LFF15 Official Competition reviews: “Cemetery of Splendour”, “Room”, “The Daughter”, “Son of Saul”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Chevalier”, “Sunset Song” and 6 others…

the daughter simon stone Paul Schneider odessa young

Films reviewed: “11 Minutes”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Cemetery of Splendour”, “Chevalier”, “The Daughter” (pictured above), “Desierto”, “Evolution”, “Office”, “Room”, “Son of Saul”, “Sunset Song”, “Tangerine” and “Very Big Shot”.

London Film Festival 2015 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Experimenta, Family, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love and Thrill. Here are reviews of all 13 of this year’s Official Competition entries. Follow @halfacanyon for more. Here are the reviews…


11 Minutes
– 2/10

Director/Writer: Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring: Richard Dormer, Paulian Chapko, Wojciech Mecwaldowski
Strand: Official Competition
“This is not a sin of gluttony. Yet.”

11 minutes Jerzy Skolimowski

“Turn it up to 11” will now be “turn it down to 11 Minutes”, as shorthand for condensing a film into rudimentary pots and pans that clatter in a laughably underwhelming finale. Scattered storylines supposedly occur over 11 minutes, overlapping like Short Cuts but without any thought or cohesion. The episodes are deliberately shallow, I think; an actress’s seedy audition and an adulterer making a getaway could both be from channel-hopping on late-night satellite TV. Didn’t this guy make Deep End?


Beasts of No Nation
– 6.5/10

Director: Cary Fukunaga
Writers: Cary Fukunaga, Uzodinma Iweala (novel)
Starring: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah
Strand: Official Competition
“Don’t forget your commandant.”

beasts of no nation idris elba cara fukunaga Abraham Attah

Even before the film properly started, I was disconcerted by the opening credits shout-out to Netflix. Acting as his own cinematographer, Fukunaga ensures the action’s violence and impact is felt, even if the emotional wallop isn’t quite as effective. If you see Fukunaga’s war movie, try to see it at the cinema, or at least click the HD button. (Or if you must use the Netflix app on your phone, then sticking it right up to your face, under a blanket, like a private screening room.)

Abraham Attah is the breakout star as Agu, a cheeky child growing up in an unnamed African country; at first, his idea of hell is being subjected to unfashionable dancing. “What have I done to deserve this?” he wails. The film really starts when his family are rounded up, accused as rebels, and shot in the streets. Frantically running away, Agu heads into a web of anti-government soldiers led by the Commandment – a swaggering warlord, played by Elba, who’s frightening enough that you wouldn’t dare use sarcasm in his present, but also carries enough persuasive charm to manipulate the younger orphans in his care.

What follows is a powerful, harrowing watch as Agu trains as a child soldier, even when instructed to stick a knife into a weeping civilian for the initiation. Unfamiliar characters become familiar, then are killed off. The atmosphere is one of pain and doom, as if the end in some form is near, either on a personal level or as a group. During the Apocalypse Now-style suffering and missions, little progress is made by the group, which is partly the point, but also works against any momentum, regardless of how visceral each scene is.

Still, it’s hard to fault such an onslaught of terror that held me as a viewer for two hours. No idea how it’d work on a laptop or phone. Apocalypse Netflix.


Cemetery of Splendour
– 9/10

Original title: Rak ti Khon Kaen
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Banlop Lomnoi
Strand: Official Competition
“I can smell the flowers in my dreams, too.”

cemetery of splendor Rak ti Khon Kaen Apichatpong Weerasethakul Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Banlop Lomnoi

A sleeping sickness lulls soldiers into a dreamlike state so impenetrable, they recuperate at a converted school, where lies the ghosts of buried kings – not to mention all those battered textbooks. Blurrier than any history lesson, Cemetery of Splendour treats its illness as a political allegory, but one that segues in unexpectedly like a splintered light.

Take, for instance, an interlude at a cinema: the crowd is enchanted by am idiosyncratic treat (and hear the national anthem beforehand, which is apparently not a fictional touch), before floating down multiplex escalators like hypnotised ants, enriched and disarmed by transcendental art.

Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s gift to cinephile sleepyheads is, like another 2015 highlight Jauja, a film that almost evaporates off the screen, as if its magical powers are in conveying moods outside of sound and vision. One method is the sci-fi lighting used by the hospital to heal its coma patients; scaling the colour spectrum, the lamps seek to unlock the soldiers’ brains, as if a certain translucent combination could crack the puzzle. And, of course, it softly hooks in the audience and their thoughts.

Part of the dreamscape’s transfixing element is the blurring of reality and fantasy. In that sense, it’s more fluid and controlled than Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which I found unnecessarily showy), with two volunteers calmly navigating the hospital’s bedside spirits. It’s no big deal when a pair of golden statues come to life. For a believer, like Joe, the mystical world is parallel to ours, but with the power of film, both can co-exist, even if inevitably they’re haunted by poisonous politics of the past and present.


