Films reviewed: “’71”, “Camp X-Ray”, “The Face of an Angel”, “French Riviera”, “A Girl at My Door”, “El Niño”, “Rosewater”, “The Salvation”, “Self Made” (pictured above) and “The Tribe”.
London Film Festival 2014 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love, Official Competition and Sonic. However, this post covers Debate, Thrill and First Feature, three sections I’ve grouped together because it seemed vaguely appropriate. I managed to catch the gala films for Debate (Rosewater) and Thrill (The Salvation) and mostly caught what I wanted from these strands, with notable omissions being War Book and Catch Me Daddy which are both supposedly fantastic. Anyway, here are the reviews…
’71 – 7/10
Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Gregory Burke
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid
Strand: First Feature Competition
“We’ll be fine, I promise ya…”
After catching attention at last year’s LFF with Starred Up, Jack O’Connell plays a different type of prisoner, this time as a British soldier during The Troubles in Demange’s tense debut. O’Connell’s character, Hook, is on duty when he chases after a boy in the daytime streets, only to lose his unit and find himself stranded with a dangerous night approaching. The action unfurls more like a taut thriller than a piece of political commentary, which isn’t a criticism, but also why I’ve not gone overboard with my praise as other critics.
Hook nips between various hideouts, unaware of what’s around the corner: it could be a dangerous figure from the other side, it could be a dangerous figure from his own side. Oh yeah, it could also be a bomb. That’s the kind of unpredictability lurking in ’71, allowing O’Connell to sideline his mouthiness for a compelling portrayal of a young man caught in the middle of fiery politics.
Camp X-Ray – 4/10
Director/Writer: Peter Sattler
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Nawal Bengholam
“Are you a soldier or a female soldier?”
Well, at least Peter Sattler tried. Camp X-Ray was supposed to shine a light on the ugliness in recent history concerning the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, yet it’ll be best remembered for a Westernised perspective of torture: a prison library that stacks the first six Harry Potter books but not The Deathly Hallows. Although, truth be told, the only word from Sundance was about Kristen Stewart. If you’re not a fan of Stewart’s acting style – look confused, touch face – then I doubt you’ll be swayed by her wooden attempt to play Amy, a wannabe tough Army sent to be a prison guard at Camp X-Ray. With her hair stripped of its gleam, this is another flopped attempt to be taken seriously – just place it on the bargain big with The Cake Eaters and Welcome to the Rileys.
Despite the malapropism, Amy isn’t suited for the army, leaving Stewart to do that thing where she touches her face – this time to nurse a cut. Amy’s only notable relationship is with Ali (Peyman Moaadi), one of the prisoners who calls her “blondie” when she walks past. With a glass pane between them, they have overwritten conversations that I’m sure worked a great deal better in Final Draft software. The confrontations, nearly always shot from Amy’s side of the fence, encircle the unnecessary cruelty of the living conditions. Yet, aside from scarce glimpses of Ali’s desolate cell, the victim is made out to be Amy when she literally has shit flung her direction.
A fine film could have concentrated on the detainees, perhaps highlighting just how they were treated like animals, or how to make it through a single day after eight years without any sign freedom. A glimpsed hunger strike is barely acknowledged in terms of motivation or its ramifications, and it’s clear that Hunger this is not. Strangely, the script is at times more interested in Amy’s stormy relationship with another cadet, than making any observations about America’s reaction post-9/11. It felt like there was more talk of Harry Potter than intelligent discourse.
Sattler’s main point is that US guards and their detainees have more in common than they realised. Amy says, “Yes, sir!” to her superiors, and slumps on her bed as if locked in a cell. Soldiers salute the flag, prisoners pray to Allah. The intercuts bear no subtlety and are, frankly, embarrassing. Same goes for Stewart who becomes a more jarring actor the more she tries, and is out of her depth playing someone who is out of her depth.
The Face of an Angel – 3/10
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writer: Paul Veragh
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Kate Beckinsale, Cara Delevingne
“Guilty or not, that’s all anyone wants to read.”
