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London Film Festival 2011: part 2

Headhunters

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

Sarah Cronin and Pamela Jahn report on the London Film Festival as it enters its final few days.

Headhunters

A slick thriller with hints of B-movie horror, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters is an entertaining adaptation of Jo Nesbø′s bestselling crime novel. Aksel Hennie plays Roger Brown, a man who – on the surface, and despite his insecurity about his height – seems to have it all: beautiful wife, stunning home, flashy car. But none of this is really paid for by his job as a renowned headhunter. Instead, Roger is also an art thief, whose wealthy, high-powered clients are all potential victims, including Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an extremely successful executive with chiselled good looks and an inherited Rubens. While some of the early twists in this classic heist film might be predictable, the film soon shifts into some unexpected directions, as Clas turns out to be a terrifying opponent who mercilessly hunts Roger down, completely upending his life.

Some of the plotting does not hold up to close scrutiny, and sympathising with Roger is a stretch (he’s a womaniser as well as a thief), but it’s a well-executed, well-acted film that has enough going on to make it a fun watch. Occasionally gory, sometimes silly, it’s a cut above the usual crime caper. SC

Sleepless Nights Stories

Jonas Mekas’s latest offering is a weird and wonderful mix of short-film montage, essay and film diary that emerged out of a jet lag-induced insomnia. In 20-odd episodes, inspired by the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, the tireless Mekas strolls through the night, meeting old friends and random acquaintances and listening to their stories. Many of the people who appear in front of his shaky digital camera are prominent artists, including Patti Smith, Harmony Korine, Louis Garrel, or a lovelorn Marina Abramovic, who shares her inner feelings with the 88-year-old filmmaker. The more stories, both intimate and eccentric, the film reveals, the more it becomes clear that there is more than one Scheherazade at work here. The episodes, which are introduced by sometimes hilarious, sometimes philosophical, sometimes plain weird intertitles, build a series of devices to avoid desperation and death. But most importantly, what becomes manifest is the fact that sleepless nights don’t pass without a certain amount of alcohol. Mekas drinks, his friends follow suit and the camera totters, suggesting that you are better off picking up a glass of wine (Mekas prefers red) before going into the screening too, to be able to fully chime in with the admirably free spirit conveyed on screen. PJ

Shame

One of the most talked about films at this year’s festival, Steve McQueen’s Shame could have been a great movie. His follow-up to the acclaimed Hunger, it stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a man who is pathologically addicted to sex, filling his need with an endless stream of pornography and prostitutes. His (outwardly) tightly controlled, orderly life begins to unravel when his sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, appears at his immaculate, minimalist flat, begging for a place to stay. While Fassbender puts in a terrifically compelling performance, Mulligan is given much less to work with – her character is the ditsy, manic-depressive blonde, needy and demanding, desperate for attention, leaving endless messages for men that she’s slept with, not understanding that all they wanted from her was sex. While she has a few great scenes – and one in particular, already notorious – her character is a cliché that’s been seen and done before. Predictability is the problem with the film as a whole. The nearly wordless opening and closing scenes that bookend the film are incredibly powerful, but there are times when the dialogue is frustratingly flat, and the depiction of corporate New York and its club scene are too reminiscent of the early 90s and American Psycho. There is real tension in the tormented relationship between Brandon and Sissy, while his uncontrollable, violent outbursts are a shock, but the screenplay just isn’t quite strong enough to make the whole a truly remarkable film – what’s frustrating is that it comes so close. SC

Walking Too Fast

Following hard on the heels of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, slow-burn Czech psychological thriller Walking Too Fast offers an equally compelling, if less original, glimpse into lives under a communist regime before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Set in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s, the film draws heavily on the story of its predecessor: troubled agent Antonín Rusnák (Ondrej Malý) is a loyal, and consequently savage, henchman of the official state security service, whose brutal façade starts to crumble as he develops an obsession with Klára, the young lover of the persecuted dissident Tomáš, whom Antonín attempts to force into emigration. Antonín’s motive, however, is less an urging romantic desire than a desperate attempt to overcome his inner struggle and despair, which makes his character thoroughly unlikable but, at the same time, more interesting and powerful. In fact, his gradual transition from faithful servant to ruthless maverick, who, in his pointless attempts to win Klára over Tomáš, gradually starts to fight on all fronts, is where the film is most gripping. Although the pace lags slightly towards the end, Malý delivers a solid performance as the cold-blooded spy going astray, and thanks to the chilling electronic score and apt cinematography director Radim Špaček has crafted a film that is both absorbing and subtly unsettling in its own right. PJ

