LFF 2010: Tabloid

A former beauty queen, a Mormon missionary, British tabloid newspapers and cloned dogs all provide Errol Morris with some riotous material for his latest documentary, which ranks alongside his finest work.

After two serious documentaries about figures involved in US military conflicts – The Fog of War (2003) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008) – Morris has returned to the quirkier territory of earlier work like Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981).

In the late 1970s when a former Miss Wyoming named Joyce McKinney, caused a tabloid scandal in England by allegedly kidnapping a Mormon missionary in Surrey and ‘enslaving’ him in an episode which was soon dubbed the ‘Mormon sex in chains case’.

The resulting media feeding frenzy increased when she was arrested and imprisoned only to later escape to the US, where she surfaced many years later in a very different story.

Morris explores this bizarre tale through extended interviews with McKinney herself; Peter Tory, a journalist for the Daily Express close to the story; Kent Gavin, a photographer for the rival Daily Mirror who had a different take on McKinney; Troy Williams, a Mormon activist who provides religious context; and a Korean scientist who clones dogs.

Using his trademark Interrotron camera, which creates the effect of the subject talking at the audience, Morris elicits revealing testimonies which relay events like a compulsive, page-turning novel.

He certainly struck gold in finding McKinney: energetic, talkative and at times seemingly delusional, she has a turn of phrase which is infectious, ridiculous and hilarious.

Providing a nice counterbalance is Tory, who gives a more sober account but also has an intriguing part in the story he reported on.

Not only was he MacKinney’s unofficial ‘minder’ for the Express, accompanying her to a film premiere for publicity, but his recollections are not always what they seem.

Another perspective is provided by Gavin, who as a deadly rival to Tory, embodies the tenacity of old-school Fleet Street veterans. His relish and glee at uncovering certain photos is as revealing as McKinney’s delusions.

But tabloid is more than just the hilarious recollections of a juicy story: it is a shrewd dissection of tabloid culture itself through its use of inventive graphics and judicious editing.

One dazzling technique used throughout is the accentuation of the interviewee’s words with on screen graphics, highlighting the way in which tabloids interpret language for effect.

Morris also uses graphics to visualize the story, as archive tabloid coverage comes alive with headlines, pull-quotes and cartoons cleverly synced with the words we hear from the people on screen.

Seeing the fonts of various English newspapers flash up on screen conveys the hysterical, funny and often cruel nature of how tabloids present information to the world.

It nails the peculiarities of the British tabloid press: the screaming headlines, bitter rivalries, fascination with smut and the overblown, self-important nature of their coverage are all deftly conveyed.

The editing by Grant Surmi is also outstanding and the film flows with consummate ease between the different interviews, often punctuating them with marvellous audio and visual flourishes.

On a deeper level Tabloid is about how stories and events are remembered.

There are different points of view on MacKinney’s story and the film is fascinating precisely because it leaves room for our own conclusions.

Ironically, this is the polar opposite of tabloid coverage which seeks to paint things in black and white, and provide a definitive viewpoint on even the most contentious of matters.

Morris takes quite the opposite approach and by probing the details of this odd case, appears to suggest that the attention seeking subject reflects the very culture that showcased her.

But Tabloid is by no means a cerebral, academic exercise.

One of the most purely entertaining documentaries in years, it makes you think whilst you laugh and is another reminder of why Errol Morris remains one of the best filmmakers working today.

Tabloid played at the London Film Festival over the weekend but a UK release date is TBC

> Tabloid at the IMDb
> Official website of Errol Morris
> Reviews of Tabloid via MUBi
> Tabloid at the LFF

LFF 2010: Another Year

Mike Leigh’s latest film is a pitch-perfect ensemble piece revolving around the friends and family of an ageing married couple.

Nearing retirement age, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) live in North London and seem genuinely happy as they work, tend to their allotment and play host to an array of characters who come in and out of their lives.

These include: their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who is still close to them; Mary (Lesley Manville), a needy divorcee with relationship problems; Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend with a taste for food and alcohol; and Katie (Karina Fernandez), a therapist who forms a relationship with Joe.

Each section of the film is titled with a season and as they change, so do the characters to varying degrees as they deal with the stuff of life: love, death, humour, despair, loneliness and friendship.

It follows the familiar Leigh formula of finding drama in lives of distinctive characters in a particular setting and, like his previous films, relies heavily on the actors to make it work.

The good news is that nearly all the cast bring something distinctive to their roles, creating a rich tapestry of emotions and memorable situations.

Broadbent and Sheen play their couple with just the right amount of affection and tenderness. Their deep love for one another, shown through subtle body language and speech is so good you might not notice it at first.

Lesley Manville is especially outstanding in what initially might seem a clichéd role. But as the film progresses, she conveys the piercing frustrations of her life whilst also managing to be funny, annoying and sympathetic, in what is one of the performances of the year.

The other supporting actors also fill into their roles with an ease which is often a hallmark of a Leigh ensemble and there are also small but perfectly formed turns from Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis.

Not every character is minutely dissected, nor has their conflicts neatly resolved, but we get to observe them at close quarters as time gradually changes their lives, for the better or worse.

Small talk is present in much of the dialogue, but Leigh finds a way to make it revealing, as people either gradually get to the point or reveal their true feelings with a look or gesture.

This means that everyday locations are a theatre of emotions: a dinner featuring Joe’s new girlfriend is awkwardly hilarious; a living room after a funeral becomes a sombre venue for old family tensions; an allotment in the rain seems like the happiest place for a family to be.

Mainstream cinema can be a medium prone to the obvious and bombastic, but the subtle drama Leigh shapes in this film is a master class in exploring the emotional temperatures of everyday life.

These qualities are mirrored in the quietly excellent technical contributions, which feature Dick Pope’s lean and elegant cinematography and Simon Beresford’s convincing but unobtrusive production design.

After coming out of Another Year, it was hard not to think of Secrets and Lies (1995), which, in an already acclaimed career, was arguably Leigh’s creative and commercial high point to date.

The humanity and sheer pleasure of that film is mirrored in his latest, a wonderfully executed exploration of the ups and downs of everyday existence.

Another Year screens at the London Film Festival this week (Mon 18th-Weds 20th) and opens in the UK on Friday 5th November

> Another Year at the LFF
> Another Year at the IMDb
> Reviews from Cannes via MUBi
> Find out more about Mike Leigh at Wikipedia and Screenonline

LFF 2010: Never Let Me Go

The film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is an exquisitely crafted but emotionally distant meditation on mortality.

Set in an alternate timeline of England where science has cured many illnesses, a young woman named Kathy (Carey Mulligan) looks back on her childhood when she grew up with two friends, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield).

As youngsters they attend Hailsham, a boarding school sheltering them from the outside world, and as they grow older it slowly dawns on them that they have been excluded from mainstream society for a reason.

From the opening credits director Mark Romanek establishes a carefully controlled mood, and for the early section we see younger actors (Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe) convincingly play the three leads as children in 1978.

Hints are dropped fairly early on about the mysterious nature of their youth, alongside a developing love triangle as Kathy realises Tommy, who she bonded with from an early age, is in love with Ruth.

The recreation of an ageing English boarding school is thoroughly convincing, with some first rate costume and production design, and the transition to their teenage years in the mid-1980s is fairly seamless.

Romanek handles the material with considerable skill and technically the film is exquisitely made: Adam Kimmel’s widescreen cinematography and Barney Pilling’s editing all help to create a rich mood of sadness and regret.

As an American, Romanek was an interesting choice to direct the material and he gives it a crisp sense of movement, far removed from the ponderous nature of many British productions which can drearily linger on their period settings.

The alternative version of England is depicted with unusual precision.

Look carefully at the school, the countryside, the towns and vehicles and you will notice a piercing eye for detail, which enhances the realism despite the sci-fi backdrop.

There are also some memorable images: the creepy beauty of Hailsham, the wintry isolation of an empty beach and the clinical interiors of a hospital are just some of the startling visual backdrops.

Added to this is a standout central performance from Carey Mulligan. Her work here is on par with her lauded turn in ‘An Education’, demonstrating a rich vein of emotion along with a captivating screen presence.

As the film moves in to the 1990s, she depicts a maturity beyond her years, perfectly suited to the material, and also delivers a potentially tricky voiceover with just the right nuance and feeling.

But there is a paradox at the heart of Never Let Me Go, which is that for all its impeccable craft, there is an emotional distance to the audience.

Alex Garland’s screenplay, which otherwise does a fine job at extracting and shaping the ideas of the book, shows its hand early on, so there is a sense of inevitability to the story.

Whilst this emphasises the notion of fate, it also means the revelations are blunted and end up lacking an intellectual and emotional force.

This is typified in Rachel Portman’s lush orchestral score which despite containing beautiful flourishes, is deployed too heavily throughout, and ends up blending into a collective sound of despair.

Added to this, there is no escaping that the material is an emotional downer: a reminder of the transience of existence, it goes against the feel-good optimism of many mainstream releases.

