Belfast Film Festival 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins.

FFJ pic 1.

For the second time this year, ‘legendary’ opera singer and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins’ life is the subject of a major feature film. French movie Marguerite was not a straight biopic, more a loosely inspired standalone film – though a rather good one. So I was especially curious to see how its British counterpart, starring Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep, would turn out in comparison.

I said Foster Jenkins is legendary – perhaps infamous may be a better word, but I hesitate to use it because people did actually like her. Basically, though she knew music – classical opera specifically – she couldn’t sing, and her close friends and family didn’t have the heart to tell her so. Nor did she have an ear for her own voice. She couldn’t hit a right note to save her life but thought she was brilliant.

It was her personality that made her endearing, and Meryl Streep does a brilliant job playing the title character in this film. Get it wrong and her ‘thinking she’s good when she’s really not’ outlook would have been at best annoying, at worst infuriating.

Despite her vocal shortcomings, you fall in love with the character during the movie, and this is testament to Streep’s acting ability. Few, if any, could have played the role better. Those who knew Foster Jenkins personally – and we, the audience, get to this stage over the course of the film – come to feel for her what she imagines her audience are feeling when she sings to them.

Hugh Grant plays her romantic partner St. Clair Bayfield, and I’d daresay it’s his best role; certainly the most interesting one I’ve seen him play. Bayfield himself appears a complicated character; despite being closely involved with Jenkins (throughout the movie we see just how entwined they are) he lives separately from her and has a girlfriend. But somehow you do not dislike him too much; as the film progresses you learn why they share such a convoluted lifestyle and it’s actually quite heartbreaking. Not many movies come close to making me cry (only Inside Out managed it last year); Florence Foster Jenkins almost succeeded. Consider that a huge mark in its favour.

Simon Helberg also stars in a comedic role; he brings an uplifting air to the story. Irish actor John Kavanagh plays Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who coaches Florence and keeps her spirits high, making her feel like a professional. His may just be the most underrated performance of the film.

This movie is heart-warming and hilarious in equal measure. On the side it also offers an interesting take on the critic/ artist divide. Are Florence’s friends and family correct in keeping the truth from her? That’s a question I found myself pondering.

Were it later in the year, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant would surely both be certainties for Oscar nominations in 2017, and they may deservedly still be in the minds of the Academy in eight months time. Not that I care much about that part; rather, Florence Foster Jenkins is a film worth seeing and appreciating as soon as possible.

9 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Men & Chicken.

Men chicken pic 2.

Mads Mikkelsen stars in this deliriously effective comedy from Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen, whose short film Election Night once won an Oscar (for Best Short in 1999).

From the start, Men & Chicken has a very distinct character, both in the style in which it’s shot and the actual characters you meet along the way, none of whom appear entirely normal. The plot centres around two brothers, Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mikkelsen), who discover at their father’s deathbed that he is not their real father. Thus begins a journey of hilarious proportions to find their actual father and the extended family they don’t yet know they have; namely three other brothers Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Soren Malling) and Josef (Nicolas Bro).

There are plenty of surprises – and many laughs – to be had in this film that I won’t spoil. Go into it fresh, without knowing exactly what to expect. As it proceeds toward its conclusion, you begin to wonder whether the whole thing’s actually leading anywhere meaningful; while the experience with these five brothers, each one hapless and pitiful in his own way, is always entertaining, the film would have been missing a trick had it been all for nothing in the end. The best comedies, after all, are exactly that because they allude to serious subject matter. Rest assured Men & Chicken does so rather well, albeit in the craziest way possible.

To call the movie eccentric feels almost like under-selling it. There isn’t much else like this in the film market today, and it reminded me once again why I love the creative lengths to which European cinema is willing to go.

8 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace Serpent pic 1.

Embrace of the Serpent was one of the nominees for this year’s foreign language Oscar and, as with opening night film Mustang, it’s easy to see why. An epic trek through the Amazonian forests of Colombia, it follows the exploits of two Western ethnographers, German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes, over two separate time periods as they each encounter lone shaman Karamakate (the last survivor of his tribe) and other elusive natives deep in the jungle.

It’s shot entirely in black and white, which gives the film a dream-like, soulful and strangely isolated feeling throughout – but don’t let yourself think that takes anything away from the visuals. This movie is simply beautiful. It will take your breath away from beginning to end.

