As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.
The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.
The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS
The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.
Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS
Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:
How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.
A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC
Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:
Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.
It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film. GK
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.
As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS
Watch the trailer for Pioneer :
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.
There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.
Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC
The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS
Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin