenings and the films screening in the three competition strands.

Note: The summaries (in italics) and most of the stills are taken from the BFI programme website, thanks to them.  Films listed alphabetically by title.  I have also italicised titles that have UK distribution in place.


Blue is the Warmest Colour
This year’s Palme D’or winner is a strikingly uninhibited exploration of the messy, mesmerising and turbulent nature of love.

This is sure to be one of LFF's big attention grabbers for several reasons.  First off, it was the winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes, and marked the first time that award has been shared by a film's cast (leads Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos) as well as its director.  

It also seems that this lesbian love story, wrapped up in a coming of age movie, is going to be one of the more challenging gala selections, and probably the one most likely to divide audiences, thanks to its three hour running time and apparently extremely explicit and lengthy love scenes.  Apparently Seydoux and Exarchopoulos give superlative performances, and the film is much more than the purient thing I'm sure a lot of the press will want to frame it as.  I can't wait to see this.

Mystery Road
An Aboriginal cop returns to his home town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in this superb slow-burn-thriller with a stellar Australian cast.

I like a good murder mystery on its own merits, and this outback set thriller about an Aboriginal cop encountering racism in the community and from his fellow officers while trying to solve a brutal killing sounds like an intriguing slow burner.

I'm hoping that it will find an organic way to mix the politics of the racism that its main character has to deal with in his work with a compelling mystery, but at the very least there is a quality Aussie cast (Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson) and the stills suggest that the outback is shot in a way that will look both stunning and forbidding.

Night Moves
Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg shine in a thriller that combines cinematic lyricism with an astute exploration of radical environmentalism.

I'm looking forward to Night Moves for many reasons.  First, I may only have seen one of director Kelly Reichardt's previous films but that film, Meek's Cutoff, made my LFF Top 5 that year, and my overall Top 10 the following year.  I'm also intrigued to see what Reichardt can do with something that seems more recognisably genre inflected.

The basic premise of the film - the relationships between a group of eco-terrorists - isn't entirely new but the films it calls to mind, like The Edukators and The East, are interesting and provocative and I'm interested in what Reichardt can bring to the cinematic treatment of these issues.

Finally there's the cast; Dakota Fanning, in what looks like her most interesting role in years, Peter Sarsgaard and Jesse Eisenberg are three interesting actors that I'll be pleased to watch in a low key three-hander.

Only Lovers Left Alive
From Jim Jarmusch comes this stylish tale of Adam and Eve, two centuries-old vampires reuniting after a spell of time apart.

I've struggled with Jim Jarmusch in the past, I can find him grating and pretentious, but I warmed to Broken Flowers and there are things about Only Lovers Left Alive that intrigue me.

Jarmusch dabbling in the vampire myth, and all the iconography and genre baggage that comes with it is inherently interesting.  The genre has really become a vehicle for filmmakers to use vampirism to advance their favoured metaphors, and I'm interested in what Jarmusch will do with it in that respect.  Added to that there is a fantastic cast; Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska (in one of three films she has at this year's festival, all of them intriguing looking).

I suspect that Only Lovers Left Alive won't be a film I fall in the middle on, but that does mean that if it works for me it is likely to do so spectacularly.

We Are the Best
Lukas Moodysson’s warm and witty coming of age tale about three teenage girls in Stockholm forming a punk band.

I really, really want this to be great.  I'm a big fan of Lukas Moodysson's first three films, but his first, coming of age love story Fucking Amal, is one of my absolute favourite films.  It's been a while (really since Lilya 4 Ever) that he's been on that kind of form or played in that milieu, and I'm really hoping that We Are The Best - which again finds him centering a film on teenage girls - will see him back on that form.

I'm also, just in general, a huge fan of European and Scandinavian coming of age films, which always seems to have a grittier and more real take on teenage experience than most US teen movies do, and Moodysson marrying that with early 80's politics and punk music... well, it sounds like someone tried to make a film featuring all the things I like.


Abuse of Weakness
Isabelle Huppert offers a mesmerising portrait of the artist as willing victim, in a troubling autobiographical narrative from Catherine Breillat.

Catherine Breillat is a confounding filmmaker.  I've hated some of what I've seen (Romance, A Ma Soeur), but recently she seems to have mellowed, and I very much liked her last two films, in which she adapted fairytales, but didn't lose her voice.  Abuse of Weakness is intriguing because, as well as featuring the great Isabelle Huppert playing a version of Breillat herself, it may shed some light on how those last two films came about and how she seemingly mellowed.

The film dramatises real events in Breillat's life when, after she had a stroke, she was targeted and taken in by a con man.  I've not read the book that she wrote on the subject, but it will be interesting to see this filmmaker who has always been rather analytical (often to a fault) point that analysis at herself.  This isn't something you get to see a director do every day.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s stunningly shot exploration of faith and history finds a novice nun coming face-to-face with her family’s past in 1960s Poland. 

