A Monster Calls (2016)

With just two films to his credit – The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012) – Bayona has established himself as one of most interesting filmmakers to emerge from Spain in recent years.

So this project, based on a novel by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd) was much anticipated.

It explores a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggling to deal with a dying mother (Felicity Jones) and a vision of a monster he sees at night (Liam Neeson) who tells him tales.

A lot rests on MacDougall’s shoulders here, being centre stage throughout, and he delivers a remarkable performance, convincing in conveying a number of emotions, spanning anger, grief, frustration and terror.

Indeed, the most affecting aspect of the film is the sense of human confusion at the brutal events life can throw our way and how complicated it can be to resolve them.

The interplay between him and his loving mother (Jones), absent father (Toby Kebbel) and strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is central to why most of the audience will be moved at the end.

Yet while the human plane is handled with a sensitive and subtle touch, the monster’s – rendered by a multitude of visual effects – is somehow less impactful. A curious case of more ending up as less, with a CGI character leaving too little to the imagination.

Of more note is the animated fairytale sequences, which the monster narrates. Splendidly animated by Adrián García, they explore the Prince Charming myth, medieval faith, and “an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen”.

The flaws don’t derail A Monster Calls, which still deserves plaudits for boldly confronting dark issues inside the framework of a ‘family fantasy’.

A Monster Calls screened at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on January 6th

> Official site for the film
> London Film Festival

The London Film Festival 2015

This year’s London film festival featured many high profile films primed for the awards season, yet many other delights were to be found.


The opening night gala Suffragette (Dir. Sarah Gavron) was a solid portrayal of how English activists fought to secure votes for women. Carey Mulligan was impressive in the lead role of Maud Watts, but there was all too brief cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and the direction by Sarah Gavron from Abi Morgan’s script felt a bit pre-packaged at times.

The effective tension of the climatic scene at Epsom Derby was somewhat lacking throughout the rest of the film. Although the core issues of this film are still undeniably vital, it doesn’t ultimately do them justice and feels too much like an undercooked BBC television drama.


A superior issue-based film was Trumbo (Dir. Jay Roach) which managed to deftly combine history and politics of a later era, namely the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters during the 1950s through the figure of Dalton Trumbo. In the title role Bryan Cranston does an excellent job, bringing charisma and a surprisingly comic edge, given the travails Trumbo and his family had to endure during the Hollywood blacklist period.

It also takes risks (which mostly pay off) by showing iconic Hollywood figures of the period, like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), which along with Jay Roach’s intelligent direction make this one to look out for.


One might suspect a documentary about British comedian Russell Brand’s rise to fame might be a PR exercise, but Brand: A Second Coming (Dir. Ondi Timoner) was anything but. Charting his early life and later rise to fame, from UK TV shows to moderate Hollywood success, radio infamy with the Sachsgate affair and later YouTube political activism, this is a fairly riotous affair, skilfully weaving news footage and more intimate interviews.

Surprisingly, Brand has distanced himself from the project, saying he was uncomfortable watching it when it premiered at SXSW in March. Perhaps it was the raw depictions of his personal life that he didn’t like. But this is far from a hatchet job, rather a skilful portrait of a media figure, balancing his somewhat  with a raw honesty and a wry wit.


Since the advent of digital cinema and smartphones, the possibility of shooting an entire feature film with a camera in your pocket has felt tantalising close for indie directors. That dream now seems to have fully arrived with Tangerine (Dir. Sean S. Baker), a low-budget film shot on iPhone 5S, with special lens adapters. It is the tale of a transgender prostitute (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just out of jail, who discovers from her friend (Mya Taylor), that her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransone) has cheated on her.

The resulting film is an energetic romp around nocturnal LA which uses the limitations of its budget wisely to create a film which made a splash at Sundance and the festival circuit. Performances are good all around and actually helped by the use of non-professional actors, which lend it a lot of charm and authenticity. The next challenge for director Baker is whether he will be able to repeat this winning formula on a bigger canvas.


