Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 5

Today there was a Time Out gala screening of Hunger which is one of the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival. 

It is the debut feature film of artist Steve McQueen and explores the 1981 IRA hunger strike, one of the key episodes of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

This involved a group of IRA prisoners in the Maze led by Bobby Sands go on a protracted hunger strike in order to pressurize the British government to recognise them as political prisoners.

What is interesting is the way the film explores the hellish physical and mental toll this took on the prisoners and guards at the Maze prison.

I didn’t feel I was being lectured to about the wider politics of the Troubles, but rather being forced to confront the sharp end of the conflict as well as the lengths humans will go to in extreme situations.

There are some remarkable performances: Michael Fassbender as the stubborn and  obsessive Sands, Liam Cunningham as the priest who questions the strike and Stuart Graham as a prison guard are just some of the excellent performers who don’t sound a single false note.

Although when it screened at Cannes earlier this year, there were the usual dumb headlines about a ‘controversial’ film about the IRA, but you shouldn’t be put off by the historical context.

Although the modern history of Northern Ireland has inspired some woefully misguided films (A Prayer for the Dying and The Devil’s Own spring to mind), what’s interesting is that McQueen manages to takes inside the insane brutality of the conflict by focusing on the particular situation and environment inside the Maze.

Some sequences are tough to watch: the prison guards getting rough with inmates, the prisoners smearing their walls with excrement or two people simply debating the reasons for the hunger strike, but all are handled with an incredible amount of finesse and skill.

One scene in particular is stomach turning, but somehow all the more effective for showing the depths to which some sank during this period. 

It is not a partisan film, although it is fair to say that the focus is more on Sands, particularly the coda of the film which I think some have misread.

Within the confines of the prison – and some sequences outside – the chilling atmosphere of the time is brilliantly evoked through some superb widescreen lensing by Sean Bobbit.

The sound too is well crafted, with little in the way of a conventional score and a lot of effects coming from the prisoners themselves, particularly the banging from inside the cells which at certain points is overwhelming.

Despite the potential pitfalls that surround any film about The Troubles, this is an audacious work more in the tradition of Alan Clarke’s Elephant or Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday – boldly intelligent examinations of a dark and complex conflict.  

I wrote about Hunger in greater detail after I saw it last month and since then I have heard McQueen express his sense of being an outsider coming into the British film industry from the art world.

On The Guardian’s Film Weekly podcast recently he told Jason Solomons:

I just wish there was more …passion with the film world here. 

Maybe people are too inhibited.

Maybe because I’m an outsider who came inside and I see how the house is operating and I think ‘bloody hell’.  

On the evidence of this film we need more passionate outsiders like Steve McQueen, because this is a stunning piece of work that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Check out the trailer here:


Hunger opens in UK cinemas on October 31st

> Hunger at the LFF
> Official UK site for Hunger
> Steve McQueen at the IMDb

Cinema London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 4

Today the London Film Festival saw a gala screening of Religulous, a documentary featuring US comedian Bill Maher that explores the issue of religious faith.

Directed by Larry Charles (who also directed Borat) it is a riotous and frequently hilarious examination of why human beings believe in stories which cannot be proven, ideas that are often cruel and organisations that are usually corrupt.

The end result is a cross between Michael Moore, Borat and Maher’s own HBO show Real Time in that it is a guerilla documentary that poses smart and often humourous questions at why people believe what they believe.

Using the major faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as the foundation of the film, it also visits numerous religious destinations such as Jerusalem, the Vatican and Salt Lake City, interviewing various people connected to them.

I suspect that the reaction to this film will largely depend on whether you are religious or not.

For those who believe in God it will be a blasphemous blast of outrage whilst for those who don’t it will come as a welcome assertion of doubt.

What’s interesting about the film is that although it points out some of the more ludicrous aspects of religious faith (i.e. the talking snake, a guy trapped inside a whale, death sentences for novelists, magic underwear) it is all undercut by a solid base of intelligence.

Maher has clearly done his homework on the various faiths under the microscope and whilst he doesn’t shy away from joking about them, he also poses some serious questions about the nature of belief and it’s effect on the human race.

As Maher has said about the film, the approach isn’t just to knock religious faith but to examine why and how religion has come to affect human beings:

I’m not trying to mandate that people think anything in particular. I’m just suggesting there’s a different way to think. That’s just free speech.

But when it comes to religion, free speech has been off-limits for many years. 

This film is certainly a counterblast to the notion that religion shouldn’t be discussed openly.

But aside from the subject matter, there are many interesting aspects to the film including three that really stood out for me.

The first involves the theological discussions – many of which descend into unintentional hilarity – such as a conversation with a ‘fake’ Jesus at a religious theme park(!) who Maher informs that the resurrection story is a myth that actually predates Christianity.

The second is the clever editing and use of subtitles which contradict their subjects by voicing concerns or offering points the interviewees forgot to mention. 

(One example is the insertion of doubts expressed by the Americans who drafted the US Constitution, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams when someone suggests America is a ‘Christian’ nation.) 

