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BFI London Film Festival – roundup.

BFI London Film Festival.

I found myself in London last weekend (10th-13th October) just as the BFI London Film Festival was getting into full swing. Of course, I couldn’t simply pass by the opportunity to see what was on offer and check out a few screenings while I was there…

Now here’s the thing I’ve realised about film festivals; while the selection is much greater and more diverse than anything you’ll find in your local money-grabbing multiplex, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything you’ll see there is going to be brilliant. Indeed a better selection also represents a larger gamble with your own time and money, especially as few of these films have been released and reviewed beforehand (not in the UK at least).

Approaching the weekend I was quite selective about which screenings I wanted to attend. Some, such as Hideo Nakata’s new horror Ghost Theater and the Northern Irish produced film The Survivalist, I chose because of a prior interest in those areas (Nakata is most famous for Ring, which kick-started the peak of J-horror in the late 90’s/ early 2000’s, while my native heritage obviously provoked intrigue for the latter). Both of these movies ultimately disappointed, though perhaps I went in with unreasonably high expectations.

Others were drawn to my attention out of intrigue for the actors involved – Tim Roth’s new film Chronic was one of the understated highlights of the weekend, while Bone Tomahawk, a dark ‘horror Western’ starring Kurt Russell and Matthew Fox among others, was anything but understated…

And the remainder I chose from my own intuition. What I mean by that is, I put in the busywork of skimming through the synopsis’ of those films which sounded at least a little intriguing from their titles, and took the chance of buying a ticket without knowing any more about them. May I say that I much prefer this method over watching trailers in any case. Better to know less than have two thirds of the plot spoilt for you.

Indeed the experience of a lot of these films are greatly enhanced when you go in knowing nothing of what’s about to hit you… I cringe at how much the Bone Tomahawk trailer may spoil when that film gets a nation-wide UK release in mid-December. Do yourself a favour and try to avoid them – S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut is a completely thrilling experience that could be partially ruined by knowing certain details beforehand.

That Bone Tomahawk screening I attended last Saturday evening (at the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square) was hands-down my favourite of the year so far. Yes, much of that was owed to the participation of the audience – I’ll probably need to watch the film for a second time to judge it more fairly on its own merit – and this is the other thing I’ve grown to love about these kind of festivals. Frankly it’s an opportunity to be surrounded by people who are as passionate about this type of storytelling as you are. There’s much less chance of a group of casuals dropping in only because they had nothing better to do with their free time. Not that I wish to sound snobbish – I’ve got no problem with people enjoying cinema casually as long as they are enjoying it, because life is too short otherwise – but to experience that difference occasionally is just kind of… nice.

So anyway, the first screening at which I found myself in attendance was that of South Korean film Assassination on Saturday morning. This was an entertaining if unspectacular drama-thriller set in 1933 during Japan’s occupation of Korea, which was set to end in 1945. The film follows three assassins in a plot to, well, assassinate some core Japanese figures and help to bring about an end to Japan’s rule over their country. Amidst this backdrop are various plot twists, betrayals, and snappy dialogue; the whole experience comes across very Tarantino-esque, almost too much so for me. In a post-screening Q & A, the film’s director (Choi Dong-hoon, one of Korea’s most successful directors working today) hinted that he intentionally wanted to make this film ‘commercially accessible’ so that as many people as possible could enjoy it and learn a little more about the subject in question. In other words, I think its over-the-top nature was an intended ploy to widen its audience, and as a result it didn’t feel entirely organic to me. But nonetheless, this was still a very entertaining movie. 7 / 10

Next was the aforementioned Ghost Theater, about which the less said is probably better. Needless to say it’s a pale imitation of Nakata’s best work (still 1998’s Ring, closely followed by 2002’s Dark Water) and that’s putting it mildly. In fact the whole thing comes across as some kind of parody of J-horror, and it becomes a little awkward when you realise that you’re actually supposed to be taking it seriously… that’s hard to do when the main ‘evil force’ in this film is basically a doll with an emotionless, human-looking face. The main ‘scares’ revolve around the doll’s eyes moving when no-one’s looking. Many scenes feel regurgitated from J-horror films of the past, which represents the dying genre’s main problem; it seems unable to move forward, still caught up with its own success fifteen years ago. It all leads up to an ending almost as absurd as the film itself. Best avoided by anyone who doesn’t have an obsessive interest in the genre. 2 / 10

