Films reviewed: “Abuse of Weakness”, “The Double”, “Ida” (pictured above), “Like Father, Like Son”, “Of Good Report”, “The Selfish Giant”, “Tom at the Farm”, “Tracks” and “Under the Skin”.
This year’s London Film Festival was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Documentary, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love, Sonic and Thrill. These reviews cover the Official Competition strand. Of these 13, I caught all apart from The Lunchbox (prioritised Exhibition), Rags & Tatters (prioritised Locke) and Parkland (prioritised fresh air).
I was an early champion for Ida, even seeing it twice, but then it was awarded best film by the jury so now it looks like I’m jumping on a bandwagon. I hate bandwagons and I especially hate jumping. Anyway, here are the reviews. For more, follow me on Twitter at @halfacanyon.
Abuse of Weakness – 6/10
Original title: Abus de Faiblesse
Director/Writer: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino
UK/US release date: TBC
“It was me. But it wasn’t me.”
The central question, repeatedly thrust at the viewer, is whether Huppert’s character is being abused or the abuser. It’s hard to say, other than I found more stimulation in post-film cogitation, rather than during the film itself. The events are based around real events, which Breillat turns around into manipulating the viewer. Without this knowledge, I’m not sure how keen I’d be to peel the layers, and indeed I lost interest until a fantastic final scene left me wanting more. Now, that is manipulation.
The Double – 9/10
Director: Richard Ayoade
Writers: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (novel)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor
UK release date: 4th April 2014
US release date: TBC 2014
“I like to think I’m unique.”
“I feel like people can push right through me.”
Early word for The Double had me scratching my head: Richard Ayoade directing an adaptation of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, starring Jesse Eisenberg in two roles, co-written by Harmony Korine’s brother. Throw in some cult hero cameos in Chris Morris and Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, and it’s clear Ayoade is sailing away from the light comedy of Submarine. In fact, the Dostoyevsky influence proves to be a bit of a red herring – The Double is a hilarious, Kafkaesque horror with heavy nods to Polanski, Lynch and Gilliam.
Eisenberg’s main role is as Simon James, a meek office worker with an escalating identity crisis. Simon’s ID card won’t scan and the security guard doesn’t recognise him. (“You’ve seen me every day for seven years!” “That can’t be true – I don’t work weekends.”) More painful is a non-relationship with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), positioned as the girl of his dreams who forgets his name.
Now, here’s where the Avi Korine co-write makes more sense, considering his only writing credit is for the underrated Mister Lonely – a surreal dip into the world of professional lookalikes haunted by inadequacies. The Double takes a more literal approach when Simon James is gobsmacked when his doppelganger, James Simon, steps into the workplace to much admiration. In accordance with the nightmare, no one can spot the similarities, even though Eisenberg plays both parts without any visible irregularities beyond body language – which means there’s none of Paltrow’s ponytail nonsense from Sliding Doors. Worse of all, Hannah is instantly attracted to James.
Simon’s bad luck extends to faulty lifts and receiving incorrect orders from waitresses. Ayoade shapes the misfortune with heavily stylised direction that blurs edges with pitch darkness, while the sound of a train ruminates at opportune intervals. The overbearing setting mimics Gilliam’s Brazil, but with more claustrophobia and less respite.
Ayoade’s precise direction is an acquired taste and one I wished would last longer than the film’s 94 minutes. I wasn’t a fan of Submarine (partly as I read and loved Joe Dunthorne’s novel beforehand) but I admired his musical inserts that paid to French New Wave cinema in a cold, wet Swansea setting. The Double is a more obvious litany of someone’s DVD collection bearing influence. I’d love to see his Letterboxd account, as I spotted what I believe to be direct references to The Elephant Man, Chinatown and, most prominently, The Tenant.
The hypnotic clanging persists, and I could happily watch Simon wander aimlessly in The Double. However, James’ introduction adds a narrative spun through the visual comedy of James coaching Simon on how to succeed with women – a distorted reminder of Eisenberg’s early role in Roger Dodger. The eventual climax is a twist too far, but the preceding noir more than makes up for it. Eisenberg’s duality makes use of the actor’s introspective, obnoxious range, while Wasikowska is hilarious as the oblivious target of his affections.
Ayoade’s world is so delightfully idiosyncratic that J. Mascis, as a school janitor, comes across as one of the most normal characters. Ayoade’s next film can’t follow in this dystopian vein because he won’t beat it – but if he tries, I’ll be first in the queue.
Ida – 9.5/10
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
UK/US release dates: TBC
“What if you go there and discover there is no God?”
