The 49th Times BFI London Film Festival
by Kevin Holmes
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Ah the LFF…how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty—to paraphrase the bard.
Another sumptuous and engrossing year majestically put together by Artistic Director Sandra Hebron with many, many films on show from all over the globe plus screen talks, master classes, workshops, shorts and lots of debates ranging from discussions about the best and worst films featuring the capital, to what realism means in film. If you like cinema, this is the place to be.
Theres a strong British contingent with the eagerly anticipated new film from the man who makes more movies a year than I have hot dinners, Michael Winterbottom, called A Cock and Bull Story. It’s based on the great comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon who play themselves, along with some other great British comedy actors. It’s cracking stuff, managing to capture the non-linear modernist approach of the novel (being a book about the reading process) by making it a film about the filmmaking process and it also manages to be exceptionally funny. Hilarity, as I said, isn’t a rarity in this film and there’s many a scene that tickles the funny bone, highlights include Coogan’s privates having an altercation with a hot coal, which had me stifling laughter, and Brydon and Coogan taking the piss out of each other while both doing their best Al Pacino impressions; going on while the end credits were rolling down the screen and I was rolling in the aisle. I give it two stars (you’ll have to watch the movie to get that joke). Also worth a mention is the new film from Stephen Woolley, best known for his work as a producer. He’s spent the last 10 years making a film about founding member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones. Appropriately called Stoned and based on the book Who Killed Christopher Robin? by Terry Rawlings it gives a nod style-wise to Nicolas Roeg and the late Donald Cammell’s legendary 60’s movie Performance. The movie itself charts Jones’ withdrawal, due to certain circumstances, into recreational drugs and women, the women being just as hazardous to his health as the drugs. It looks at, among other things, the relationship he had with his builder/minder Frank Thorogood who was mates with Tom Keylock (the Stones’ road manager). Frank was working on Brian’s house (AA Milnes former property in East Sussex, hence the book title) when Jones was found drowned at the deep end of his swimming pool on July 2nd 1969, with the official verdict being misadventure; however this film presents a different story. It also explores the tempestuous relationship Jones had with Anita Pallenberg and final girlfriend Anna Wohlin while juxtaposing Jones’ legendary rock n’ roll lifestyle with that of Frank, whose just a normal Joe Bloggs, but gets caught up in it all (who wouldn’t?) with some tragic consequences. Another film under the New British Cinema section is Mirrormask, an Anglo-American effort, directed by Dave McKean and written by Neil ‘Sandman’ Gaiman and McKean. McKean’s a comic artist of some repute whose work includes the artwork for the darkly disturbing, but excellent Batman book Arkham Asylum: Serious House on a Serious Earth, written by Grant Morrison. He and Gaiman have worked together before and his art is hallucinatory, grotesque but also strangely beautiful. The film is a rites of passage fable and follows a little girl as she enters a dream world full of strange people and bizarre creatures.
There are some great documentaries to look out for. I was particularly charmed by a little low budget Argentinean film called Living in a Falcon, which follows the exploits of Luis and Orlando who both live in barely working Ford Falcons on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The director Jorge Gaggero allows them to do most of the talking and just watching them struggle through their day to day survival is humbling stuff. Making it more poignant is the fact that the older man Orlando used to live round the area and some of his friends still have homes there but Orlando lost his due to the corrupt and conniving Argentinean government. It’s not often you see films that haven’t got some hidden agenda, but this feels genuine and Gaggero in no way exploits either of the two men, in fact it’s the opposite, he gives them a voice and leaves them to tell their tale; I defy anyone not to be genuinely touched by the relationship between these two men and to feel the warmth of human kindness and the ingenuity of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It’s the dignity of these two men and those around them that really bites and it shows what can be forgotten and lost when countries and peoples strive and fight for wealth and power. If you’re into your music, there’s an excellent New York Dolls documentary called…wait for it…New York Doll. It follows the bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane from his work at LA’s Mormon Family History Centre due to his being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to the Dolls triumphant return to the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank last year as part of The Meltdown Festival 2004 organised by Morrissey. It’s a truly heartfelt tale with a tragic ending, but it’s shot through with such affection by the director Greg Whitely, it’s a joy to watch and also deeply moving. There’s plenty more on offer, from Bradley Beasley’s portrait of the crazy world of The Flaming Lips, The Fearless Freaks to the serene beauty and harsh realities of March of the Penguins (La Marche de L’Empereur)—come and get it while it’s…er…cold. A winner has just been announced for The Times bfi London Film Festival Grierson Award. New to the festival this year it is awarded to the director of the best feature-length documentary shown at the festival and the winner is…Michael Glawogger for his documentary Workingman’s Death. Artistic Director of the festival Sandra Hebron had this to say about it. ‘A harrowing and visually stunning excursion into the brutal realities of life for manual labourers across the world, this is a truly original and thought-provoking documentary and a deserving winner of our inaugural presentation of The Time bfi London Film Festival Grierson Award.’ So well done him. The award’s being presented at the National Film Theatre on November 1.