Even if I had no other frame of reference for it, I would have gone to see Ida based purely on the still to the left.  It's an image that simply leaps of the page, beautifully composed and lit, it suggests a film of stunning beauty.

My other frame of reference comes from director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose first two features - Last Resort and My Summer of Love - I adored.  He hit a bad stumble, however, with the tedious The Woman in the Fifth.  Happily Ida's mix of exploration of faith and family secrets sounds much more interesting, and while it didn't work for his last film, Pawlikowski is a proven master at drawing raw, emotional, performances while focused on a small cast.  I really hope this finds him fully back to form.

Of Good Report
An intense insight into the mind of a troubled school teacher that mixes sex and social comment, and which was briefly banned in South Africa in 2013.

I heard mutterings earlier this year about a South African film being banned in its home country, but - unusually for me - didn't dig much further into the case.  I should have, because it sounds like an intriguing and provocative work.

Wherever you're from, the issue of consensual relationships between teachers and students seems to be a very current issue, indeed there was a high profile court case that ended here in the UK just a couple of months ago.  I'm interested to see how the film treats the issue, and how it might have sent the South African censors into such a panic.  Beyond this the stills (including the one above right) suggest that film's black and white cinematography will have a stark beauty, I hope this unsparing feel is reflected in the rest of the film.

Mia Wasikowska co-stars with the Australian landscape in John Curran’s spiritual, complex true-life traveller’s tale of outback endurance.

Even in a film as crappy (and it was very, very crappy) as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, I could see that Mia Wasikowska was going to be someone to watch, and since then she's delivered over and over, making interesting choices and excelling in most of them.  This could be her most intriguing project at LFF, if only because, as a young woman who walked 2,700 KM across the Outback, followed by a National Geographic photographer (played by Adam Driver), the entire film would seem to rest on her shoulders.

The scenery is sure to be stunning, but I'm coming to this for Wasikowska's performance, which I'm sure will be great, as long as the chemistry between her and Driver works well.

Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson is extraordinary as a voracious alien in human form in Jonathan Glazer’s existential kitchen-sink sci-fi. 

I've just realised that, ten years ago, I saw Jonathan Glazer's last film, Birth, at my first London Film Festival (in fact it may have been the first film I ever saw at LFF), but that's not why I'm interested in seeing Under The Skin.  I don't hold Birth in quite the regard that some do, but it certainly shouldn't have led to a decade long absence from screens for Glazer.  

If nothing else, the trailer I saw at Frightfest demonstrates that that time away has not led Glazer to compromise on his vision.  The elliptical trailer suggested gorgeous imagery, a Cronenbergian tone and a well cast Scarlett Johansson (I'm not generally a fan), add to that the intriguing divide in reception it received in Venice (boos from audiences, raptures from critics) and at the very least I'm fascinated.


Kill Your Darlings
Daniel Radcliffe shines as the young Allen Ginsberg in this fresh and vibrant take on the early days of the Beat Generation.

Daniel Radcliffe has come a long way in a short time.  Many predicted (with no little relish) that he would always be in the shadow of Harry Potter, but a series of brave and interesting choices and ever increasingly strong performances have already proven that suspicion unfounded.  This may be his most challenging role yet, as a young Allen Ginsberg.  The content may also prove challenging, if not for Radcliffe then for his fanbase, as he has several apparently rather explicit gay sex scenes.
There have been quite a few movies about the Beat Generation recently, and none has really won me over, I'm hoping that this will.  In addition to Radcliffe the cast features a wide array of talent from up and comer Dane DeHaan (next to be seen a Harry Osborn in the new Spider-Man film) and consistently underrated character actor Ben Foster to one of the other major reasons I'm interested in this film; Jennifer Jason Leigh, she's likely to have a very small part, but I still have to see everything she's in, and it's been too long since she's been on a cinema screen.

A sophisticatedly austere and oblique debut that builds to a grimly impressive dénouement.

If there is any film in this preview that really could go either way for me then it is this one.  Austere, slow, cinema can work for me, but it can equally (or even more) frequently bore and annoy me.  When it works though, those films can have a huge impact on me, so it's often worth the gamble.

In this case I think it's likely to be worth the gamble because Luton comes to us not from the North of England but from Greece, which is currently producing some of the world's most vital and interesting cinema, and has established a distinct line in austere but incredibly tense films.  The brochure's synopsis suggests that the film will observe the day to day lives of a group of somewhat disparate characters, before bringing them together in what is described as a grim denouement   I suspect the film's success will hinge on whether or not there is a feeling of foreboding, of build to something.  I'm interested, if a touch wary.

