In our final report from the 57th edition of the London Film Festival, we review some of our favourite titles from this year’s line up, along with one of very few disappointments.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
After a couple of serious post-apocalyptic dramas made in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, Sion Sono returns with a gleeful, mischievously fun, candy-coloured comedic gore fest about wannabe cineastes hired by feuding yakuza to make a film. Humorously violent and deliriously excessive (as is to be expected from Sono) it features some striking scenes, from the yakuza boss’s white-clad young daughter sliding through a blood bath in their all-white living room, to the sexy, sassy, sadistic broken-glass kiss she gives a treacherous lover ten years later. The story takes a while to get to where it is obviously heading, but when it finally does, it does not disappoint: the verve with which limbs and heads are cut off and blood liberally spilt in the final showdown as the fanatic filmmakers continue to shoot is giddily, stupidly exhilarating. After the underlying darkness and complexities of Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish, Love Exposure and Suicide Club, this feels like a return to simpler pleasures and youthful brazenness, which may be due to the fact that the script was written 15 years ago.
Set up as a film within a film within a film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is also a warm, exuberant love letter to cinema. It references Bruce Lee through a screaming, nunchaku-wielding action star wearing the iconic yellow jumpsuit, and comically pays homage to yakuza movies, more particularly Kinji Fukasaku’s. And amid all the madcap humour, there is a certain wistfulness about the death of 35mm, projectionists, old-school fights, Japanese culture, and the corrupting influence of money on cinema. Inventive, playful and thrill-packed, it is a vastly enjoyable slice of film-affirming fun. VS
Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichhardt’s latest is concerned with three eco-activists Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who have decided to go further than their documentary-making, organic vegetable-farming compadres and blow up a dam. As they plot to do so, their conflicting characters, backgrounds and motivations are revealed. The operation is a success, of a kind, but has unintended consequences Confident, ballsy Dena becomes an emotional wreck, sensitive, taciturn Josh grows more and more paranoid, and the conflicts become chasms. Reichhardt does good work in setting up her characters and then showing what their crime does to them. She is also is very smart and subtle about mileu and motivation, while the amateur eco-doc we see projected on a white sheet at Josh’s commune is spot on (and is actually shot by producer and horror auteur Larry Fessenden, fact fans!). As is the lame discussion afterwards.
Night Moves has its moments of well-achieved tension, but for me was a disappointment after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. There, her ‘less is more’ aesthetic paid off with absorbing, anxiety-inducing films that linger in the mind. Here… I don’t know, we spend an awful lot of the running time looking at Eisenberg’s anxious face, we get an awful lot of silence, and we get a Meek’s Cutoff-style finale that just sort of…ends. I needed more, for once, never feeling as involved as I did with her previous works. All in all, it’s a bit of an unthriller. MS
Watch the trailer for Night Moves:
The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the juke boxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…
The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be. Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Water’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’ Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, as a janitor, for christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.
Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and uber-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes which must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next. MS
Watch the trailer for The Double:
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.
Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.
Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time. PJ
Watch the trailer for Gravity :
The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (Witkor Eriksson, 2013)
Witkor Eriksson’s affectionate documentary looks at the life and work of Joe Sarno and his loyal wife (and costume designer) Peggy. Dubbed ‘the Ingmar Bergman of porn’ by John Waters, Sarno is responsible for some 75 features, but best known for the run of films he made from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Young Playthings, All the Sins of Sodom, Sin You Sinners, Sin in the Suburbs (do you sense a theme?), Inga, and many more, culminating in Confessions of a Young American Housewife, and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. These were all self-penned works with a recognisable auteurist signature. ‘They were always about women’, notes Annie Sprinkle, and normally featured headstrong, not necessarily pleasant lead characters bringing about their own doom in oppressively bland contemporary America (or occasionally Sweden). Clearly atypical filth, they have gained a cult reputation over time, featuring in RE/Search’s original Incredibly Strange Films book, and now being screened and discussed at the BFI and other edifices of artistic respectability.