Despite first impressions, Ida is a nuanced, moving coming-of-age story about the trivialities of identity and running from demons. It just happens to be a black-and-white period piece detailing 1960s Poland.
Agata Trzebuchowska is Anna, a shy teenager raised as an orphan in a convent. Before Anna takes her vows, she is advised to meet her only living relative: Wanda, her boozy aunt played by Agata Kulesza. Anna is informed her real name is actually Ida and her family were Jewish, before World War II separated them.
Ida and Wanda take a road trip through post-war Poland, both depleted and beautiful in its simplicity. Although not quite a detective story, the pair visit the house in which Ida’s family hid from the Nazis, while later setting out to uncover where Ida’s parents are buried.
Both leads are an obviously incongruent couple, even if united in familial bonding and a shared goal of historical discovery. Ida continues to pray and wear her religious clothing, despite the revelation, even maintaining a silence that could be either acceptance or denial. Meanwhile, Wanda sits by her side, gently prodding her over the necessity of carnal thoughts and taking off the headgear to literally let her hair down.
The one-sided conversations are as minimal as the bare backgrounds, with the notion placed firmly: after the news and its personal effect, does Ida continue with her new life? Whether Ida sees Christianity as a solution of way to hide, it’s hard to say, but still fascinating given Trzebuchowaska’s subtle reactions. When a stranger asks Ida to bless a small child, she is clearly rattled by her perceived duty – yet carries out the duty without complaint.
Wanda is an agitated foil, often with a cigarette in hand and the weary look of someone who’s given up on life. Wanda has her own demons, drudged up by her time as a judge nicknamed “Red Wanda”. With Ida, the women bundle an intricate cocktail of emotions that neither can full process, vainly hoping the road trip can lessen the pain.
Pawel Pawlikowski is economical in his direction, thankfully avoiding the melodrama and unnaturally dramatic actor pieces that films on this topic often pack in. At one point, Wanda starts a painful argument with a man who may or may not have killed Ida’s parents. As the volume escalates, Ida leaves the room to sit with farm animals – a moment symbolising Ida’s existential crux, where the truth is too painful to hear, and it’s a relief to hide in the crowd.
Like Father, Like Son – 8.5/10
Original title: Soshite Chichi Ni Naru
Director/Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Lily Franky
UK release date: 18th October 2013
US release date: 17th January 2014
“Now it all makes sense.”
Stephen Spielberg has already snapped up the American remake rights for Like Father, Like Son, but there’s really no point: the original is so heartbreakingly poignant. Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese director and writer famed for his sad family dramas, now ups the sad family tally to two.
The film’s catalyst stems from the breakdown of an “ignorance is bliss” scenario. In this case, the grenade is thrown by a hospital admitting to two families that their respective six-year-old sons were switched at birth. “We’ll stop using marker pens,” says one representative, but unsurprisingly neither family laughs.
Kore-eda examines one set of parents, particularly the father: Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukukuyama), a hardworking disciplinarian with a successful career and high standards for his progeny. “Now it all makes sense,” he says upon hearing the news, subtly referencing why his non-biological son Keita is a substandard piano player, amongst other minor failings. Tragically, Ryoto must come to terms that, in his mind, the child in their home turned into a stranger overnight.
In contrast, the less financially secure Saiki family are more playful: they bathe together, they fly kites, and the father chews his straws. The four adults have different ideas about how the situation should be handled, whether a straight swap, acknowledging some bonds are unbreakable, or perhaps a more audacious procedure. If we can semi-jokingly agree that children ruin everything, a difficult situation is embroiled with more emotional entanglements when the two sons join the argument.
The tender narrative isolates the number of relationships that occur between each parent with each other, with each child, and even with themselves. The plot is a classic “what if…?” pub question, the kind that can’t be answered sufficiently. Ultimately, it’s a lose/lose scenario, and heartbreak is inevitable.
Yet Kore-eda isn’t content with a simple tale of sadness or emotional manipulation. Some bonds prove unbreakable, and even Ryota, a cold businessman, can emotionally evolve – even if it means learning from someone of a lower status or, worst of all, chewing a straw. It’s common in films for familial love to be an unbreakable force; when relationships are undone, it’s simply devastating.
Of Good Report – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Jahmil X.T. Qubeka
Starring: Mothusi Magano, Petronella Tshuma, Thobi Mkhwanazi
Any release dates: TBC
“You’d think he is killing someone in there.”
Qubeka’s spiky debut is a dazzling exhibition of his versatile talents, as evident by the mostly black-and-white cinematography broken up early on with bright red blood dripping down the screen. Of Good Report was temporarily banned in South Africa for child pornography because an underage character has sex. However, the actress is in her mid-20s, so it was promptly unbanned because of logic.
