The 55th London Film Festival starts tomorrow and Mark Stafford guides us through the programme.
This Must Be the Place
Proof that you can have too much of a good thing comes in the form of this Paolo Sorrentino work. After the assured, note-perfect Consequences of Love and Il Divo comes this bloated English-language co-production. Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a Goth rock star living in Ireland, whose music has made him money enough that he doesn’t need to work again. He drifts through his mansion and through his life, a vision in bird’s nest hair and lipstick, until a phone call informs him that his estranged Jewish father is on his deathbed. After the funeral, back in the US he finds himself energised, to a point, by a mission to track down the concentration camp guard his dad had spent much of his life unsuccessfully seeking. Driving a pick-up through Utah and New Mexico he encounters a series of characters on the way towards a final confrontation, and perhaps some kind of reconciliation with his demons.
This bare-bones synopsis will give you no idea how rich, funny, beautiful, wayward, twee and overloaded This Must Be the Place is. It’s like three or more films in one. There’s the True Stories-style wallow in scorched Americana road movie, the Burtonesque Goth detective movie, the sweet, sad character comedy of the first half hour. There’s Frances McDormand as Cheyenne’s wife doing Tai Chi, there’s Harry Dean Stanton talking about wheeled luggage, there’s a teenage romance subplot, there’s the business with the loaned 4×4, the business with the local Irish band, there’s Judd Hirsch’s Nazi hunter. It’s the kind of film where every conversation with a stranger at a bar or café will yield a little philosophical nugget. Every shot is a precise, louma-craned marvel of widescreen photography. A lot of it is terrific stuff, but there’s just too much here to be digestible, too much to be resolved satisfactorily.
Penn is wonderful as Cheyenne, and he is given great things to do and say. The soundtrack is by David Byrne (with lyrics by Will Oldham) and Byrne cameos in a magnificent one-shot live rendering of the old Talking Heads number that gives the film its title, a sequence that’s a reason to see the film in itself. I doubt any other single moment of cinema will give me as much pleasure this year. But it’s another cherry in an overcooked cake.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees from a commune in the Catskills one morning and phones her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Lucy drives her out to the lake house that she and high-achieving husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are vacationing in. But any hope of reconciliation, or explanation of what the hell Martha was up to in the years she went missing, are frustrated by her clipped, evasive replies to any questions. Worse, something has changed in her, it’s like she has unlearned normal human behaviour somewhere along the way. And while tensions grow in the uptight lake house we see flashbacks to the life Martha has fled, a cultish, coercive, sexualised world of disturbing mind games, which may not be willing to let her go…
Sean Durkin’s debut is a creepy, tense and ambiguous piece of work. Camera sound and editing combine to admirable effect, and Olson is a bit of a revelation as Martha, in a nuanced study of fear and concealment. The slowly emerging details of the Mansonesque commune convince. The acoustic guitars, encounter group smiles and counterintuitive psychobabble (‘death is pure love’) spouted by indie favourite John Hawkes as the charismatic, controlling leader never trip over the line into the lurid clichés they could be in clumsier hands. Durkin makes smart choices about what to leave out of his story; the flashbacks detail the emotional and personal moments of life in the Catskills, but we don’t know what the cult’s religious or political aims (if any) were, and have to fill in the gaps. We wonder whether Lucy and Ted are in real danger, to what extent Martha has ‘drunk the Kool Aid’, and what she is capable of. But whether all this impressively sustained threatening atmosphere pays off to anyone’s satisfaction will, I suspect, be the cause of much argument.
This light, sun-dappled Richard Linklater film, based on a true story, tells the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), assistant funeral director and much loved pillar of the community in Carthage, East Texas, who, amid all the church fund-raising, junior league coaching and amateur dramatics theatre work, might just have committed a heinous crime. Black is terrific as Bernie, a mile away from his usual schtick, fey, fastidious, half-channelling the ghost of Liberace and surrounded by a coterie of blue-rinsed admirers, and Matthew McConaughey gives good asshole as a glory hound D.A. But the film’s real ace cards are the people of Carthage. In face-to-face interviews with a mix of actors and real townsfolk we learn the whole sad story through a rich array of Texan colloquialisms. It’s overlong, and not especially profound, but it’s fun.
