Adventures in the LFF (Part 3)

The final instalment of my filmic experiences at the London Film Festival – the first part is here, and the second part is here. Fear the spoilers…

ADORATION

Atom Egoyan- he’s the working definition of an acquired taste. The Canadian director constructs intricate and bizarre emotional mysteries, and while sometimes they’re incredibly powerful (Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter), other times they just sit there, being all chilly and inscrutable. A return to small-scale films after the OTT sex drama of Where The Truth Lies, Adoration certainly doesn’t set its targets low, telling the story of a teenager who relates to his class how his middle eastern father attempted to manipulate his pregnant mother into taking a bomb onto an airplane. Except, of course, that it isn’t actually a true story, and as the fiction starts to run out of control, the teacher who set the whole process off tries to unravel what’s actually going on. There are some exceptionally bizarre moments here and some excellent performances, especially from Scott Speedman and Egoyan’s wife Arsinee Khanjian, and it’s a tremendously relevant story that pokes its nose into some very provocative ideas. Trouble is, Egoyan’s approach doesn’t quite work, the lengthy online discussion scenes end up feeling very false (mainly because of how they’re executed), and it comes dangerously close to running out of things to say in the last ten minutes. Challenging and difficult, but it’s nowhere near as powerful or exceptional as some of his previous work.

REVANCHE

We’re back in Euro arthouse mode with this Austrian drama, which starts off as a tale of a low-level thug and his relationship with a young prostitute. They’re together, and they’re happy, but her boss is getting over-keen on the idea of her being more ‘exclusive’, and they’re soon making a run for the countryside to get away from the mob. So far, so gritty, but then he tries to pull off a robbery at a small village near where he grew up, and his girlfriend is accidentally killed by a local policeman who was simply trying to shoot the tyres. Suddenly, the whole tone of the film changes, as the main character finds out who’s responsible and starts plotting revenge, as well as ending up having an affair with the policeman’s wife. It’s very much about the shifts between the grimy noise of the city and the peaceful reflectiveness of the countryside – the thriller portion of the story peters out, and it’s much more about mood and visual poetry than anything else. Well acted and expertly made, it’s not the most gripping film in the world, and yet it’s the kind of thing that does end up lurking in your brain for longer than you might expect.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

When Danny Boyle hits the mark, he really hits it, and this energetic Indian-set drama is just as vibrant, engaging and enjoyable as early reports suggested. It all revolves around a killer set-up, as a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire gets within one question of winning the grand prize, and is then arrested on suspicion of cheating. After all, he’s a kid from the slums – how on earth could he possibly know the answers? So, his interrogation leads us to flashbacks which show how he came across all the relevant answers during his life, and which also chart his journey across India, growing up with his brother, struggling to survive and always seeking the girl who he lost, the girl who always seems to be just out of reach. Pitched as a dark fairy tale, there’s plenty of colour and humour here, but there’s also serious violence, and the whole story acts as a journey through India itself, showing the country in all its highs and lows, as well as being the kind of hugely engaging rags-to-possible-riches story it’s impossible not to empathise with. Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle once again proves what a master he is by packing the screen with colour, the performances are all fantastic, and it’s the working definition of a masterful crowdpleaser.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

It’s always interesting watching which teen stars rise, and which ones crash and burn. I always had a sneaking suspicion that Anne Hathaway was going to end up with a healthy career – she managed to be effortlessly charming and watchable even in a horror like Ella Enchanted (a film I described at the time like ‘having my eyeballs boiled in their sockets…’) and bland pap like The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Then she went on to make respectable appearences in quality like Brokeback Mountain and likeable nonsense like The Devil Wears Prada – but Rachel Getting Married is a major step up for her. There will be some serious Oscar talk soon, and it’ll be deserved as she knocks this one out of the park in a film that bears a strong resemblance to last year’s indie film Margot at the Wedding (Two chalk-and-cheese sisters reunited at a wedding, one of whom is guaranteed to shake things up – major consequences follow) but manages to get everything right that the annoying former film got wrong. The latest from Jonathan Demme, it’s totally different to anything he’s done, and in fact feels closer in style to his music documentaries, following the wreckage as walking emotional cluster-bomb Hathaway gets out of rehab just in time for her sister’s wedding, and proceeds to open all kinds of old wounds. There’s not much more to the story than that, but very little here feels forced, and there’s no real attempts to deliberately laugh at any of the characters – instead, it’s a docu-style drama that feels uncomfortably real and authentic, and Hathaway is simply incredible. She’s playing the kind of role which is attention-grabbing, and yet she doesn’t try to hide the character’s narcissistic traits and habit of wrecking everything around her – she’s a genuine mess who’s trying to find a way of atoning for something very, very bad in her past, and watching her try to do this and frequently screw the whole process up is both horribly uncomfortable and genuinely touching. There are points in the film where it feels like we’ve wandered into a World Music convention by accident, and it may be a little too rambling for some people, but it’s also a hugely impressive piece of work, and if Hathaway doesn’t at least get a Best Actress nomination I shall be muchly surprised.

THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD

Demented. That’s the only word that can be used here – the kind of utterly, gob-smackingly demented cinema that will leave you staring in slack-jawed amazement at the cinema screen. South Korean cinema has served up some major treats in the last ten years (or so), and this barmy, hyper-stylised homage to Spaghetti Westerns is certainly one of them. Hailing from the same director as A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, it’s set in 1930s Manchurian China, and revolves around a treasure map that three ramshackle adventurers are out to get by any means necessary. Kicking off with a genuinely spectacular train heist and then barely letting up for breath, this is a definite example of style over substance, but it’s difficult to care when so much imagination and energy is being hurled onto the screen. Yes, Sergio Leone is the obvious touchstone here, and there’s a wealth of references and hi-jackings (especially the direct homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the end sequence), but what’s really surprising is that the film owes just as much to Spielberg circa Raiders of the Lost Ark. The action has the same kind of heft, intricacy and energy as in Raiders (although with a somewhat increased level of violence), and you can even see that Korean superstar Song Kang-Ho is channelling a mix of Eli Wallach and John Belushi’s nutty turn in 1941 into his performance. Anyone who was disappointed by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should really consider checking this out, as while the plot may be thin, it’s also got some of the most imaginative, funny and well-crafted action to hit the screen in years, building up to one of the most jaw-droppingly epic chases I’ve ever seen in my life, a sequence that melds together Kurosawa, Mad Max 2 and the Pelleanor Fields battle from Return of the King into a masterpiece of sheer cinematic insanity, all accompanied by the sounds of the flamenco version of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ by Santa Esmeralda (used on the Kill Bill soundtrack). If there’s one other aspect that does let the side down, it’s that while ‘The Bad’ (Lee Byung-hun, from A Bittersweet Life and JSA) and ‘The Weird’ (Kang Ho, from The Host and Memories of Murder) are being endlessly entertaining and eating up the screen with their charisma, ‘The Good’ (pretty boy star Jung Woo-Sung) is rather dull, and certainly no match for the others. Nevertheless, this is more fun than is legal, and all lovers of strange and bizarre movies should start drumming their fingers in anticipation right now, as they’re really not going to want to miss this…

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