Not that this helps out Joe much, who is 88-years-old here, looking unfit, and a victim of bad contracts and shady deals, who doesn’t own or benefit from much of his substantial back catalogue. The Sarnos spend their life flitting between New York and Stockholm, clearly barely able to keep the wolf from the door. Eriksson follows them as Joe tries to get one last feature together, and investigates a life lived on the disreputable underside of the film industry. The film posits that the films Sarno wanted to make were rendered uncommercial by the arrival of hardcore porn, which effectively destroyed the grindhouse/drive-in ‘sexploitation’ genre. The raincoat brigade just wanted to watch people screw, and didn’t want to sit through his glum psychodramas, waiting for the sex scenes when they didn’t have to. The Sarnos also suggests that he didn’t want to have any part of the hardcore business after the failure of Abigail Lesley in 1975, largely glossing over the interim decades, but a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you that he carried on plugging away with explicit smut, and I wish the doc had asked him more about his (reluctant? regretful?) participation in these lesser works.
That bugbear aside, The Sarnos is fine stuff. It’s oddly delightful to watch this ageing couple having matter-of-fact conversations about absolute filth, while there is plenty of arcane and interesting detail to absorb, and the clips of his 1960s/70s output are tantalising. Joe and Peggy are complicated, charming people, and it’s a study of a long-term relationship as much as it is a treatise on a life in dirty movies. Be prepared to wipe away a tear. MS
Watch a clip from The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies :
The Long Way Home (Aiphan Eşeli, 2013)
Set (and filmed) in East Anatolia, The Long Way Home takes place in 1915, just after the Battle of Sarikamish. A mother, her daughter and their guide, refugees from the conflict, are struggling over the snow-choked mountains when their horse gives up the ghost, and they find themselves struggling through the forbidding landscape, and the remains of war, on foot, passing thousands of frozen corpses to arrive at a burnt-out village not found on their map. Digging in to wait out the storm they find two surviving villagers, and then a couple of soldiers, but as the food runs low, what are they prepared to do to survive?
Aiphan Eşeli’s impressively confident first feature works first as a battle-against-the-elements tale of human persistence, then turns darker and more brutal as desperation sets in, only to turn again in a bit of a coup-de-cinema with a devastating final reel. Powerful, widescreen, intimate/epic stuff. MS
Watch the trailer for The Long Way Home :
The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
A few years back, a platoon of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan made the news as ‘the kill team’, amid troubling stories about Afghans pointlessly killed and body parts kept as souvenirs. Dan Krauss’s documentary follows the defence team and parents of one of the accused, Adam Winfield, as he is prosecuted by the U. S. Army, interviewing two other platoon members, Stoner and Morlock, along the way. What emerges is a jaw-droppingly horrible account of apparent sociopaths given carte blanche to kill for fun. Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the Platoon’s actions, but was stymied by a system that didn’t want to hear it, and had to take part in one of the killings for fear of his own life. The others seem utterly unrepentant, and seem to have taken to indiscriminate murder partly because they had been trained to kill, not dig wells, and Afghanistan wasn’t what they felt had been advertised. ’It wasn’t like what they hyped it up to be, and that’s probably why, y’know, stuff happened…’
The Kill Team may focus too much on Winfield’s trial and not enough on the 5th Stryker Brigade, and it has the gaping hole of platoon leader Gibbs (who instigated the madness, denies everything, and wouldn’t take part) at its centre, but it still opens up a world of darkness to argue over long after its closing credits. Recommended. MS
New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
This is the type of film that South Korean directors seem to do so superbly well: the dark action thriller with a conspiracy twist. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, New World is not nearly as disturbing, bleak and tortured as the incredibly twisted revenge story I Saw the Devil, which was written by Hoon-jung, but it is still a gripping, very well-executed example of the crime genre.
Undercover police officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a mole who has worked his way up in the echelons of Goldmoon, a crime syndicate that the cops have spent years trying to crack. When Goldmoon’s chairman manages to evade a guilty verdict in court, only to be killed in a car accident, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Ja-sung, who has become a lieutenant to the powerful and vicious Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), is desperate to get out, but finds himself manipulated into becoming an integral player in the power struggle by his handler, Chief Kang (the always fabulous Choi Min-sik).
Although it starts out fairly generic, New World gradually evolves into something much more compelling, adding in a series of twists, some foreseen, others completely surprising, that make the story increasingly complex and exciting to watch. With all the brutal back-stabbing going on between the police and criminals alike, there’s plenty of violence and gore on top of the more thought-out plot points. Needless to say that by the film’s powerful and dramatic conclusion, there are few men left standing. SC
Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin