Eden (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Friday 17 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Ad Vitam

Mia Hansen-Løve is a young French director whose work has been gaining some acclaim on the festival circuit, and this collaboration with her brother Sven apparently springs from his time as a DJ. It’s a sprawling film that charts around 20 years in the life of one central character, Paul (the winsomely smiling Félix de Givry), from 1991 through to 2013, though like most such undertakings he and those around him don’t seem to age markedly (aside from a little stubble and changes of hairstyle here and there). However, this doesn’t seem particularly troubling given the rut of perpetual adolescence he seems to be stuck in, thanks to his career spinning house records at French clubs. To be honest, this isn’t a musical scene of which I have any knowledge, and like most people it begins and ends at Daft Punk (whose twin creators Thomas and Guy-Man have a running gag in the film of being turned away from Paul’s club, due to their level of anonymity). The film does feature appearances from some key musical acts, and includes a brief visit to Chicago, but you hardly need to be au fait with the scene to enjoy the film, as it focuses mostly on Paul and his stunted development and relationships, as well as the rise-and-fall arc of his career. It’s just as well, too, that de Givry is such a likeable screen presence, because for most of the film his character has difficulty dealing with grown-up situations and feelings, and tends to push away those he most cares about. It’s a credit to the director too that such a character in such a setting can still compel, but it does, a beautifully-shot and losely-structured ode to music, and the difficulties inherent in trying to carve out a career within it.


CREDITS || Director Mia Hansen-Løve | Writers Mia Hansen-Løve and Sven Hansen-Løve | Cinematographer Denis Lenoir | Starring Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne | Length 131 minutes

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 16 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Magnolia Pictures

I think it’s sometimes easy to dismiss the films of Gregg Araki, and I can understand critics who do. His films quite often have the look and feel of media which (for whatever reason) is often overlooked, whether it’s the dayglo teen-pop-cultural artifice of Nowhere (1997, a film I consider among his finest) or this one, which has a sort of Nicholas Sparks personal-journey soft-focus melodrama feel to it. I have no idea about the literary qualities of the source novel, but the way it comes across in this film suggests it’s an airport novel, one of those hokey thrillers that are easily digested in such an environment. However, there’s something almost Douglas Sirk-like in the way that the film’s surfaces and its dark undertow inflect one another, or perhaps Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life in its evocation of suburban domesticity breeding madness. For while it’s on the one hand a mystery about a disappearance (the lead character’s mother, played vampily by Eva Green), it’s also a subtly-inflected coming-of-age of sorts, as teenager Kat (Shailene Woodley), growing up in small-town USA of the late-80s, negotiates a world of patriarchal pitfalls occasioned by her mother’s disappearance. There’s her uptight dad (Christopher Meloni) and deadbeat neighbour boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), both of whom try to control her in different ways, and a local cop she hooks up with after her mother’s disappearance. All the men in her life try to guide and mould her, but it’s to the film’s credit that Kat remains self-possessed and in control of her sexuality, unlike her mother for whom suburban domesticity has had a rather more warping effect. In the end, it’s a mystery-with-a-twist so familiar to moviegoers recently (see Girl Gone for the latest iteration), but it’s also about finding an escape from the ‘normal’ life that society pulls us into (something you’d expect Araki to know about, and something that permeates most of his films), and in negotiating these levels of meaning, the luminous Woodley gives a fantastic performance.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Gregg Araki (based on the novel by Laura Kasischke) | Cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen | Starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez | Length 91 minutes

La Sapienza (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© La Sarraz Pictures (image from the film)

Established directors with a distinctive style can attract backlash. For example, I like the films of Wes Anderson, but I gather that many do not, and that’s fine and understandable. It may be a reaction to many things, but I suspect primarily it’s the stylisation, the candy box set and production design, and the ever-so-slightly self-consciously stilted line deliveries of the actors. Lacking the widespread acclaim of Anderson, but making films every bit as stylised, is Eugène Green, who also originally hails from the States (New York, to be precise) but lives and works in France. In La Sapienza (translated as “Sapience”, an archaic word for wisdom, here applied specifically to the work of 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini), Green uses architecture as, ahem, a structuring conceit for a story of four people.