One of the most extraordinary films of the year, perhaps the decade, was Beasts of No Nation (Dir. Cary Fukunaga) – a devastating portrait of child soldiers in war-torn West Africa. It follows the young Agu (an astonishing Abraham Attah) on his journey from innocent boyhood to gradual brutalisation as he comes under the sinister influence of a self-styled ‘Commandant’ (a brilliant Idris Elba).

Fukunaga proved his directing chops on Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2014), this is on another level in terms of content and style. Shot with a stark realism – aside from a few memorable deviations – this is a highly absorbing piece, layered with stunning technical work and horrific sequences shot on location in Ghana. Although it bears some similarity to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), this is essential viewing.


There can often be interesting talks and events at the London Film Festival and for me the highlight this year was Screen Talk: Christopher Nolan & Tacita Dean & 35mm: Quay Brothers Meet…. A two-part event at NFT1, the first section was a lengthy discussion about the merits of shooting and projecting on celluloid film (especially 35mm and 70mm). As you might expect, Nolan gave a passionate and convincing case for the format he loves, going into detail about the benefits of shooting on film.

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Dean was equally effusive, as an artist who has worked in film her whole life. The panel could have benefitted with a digital advocate, perhaps Tangerine’s director Sean S. Baker, but nonetheless was an absorbing experience. The second part, three avant-garde shorts by the Quay Brothers introduced by Nolan, was more curious. One in particular sounded like a 10 minute loop of a helicopter exploding.


Sometimes it is easy to forget the simple pleasures of a solid, well-made documentary and Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dir. Kent Jones) didn’t disappoint on this score. An admirable compression of the lengthy interviews the two iconic directors conducted in 1962, it also managed to include sterling contributions from contemporary directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin, and Olivier Assayas.

A feast for cinephiles, both the choice of archive material and editing were all excellent. It would be fascinating if Jones could somehow make a series for pay TV or VOD platform that utilised the full interviews. Although the original interviews go into considerable depth about Hitchcock, the choice of questions by Truffaut are also revealing about the French director, who had only made three films at this point in his career.


The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) prompted a mini-boom of graceful martial arts films (also known as ‘wuxia’) such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is part of this tradition of filmmaking, telling the story of a female assassin (an excellent Shu Qi) recruited to kill a key member of a rival dynasty.

It subverts the genre by introducing a slower pace with longer edits, minimal dialogue and a square frame (1:37 aspect ratio) which often makes characters look surrounded by the landscapes of 8th century China. A gorgeous film to sink in to with stunning costume work and production design, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has created a sensory feast. A polite warning: ignore anyone who says this film is ‘boring’ or ’too slow’. It richly deserves the prizes and praise it has collected since premiering at Cannes in May.


Although partly inspired by grim real life events Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a brave and incredibly moving film. Novelist Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel which explores the kidnap and imprisonment of a woman (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay). Potentially difficult themes are sensitively handled, with director and writer providing a solid platform for the main actors to do some terrific work.

Larson and Tremblay are both extraordinary, bringing a range of emotions to their roles: the former builds on her excellent work in Short Term 12 (2013) whilst the latter gives one of the best child performances in years. It is amazing how several sequences wring out such tension in enclosed spaces and seemingly regular locations. A tough watch, but a rich and rewarding one that shows that smaller, independent films can still pack a real punch.


Among the film-related documentaries to show at the festival was Listen to Me Marlon (Dir. Stevan Riley), a startling portrait of acting icon Marlon Brando. In form and content this film is impeccable, brilliantly blending Brando’s own personal audio tapes with archive footage and stylish recreation of locations. For those who only remember Brando as the sad, reclusive figure of his later years, this film is essential viewing.

Like a cinematic time machine we are transported back: to his early life in Nebraska (an abusive, alcoholic father but a loving, sensitive mother; then on to New York, where he came under the tutelage  of famed acting coach Stella Adler; and the his stage and film breakthrough, with roles like The Wild One (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) and later on The Godfather (1972). His seismic impact on acting and culture is well conveyed and the later tragedies of his life are handled with sensitivity and tact.


In a world of overblown franchises and dark arthouse material, audiences hungry for more elegant fare are often left feeling empty handed. However, the virtues of simplicity are evident in  Brooklyn (Dir. John Crowley), a skilfully crafted tale of immigration and love. Set amidst the contrasting landscapes 1950s rural Ireland and the New York borough of Brooklyn, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley powerfully bring to life Colm Toibin’s novel with care and affection.

This is aided by some convincing production design by François Séguin on a relatively low budget and the excellent costume work by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. But the real heart of this film is the acting, most notably Saoirse Ronan in the lead role as a woman torn between two lives but, also from Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Emory Cohen. A polished jewel of a film and one of the highlights of the year, let alone the festival.


Horror is a genre that has badly lost its way in recent times, from the endless slew of torture-porn to more smarty pants hipster work. But a new and striking wakeup call was The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers), a genuinely creepy period piece set in 17th century Puritan New England. When a family is banished from their home village they are forced to survive in a sinister wood where mysterious things start to happen.

Although there are shades of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), this retains its own distinctive flavour. What makes this debut from Eggers so interesting is that it eschews obvious cliche and instead uses suggestion, soundscapes and realistic touches. Grounded performances and excellent location shooting also made this another festival highlight.


An interesting hybrid of drama and comedy Youth (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino) is another fine example of the the kind of delicious cinematic banquet served up by Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. The setting is a Swiss health spa, where a famous conductor (Michael Caine) contemplates his life, amongst a variety of fellow guests (including Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz) and the backdrop of the Swiss Alps.

In a way this is a departure for the director, with none of the masterful intensity of Il Divo (2008) or the boozy magnificence of The Great Beauty (2013). However, the more muted and elegiac tone here is offset by some terrific performances (Caine in his best role for years) and the usual technical excellence Sorrentino and his crew provide. Whilst the film may divide audiences, alienating those who want a quick hit, this felt like something that may grow in stature as the years go by.


Stop frame animation got a new jolt with Anomalisa (Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson), screened in this year’s surprise slot. The problem in describing this marvellously inventive work is that there are few comparisons to turn to. As someone who generally agrees with the ‘Every thing is a remix’ idea (i.e. that no film can be 100% original, this stretched that notion to breaking point. The story depicts the stay of a successful but melancholy writer (voiced by David Thewlis) at a motel in Cincinnati, where he meets a woman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he connects with.

From the first frame to the last, one is struck with the craft and inventiveness on display. The dialogue, voice acting (including one treat I won’t spoil) and overall look of the film is stunning. In its own way this is ambitious as Kaufman’s last film – Synecdoche, New York (2008) – but perhaps Duke Johnson has helped add a slightly lighter tone to proceedings. There are scenes in this film which are as funny and truthful as any in recent memory.


Sometimes a film can be so audacious in content and style that it leaves you mentally exhausted. This one-take film Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper) is just that, a heist movie which gloriously upends the genre. When a young woman (Laia Costa) is approached by a group of men as she leaves a Berlin nightclub, she doesn’t realise the long and eventful night ahead of her. Although, the narrative takes time to build (and hinges on on some implausible moments) it is well worth the ride.

Although there is no conventional editing, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and director Schipper constructed a fluid shooting style that not only works like editing but also feels true to the story. It goes without saying the actors and crew all contribute to this exercise, but Costa here is the standout. A lot rests on her shoulders as the main character and she delivers with flying colours in what is a remarkable achievement.


The closing night gala Steve Jobs (Dir. Danny Boyle) was a mixed bag – a technically impressive work, undermined by a  misguided and flawed screenplay. It presents the life of Steve Jobs in three acts: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT system in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Each segment in shot on different formats (16mm, 35mm and digital), which gives them a distinctive flavour, and a neat way of showing how technology progresses.

