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 2013: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

The story behind the film version of Mary Poppins (1964) is the subject of a clever and charming new film about the clash between the English author Pamela ‘PL’ Travers and famed studio head Walt Disney.

When we first see the elder Travers (Emma Thompson) in 1961 she is running short of money, due to declining book sales, and her agent is urging her to accept the offer of a trip to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the mogul who has pursued the rights to the project for 20 years.

Having promised his two daughters to turn their favourite book into a movie, he is very keen on the idea of a big budget musical, granting her full creative input into the project, something he rarely did.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t realise that Travers actively hates the idea of a musical and resists almost all the suggestions from the creative team at the studio (a trio played by Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).

Gradually, through flashback, we discover the reasons for her reluctance may lie in her childhood, when she grew up in Australia with a loving but troubled father (Colin Farrell).

On the surface, this may appear like another slickly produced Disney feel-good comedy.

Whilst it is certainly all that, the film has its own interesting backstory.

The origins of the project lie in a 2002 TV documentary about Travers, which eventually led to Allison Owen coming on board as producer and eventually a script credited to Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel made 2011s ‘Black List’ (an unofficial survey of the years best unproduced scripts).

Then, in a strange reverse parallel to the film, the producers had to persuade the notoriously sensitive Disney that they would not trample on Walt’s legacy.

Eventually, the Mouse House relented to the first ever depiction of Walt Disney on screen and the finished film is mostly a charming surprise.

This is due in large part to Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, whose constant sparring provides a lot of the comedic sparks.

Thompson’s Travers is a perpetually defiant English woman who manages to hide a troubled past, whilst Hanks plays Disney as a loveable, charming uncle who’s drive and ambition are never far from the surface.

To an extent, the film glosses over the thornier aspects of each character: there is no mention of Travers’ unconventional personal life or the darker side of Disney. However, this is not entirely a bad thing as a warts-and-all drama would have been out of the question for a mainstream Disney release.

But the end result is not just a sanitised product but a rather sly portrait of a spanner in the Hollywood machine.

It is in essence an exploration of ‘creative differences’ — that well-worn phrase so beloved of Tinseltown to maintain the idea that idea that raging rows were amicable disagreements.

Some of the funniest scenes in Saving Mr. Banks come in the rehearsal room, where Travers is aghast at some of the songs and suggestions that are now so beloved by fans of the 1964 film.

These are executed with a light touch that is unfortunately not true of the extended flashback sequences which dwell a bit too clumsily on her childhood.

Make no mistake, this is a manipulative film and the hiring of Thomas Newman to score it only adds to its seductive power, with his lush hanging strings and signature instrumentation providing a lightness to the comedy and emotion to the drama.

As Walt Disney ultimately persuades P.L. Travers to accept the idea of a movie, we can see what a driven man he was, whilst at the LA premiere we can be moved at the author’s reaction to the film, even if that may not have been exactly as presented here.

She told the BBC in 1977 that she had ‘learned to live with the film,’ which is a hardly a ringing endorsement.

But then maybe this film, like the musical and the original book, is just another pleasurable fantasy.

Is pleasure such a bad thing?

Saving Mr. Banks closed the London Film Festival on Sunday 20th October

(It opens in the UK on November 26th)

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

LFF 2013: All is Lost

Robert Redford in All is Lost

One man adrift in the Indian Ocean is the premise for J.C. Chandor’s second film, a compelling tale of survival against the odds.

Opening with a brief, mournful monologue of an enigmatic sailor (Robert Redford), we hear a crash and are plunged back a few days to when his boat, the Virgina Jean, collided with a large metal cargo container.

We immediately see he is calm under pressure, scooping out water and doing the best he can under the circumstances: patching up the hole and trying to fix the wet radio.

Who is this man?

Cryptically listed in the credits as ‘Our Man’, perhaps he is a retired businessman who took up sailing. Maybe he is a professional sailor. Who knows?

Perhaps he represents any human being caught up in a desperate situation. The point of this film is to put us in there with him as he battles the elements.

Chandor and his crew slowly build the tension as we see all manner of obstacles: the leaking boat, storms and sharks.

Apart from a few words, it is free of dialogue, meaning there is a relentless focus on Redford and his situation.

This is surprisingly riveting, as previously routine acts such as putting up a sail or jumping into a raft become critically important.

But Chandor also has a few more tricks up his sleeve, most notably the casting of Redford. The movie star brings a grizzled gravitas to his part in what is his best work in years.

Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco brings an immediacy to the action on the boat, whilst visualising the beauty and danger of the oceanic environment.

Cleverly blending in location shooting with work in tanks and visual effects, it paints a hauntingly plausible scenario of what it is to be stuck at sea.

The sound design is outstanding and the large sound team, headed by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns, does sterling work in capturing the many different aural textures aboard the boat, life raft and ocean.

For writer-director J.C. Chandor this marks another remarkable film after his feature debut, Margin Call (2011).

That still remains the best feature about the financial crisis, and seems to be a world away from All is Lost.

But look closely and there may be parallel themes: crisis, dread and the aforementioned survival.

The building and firm in Margin Call which created their own financial problems could be a cousin to the boat in All is Lost – both are sinking fast.

With these two films Chandor has already created powerful parables for our time and the degree of skill and intelligence he applies to his work only makes me hungry for his future work.