The World cinema, as ever, has got a strong presence here with films from France, Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan, even Latvia. From France there’s the new film from Harry, He’s Here to Help director Dominik Moll called Lemming, from India the Chekhovian drama, After the Night…Dawn. From the USA the new biopic of Johnny Cash Walk the Line looks set to wow audiences; for the more indie inclined there’s the new Hal Hartley movie, The Girl From Monday where sex is a commodity and humans are traded on the stock market while Beings from distant star systems are walking among us. Far out. Also from the states the eagerly awaited directorial debut from Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the title a quote from a little known film critic…I think her name is Pauline Kael; she saw the words on an Italian movie poster and it reminded her in such a brief statement what the appeal of the movies is. Troublesome director Micheal Haneke’s Hidden is here, another thorn in the side of the politically correct/middle classes/bourgeoisie (delete as appropriate). Its challenging stuff and the ending will have you debating with friends the minute you step foot outside the cinema. There’s some great Asian cinema on offer as well. The third part in Park Chan-wooks’ revenge trilogy Lady Vengeance gets a screening and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. If the riotous and frankly shattering Oldboy was a kick to the groin this is more like a slap to the face. Not quite as brutal as Oldboy but just as daring it follows Lee Geum-ja as she gets out of prison and seeks revenge on the man responsible for putting her there, with the help of some of her fellow inmates who have since been released. The action is fast, lots of fun and the films got some laugh out loud moments with some stylish cinematography from Oldboy collaborator and Director of Photography Jeong Joeng-hun; it’s another rollicking ride and adds further proof to the claim that Chan-wook is the saviour of cinema. The ending is a hoot if somewhat dark and the directing is little short of perfect; not since Scorsese blasted onto our screens with Mean Streets has cinema seemed so exiting and dangerous. As well as this there’s ‘Beat’ Takeshis new film Takeshis’. A film dealing with illusion and reality starring two Takeshi ‘s, this could well be his most experimental film to date. Another film, featuring him as actor is Blood and Bones from Japan, a disturbing tale of a bullish and violent patriarch, who abuses everyone he comes into contact with. The film traces his life from the 1920’s to his death and it offers no sympathy for him, it’s stark and brutal, but powerfully shot. From South Korea there’s Blood Rain, a period detective piece with murder and intrigue, plus from China there’s Peacock from fifth generation cinematographer Gu Changwei, a top prize winner in Berlin, it looks at domestic family life seen through the lives of various children, set against a backdrop of transformation when China was changing from a Maoist dictatorship to a market economy. Also showing is the new film from frequent collaborators John Hillcoat and Nick Cave called The Proposition and starring Guy Pearce; Nick Cave gets a screenwriting credit for the film. It’s a western set in the Australian outback using the imposing landscapes a la John Ford, but instilling the violence of Sam Peckinpah, it looks set be a hit. At the premier in London, Nick Cave, looking like an extra from the film with his long black hair and spaghetti western moustache had this to say about the difference in the creative process between music and script writing, ‘I prefer making music, but its much, much harder. Script writing form me is a quicker process, music affects me in a completely different way.’ Working with John Hillcoat is central to his involvement in the film industry, ‘John is an ideas man and I trust him.’ When asked if he plans to work on more films he continued, ‘We have other projects in the pipeline, but I would only work with John.’ Other stars from the film were there, Danny Huston who plays Arthur Burns in the movie says the movie was a pleasure to work on, shooting in the Australian outback was, ‘a blast…there was lots of drinking …there is nothing better than a beer in that heat!’ When faced with the challenges of the unforgiving environment of the Australian outback an actor must draw on his craft, which Huston had no problem doing, ‘think of the flies as butterflies and your OK.’ Sterling stuff. When asked about the violence in the film he declared it both essential to the script and a true representation of the times then and indeed the times we live in now. Huston said he was enjoying the festival and London. ‘I have two films in the festival, The Proposition and The Constant Gardener so it’s a good year for me.’ He also confirmed that working with Ray Winston, ‘was a joy.’ Thank the lord. Guy Pearce spoke about wanting to work on this movie as it was a great script, beautifully written by Cave and he believed it ‘represent[ed] a realistic depiction of the times,’ with a great vision, ‘to capture the realities of existence in a beautiful and honest way.’ Like the music of Nick Cave the script ‘taps into the human psyche brilliantly.’ He declared Cave iconic and when asked about working with Ray Winston he said ‘Ray is a top guy.’ However he didn’t look too impressed when asked about this being ‘his comeback’—he remarked he was unaware that he had been away (steady…).
If old movies are your thang, then fear not, there are plenty of restored prints to get weepy eyed over. Feeling sentimental for the good old days, then look no further than the newly restored print of Frank Capra’s neglected early classic, American Madness, its classic Capra, setting the mould for what is now called Capraesque. If you like Capra, which we all do, this is a must. Looking for a lost Hollywood classic staring two giants of the silver screen? Your search is over; Beyond the Rocks is an 83 year-old classic, pairing for the first and last time two Hollywood legends of their day, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, it has been expertly restored complete with original tinting. Lap it right up. Also there is Robert Bresson’s first full-length feature Angels of Sin, presented at Cannes earlier this year, it was made in German-occupied France after the director had spent a year in a prison camp. The festival is hoping that Mme Mylène Bresson will be there to talk about her late husbands work. So get up on it like that. Director’s getting banished from their own movies sounds like a world gone mad, but no, it’s just Sam Peckinpah’s legendary Major Dundee, now finally getting a cut the director may have been happy with. If you really do want to see a world gone mad, then a new print of surrealist master Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados is here with its critique of urbanisation. Discreet charm? Well, charm perhaps, but it’s anything but discreet as Luis tells it like it is as only he can.
There is plenty more on offer at the festival with over 180 feature films screening across 13 different venues, it’s another bumper year, my only qualm would be that some of the movies showing have already been at the other major festivals (Cannes, Venice) and some of the American films are out in a few weeks anyway. A minor grumble though and to be fair this festival is all about the public, who wouldn’t have got into a screening in Cannes even if they revealed themselves to be the secret love child of Orson Welles and Greta Garbo. So it’s a chance for the great British public to indulge their passion for cinema and immerse themselves with wanton abandon into cine-heaven.
There’s plenty still to see and do, personally I can’t wait for Terry Gilliam’s screen talk at the NFT next week—I’ll see you there!
Kevin Holmes is a writer and film critic living in London.
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