The nightmarish picture begins with a man laughing maniacally and plucking out a tooth lodged into his skull. That darkly humorous tone continues – by which I mean a shade too dark to find funny – with a Magano as a substitute teacher who discovers the girl he’s been sleeping with is one of his new students, and therefore much younger than he realises.
Rather than a moralising narrative, Magano is thrust into a thriller where keeping the affair a secret becomes untenable. When he’s stuck in a cubicle with his young lover, students and a teacher stand outside knocking on the door; an unbearably tense situation where you want him to be caught and not be caught at the same time.
Each shot breathes with a stylish verve: framed like a spiky amalgamation of Hitchcock and The Evil Dead, with the direction howling with sinister laugher behind the camera.
The Selfish Giant – 6/10
Director/Writer: Clio Barnard
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder
UK release date: 14th October 2013
US release date: TBC
The social realist drama is aware of its own greatness and how well it’ll play with critics – it did at the screening, and has done in the press. I was less taken in by the direction which, while accomplished, tries too hard for meaningful pathos.
Starred Up – 7.5/10
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Jonathan Asser
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Any release dates: TBC
“Do you have a family to go home to? Or do you prefer being locked up with us you sick, saddo cunt?”
A long staple of prison dramas has been the fleeting family visit, although Starred Up adds a twist by having a father and son locked up in the same ward. The title, Starred Up, refers to Eric (Jack O’Connell), a young offender who’s moved to an over-21 institution based on violent behaviour. He demonstrates a wiliness that suggests he’s comfortable behind bars, whether fashioning a makeshift weapon with a toothbrush, or throwing punches at anyone who challenges him. A fellow inmate even says, “Starred up means you’re a leader.”
Eric’s rough childhood involved losing his mother in tragic circumstances, while his father (Ben Mendelsohn) was locked up during his early year. The script, by Jonathan Asser, doesn’t pump out too much back story, thus fashioning a rougher, more frightening environment: when socialising in and around cells, there’s little conversation about pre-prison life, as if it didn’t exist.
Instead, a number of hierarchies exist; the top cells have games consoles and chocolate bars, but Eric’s empty room is furnished with cornflakes. Prison politics are equally fascinating and frightening, in much the way viewers are glued to gangster narratives; an alternative law exists, which even twists the arm of security guards.
Rupert Friend does sterling work as a sympathetic voluntary worker (which he denies is the same as a hobbyist) who identifies incarceration as an unhealthy home for a young, violent offender – the authorities do their best to prevent Eric’s therapy sessions, seemingly as a desire to watch the teenager suffer. Eric’s father, just as he was before sharing the same space, is powerless to protect his son.
The gripping narrative builds up through claustrophobia, running circles inside the building. David Mackenzie deserves credit for direction that intensifies the emptiness of life inside a small room, with only a gleaming light shining through the window – that, and for turning a revolving door into a symbolic recurring image.
Tom at the Farm – 4.5/10
Original title: Tom à la Ferme
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writers: Xavier Dolan, Michel Marc Bouchard (play)
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu
UK/US release dates: TBC
“He can lie to you too.”
The end credits for Tom at the Farm list Xavier Dolan as more than director and lead actor; his roles include editor and costume designer. Yet, for the first time, he’s only a co-writer, as the melancholic drama’s roots lie in a Michel Marc Bouchard play. That might explain the weird sensation that Tom at the Farm can be dominated by Dolan’s presence without feeling like a Dolan film – the great Dolan paradox, you might say. (I’m guessing you won’t.)
The 24-year-old filmmaker has possibly outgrown the erratic style that characterised I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, as Tom at the Farm is shot in a comparatively conventional manner. He does, however, stay consistent with narrative themes: the longevity of heartbreak, and society’s treatment (or denial) of homosexuality.
Tom (Dolan), as the title mentions, visits a farm for the funeral of former boyfriend Guillaume. Tom then discovers Guillaume kept their relationship a secret from his family, who express their anger that his alleged girlfriend doesn’t turn up – not even to carry flowers. To the screenplay’s credit, the plot doesn’t spiral out in the expected direction, instead setting up a cat-and-mouse storyline: Guillaume’s brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), knows too much and attempts to blackmail Tom.
There are still flourishes of Dolan’s eye for beauty, although his newfound composure doesn’t allow a scattergun approach; less visual flair places a magnifying glass on the acting. Yet shooting in a consistent manner doesn’t mean a focused product. When Tom wanders around the farm, I actually saw Dolan pacing worried circles on a film set, wondering how to adapt a script originally written for the stage.