Post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by military service, crack addiction, alcoholism, homelessness and crime-ridden tower blocks in a world bereft of glamour or romance. Hooray for British Film! Frank (Eddie Marsan) takes in Lynette (Candese Reid) off of the mean streets of, um, Brick Lane, and a frosty, combative relationship slowly develops into something sweeter, until Lynette’s nasty piece of work boyfriend (Tom Sturridge) turns up and humiliation and abuse follow. Tinge Krishnan’s first feature is occasionally affecting and benefits from committed performances, but, despite all the grit and grime, Junkhearts doesn’t wholly convince. There are odd gaps in the narrative, characters and situations disappear or resolve themselves, and it all feels too much like hard work, way longer than its 90 minutes.
Once a curling champion, Truls Paulsen (Atle Antonsen) was institutionalised 10 years ago when his obsessive compulsion about the sport tipped him over the edge. Now released, medicated into docility, he is supposed to stay well away from the ice rink lest his mania recur, but then his old mentor is revealed to be on his deathbed, and only the championship prize money can save him. Can he re-assemble his ageing team of misfits, and kick his medication without once again losing his mind? Uh, maybe. Essentially, a Norwegian riff on the likes of Kingpin, Dodgeball and the bowling segments of The Big Lebowski. Curling King isn’t anything new, says little of worth about the human condition and is unlikely to win any major awards. It is, however, really really funny, in a broad, riding-a-steamroller-through-your-objections kind of way. A feast of well-shot physical and verbal shenanigans performed to the hilt by a cast I can only assume are comedy gods in Norway.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis Laforce, a blue-collar worker for a sand-mining company, father of a deaf daughter, husband to a loving wife. He’s a dependable, practical man, quietly self-reliant in the Western mode, used to solving his own problems, which is why it shakes him to the core when he starts to be plagued by apocalyptic visions – fierce dreams where a thick oil-like rain falls from the mother of all dark clouds, and people turn violent and crazy. The dreams warn him against his dog and his best friend, and fill him with a nameless anxiety that he has to do something to prepare for the coming storm.
Jeff Nichols’s sure-footed film is a psychological study bordering on horror film, with an admirably true-to-life scenario and a well-maintained sense of unease. Curtis knows that his own mother was diagnosed schizophrenic when she was younger than he is, and his taciturn agony as he begins to doubt his own perceptions is horribly moving. We begin to fear for his wife and child as he goes off the rails, starts becoming obsessed with the tornado shelter out back of the house, spending money they don’t have and risking everything they do have. Shannon is terrific, as is Jessica Chastain as his mortified and horrified wife. Recommended.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-75
A chronological compilation of clips culled from Swedish television archives, detailing their coverage of the Black Power movement in the US. So we get from Stokely Carmichael to Louis Farrakhan via Panthers aplenty. There’s a real star turn by Angela Davis in bright orange against a turquoise prison backdrop, fierce and eloquent with an impressive Afro. And an amusing segment where Swedish television is accused of anti-Americanism by TV Guide magazine. It is, by its nature, a mixed bag, some parts more vital than others, and that 1975 cut-off date seems arbitrary, leaving us in the middle of a heroin epidemic with the Nation of Islam on the rise. Still, plenty to chew on.
Nobody Else but You
Fun noir-ish mystery wherein writer of thrillers David (Jean-Paul Rouve) finds himself investigating the death of model, weather girl and local celebrity Candice (Sophie Quinton) in the snowbound town of Mouthe in eastern France. The French title is Poupoupidou, as sung by Marilyn Monroe, and the central conceit of the film is that Candice’s life had odd parallels to the Monroe story. David is an engaging character, the script is witty and playful, and it all looks gorgeous. I enjoyed Nobody Else but You a lot, but ultimately it’s all too fluffy. There’s no real sense of threat, or darkness to make it matter. Disappointing.
Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an overweight, balding man in his 30s, still living with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and fitting in some work at his dad’s firm around buying Thundercats dolls on eBay. His life seems to be about to turn around when he proposes marriage to semi-suicidal Miranda (Selma Blair), a girl he has barely met, but this is a Todd Solondz film, so the odds aren’t in his favour.