This is actually to its credit, as precious few films even attempt this, but it may be a reason audiences either don’t respond or simply stay away.

Going in to the awards season this was being touted as a major contender and, after dividng critics at Telluride and Toronto, has died an early box office death in the US with its platform release evaporating into thin air.

In the language of the film it has already ‘completed’ and this is disappointing, as films displaying this level of craft deserve a better fate.

I suspect some US audiences were instinctively repelled by the way in which the characters ‘accept’ their condition.

This is of course an underlying theme of the novel and film – that human beings resign themselves to social conditioning – but it clearly hasn’t caught the mood, even amongst more discerning audiences.

Certainly a film about death, which focuses on the underlying cruelty of a society dedicated to the greater good, is a tricky sell in an era of recession and general gloom.

Time may be kinder to Never Let Me Go.

Despite certain shortcomings, it is a worthy adaptation which conveys the profound sadness of the novel and marks a welcome return for Romanek to the director’s chair.

Never Let Me Go opened the London Film Festival tonight and opens in the UK on Friday 21st January 2011

> Official site
> Reviews of Never Let Me Go at Metacritic and MUBi
> Find out more about Mark Romanek and Kazuo Ishiguro at Wikipedia
> Never Let Me Go at the LFF

London Film Festival 2010 Lineup Announced

The full lineup for this year’s London Film Festival has been announced and the selection of films will feature feuding ballerinas, an unconventional speech therapist and an immoveable boulder.

It will open on October 13th with Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go and close just over two weeks later with Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, but in between will also feature Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Palme D’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Here are some key films to look out for:

  • Never Let Me Go (Dir. Mark Romanek): The opening night film is a story of love and loss based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel starring Caerry Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley. Already heavily tipped as an Oscar contender.
  • The King’s Speech (Dir. Tom Hooper): The story of King George VI (Colin Firth) and an unconventional Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) who helped him overcome his stutter. Was very well recieved at Telluride recently and is already regarded as a strong Oscar contender.
  • Another Year (Dir. Mike Leigh): An ensemble drama set in London exploring the lives of a married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and their various familes and friends. Got a lot of critical buzz in Cannes back in May.
  • Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky): A psychological thriller set in the world of the New York Ballet about a dancer (Natalie Portman) who struggles to meet the demands placed upon her. Co-starring Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassell and Mila Kunis, it premièred at the Venice film festival recently and is likely to get some awards recognition.
  • Biutiful (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu): A contemporary drama set in Barcelona’s underworld about a single father of two struggling to survive.
  • 127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle): The closing night film is a drama based on the real life story of mountain climber Aaron Rawlston (James Franco) who became trapped by a boulder in Utah back in 2003. It screened at Telluride recently and is expected to be an awards season contender.
  • The Kids Are Alright (Dir. Lisa Cholodenko): Family drama about a couple (Julianne Moore and Anette Benning) whose life becomes more complicated when their adopted children try to find their bilogical father (Mark Ruffalo).
  • Miral (Dir. Julian Schnabel): A drama examining one woman’s experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Of Gods and Men (Dir. Xavier Beauvois): Lambert Wilson and Michel Lonsdale star in this in this drama set in a monastery in North Africa.
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul): The unexpected winner of this year’s Palme d’Or involves a gathering of humans and ghosts around a dying man.

Other films of note looking out for in the Films on the Square section include:

  • The American (Dir. Anton Corbijn) which stars George Clooney as an enigmatic assassin in Italy
  • Carlos (Dir. Olivier Assayas): An epic biopic of infamous Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Dir. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden) A coming of age tale about a troubled Brooklyn teenager (Keir Gilchrist)
  • Let Me In (Dir. Matt Reeves): The US remake of Let The Right One In, about the relationship between a young boy and a vampire;
  • Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris): The latest documentary from Morris is the story of Joyce McKinney and the case of the ‘manacled Mormon’.

Following last year’s inaugural ceremony, the BFI London Film Festival Awards return for a second year to celebrate the finest films within the festival.

This year the awards will take place on October 27th at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, before a panel of judges representing the international film community. (The full Awards shortlist will be announced on September 28th).

For a full list of films showing at the festival, including the New British CinemaFrench RevolutionsCinema EuropaWorld CinemaExperimentaTreasures from the Archives and Short Cuts and Animation strands go to the official LFF website.

You can download a calendar of events at the festival as a PDF file here.

The 54th BFI London Film Festival runs from October 13th until October 28th

> Official LFF site
> Coverage from last year’s festival