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Rosewater (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Sunday 12 October 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Open Road Films

Jon Stewart is well-known already for his work as a comedian and host of The Daily Show, engaging on a regular basis with current affairs, world politics and the incompetencies of his own government, but with this feature he moves into filmmaking. Thankfully, on the whole it’s pretty well-made stuff with some entertaining digressions, about how journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested on a visit to his native Iran to cover the 2009 elections and accused of being a spy. In the lead role is Gael García Bernal, who may not be Iranian but seems to specialise in this kind of role these days (like in No), the small pawn ranged against wider governmental forces of oppression. He does pretty well at it, though the film is bogged down in its middle section by longueurs as Bahari is detained in Evin Prison, though enlivened occasionally by the dialogues with his captor, the shadowy figure known only as ‘Rosewater’ (played by Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian). It all looks great and is edited together skilfully, and though not perhaps as narratively compelling as Ben Affleck’s Oscar-baiting Argo of a few years back, I feel it avoids some of that film’s pitfalls in presenting Iran at times as an exotic, dangerous Other. What is emphasised is more of the shared experiences of people under that regime that may be common to journalists in similar situations around the world. It’s a fine first feature, and I only hope that Stewart continues to develop his filmic voice, though in the meantime his television show continues to do pretty well.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Jon Stewart (based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy) | Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski | Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia | Length 103 minutes

The Falling (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 13 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Metrodome UK (image from the film)

Films set at girls’ schools form a fairly distinct ‘coming of age’ subgenre by this point, many of them distinguished by their undertow of the uncanny. I’m drawn back to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), ten years ago now but still provoking indelibly eerie memories, so the fact that The Falling even comes close to the power exerted by that film is, I’d say, a good thing. It too is shot by a French woman (Agnès Godard, frequent collaborator of Claire Denis) and like that earlier film, the rites of adolescence are intricately bound up with mystery and death. Set in 1969, it centres on two young women, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and the free-spirited Abbie (Florence Pugh), but mainly within the context of their time at school, as they and their classmates share experiences and set themselves against the brusque Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the airily unconcerned headmistress. What’s interesting is not so much what happens, as in the languorous atmosphere, in which significant events are revealed in an almost off-handed way at times. The camera frequently returns to a sylvan scene of trees looming over a small pond, often empty shots of threatening portent, as if summoning some Pre-Raphaelite vision of drowned maidens, and it certainly adds to the general sense of uneasiness. By the end, things get pretty charged in ways that I’m really hoping function as allegory (in a live Q&A the director was keen to stress that at least some of it wasn’t autobiographical), but as a piece it is stylish, and carried by some excellent acting.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Carol Morley | Cinematographer Agnès Godard | Starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi | Length 102 minutes

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What Is Before, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Tuesday 14 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Sine Olivia Pilipinas

The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz makes very long films. By all accounts, last year’s Norte, the End of History was among his most accessible features, and it’s three-and-a-half hours long. This new historical epic is a full two hours longer than that. It deals with a small coastal village (or “barrio”) in the early-1970s, in a period leading up to President Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972. However, if at a certain level Diaz seems to be railing against that regime and what it did to the country — and rather strongly too, given the occasional apocalyptic imagery (burning houses, cattle hacked to death, a treacherous rock with imputed healing powers) — it can also be seen as a rural drama of a community torn apart. The chief characters are Itang (Hazel Orencio) who cares for her developmentally challenged sister with little support or means to make money, a winemaker Tony (Roeder) with questionable motives, a tribal elder Sito (Perry Dizon) who despite everything wants to stick with his rice farming but also seems to be called upon to adjudicate community squabbles, and the priest Father Guido (Joel Saracho) who visits from time to time. Of course, over such a long running time, the interactions are developed in plenty of detail, and there are many other characters involved, but these are the chief ones, and it’s around them that the themes coalesce. The cinematography (also by the director) has a precise framing and its black-and-white palette is sometimes strikingly deployed. What drama exists is unforced and unravels slowly, the chief mysteries being what’s been going on around the village, and the arrival in town of first an itinerant woman selling goods, and then the military. It may not wow its viewers with big setpieces in the way of Hollywood thrillers, but over such an extended running time, it cannot help but linger in the mind for some time afterwards.


CREDITS || Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Perry Dizon, Hazel Orencio, Roeder, Joel Saracho | Length 338 minutes

Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Imax [3D], London, Monday 13 October 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Wild Bunch

In writing about the most recent film I’d seen of director Jean-Luc Godard’s (Film socialisme, 2010), I tried to convey a sense that assigning a star-rating to it was largely futile. Godard’s practice by this point is increasingly experimental and beyond the bounds of conventional film narrative, moreso even than in his 60s heyday. So those who’ve seen anything he’s done in the last ten years won’t be surprised by Adieu au langage, just as it’s likely that those who only know him from his 60s pop-cultural pomp will recoil in horror. There’s still some of the same playfulness at work, such as when the film’s title pops up periodically as “AH DIEUX / OH LANGAGE”, or the repeated footage of a cheerful dog (Roxy, the real star of the film), or the title card with the word “2D” in the background and “3D” looming out front. For indeed, this film is in 3D, but pushed to its limits as grainy handheld video footage butts up against recycled film clips and more studied compositions. What narrative there is features a couple who fight and bicker, both of them often in a state of partial undress, but it’s very much just telegraphed hints towards Godard’s themes at this point. There’s a two-part structure, “nature” and “metaphor”, and the mood (as the most recent Godard films have been) is strongly elegiac — a goodbye not just to words but to a filmic language too, perhaps. You may love it, you may hate it, but you will probably still feel provoked and more than a little confused.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno | Starring Héloise Godet | Length 70 minutes