Mark the 11th of December out in your diaries – that’s when Bone Tomahawk is released in UK cinemas (a whole week before The Force Awakens so you don’t have that excuse). As I’ve already made my feelings clear on this ‘horror Western’ hybrid, I won’t say any more for now… though it is worth pointing out that I don’t consider it much of a ‘horror’ at all – it is horrifying only in its rawness and its stark realism. This naturally leads to a couple of rather violent, bloody set pieces, but these don’t feel forced nor inserted for effect. Rather they feel entirely appropriate in the context of what this film is. Certainly one of my favourites of the year so far. 10 / 10

Kurt Russell may be the biggest name, but Bone Tomahawk's other cast members play their parts immaculately.
Kurt Russell may be the biggest name, but Bone Tomahawk’s other cast members play their parts immaculately.

On Sunday I saw four more films: Canadian (but also distinctly German) revenge thriller Remember starring Christopher Plummer, a curious Star Wars-related documentary called Elstree 1976, Venezuelan thriller and Best Picture winner at Venice Film Festival, From Afar, and the entertaining Dutch drama-comedy, Schneider vs Bax.

Remember is basically best described as ‘Memento, if you substitute Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby for Christopher Plummer’s dementia-suffering pensioner’. If you think that sounds as good a premise as I did, you won’t be disappointed by what Remember has to offer. The plot? An ageing Jew decides before it’s too late (as the nature of his illness will soon take away his ability to do so) that he should take revenge on the Nazi who murdered his family in a concentration camp in the second world war. This intriguing set-up is executed well, right up to a surprising final twist. I look forward to searching this one out again. 8 / 10

Now, Elstree 1976 had a similarly interesting premise: a documentary about a group of actors who got small parts in the original Star Wars, before anyone could have guessed what it would become (that being: the most profitable movie of all time up to that point and a multi-million dollar franchise). But I had more of a problem with its execution, which focused very much more on the small-name actors in question rather than Star Wars in general. That’s fine – these guys have as much a right to get their story told as anyone – though I was left feeling like maybe this would be a nice addition as a special feature on a DVD/ Blu-ray rather than a full release in its own right. Others may feel they get more out of it than I did personally. 4 / 10

From Afar is everything you’d expect from a ‘Best Film’ winner at an international film festival; it’s quite heavy stuff. Deals with themes like repressed homosexuality, child grooming, and features more than one character with ‘daddy’ issues. Has some refreshing surprises in store for those who’d like to invest in it, though it clearly isn’t for everyone. 8 / 10

From ‘heavy’ to comedic and light-hearted, Schneider vs Bax is about a hit-man who we first see being woken up by his wife and daughter on his birthday. As it is his birthday, he has the day off… until he gets an emergency call from his contractor to take out a reclusive writer who’s living in a cabin with his mistress. This film was every bit as crazy as it first sounds, and it delivers with a somewhat coherent narrative that, for the most part, manages to hold together just enough to be believable. It’s all done with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour of course, but it also has a heart underneath its exterior. Worth seeing, whatever your personal taste. 8 / 10

Six more to go, from Monday and Tuesday. This included Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue. Having not read the book myself, I took a bit of a punt on this one and, boy, was it worth it. Room is probably going to turn out to be the best literary adaptation of the year overall – it’s already secured a place in my personal end of year list. I went into it not knowing much of the story at all and, as with many films (I’m not a big fan of trailers, remember), I think that’s the best way to approach it if you also haven’t read the novel on which it’s based. All you really need to know is: the film is seen mainly from the point of view of a 5 year old boy (Jack) whose only experience of life so far is from within ‘room’, where he and his mum live. As his latest birthday passes, Jack begins to wonder whether there might be more to discover… It’s due to be released nation-wide in a few weeks, and is one definitely worth checking out. 9 / 10

11 Minutes is a Polish film by experienced director Jerzy Skolimowski and is the official Polish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards. In a post-screening Q & A, Skolimowski admitted that his film was likely to provoke a love/ hate type of reaction, and to be totally honest, I found myself more in the latter category. To me 11 Minutes just felt like a mess of scenes jumbled together, leading up to an ending that didn’t really mean anything. My main thought from the film as a whole was: what exactly was the point? The film is smartly shot and features some clever editing, but lacks overall substance in my eyes. To sum up what there is of a ‘plot’: it follows a set of seemingly unrelated characters over the course of 11 minutes between 5:00-5:11pm, who are eventually brought together at the end. Why? Well, that’s kind of for you to judge, though I struggled to find an answer. In fact I struggled to find a reason that justified my spending 81 precious minutes of my life watching this movie at all. 3 / 10