This is Solondz’s most contained and controlled film since Welcome to the Dollhouse, focusing on one story about a particular type of American idiot. Abe is an overgrown adolescent, blasting out positive pop in his canary yellow Humvee, a fantasist full of self-motivation seminar bravado that collapses into resentful bitterness at the slightest setback. The first half of the film sets up his character and situation, the second half pretty much demolishes what has gone before in a series of hallucinatory revelations. There are, as you would expect from this director, a lot of painful truths and squirm-inducing situations set against a bright suburban backdrop. The performances are spot on, like a series of vicious Dan Clowes pen portraits filmed with Kubrick concentration. But where previous efforts were broadsides aimed at the hypocrisies and delusions of modern America, Dark Horse pretty much goes for one man’s jugular with no mercy. The result is a feeling of overkill.
Oslo, August 31st
Anders (Anders Danielson Lie) is a 10-month clean ex-junkie who is given a day off from his rehabilitation centre, ostensibly to attend a job interview in Oslo. We know from a failed attempt at the outset of the film that he is suicidal, but as he visits friends, tries to hook up with his sister, and attempts repeatedly to contact an old girlfriend it’s difficult to discern what his intentions are. Have the years on the needle cauterised his emotions, or was he always this way? It’s clear he once had better options than most, and it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a guy who has this many gorgeous women throw themselves at him to so little effect, but that’s partly the point of Joachim Trier’s film, which, while clearly not a barrel of laughs, is made compelling by note-perfect performances and superior, imaginative filmmaking. A sequence where Anders eavesdrops on the conversations around him in a cafe and knows, for a short while, lives which he can never have is particularly inspired. A class act.
Another idiosyncratic turn from Miranda July (Me & You and Everyone We Know). Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater) are the kind of couple you find in films like this. They wear a lot of thrift shop wool, somehow pay the rent on a thrift shop-furnished apartment with jobs (children’s dance teacher, tech support) that they don’t seem to do much, and have kooky conversations about, y’know, life and time and stuff. Their decision to adopt an ailing cat gives them a month to adjust to having some kind of responsibility for the first time in their lives. They react to this in differing ways; he becomes a door-to-door worker for an environmental campaign, she takes on an internet dance project, and later, infidelity. Chance, coincidence and random social connections take hold of their lives and the film shifts slowly into increasingly metaphorical territory. Some of it is narrated by the cat while we see close-ups of his puppet paws. How you get on with The Future pretty much depends upon your tolerance for the cutesy, the quirky and all variations thereof (the quirksy?). My patience bone started getting itchy around the time the crawling T-shirt showed up, but I’d be lying if I denied the film’s moments of singular beauty and invention. It’s up to you.
Let the Bullets Fly
1920s China. A bandit hijacks the train of a conman, and, finding no money, takes over the conman’s scheme to pass himself off as the new governor of Goose Town, where he hopes that the bribes and taxes will roll in. However, Goose Town is run by the warlord Huang, who has long had its myriad complicated corruptions sewn up in his favour, and a three-way battle of wills, and guns, begins.
For a film called Let the Bullets Fly, this is pretty low on action; there are a couple of well-staged standoffs, but that’s your lot. What we mainly get instead is a theatrical, broadly comic political farce, with lots of zippy back-and-forth dialogue, and a dizzying succession of twists and turns, bluffs and double bluffs. Everybody seems to be wearing a literal or metaphorical mask at one time or another. Chow Yun Fat chews the scenery in a villainous turn as Huang, Jiang Wen looks cool in shades as the bandit, and Ge You’s turn as the conman heralds the alarming return of the long-lost ‘wily oriental’ stereotype. It’s well over length at 132 minutes, but has an engaging late Spaghetti Western style, with an irreverent attitude to power and money, and a revolutionary pay-off. I enjoyed it, but be warned that the critical chatter after the screening showed that I was in the minority on this one.
A well-mounted, good-looking and solidly performed (by Dominic West and Imelda Staunton) ghost story from BBC films, in which sceptical rationalist Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) investigates spooky goings on in a gloomy boys’ boarding school in a very post-Great War 1921. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, and if they slapped this on TV over Christmas I’d be happy, but, a couple of fine sequences aside (there’s a wonderfully creepy bit of business involving a dollhouse) this is all too familiar in story, look and tone to the likes of The Others and The Orphanage. It’s perfectly fine for what it is, I jumped out of my seat a couple of times, so it works, but a bit more ambiguity and madness would have worked wonders.