Chevalier
– 5.5/10

Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Writers: Efthimis Filippou, Athina Rachel Tsangari
Starring: Yorgos Kentros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis
Strand: Official Competition
“Your syntax is shit and you’ve got a tiny penis.”

chevalier Athina Rachel Tsangari Yorgos Kentros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis

The person next to me slept (and snored) for at least 30 minutes, then woke up and laughed too loudly on purpose – as if he could fool us that easily. But he probably had the gist of Tsangari’s comedy that, like Attenberg, is single-minded and repetitive in its approach. Six men at sea compete in a week-long game to discover who’s the best in general. And that’s generally it.

It could be a sitcom episode, except the characters aren’t particularly defined, despite Tsangari noting in the Q&A that she workshopped the actors in pairs to develop contrasting backstories and dynamics. It’s funny at first, but the satire of masculinity sags when the surging claustrophobia is overshadowed by repetition.


The Daughter
– 7/10

Director: Simon Stone
Writers: Simon Stone, Henrik Ibsen (play)
Starring: Ewen Leslie, Paul Schneider, Odessa Young, Miranda Otto, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush
Strand: Official Competition
“I don’t want to be anyone else’s daughter.”

the daughter simon stone Paul Schneider

The past and an old friend catch up with an unemployed father who ends up with a different type of job on his hands. Stone makes his directorial debut bringing to screen his stage adaptation of The Wild Duck, and the Australian scenery offers ample space for his actors to pace around and melodramatically scream into the air. Yes, these actors get to really act, and the walking scenes – often from behind the head, set to heightened music – are walks to remember.

Returning home for his father’s wedding, Christian (Schneider) reconvenes with childhood buddy Oliver (Leslie), leading to an all-night boozy catch-up and what’s already a contender for best vomit scene in a 2016 film. Talk of Oliver’s early, adventurous years surprises his teenage daughter, Hedvig (Young, a young revelation), but not so much his wife Charlotte (Otto) and father (Neill). Christian mentions a “secret” he’s been meaning to tell Oliver, but will he?

Of course, in any drama all dirty laundry must be aired, especially in a story structured around a 19th century Ibsen play. And on the surface, The Daughter – with its “this is how I feel” dialogue” – can feel ordinary, before the very human bitterness rises to the surface. It’s not what the secret is, but why reveal it. Schneider’s performance, possibly my favourite of the fest, delves into a mean core disguised by the fabric of an amiable exterior, as well as his ability to break down completely – it reminds me of the scene in All the Real Girls when he starts punching the ground in agony.


Desierto
– 4/10

Director: Jonás Cuarón
Writers: Jonás Cuarón, Mateo Garcia
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Strand: Official Competition
“Why are you treating us like we’re animals?”

desierto Jonás Cuarón Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Mexican migrant workers are chased across a dusty, dehydrated terrain by an American sniper. Simplifying a parable to its sandy minimum, the Gravity co-writer establishes a genre thriller that takes out victims one by one, every other scene, even though they’re often standing next to each other. At times redolent of a test shoot, the film is as empty as its surroundings, boiling down how little dialogue there is for over-emphasising the obvious metaphor.

It should be called Final Gael.


Evolution
– 5/10

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović
Writers: Lucile Hadžihalilović, Alanté Kavaïté
Starring: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier
Strand: Official Competition

evolution Lucile Hadžihalilović Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

A supposed “body horror” (it’s not what you expect), Evolution goes all out in its nightmarish sci-fi universe: a staff of women (mothers?) raise young boys like tadpoles, by feeding them some concoction the props department must have had fun fashioning, and keeping the wee kids locked up like medical experiments. There’s more to it, alongside some atmospheric widescreen shots that stretch the mysteries, but I found its poetry empty and an experiment gone awry.


Office
– 5/10

Director: Johnnie To
Writer: Sylvia Chang
Starring: Sylvia Chang, Chow Yun Fat, Eason Chan, Tang Wei
Strand: Official Competition
“To destroy someone, give him lots of benefits, then take them all in a sudden.”

office johnnie to Sylvia Chang, Chow Yun Fat, Eason Chan, Tang Wei

A Brechtian, paperwork-obsessed, tone-deaf musical. The set design and choreography is sometimes spectacular, but that’s coded praise implying the rest of it’s rather tedious, especially with the distraction of 3D subtitle shadows.


Room
– 8.5/10

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers
Strand: Official Competition
“So I can send her my strong.”

room brie larson lenny abrahamson

How to adapt a first-person book told from the faux-naif perspective of a 5-year-old boy who’s never seen sunlight or a human other than his mother and their captor? That’s an obstacle handled with tender balance by Abrahamson and Donoghue, rewriting her own novel, into a stressful, relentlessly moving two-hour onslaught of trauma shared by both protagonists; the emotional weight is complex and doubled, enough that even a cynic feels a passenger in their life-scarring journey.

Starting with close-ups, finding painful warmth in the claustrophobia, Room introduces Joy (Larson) and her son Jack (Tremblay) as pros at killing time. Kidnapped seven years prior when 17, Joy (unless you’re Inside Out, enough with the ironic use of this name) has been imprisoned inside a shed, where she became a mother and fearful protector. Brushing teeth and meal times are dressed up as events, not routines, before it’s time for Jack to sleep in a cupboard – to get him out of the way when “Old Nick” (Bridgers) enters the key code and takes Joy to bed.