That feeling didn’t last long as the next film I saw was Chronic, starring Tim Roth in a challenging role as a care worker who seems to take care for his chronically ill patients to a level bordering on unhealthy. He spends his evenings checking up on patients online, and regularly takes on his co-workers shifts in order to spend more time caring for them day and night. Initially the premise for this movie gave me the impression that it would go in a different direction than it actually does, and ultimately Roth’s character is a sympathetic one rather than the bad guy you may have suspected him as going in. Chronic is an interesting and honest character study; I suspect its title refers not to the numerous patients we meet, but Roth’s character himself, who bears his own chronic obsession with helping people. To this end, it asks the question: how far is too far? It does so while challenging its own audience on what they would feel is appropriate. An exceptionally intriguing movie. 9 / 10

Then came one of my most anticipated screenings coming into the weekend: The Survivalist. This same movie was the closing night premiere of Belfast Film Festival back in April, and this London screening was its first in mainland Britain. As always, it sounded nice to hear Northern Irish accents on stage as director Stephen Fingleton and lead actor Martin McCann introduced the film before closing it out with a Q & A at the end. The title is fairly self-explanatory as it pertains to premise: a man is trying to survive alone in an environment overrun by nature, and doing a pretty good job of it when the film opens.

Martin McCann played the 'survivalist' himself, but was the film any good?
Martin McCann played the ‘survivalist’ himself, but was the film any good?

Here’s the thing about my feelings regarding The Survivalist: I wanted to enjoy it more than I actually did. I’d like to hope I’ve made this fairly obvious up to now. In this case as in any other, upon the acknowledgement of such possible bias, one’s opinion – whether good or bad – should always be taken with a fair pinch of salt. I’d definitely recommend taking a look at The Survivalist if you get the chance, but can’t claim it’s worth any more than a rental. Why? It’s difficult to put my finger on that. There were numerous elements within the film that I felt were slightly cliche, not least the premise itself, and frankly the production values just didn’t feel on par with the other films I viewed at the festival. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to judge it alongside other national cinemas that have gained much greater prestige than Northern Ireland currently has. But that is where I will leave it for now. It’s not a bad movie – my honest assessment is that it’s a rather average one, and in some cases, that might even be considered worse. 5 / 10

The final two films I enjoyed were Bulgarian drama Thirst and an eerie French dreamlike experience called Evolution. Thirst  focused on two families – one a mother, father and son who earn their income by washing sheets for local hotels, the other a father and daughter who arrive to drill for water. The latter’s introduction into the former’s way of life goes some way to upsetting what was a delicate balance, and the five-person group head towards a seemingly inevitable (and literally explosive) climax. I can understand how the words ‘Bulgarian family drama’, when put together, may make the average British filmgoer apprehensive, but this movie was more entertaining and emotional than one would think from the premise. 8 / 10

But Evolution was something else entirely. I don’t really want to say anything about it; the most I knew going in was that it was an ‘existential horror’ with undertones of Cronenberg and H. P. Lovecraft. It’s certainly deserving of those comparisons; the film is every bit as beautiful, creepy and emotional as you’d expect of it, the bar having been set so high. I was left speechless by the whole experience, which is testament to how effective it was. There is not much dialogue; most of the story instead told through evocative imagery and character close ups. If you need any premise, the most I’ll give you is this: the main character is 10 year old Nicolas, who lives on an island with a group of other boys and their mothers. There are no men in sight, and the women all go off at nights to engage in… who knows what. A general feeling that everything’s not quite as it seems is only exasperated when Nicholas decides to follow the women one night to see what they get up to… This is a film that, rather like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, can’t be described effectively on paper and has to be experienced on an individual level for one to truly ‘get it’. 9 / 10

The London Film Festival actually ran from the 7-18th October (only finishing today) but I was unfortunately only able to attend for a portion of that time, and only saw a small portion of the great selection of films that were on offer overall. If this group was anything to go by, I trust the rest of the festival was as much of a blast. We’ll be seeing quite a lot of them filter out into our cinemas over the next few months and no doubt playing a major part in awards season at the start of next year (I’ll make an early shout that Bone Tomahawk should walk away with something).

Click here for a link to the festival’s website.

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