All is Lost screened at the London Film Festival on Oct 12th, 13th and 14th

(It opens in the UK on December 26th)

> Official site, Facebook page and Twitter
> Reviews at Metacritic

LFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave

Chewitel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Based on the true life experiences of a free black man forced into slavery, Steve McQueen’s latest work is a stunning achievement.

The kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from 1841 until 1853 form the spine of this harrowing tale.

Northup endures a hellish odyssey as he is chained and sailed down to New Orleans, where he encounters the brutal truths of the slave trade.

One owner is relatively benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) but his psychotic assistant (Paul Dano) forces a sale, meaning Northup eventually ends up picking cotton for the ruthless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Amongst the other important people he encounters are a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who renames him ‘Platt’; a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o) and a sympathetic Canadian who may be able to help him (Brad Pitt).

From the opening scenes until the closing credits, fans of McQueen – and I remain a huge admirer of Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – will recognise his mastery of the visual and audio language of cinema.

But here, he and his collaborators are painting on a bigger canvas and the result is a stunning historical drama which is likely to be the definitive film on the subject for many years to come.

The production design by Adam Stockhausen and use of the Louisiana landscape gives everything we see a remarkable authenticity.

This in turn is aided by the superb ensemble cast who chew up John Ridley’s dialogue with relish.

At the centre of all this is an incredible performance from Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

We see him go through many episodes of mental and physical torment whilst maintaining his quiet dignity and hope.

It is a moving, subtle and rich performance which shows just what he is capable of with the right material.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbit continues his fruitful visual collaboration with McQueen and the beauty of the South is evoked alongside an air of dread and menace.

An agonising one-take sequence of a lynching is just one of many scenes that stay with you long after the film is over.

The icing on the cake is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, which at times resembles his orchestral work on Inception (2010) and The Thin Red Line (1998).

In addition the use of spiritual songs as the slaves work in the fields, adds another human touch, hinting at the defiance which would later spawn the Civil War and ultimately the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

There has long been a curious reluctance for mainstream US cinema to examine the dark chapter of slavery.

Aside from the stylised world of Django Unchained (2012), realistic films haven’t really been made about the subject.

Even this project took a British director and several production companies (River Road, New Regency, Plan B and Film 4) to eventually bring it to the screen.

Perhaps the oddest aspect is how this particular story was dormant for so many years.

Although it was published around the same time as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book remained a relative obscurity.

Maybe it was a reluctance to confront the ghosts of the past, or perhaps it just wasn’t good box office.

Intolerance still lies beneath the surface of American life, even in the age of a black US president, but this film is a powerful reminder of the cruelties of racism and the endurance of hope.

12 Years a Slave screened at the London Film Festival on Fri 18th October, Sat 19th and Sun 20th

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

LFF 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are in a more reflective mood for this beautifully crafted drama, set amongst the New York folk scene of the early 1960s.

Opening with folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performing in a Greenwich Village nightclub in January 1961, we soon discover he is a man struggling against the odds, in both his personal and working life.

His record label are useless in paying his meagre royalties, a hectoring ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) tells him she is pregnant (and she’s unsure who the father is), he frequently has to couch surf and also manages to lose a friend’s cat.

Despite all of these mishaps he plugs away in search of a bigger break, travelling to Chicago and back again in the winter, trying to convince people to take a chance on his music or a least help him out financially.

Wilfully subverting the traditions of the rags to riches music biopic, it focuses on a man whose existence appears to be an ever decreasing circle of fame and money.

Imagine if Bob Dylan hadn’t quite made it and you’ll soon get the idea.

If this seems like a gloomy tale, don’t forget that the Coens are past masters at mixing light and dark and this is along the lines of A Serious Man (2009) and Barton Fink (1991).

Like those movies, it features many funny scenes populated with memorable characters: two friendly academics (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett); a sister (Jeanine Serralles); singer and ex-partner Jean (Mulligan) who is now seeing a rival Jim (Justin Timberlake).

One of the most striking episodes – which may be related to the film’s title – is a road trip to Chicago where Davis hitches a lift with a silent driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a rotund jazz impresario (John Goodman), on the way to see a promoter (F. Murray Abraham).

This sequence, and the film as a whole, bears all the hallmarks of their very best work: immaculately shot by DP Bruno Delbonnel, it also features some stunning production design by Jess Gonchor, who recreates the era in meticulous detail.

At the centre of all this is an excellent performance by Oscar Isaac, who manages to capture the weary melancholy and outsider attitude of a struggling – and not particularly likeable – artist.

As for The Coens, this seems to be another of their more personal films where a Job-like protagonist is constantly struggling within a comically hostile universe.

But the aforementioned connection with Bob Dylan is an interesting one: like the legendary folk singer, they moved from Minnesota to New York and a scene near the end is perhaps more than just a tip of the hat to him.

As for the soundtrack, the Coens team up once again with executive music producer T Bone Burnett, who memorably collaborated on the O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) soundtrack, and the result is arguably as good.

One of the year’s most impressive films, it is a strong addition to the Coen’s canon and a memorable depiction of a struggling artist.

Inside Llewyn Davis screened at the London Film Festival on Tues 15th, Thurs 17th and Sat 19th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Listen to the soundtrack
> Reviews of Inside Llewyn Davis at Metacritic