Without

Without

The debut feature from writer-director-editor Mark Jackson, Without was a personal highlight at this year’s LFF. It features an outstanding performance from newcomer Joslyn Jensen as an unstable young woman who’s secretly coping with a terrible loss. Joslyn takes a job on an island off the coast of Washington State, caring for Frank, an elderly man in a near-vegetative state who’s confined to a wheelchair. The set-up – it’s just the two of them, alone, in a remote house in the woods – suggests a thriller, but the suspense and mystery really revolve around her perilous emotional state. There are lots of (sometimes disturbing) comedic moments in the film, but as it unfolds, Joslyn’s charming, seemingly innocent character begins to evolve into something deeper and darker. Her transformation is mesmerising; her treatment of Frank at times shocking. The director hints throughout the film at her reasons for taking the job, but never gives away too much at once, leaving it to the audience to try and piece together the rest of the puzzle.

Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia’s cinematography is superb; much of the film is shot with a shallow depth of field, lending a rich, soft-focus look to the visuals, while the warm hues contrast with the darkening tone of the film. It’s a remarkable, original feature that will hopefully get the recognition that it deserves. SC

Restless

Gus Van Sant’s latest film seems like an unlikely choice for the director: a very twee romance about two adolescents who fall in love while coming to terms with both life and death. Enoch (played by Henry Hopper), struggling to cope with the loss of his parents in an accident, likes to crash funerals dressed in gothic attire. His best friend is Hiroshi, the ghost of a kamikaze pilot (why, I have no idea); they like to play Battleship together, but the pilot always wins. Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) is dying from a brain tumour, although she keeps this information to herself when she first meets Enoch at the funeral home.

It’s a classic teen love story, complete with the tragic but uplifting ending and added quirkiness. The problem is that the evolution of their romance is so sickeningly sweet it’s exasperating to watch, while their world is made up of elements from a nostalgic past that lends a painfully contrived air to the film (perhaps trying to recreate Harold and Maude for today’s generation, but failing). She reads books on Darwin and birds, they play Operation, and Enoch toys with a slinky while waiting in the hospital for news from Annabel. They’re completely removed from reality, and the result is that the film has little resonance, or anything believable to say about weighty subjects like love and death.

But despite the film’s serious flaws, I think it will have an audience: it’s the perfect sleep-over movie for tween girls who are too cool for the stuff that passes for romance in Hollywood, and not yet cynical enough to reject screenwriter Jason Lew’s blatant tugging on the heartstrings. SC

Restless is released by Sony Pictures in the UK on 21 October 2011.

Crazy Horse

For his 39th film, Frederick Wiseman has taken a close look behind the scenes of the famous Parisian cabaret club, which, since its foundation in 1951, offers a burlesque show billed as celebrating both beautiful women and the art of the nude. After a first glance into the dressing rooms, a gently moving camera follows a couple of catchy on-stage performances. However, much as in La Danse, in which Wiseman observes the dancers and choreographers of the Paris Opera Ballet as they break the most complex movements down into their component parts, the director’s primary interest here remains in revealing the hard work needed for choreographer Philippe Decloufé and his ensemble to revive and sustain the success of the show. Wiseman records the long, tiring hours of practices, staff meetings and heady discussions about lighting design and budget constraints, and costume-fitting sessions followed by more rehearsals and repetition. Working precisely with the curiosity of an anthropologist and the eye of an aesthete, Wiseman manages once again to achieve what any ordinary observer would fail to do: making the boredom of routine work captivating. Enriched by footage of the ensemble’s most compelling on-stage acts and moments of casual beauty, Crazy Horse is a vibrant, fascinating celebration of dance as a multi-faceted art form. PJ

She Monkeys

Nominated for the Sutherland Trophy at this year’s LFF, She Monkeys is an intriguing debut from Swedish filmmaker Lisa Aschan about the intensely competitive relationship between two young women teetering on the cusp of adulthood. Emma dreams of joining the local equestrian acrobatics team, practising diligently in her sparsely furnished bedroom in the house that she shares with her precocious seven-year-old sister Sara and their father (we never learn what’s happened to their mother, although her unexplained absence is clearly a disturbing factor in their lives). When Emma succeeds in making the equestrian team, she’s befriended by the attractive, worldly Cassandra. It’s soon clear who is in control; Cassandra is a bully, and the prank that she plays on a young man who’s interested in Emma is painfully cruel. But a fatal moment of vulnerability on Cassandra’s part leads to a twist in their power struggle, and the discovery that Emma is perhaps not as innocent and vulnerable as she first seems.

It’s an original retelling of the coming-of-age story, but what makes She Monkeys so remarkable are the performances delivered by the non-professional actresses, Mathilda Paradeiser, Linda Molin and Isabella Lindquist, who is simply astonishing as Sara, a child far too young to be grappling with her sexuality. It’s a compelling, disquieting watch that earned Aschan the top narrative prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. SC

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