The third is the rough and ready camera style which doesn’t shy away from showing the barebones crew hovering around Maher or the numerous B-roll shots which explain how they filmed where they did and the difficultirs involved.

In some ways this approach mirrors Borat and I’m sure some of the same tactics and inventive legal releases were used in order to get people to speak.

I am almost willing to guarentee that a lot of UK critics (like some of their US counterparts) will be snooty about this film, adopting a Pontius Pilate stance, saying that whilst they agree with Maher’s thrust, they disapprove of his smugness and unfair ‘attack’ on religion.

In some ways this misses the point of the film – it is meant to defalte the pomposity of religion and make us laugh at the numerous absurdities it has spawned.

The target audience here is not people of faith, but rather the agnostic and atheistic. In a sense it highlights the nonsense of religion in order to advocate the sense openly criticising those you disagree with.

Whilst many defenders of faith will say they are under attack from ‘smug atheists’ in the ‘liberal media’, surely the events of this decade have shown has dangerous religion can be in the hands of important global figures.

In a world where the current US president has stated that God shapes his foreign policy, religious fanatics encourage acolytes to fly planes into buildings and people are convinced that the Bible is actual fact, this film that shows us doubts worth believing in.   

Religulous is scheduled to open at UK cinemas in December

> Religulous at the IMDb 
> Find out more about Bill Maher and Larry Charles at Wikipedia  
> Reviews for Religulous at Metacritic

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 3

BFI Southbank and IMAX

One of the nice things about the London Film Festival is that a lot of filmmakers are in town and today I spoke to Toa Fraser, who is the director of Dean Spanley, which screened tonight at the Odeon West End.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century and based on the novel by Baron Dunsany, it deals with a misanthropic old man (Peter O’Toole) who unexpectedly re-lives happy and painful memories thanks to the revels of a drunken curate (Sam Neill).

I’ll put the interview with Toa up on the site in the next 48 hours.

In the evening I saw the new Bond film Quantum of Solace, which aside from being one of the biggest films of the year is also having it’s first public showing as part of the festival on Wednesday 29th.

It might seem strange for such a commercial film to be part of a festival that showcases a diverse selection of films but from the organisers point of view it is a bit of a no-brainer.

Not only will the spotlight on a Bond world premiere help illuminate other parts of the festival, but the fact that 007 (like Harry Potter) is one of the few British cinema icons that connect to audiences on a global level.

The head of Sony Pictures UK (who are distributing the movie here) said before the film began that it was the first time anyone had seen it, so anticipation was high.

In many ways it delivered the goods with Daniel Craig’s more serious Bond working as well as it did in Casino Royale.

Although it looks good and will no doubt do great business at the box office, I do having a nagging doubt as to whether Marc Forster was the right director for this kind of material.

What’s odd about the film is that there seems to be more action than usual (even for a Bond film) but it’s a bit rushed and a lot of the set pieces lack the finesse and ingenuity of more contemporary rivals like The Bourne Ultimatum or The Dark Knight.

It is the character based sequences that actually work better, with the relationships between Bond, M (Judi Dench), Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) portrayed with the kind of wit and subtley that might surprise some audiences.

Another aspect to the film that might attract some column inches is the rather dark – if entirely plausible – view of the United States as a cynical and amoral superpower. Even the British don’t escape unscathed with one scene appearing to hint at the Blairite acquiescence to the Bush administration in the war on terror.

For more thoughts on the film check out my post here.

Quantum of Solace screens at the festival next week before opening everywhere on October 31st.

Dean Spanley opens in the UK on December 12th

> Quantum of Solace and Dean Spanley at the LFF site
> My first thoughts on Quatum of Solace
> Toa Fraser at the IMDb


LFF 2008: Synecdoche, New York

In the last decade Charlie Kaufman has become one of those rare screenwriters whose work has even overshadowed the directors he has worked with. 

This is quite a feat given that he has collaborated with Spike Jonze (on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). 

However, it is fair to say that all those films bear certain recognisable tropes: ingenious narratives, surreal images and a tragi-comic view of human affairs.

It would also be fair to assume that his directorial debut would be similar, but Synecdoche, New York does not just bear token similarities to his previous scripts. 

In fact it is so Kaufman-esque that it takes his ideas to another level of strangeness, which is quite something if you bear in mind what has come before.

The story centres around a theatre director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who starts to re-evaluate life after both his health and marriage start to break down. 

He receives a grant to do something artistically adventurous and decides to stage an enormously ambitious production inside a giant warehouse.

What follows is a strange and often baffling movie, complete with the kind of motifs that are peppered throughout Kaufman’s scripts: someone lives in a house oblivious to the fact that it is permanently on fire; a theatrical venue the size of several aircraft hangars is casually described as a place where Shakespeare is performed; and visitors to an art gallery view microscopic paintings with special goggles. 

But despite the oddities and the Chinese-box narrative, this is a film overflowing with invention and ideas. 

It explores the big issues of life and death but also examines the nature of art and performance – a lot of the film, once it goes inside the warehouse, is a mind-boggling meditation on our lives as a performance. 

Imagine The Truman Show rewritten by Samuel Beckett and directed by Luis Buñuel and you’ll get some idea of what Kaufman is aiming for here. 

I found a lot of the humour very funny, but the comic sensibility behind the jokes is dry and something of an acquired taste.

Much of the film hinges on Seymour Hoffman’s outstanding central performance in which he conveys the vulnerability and determination of a man obsessed with doing something worthwhile before he dies. 

The makeup for the characters supervised by Mike Marino is also first rate, creating a believable ageing process whilst the sets are also excellent, even if some of the CGI isn’t always 100% convincing. 

The supporting cast too is very impressive: Catherine KeenerMichelle WilliamsSamantha MortonEmily WatsonHope DavisTom Noonan and Dianne Weist all contribute fine performances and fit nicely into the overall tone of the piece. 

Although the world Kaufman creates will alienate some viewers, it slowly becomes a haunting meditation on how humans age and die.

As the film moves towards resolution it becomes surprisingly moving with some of the deeper themes slowly, but powerfully, rising to the surface.

This means that although it will have it’s admirers (of which I certainly include myself) it is likely to prove too esoteric for mass consumption as it has a downbeat tone despite the comic touches.

Having seen it only once, this is a film I instantly wanted to revisit, so dense are the layers and concepts contained within it.

On first viewing it became a bit too rich at times for it’s own good. However, it isn’t often that filmmakers aim this high.

I certainly haven’t seen a film like this in years.

N.B. Apparently the first word of the title is pronounced “Syn-ECK-duh-kee”. 

The following video from Cannes back in May showed the confusion over how to pronounce it:

Synecdoche, New York screens at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday 29th October

* It opens in the US on October 24th in limited release but the UK release is TBA *

UPDATE 25/10/08: In an earlier version of this article I wrote that Judy Chin was in charge of makeup for this film but just to clarify, Mike Marino designed the ageing makeups whilst Judy was department head of the rest. (Thanks to Mike for getting in touch to point this out.) 

Synecdoche, New York at the IMDb

Watch the press conference at the official Cannes site
> Check out the reaction from Cannes about the film
London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 1

Crane outside the Odeon Leicester Square

The 52nd London Film Festival opened tonight with the world premiere of Frost/Nixon at the Odeon Leicester Square.  

I went to the press screening this morning and I was very impressed – not only were the central performances of the same calibre as the stage play, but it is fascinating look at two very interesting characters. 

Although Peter Bradshaw gave it the thumbs down in The Guardian today, I felt Ron Howard did an admirable job at preserving the qualities of the source material.

It might not be the heavyweight Oscar front-runner some were expecting, it is still high quality film-making with a raft of excellent performances. 

The audience reaction this morning seemed positive – some of Nixon’s best lines got hearty laughs – but I’m curious as to how it will do.

A friend of mine went to a press screening last night and said that although he liked it, that audience was a little more muted in their response.

Some of the problems it will face are the absence of major stars, it is quite ‘talky’ and the fact that a younger generation might not care that much about Richard Nixon or David Frost.

But, as a big fan of the play, I was surprised at how much Howard didn’t alter and that he kept it rooted firmly in the contrasts of the two main characters, which is the main reason the material works. 

You can read my full review of Frost/Nixon in a separate post, but I think it’s also worth setting the scene a little bit about the festival and what’s going on over the next 3 weeks.

First of all the London Film Festival is sort of ‘festival of festivals’, which means that whilst it doesn’t have the importance of Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Venice or Toronto, it does have the advantage of picking the best films from these festivals and even, in some cases, showcasing films that have not shown at any of them.

It doesn’t perform the same industry function as Cannes or Sundance in that networking and distribution deals are much rarer, but it does provide an opportunity for the public to see some of the year’s best films be they high profile Oscar contenders or more art-house fare. 

This year some of the high profile screenings at the festival include:

As usual there will be a series of talks, panels and strands which include French films, shorts and documentaries.

BFI Southbank entrance

For accredited folk like me  there have been regular screenings down at the BFI Southbank for the past couple of weeks and I’ve already seen some films I’ve really liked, such as Religulous, Sugar and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist

But more about them when they actually screen at the festival. 

Last year I did a series of podcasts from the festival, where I discussed various films and events but that proved to be harder work than I imagined.

It involved recording, editing and uploading a lot of audio and I wasn’t really sure at the end of it all if that was the best way of reflecting what was going on. This year I’m going to try and be a bit more flexible.

For example, I want to cast the net a bit wider with my interviews.

I’ll be speaking to some of the actors and directors behind some of the more high profile films but I’m also keen to hear from anyone else at the festival – maybe you have a short film there, are going a talk or just attending a screening. 

I’ll put up a post each day about what’s happening from my angle which  will usually involve the films I’m seeing and generally anything of interest, such as photos, links and news. 

But if you have any suggestions feel free to contact me – you can use the contact form on this site or email me via

You can also reach me via FacebookLinkedInMySpace and Twitter.

The Times report on this year’s lineup
Official LFF website
Check out our reports from last year