The attempts at escape – not a spoiler, if you’ve seen the trailer or poster – are as nail-biting as an all-out action thrillers. More than Abrahamson’s direction, Larson’s performance maps out the portrait of a bruised, broken woman in a nightmare scenario, yet she has to hide her psychological distress from an ever-present child. When visited by her torturer, a rapist more despicable with each visit, she displays a weary sigh – body language that reminds the viewer of how many detrimental years the film skipped.

What I didn’t expect was for Room to evolve into an even more fascinating character study once both return to normal life – for normal life can no longer exist, especially when Jack, used to the shed, is still in the old mindset of requesting “Sunday treats”. Told he’s welcome to anything, the boy is confused, and asks, “Will he find us?”

Awaiting are more and more problems, each believable and immeasurable, as Joy faces untold difficulties from all angles: media intrusion; legal concerns over how she treated Jack; the mixed, occasionally heartbreaking response from her family; the sense that, still in her 20s, her life is already irrevocably damaged. Her bedroom, untouched from her teen years, is still adorned with an OK Computer poster and photo montages of friends who experienced heady years without her. Larson’s facial reaction is enough to communicate it all.

Larson’s superb, nuanced handling of a demanding role is vital for how much of Room is from the POV of Jack, a child so confused by his new surroundings that he requires sunglasses to integrate his eyes to natural sunlight. Unsure of the chaos surrounding his existence or how he even came to be, the 5-year-old also can’t pick up on his mother’s body language. In the background, her anguish is evident to us, and we feel the combined psychological intricacies of both, as if we’ve been with them all the way.


Son of Saul
– 8/10

Original title: Saul fia
Director: László Nemes
Writers: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Strand: Official Competition
“We can’t waste time with them.”

son of saul László Nemes

My appreciation of last year’s Night Will Fall was in its brutality, an antidote to the digestible presentation of the Holocaust shaped by Hollywood in, say, Schindler’s List. However, Night Will Fall was a documentary, and Son of Saul is the only dramatic feature I’ve seen that comes close. While Schindler’s List messed its audience about with a shower that turned out to be just a shower, Son of Saul begins in a gas chamber; with minimal exposition or escape, the camera is pinned to the back of Saul (Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew navigating a living nightmare.

In corners of the screen, dead bodies pile up and all manner of horrors proceed like clockwork in a well-oiled machine of evil. By sticking centrally to Saul’s head, the camera picks up the difficulty of blocking out the surrounding man-made cruelty. There’s also something to be said about walking behind someone trying to maintain his humanity against all odds; latter stages go further into moral compromises based on survival, which I won’t go into here.

As for whether a feature like Son of Saul should even exist, within the film we hear of Jews burying diary entries in the ground for future discovery. Not that they were imagining a cinematic representation of their suffering, but I’m sure they’d prefer a Son of Saul over Schindler’s List.


Sunset Song
– 7.5/10

Director: Terence Davies
Writers: Terence Davies, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (novel)
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
Strand: Official Competition
“But spring was long.”

sunset song agness dyan terrence davies

Based on the tough lyrical take of her lead performance in Sunset Song, Agyness Deyn will become one of those stars with names that down the line everyone will just now how to spell – the way Schwarzenegger is part of Microsoft Word’s dictionary. She plays Chris, a young woman with a childhood so turbulent it’d be ridiculous to sum it up in a sentence.

The hardship continues when, after marriage, Chris’ husband disappears for World War I. But during this period, she doesn’t leave the grassy Mearns, where she farms and is compelled to stay – it’s kind of a ghost story that makes more sense when seen, heard, and lived, for its magnetic pull swoops over two hours, echoing in melodic pathos.


Tangerine
– 8/10

Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransome
Strand: Official Competition
“Merry fucking Christmas. You know what I’m saying.”

tangerine sean barker Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransome

More words and an interview (with Sean Baker and Mya Taylor) to come elsewhere on the week of its November 13 UK release.


Very Big Shot
– 6/10

Original title: Film Kteer Kbeer
Director: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya
Writers: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, Alain Saadeh
Starring: Alain Saadeh, Fouad Yammie, Marcel Ghanem
Strand: Official Competition
“The only revolution is cinema, and they’re trying to stop it.”

very big shot Film Kteer Kbeer Alain Saadeh, Fouad Yammie, Marcel Ghanem Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya

Not to be confused with Victoria, which was a very big shot, this sporadically amusing satire of the Lebanese film/drug industry sees a crime gang smuggle the goods in film canisters – so of course they stage a feature, based on a comically inept story dreamed up by the Christopher Moltisanti of the group. It’s funnier as it gets along, I guess. What a way to end a blog post.

Follow @halfacanyon for more. Unfollow @halfacanyon for less.

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About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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8 Responses to LFF15 Official Competition reviews: “Cemetery of Splendour”, “Room”, “The Daughter”, “Son of Saul”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Chevalier”, “Sunset Song” and 6 others…

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