However, Aaron Sorkin’s script is the elephant in the room. Not only does it have a highly selective approach to Jobs personal and professional life but is so littered with outright inaccuracies that the whole enterprise comes crashing down. The lead actors all do their best but sequences involving Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen border on the utterly ludicrous and there is no mention of cancer (the disease which killed Jobs) or Apple’s most iconic product, the iPhone. Of course screenwriters must compress, but here Sorkin took several liberties and in doing so wasted a golden opportunity, because the material he omitted was much more interesting.


> Official website for the 2015 London Film Festival
> Past winners of the Sutherland Trophy at Wikipedia

LFF 2014: Mr. Turner

Director Mike Leigh brings the life of Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner to the screen, with the help of a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope.

Covering the last 25 years of his life, we begin with Turner (Spall) at the peak of his career, a somewhat eccentric but brilliant landscape painter who commands respect among his peers, despite (in their eyes) coming from a more modest background.

The narrative also delves into various relationships over this period: his doting elderly father (Paul Jesson); housekeeper and lover (Dorothy Atkinson); an estranged partner (Ruth Sheen), with whom he has fathered children; a landlady he meets on a trip to Margate (Marion Bailey); Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) and art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Whilst all of those actors shine in supporting roles, it is Spall who dominates with a performance of rare quality. The physical movement, intensity, and rough edges he brings to Turner are all a delight to watch, but he also manages to use silence to express the painter’s emotional distance from people.

The slow-burn episodic narrative is effective in immersing us into his world. Details of his life are presented, but they always seem to be in the shadow of his artistic obsessions.

The technical presentation of these is remarkable, as Leigh and his long time cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a visual look, which uses Turner’s work as a reference point. Added to this, the production design by Suzie Davies, art direction by Dan Taylor and costumes by Jacqueline Durran are all impeccable.

The choice to use the digital ARRI Alexa camera was an interesting one, as the film looks very analogue, but perhaps shooting on digital offered greater latitude in capturing colour and light. After all, embracing new methods in order to capture light is essentially what Turner was doing in his later period.

Whether you are an expert or being introduced to Turner, this is one of the best recreations of an artist, and ranks alongside Pollock (2000), Le Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Van Gogh (1991) as one of the best depictions of a painter at work.

Some art historians, even one who actually advised on the film, have quibbled about details, but the wider thematic point seems to be the conflicts a mature artist has to face when he has already broken through and achieved a great deal of respect.

The choice to eschew the ‘early years’ was a wise one, and perhaps the result of Leigh’s own introspective thoughts as an established filmmaker who still feels like an outsider in an industry filled with social and financial restraints.

Questions like: ‘What have I really achieved?’, ’What is my art worth?’ and ‘Why do I do what I do?’ seem to be in the air, both for the director and subject of this film.

Leigh has always carved out his own identity in an industry susceptible to conformity and now at 71, he is regarded as one of the great British directors.

In Mr. Turner one can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of financiers on the credits seem to indicate his determination to get it made) and a certain satisfaction in going his own way.

The result is also deeply satisfying, a richly layered portrait of an artist that ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best work.

Mr. Turner screened at the London Film Festival on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October 2014

> Mr. Turner at the LFF
> Watch the official trailer
>
 Find out more about J.M.W. Turner at Wikipedia

LFF 2014: ’71

A riveting portrayal of a young British soldier on the run in early 70s Belfast provides the backdrop for this stunning feature debut from director Yann Demange.

When a young English soldier (Jack O’Connell) is sent to the streets of Belfast in 1971, he is quickly plunged into a nightmarish fight for survival in a city that has erupted along sectarian lines.

Left wounded and stranded by his regiment, he encounters various characters: a young streetwise boy (Corey McKinley); a Catholic (Richard Dormer) and his daughter (Charlie Murphy); two contrasting IRA members (David Wilmot and Killian Scott); and some shady British army agents (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson).

After some preliminary scenes which sketch out the protagonist in his home town, we are soon introduced to the bitter and dangerous streets of the time.