A fresh take on the Mafia thriller, as a hit man takes a blind girl hostage.

Here's another film that I would have decided to see based solely on the still - which is, for the record, something I did regularly when attending the festival as a punter, and still try to do now.  That said, the story of a conscience stricken hitman (while hardly new) is inherently dramatic, and even in concept is fraught with Hitchcockian tension.  Menace leeches from that still, and if it's indicative of the tone then I'm pretty sure Salvo will be up my street.

The caveat will be in the performances, as this sounds like it will unfold, for much of its running time, as a two hander, and that makes big demands on the actors.  If the performances come up to scratch though, this could be really interesting.

Trap Street
Vivian Qu’s stunning debut tackles China’s ominous new surveillance culture through the story of a romance abruptly derailed by a boy’s disappearance.

As the LFF brochure notes by referencing Edward Snowden, Trap Street's premise couldn't feel much more timely if it tried.

I'm interested by the idea of tying the (presumed) thriller narrative and commentary on the growing surveillance society - both in China and elsewhere - to a relationship story, because hopefully that will raise the stakes by providing a personal engagement in the characters and the story.  I'm guessing that this won't be a surveillance thriller in the Enemy of the State mould, is what I'm saying.

This striking debut by Blancanieves editor, Fernando Franco, follows ambulance driver Ana as she struggles with a devastating personality disorder.

The thing that really intrigues me about Wounded is that from the summary above, the still and the longer piece in the LFF brochure I still have very little idea of what the film is actually going to be.

There is a darkness to the still that could suggest a low key thriller, but the description of Ana as having mental health issues, drinking too much and being in an abusive relationship point towards a tough, dark, character study.  On the other hand the mention of her amazing ability to bond with patients could be taken to Alps like extremes.  This is part of why I love festivals; they're really the only way I get to be surprised by films anymore.


The Armstrong Lie
Award-winning documentarist Alex Gibney’s film, shooting as Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal broke, offers a complex picture of a sporting enigma.

I don't follow cycling, or any other sport for that matter, but even as ignorant as I am of that world, I've been aware of both the highs and the lows of the story of Lance Armstrong, from his Tour De France wins to his beating cancer to the long, and at last confirmed, accusations of doping.

Director Alex Gibney is a prolific documentarian (between last year's LFF winner Mea Maxima Culpa and this he also made We Steal Secrets, about Julian Assange and Wikileaks), but his speed never seems to affect the depth in which he delves into his subjects, nor the insight that he gains from and into them.  This is likely to be another strong entry in one of the most interesting modern documentary filmographies around.

At Berkeley
Frederick Wiseman’s immersive institutional documentary boasts extraordinary access in its classy portrait of an iconic University in flux.

Frederick Wiseman has been working in much the same way for 40 years, making films that are deliberately observational, and often based around institutions. At Berkeley will find him ploughing a furrow that he has explored before; the American educational system, this time observing Berkeley University, its staff and its students at a time when the institution's funding has suffered drastic cuts.  

With his long running times (244 minutes in this case) and shunning of captions, narration, or even a real story arc, Wiseman's work can be an acquired taste, but it's a taste I've acquired in the past few years thanks to hypnotic LFF entries like Boxing Gym and Crazy Horse.  Documentaries often strive to plunge us into a reality that isn't our own, and for me Wiseman does that more immersively than anyone, I can't wait to see this.

After the drama of Zero Dark Thirty, Greg Barker’s investigative doc meets the real CIA operatives who tracked Osama Bin Laden for twenty years.

Zero Dark Thirty remains one of my favourite films of the year (it opened in the UK in January), but both times I saw it I did come out wondering just how true this 'true story' really was.  Hopefully Manhunt will answer some of those questions.

Of course the search for Bin Laden and the larger context of the war on terror is one of, if not the, defining events of our time, but I'm hoping that we can see a more personal level to the story here, that it will give some context to what the day to day job was like and how the experience of doing it affected the people on the ground.

Matt Wolf’s prehistory of the Teenager is a sharp, archive-rich take on youth from the early 20th century to its ‘official’ invention in the 1940s.

I'm reasonably certain that people who know me, when they were browsing their LFF brochures this week, may have picked this out as a film I would be enthusiastic about seeing.  I've got a weakness for teen and coming of age movies (perhaps because this site is basically an extension of what I was doing as a teenager), and I like the idea of a documentary looking at how the teenage years came to be seen as the transitional time they are seen as now, and at youth culture when the very idea of youth culture was in its infancy.

There are a couple of ways this could go, but I'm hoping for something that manage to make its cultural analysis fun, rather than stuffily academic.

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