Trudno byt’ bogom (Hard to Be a God, 2013)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Capricci Films

This last film by Russian director Aleksei German (or Guerman, or Gherman), best known for his 1984 film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin), was completed and released posthumously by his wife (and co-screenwriter) Svetlana Karmalita. German is a director with few credits over his long career, and this film too was made over a long period, starting as far back as 2000. It’s an adaptation of a science-fiction novel and indeed shares some elements with it, but the overwhelming sense of period setting is rather more mediæval — the film is set in an alternate universe which is stuck in something more akin to our own so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The stark monochromatic visual world of the film is dominated by mud. There’s mud, blood, faecal matter, sweat and piss everywhere, permeating every shot, utterly inescapable. So dense are these textures that it is in fact very difficult to even follow what the supposed plot is, such that reading the plot summary on Wikipedia made me realise I’d taken almost none of this in. This should probably be a damning excoriation, then, except that the film is such an effective evocation of a thoroughgoing worldview, one of fleshy corporeality in all its excesses. The shots are often carefully choreographed, in what seems like a parade of squalor, as a series of mud-caked faces pass by the camera, often in close-up and frequently breaking the fourth wall, like the camera is moving across a vast Bosch-like canvas, revealing yet further depredations of humanity in extremis. This does mean that what plot there is can be rather hard to decipher, save that the central character is one Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a nobleman who even amongst all the filth often manages to keep his white silk shirt spotless, who witnesses and comments on all the squalor he sees, as he searches for a mysterious character called Budakh. Beyond that, I really couldn’t say much, save that it is at its heart a spectacular visual work.


CREDITS || Director Aleksei German | Writers Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita (based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) | Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko | Starring Leonid Yarmolnik | Length 170 minutes

Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 8 October 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Jeonwonsa Film

When an acclaimed ‘world cinema’ director makes their English-language debut, it’s usually that familiar route, by filming in an English-speaking country, or getting some more bankable English-language star as the lead. Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo, however, may not perhaps be making the sort of films that attract interest from English-language producers, but he certainly isn’t the sort to do things in the customary way. Therefore, like last year’s Our Sunhi, what we have here is another entry in Hong’s increasingly familiar style, a sort of casual comedy of manners, still set in Korea, but with a Japanese protagonist (Ryo Kase as Mori) who doesn’t speak the local language, thus requiring most interactions to be in English. The setup is that Mori is in the country looking for an old flame, Kwon, but the framing story is her returning to find a bundle of letters from him, narrating his quest and his affair with a waitress called Youngsun (Moon So-ri). At some point near the start, Kwon drops the letters, so the scenes — flashbacks prompted by Mori’s words — come out of order. It’s all fairly slight as a setup, and indeed the running time is a very laconic 66 minutes, but there’s plenty of genuine humour, prompted by the second-language misunderstandings, the array of colourful smaller characters (including a hipster-ish Westerner), and the ersatz shooting style with its periodic zoom shots at moments of disquiet or confusion. Hong is certainly building up a persuasive body of work about feckless students and impulsive relationships, not to mention frequent scenes of drunkenness over restaurant tables, and it all serves to pass the time very agreeably.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo | Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol | Starring Ryo Kase, Moon So-ri | Length 66 minutes

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 23 September 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Lionsgate

John le Carré’s work was most recently brought to the screen in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), a film set in a world of muted colours, grey men in grey suits, smoking in drab offices. The palette of this new adaptation of a different Le Carré work updates itself to a more recent era, but in many ways there’s still the same sense of back-office drudgery. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles, unkemptly shuffles around, trying his best to blend into his urban surroundings, and constantly puffs on a cigarette. For, after all, this is a European thriller, set in the immigrant city of Hamburg, and as a nod to this, all the actors speak in German accents. They all do fine with it, but it’s more distracting than it probably needs to be. It doesn’t help too that the first hour flits around amongst a widening array of minor characters (including a criminally underused Daniel Brühl). All of them feed into the main story, but it takes its time to come together. When it does, it’s all rather anticlimactic, but you get the feeling that this is exactly what the filmmakers wanted, and Hoffman is a great actor for finding the best from this kind of setup. Appropriately for Anton Corbijn, a director who graduated to film via photography, it’s handsomely shot by French DoP Benoît Delhomme, all sleek lines and beautifully crisp, in many ways quite at odds with the characters. It’s no masterpiece perhaps, but it’s put together with care and acted with great resourcefulness, about characters who take their time to watch and observe. In that respect, it passes the time well.


CREDITS || Director Anton Corbijn | Writer Andrew Bovell (based on the novel by John le Carré) | Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme | Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe | Length 121 minutes