Films: Adventures in LFF (Part 1)

For the last two weeks, I’ve spent most of my life watching movies. I’ve never really felt like I’ve been able to tackle a film festival and use it to its best advantage, but I certainly got more out of the London Film Festival than I’ve ever managed before. So, in the spirit of fair play and spreading information, here’s a breakdown of everything I saw…

A mix of hand-drawn animation and live action, this is a self-aware fairy tale that didn’t bug the hell out of me, much to my surprise. It’s a clunky piece of work at times, and Patrick Dempsey makes an incredibly bland romantic lead- but then you get Amy Adams and James Marsden, both doing stirling work, and this oddball tale of a traditional Disney princess loose in New York actually starts to work. Far from perfect, but there’s enough fun here to forgive its multitude of flaws.

Gorgeous tale of four women working in a ramshackle beauty salon in Lebanon. We’ve seen this kind of thing done in US films time and again, but here it’s done with such charm and energy that it sweeps you along. Shot in vibrant colours and achingly romantic, it’s the kind of film that sweeps you up in an enthusiastic hug and tells you everything’s going to be alright. The fact that it does this while still giving an interesting slant on life in the Middle East, and not overdoing the politics, is something to celebrate.

Egyptian films are odd- switching from harsh brutality to Bollywood-style melodrama in a matter of moments. This is a sprawling tale of corruption and politics, all centered around a grotesque and crooked cop who’s become obsessed with a girl in his tenement building, and how things spiral out of control. There are powerful moments here, but it’s all so heightened that it’s difficult to take seriously, and the lengthy running time eventually becomes a bit of a burden.

Cronenberg in low-power mode, with an effective but somehow muted tale of Russian Gangsters that’s expertly done, but has a workmanlike quality that leaves me thinking it could really have been made by anyone. Viggo Mortensen is as fantastic as ever, and Naomi Watts manages a spookily effective English accent, but while it explores some dark territory, it never manages to take off and catch fire in the same way that A History of Violence managed.

Political, disturbing and angry – who’d have thought Brian DePalma still had it in him? A multi-layered reconstruction of the events surrounding the alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager by US troops, Redacted overplays its hand, and is full of lengthy detours (as well as a visual style that doesn’t quite capture the realism DePalma is aiming for), but when it works, it’s bleakly powerful stuff. The themes are overstated, but it’s still a fascinating (if deeply flawed) piece of work.

A slow, moody tale of revenge gone wrong, this American indie might be a little too low-key for it’s own good, but it’s also emotive and powerful, showing how the long-standing feud between three brothers and the new family their father founded when he abandoned them eventually evolves into violence. Michael Shannon is excellent in the lead role, and it’s the kind of film where what isn’t said is just as important as what is.

Thai cinema is one weird place– and here we have a film that starts as an off-beat version of Lost in Translation, and ends up somewhere completely different. A married couple arrive at a hotel, a big-haired teenage nymphette soon gets involved in their relationship, while there’s also one of the most perplexing (if genuinely erotic) sex scenes I’ve seen in a while. Mixing up dreams and reality, it’s beautifully shot, but may leave you thinking that the destination wasn’t worth the effort it took to get there.

Ang Lee once again shows how love really isn’t a many-splendoured thing, and is in fact more likely to cause major suffering to everyone within range. A massive tale of Japanese-occupied China in WW2, there’s shades of Notorious and the first half makes an excellent thriller, while it all builds up to some startlingly explicit sex scenes that leave very little to the imagination. It’s effective, well-crafted stuff– but even with the copious shagging, there’s the sense that it’s not quite as moving or erotic as it should be.

Two ‘talent scouts’ for a crooked recording company work their way across middle America, looking for people willing to pay to acheive their dreams. This bleakly funny indie starts with plenty of charm, but there’s a very dark, bitter streak to it, with a story that’s exploring despair, and how far anybody will go in order to get what they want. Beautifully played, it’s the kind of lo-fi cinema that US independent film does exceptionally well.

I love Korean film, but I really couldn’t bring myself to enjoy this curious mish-mash, a kid’s animated movie that mixed seventies-style 2-D with surprisingly polished CG work, but never quite sorted out the story. There’s some charming moments, but the character animation is very creaky, and the ending went in so many bizarre directions that I’m still waiting to find out exactly what happenned. Let’s just say- I think Hayao Miyazaki has nothing to worry about…

There’s a sequence in Akira- the initial bike chase- that when first seen, really opens your mind to the visceral possibilities of animation. There’s sequences in Vexille- the latest all-CG animation from Japan- that do the same, delivering the kind of adrenalised fevre-dream that punches you into the back of your cinema seat. Using the same cel-shaded technique as Appleseed, the storytelling is still rough, but there’s some interesting concepts, and the style is cranked all the way to the maximum.

To be continued….

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