The Amanda Knox trial has buried its way into public consciousness for its combination of sex, murder, intrigue, legal loopholes and what it says about human psychology. However, a journalist in The Face of an Angel narrows it down to just “sex and murder”. Either way, Winterbottom’s drama acknowledges the avalanche of interest is in the Knox story, mirrored in how screenwriter Thomas (Brühl) finds himself drawn to Italy in search of inspiration for a project about the media circus. Once there, he argues with hacks about ethics, and befriends another writer Simone (Beckinsale) who’s spent too long soaked in the negativity feeding off a suspected murderer. It skirts around the edges, never really needling into unexpected psychological territory.
Surprisingly, The Face of an Angel mostly chucks away material specifically referring to Knox (despite finding a pretty convincing lookalike for court recreations) and focuses on Thomas’ struggle as a man losing focus on life. He develops feelings for a young local (Delevingne), while struggling with various coke addictions that cause fucked up nightmares that jar with the pseudo political tone. To be honest, my main reason for seeing the film was because someone on my Twitter feed complained about CGI reptiles. But, besides the occasional WTF factor of the dream sequences, here is yet another dull tread through another overly serious portrayal of a male writer who can’t stop thinking about pretty faces.
French Riviera – 6/10
Original title: L’Homme qu’on aimait trop
Director: André Téchiné
Writers: Cédric Anger, Jean-Charles Le Roux, André Téchiné
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Guillaume Canet, Adèle Haenel
“This lovely bunch took your five million.”
With a rich backstory spanning decades, a family viciously self-destructs over casino wars and love affairs that lead to a missing body and murder trial. Set in a simmering corner of France where luxury permeates through the air, Téchiné has all the ingredients but bakes a moderately entertaining soap opera that’s instantly forgettable. (Like the way casinos send the smell of baked bread to keep everyone alert, perhaps.)
Originally titled In the Name of My Mother, the romantic passion slowly develops, before being cut off by a 30-year jump – plus a few hours with the makeup department – where everyone’s older, tired, and incoherently disconnected from the prior section. It’s passably entertaining, but all that really sticks is the French Riviera background as a constant; Deneuve once drove down freely singing “Stand By Me”, but ends up pacing down the waters on a walking stick deathly alone.
El Niño – 2.5/10
Director: Daniel Monzón
Writers: Daniel Monzón, Jorge Guerricaechevarría
Starring: Luis Tosar, Jesús Castro, Eduard Fernández
“Dreams can be shit. I’m freezing my balls here.”
I hated this. I also saw it five weeks ago and can’t really remember anything about it other than the flat action.
A Girl at My Door – 5/10
Original title: Dohee-ya
Director/Writer: July Jung
Starring: Doona Bae, Sae-ron Kim, Sae-byuk Song
“I was so scared of the sea.”
By taking in so many weighty topics – alcoholism, child abuse, homophobia – Jung’s drama ambitiously attempts to uncover the murkiness covered up a Korean community doused in its own dark secrets. Doona Bae has the thorny role of a policewoman who forms a close relationship with a 14-year-old girl regularly beaten up by her father. The storyline isn’t exactly subtle (“You used to say alcohol is bitter when drunk alone”) but has a few powerful moments, namely the intimacy between the two women who’ve each been battered by everyone else in their lives, yet unfairly punished for it. However, the writing is weighed down by heavy-handed plot mechanics that define the characters, rather than the other way round.
Rosewater – 6/10
Director/Writer: Jon Stewart
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Haluk Bilginer
Strand: Debate Gala
“’The Sopranos’? Pornography.”
Before Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show, he was an MTV chat show host in a leather jacket whose stand-up career mostly avoided political issues. He makes another transition with his directorial debut Rosewater, a competent – albeit unspectacular – retelling of how London-based journalist Maziar Bahari found himself locked up in a Tehran prison for 118 days under dubious charges.
The 2009 incident is ideal of Stewart seeing how it covers many of his favourite topics – journalism, foreign affairs, freedom of speech – but the first-time filmmaker has a vested interest because of his own inadvertent role in the arrest. When Bahari (Gael García Bernal) flies to Iran to report on the elections and subsequent public riots for Newsweek, he also finds time for a brief interview with The Daily Show – not knowing the Iranian government would take the satirical footage at face value to build accuse him of espionage. (The other bits of evidence used against him include a Pasolini DVD and a Leonard Cohen vinyl album, so who knows what would happen if he owned a 24 box-set.)