By toning down his eccentricities, mediocrity triumphs. I once considered Dolan a hate/love figure, but here the farm is positioned firmly in the middle. If early Dolan is represented by The Knife’s “Heartbeats”, then Tom at the Farm is a passable b-side.
Tracks – 7/10
Director: John Curran
Writer: Marion Nelson
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Emma Booth
UK release date: 25th April 2014
US release date: TBC
“Spit it out!”
The Australian wilderness is magnificent on the Odeon West End’s screen, with sun rays stretching across the corners. Shooting in such a beautiful, deserted area means the set is never-ending, according to John Curran in the following Q&A. It’s worth noting that Tracks is based on a 1978 book of the same name, so a film adaptation had to be visually stunning to justify its existence – and it does.
Tracks is the 2,700km journey undertaken across Australia by Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), amid sweltering heat and thirsty conditions. She embarks on foot with a dog and a few camels. The lonely journey is an impressive nine-month saga, occasionally interrupted by fleeting visits from a National Geographic photographer (Adam Driver).
Robyn’s reasons aren’t clear, but I didn’t doubt those intentions exist, even if she isn’t so sure herself. Wasikowska’s role is tricky, in that she has to be on the verge of death, emote through the repetition, while marvelling at the beautiful surroundings – all through physical motions.
If Tracks is in danger of being an expensive production of someone’s gap year stories, the cinematography and central performance win it, through charm and persistence. Surprisingly, the film falters when its ambitions include jagged subplots, such as intrusive photographers and flashbacks. The absence of motive will likely infuriate others, but I was bowled over by the spectacle of a woman who abandons everything to wander and camp in her thoughts.
Under the Skin – 8.5/10
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
UK release date: 14th March 2014
US release date: TBC
“This isn’t Tesco, is it?”
Yesterday’s screening of Under the Skin was followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Glazer who then took off his skin and revealed himself to be the director of Birth. Glazer’s bleak sci-fi is his third feature, following 2000’s critical smash Sexy Beast and 2004’s divisive Birth. I am a fan of neither, but Glazer pulls me in with Under the Skin: a visual kick to the head, complete with an ambient score shoved aside by shrieking strings.
There’s much to admire in Birth, although I found its creepy tension unwound by an unnecessary lack of ambiguity. Conversely, Under the Skin is delightfully baffling during its mostly dialogue-free 107 minutes. The narrative follows an alien that inhabits the body of a young woman (Scarlett Johansson), while displaying the cold physical behaviour of an extra-terrestrial inside an ill-fitting costume.
The star casting of Johansson turns out to be an ingenious move; her recognisability adds an extra surreal touch, with her awkward movements so out of place in Glasglow’s public areas. She visits shopping centres and drives around the city to flirting with strangers – supposedly filmed by Glazer with hidden cameras. Many of these men are under the age of 30 and hold an indecipherable accent, while unable to recognise the actress (it’s either the black wig, or We Bought a Zoo really is that forgettable).
Once invited back to Johansson’s newly acquainted home, a surreal mating ritual occurs where undressing occurs in an imagined darkness, before the erect male sinks through a watery black hole. It’s odder than the Sexy Beast cutaways, that’s for sure. These sequences are also highly hypnotic, with repetition underlining the unknowing weakness of the libido-driven men – strangers who at a moment’s notice hitchhike with an attractive stranger because she flatly states, “I like your smile.”
A deeper satirical point exists with Glasgow’s various subcultures which confuse the alien. From her POV, everyday sights of modern life become absurd: drunk women marching to a club in heels, and men brandishing their football shirts. It is, indeed, an “alien” experience.
Although Under the Skin is based on a novel (written by Michel Faber), it breathes like an abstract poem brought to life. The original book had a storyline where Johansson’s character transports humans to her home planet for an interplanetary Nando’s chain. Little of that is apparent or made clear in the film, leaving much to the viewer’s interpretation. That element instils extra mystery into the more subdued scenes set in Scotland’s more barren locations made even chillier than before.
Johansson stares with wonder at shopping centres, into ordinary houses, or at her own flesh; her curiosity reflects the viewer’s experience. The alien metaphor is a tad overstretched, but there’s much to admire in Glazer’s idiosyncratic take on the loneliness and self-destructive urges of human nature. Johansson’s character may not adapt to her human surroundings (unable to even swallow a piece of chocolate cake) and at times is unable to walk correctly – but the essence of human loneliness is one lesson she’s quick to learn.
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