Straightaway the film does something clever, with DP Tat Radcliffe employing a grainy 16mm newsreel look for the daytime sequences and gradually shifting towards a digital palette for the night, which allows us to see more of the unfolding horror.

It is also blessed with some terrific widescreen framing, reminiscent of John Carpenter at his best, which elevate the film far above the usual bland visuals that often plague British films like a virus.

Gregory Burke’s screenplay intelligently weaves a story of survival within a powerful, almost one act structure, with some dark underlying issues which still resonate today.

The cast who help bring this to life are equally impressive: O’Connell in the demanding lead role will inevitably take the lions-share of the plaudits, but supporting cast also shine in what could easily be cliched roles.

Demange, French-born but British-based, this is an audacious leap from TV into feature films and comparisons will inevitably be made with Paul Greengrass, who was also propelled into the mainstream after his TV movie Bloody Sunday (2002).

You could also make career comparisons with director Steve McQueen, whose feature career launchpad was with Hunger (2008), a searing drama set around the Maze prison in the early 80s.

It is interesting that such difficult and controversial events have provided fertile ground for more recent film-makers, when it had previously proved such a minefield, with disastrous films like A Prayer for the Dying (1987) and The Devil’s Own (1997) being prime examples. But over time, things changed.

Gone were the tone deaf, ham-fisted efforts and in their place were works of greater style and substance: Greengrass used a documentary style to depict the seismic events of January 30th, 1972; McQueen realised the horrors of the 1981 hunger strike with a chilling simplicity.

Now Demange has added to this modern tradition, with a film that functions as a gripping thriller but also is an unsentimental reminder of the senseless brutality of warfare.

’71 played at the London Film Festival on October 9th and 10th

> LFF official site
> Facebook page for ’71
> Read more about The Troubles at Wikipedia

LFF 2014: The Imitation Game

The story of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing is brought to the big screen with class, compassion and a standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based largely on Andrew Hodge’s biography, it employs a well-worn but effective flashback device which sees the maths genius (Cumberbatch) relate his story to a police officer in the early 1950s.

As the story unfolds we see how a seemingly odd bachelor in Manchester, with a fondness for electronics projects, was in the previous decades a maths prodigy who would become crucial in defeating the Nazis, and in the process help lay the blueprint for modern computing.

The real life events that inspired this version are both extraordinary and complex, but screenwriter Graham Moore has wisely woven them in to his nicely honed screenplay, with only a handful of overwritten moments (most of them involving his childhood).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to proceedings, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work with how it affected those around him.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which results in a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

In key supporting roles, it is Mark Strong who stands out as a shadowy MI6 agent, bringing an enigmatic gravitas to his role. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as fellow codebreakers, also do solid work in fairly underwritten parts.

This is a far superior film to Enigma (2001), the Michael Apted film which covered the same story with a somewhat hackneyed thriller premise, which seemed to turn away from the goldmine of the central protagonist.

Perhaps the shrewdest thing this film does is to embrace the puzzle of Turing himself: war hero; rebel; math genius; autistic savant; and finally a victim of the British society he had helped to save.

That the final film works as well as it does, is in large part down to Cumberbatch’s performance.

Although at times it borders on being a little too mannered, it nonetheless feels like we’ve been in the presence of Turing for the duration of the film.

Convincing whether he is answering back to his superiors or colleagues, fragile when worrying about his emotions, and belligerent that his vision will work no matter what, it is the range of emotions on display that make this his best screen performance to date.

Ultimately, the wider story is a bittersweet one, with a war hero unable to see what profound impacts his ideas had on World War II and the development of the computer and the field of artificial intelligence.

The Imitation Game does not seek to sugarcoat Turing’s legacy, nor is it an ‘issue film’ about Britain of the time.

Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of both the man and the times, whilst wrapping it up in a accessible narrative that acknowledges the profound impact he had on the world.

The Imitation Game opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday 8th October

> Official website
> Find out more about Alan Turing on Wikipedia