Stewart floods the screen with shots of the streets as if to signify Rosewater is the real deal and unlike the greenscreen sketches on The Daily Show. But actually, it’s shot in Jordan, which isn’t exactly perfect, and neither is the film’s second or third act. Once Bahari is sent into solitary confinement, Rosewater changes tact and stays inside the puzzled journalist’s cell as he’s interrogated by a menacing agent (Kim Bodnia) nicknames “Rosewater” because of his distinctive scent. The pair’s psychological battle is too playful to be a duel, and too flimsy for any chess comparisons. Both actors bring gentle humanity to their respective roles, but never convey the familiarity of two men who unwillingly spend four months battling wits in an impossible argument. Put simply, they lack the fire of when Stewart guests on Fox TV.
Rosewater teases its theme of claustrophobia without truly examining the dread or even boredom of Bahari being stuck in a cell without knowing when – or if – he will ever see his pregnant wife again. Instead, Stewart taps into the journalist’s sense of humour at the situation’s absurdity; he bounces off the wall to a mental recollection of Leonard Cohen, and laughs out loud during cross-examination. There are however extreme lulls when the mood becomes repetitive, making the simplistic filming style harder to overlook. Really, Stewart makes an intriguing observation that the two men are imprisoned in different ways – if you see “Rosewater” as a victim of governmental brainwash destined for the losing side against an uprising – but the film ironically doesn’t have much else to go.
The Salvation – 3.5/10
Director: Kristian Levring
Writers: Kristian Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Eric Cantona
Strand: Thrill Gala
I expected more from the Thrill strand’s gala film, seeing as it purports to be a Danish take on the western genre, with a varied cast that sticks Cantona back in the playing field. But the generic story – Mads goes mad with revenge when his family are murdered – has little originality, further dampened by ugly visuals. Green has an especially unfortunate role as a woman who can’t speak (she has no tongue), and is left to be tied up, raped, and eventually won as a trophy.
Self Made – 7/10
Original title: Boreg
Director/Writer: Shira Geffen
Starring: Sarah Adler, Samira Saraya
“I know where I’m going, but not how to get back.”
I read somewhere that Geffen is an installation artist, which explains why Self Made feels like a cogitative stroll down an abstract takedown of humanity’s cruel absurdities being down to following orders. It’s mesmeric, darkly comic, and really hard to write about when you’re as tired as I am right this very second.
The Tribe – 7.5/10
Original title: Plemya
Director/Writer: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova
Strand: First Feature Competition
Part of the disorientating effect of Berberian Sound Studio was the absence of subtitles for the Italian dialogue, nudging the viewer into spying for clues in body language and inflections as to what’s going on. The Tribe goes even further with a remarkable concept that sounds illogical until you’ve actually sat down to experience the action front to back, engrossed by a ruthless, ambitious piece of storytelling unlike anything else at the festival.
Set at a school for deaf children, every character speaks in sign language – and director Slaboshpytskiy opting against subtitles. Without any non-diegetic music, The Tribe has a soundtrack built from footsteps and punches. The protagonist is a new boy at school who discovers teachers have long lost control of the classroom, with corridors ruled by a criminal underworld: a hierarchy made even more poetic by how power play isn’t vocalised like the many gang films ingrained into our viewing habits. One of the rackets organised by the school involves pimping out two girls to truck drivers, which in turn leads to a more ambitious plan that is indicated to the audience when fake passports are distributed. However, one of the schoolboys has already fallen in love, which leads to messy complications, made even more frightening from the viewer’s disconnection with the character’s world of communication.
There is an understandable frustration at not understanding much of the action. If I’m watching a foreign film without subtitles, I would sooner switch off so as to not ruin my first experience. However, The Tribe embraces the confusion – and lengthy instances of boredom – with static shots that choreograph violence placed at the centre of the screen. Without subtitles, there’s even less of an excuse to avert your gaze, and you find yourself digesting proceedings in a challenging, fulfilling manner.
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