The German and American mentioned above were actual people who made this journey in real life; the film loosely based on their journal entries from that time. Journals and diaries are in some cases the only record we have of the natives portrayed in Embrace, and in that sense the experience feels all the more extraordinary. It prompts us, in honest and truthful fashion, to consider the morality of the ‘white man’ and how our actions, or one might say our ‘nature’, have affected the simpler ways of life seen here.

I already consider this one of the year’s unmissable films; it has won numerous awards at festivals worldwide since first being released in Colombia last May. Director Ciro Guerra is building an impressive back catalogue, this being his third consecutive film to have been put forward as Colombia’s selection for the foreign language Oscar, though it’s the first to be nominated outright. Essential viewing.

10 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Evolution.

I’ve seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution twice now, first at a preview screening in London last October and then at this festival. My conclusion on both occasions was simple: this is definitely one of the most eerily atmospheric movie experiences you’ll have this year. Of course, that I was so eager to forego a slot for another film and watch it again here should speak for itself.

There isn’t much of a plot synopsis needed. Basically a group of boys live on an island with their mothers, seemingly far away from civilisation. They’re fed on a diet of disgusting looking black worms and are injected with purple liquid every day to treat a mysterious illness. The boys are occasionally allowed to play together and swim in the sea. The mothers gather on the beach at night. The only footage of men is from a grainy video in a dark room at the hospital, showing childbirth.

One of the boys, Nicolas, likes to draw, but frequently hides his drawings from ‘Mother’ because she apparently disapproves of such creativity. Yet his inquisitive, curious mind leads him to want to know more about what’s going on with the mothers after he sees a dead boy in the sea one day.

No further details should be given. Go into this movie fresh. Some films are best described as an experience; others are given the label undeservedly. Evolution is the most dream-like cinematic ‘experience’ of the past year bar none. You won’t see anything else quite like it.

The film doesn’t rely on a lot of dialogue; extended periods go by without talking, particularly in its second half, where the haunting environment and sounds carry you through. It’s been described separately as a drama and a horror movie; it certainly has subtle elements of the latter, but in truth Evolution deserves a genre all of its own.

8 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Mr Six.

Mr Six pic 1.

Of all the screenings I attended over this period, Mr Six reminded me most why I’ve come to value film festivals so highly. I saw this 136 minute-long Chinese film at 9pm on a gloriously big screen at a movie theatre in which usually only the big mainstream English language releases are shown. That may not sound very exciting to some of you, but for me, just the act of being able to sit there in a big screen at a somewhat mainstream venue to watch Mr Six as if this kind of thing was the norm, it was quite thrilling. Of course, that thrill would have been hampered if the film itself wasn’t very good.

One could be forgiven for thinking going in that this movie is all about fighting or martial arts of some sort. It kind of is, but not in the traditional way you’d expect from a Chinese crime drama about street gangs and thug life. This film shows you a different side, from the perspective of an older generation who’ve done the hands-on work years ago and are now respected to the point where they no longer need to fight for it. Mr Six himself, presumably in his mid-60’s, is representative of this older generation; a scene early on shows his influence not only on the community but also Beijing’s police department, when he interferes in a confrontation between officers and a street vendor.

Straight-up, there’s not much physicality here, though the film constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat with the underlying threat of it, and in this case that works incredibly well. Rather it’s more a character-driven drama focusing primarily on the relationship between Mr Six, played by Feng Xiaogang (who surprisingly, considering this role, is best known for making comedy films in China), and his estranged son Xiao Bo (Li Yifeng), who is kidnapped and held hostage by a young street gang not long into the movie.

This brings out some of the film’s best scenes, as Mr Six attempts to secure his son’s release and finds himself pushed to the point of considering whether to get his hands dirty once again. His interactions with the gang’s leader, played by Kris Wu, create some of the most entertaining moments of the movie, and when Mr Six goes to a few of his old friends for help with the situation, tensions build to breaking point between the two disconnected generations.

The generational gap is a major theme here; on numerous occasions the older characters lament how the next generation has turned out, and you get the sense that this movie does represent something of a watershed for 1970s/ 80s Asian cinema, in which characters like Mr Six would have been in their prime. In this perhaps lies the film’s greatest strength. Both sides of the generational divide are portrayed fairly; you see the intricacies, eccentricities and social statuses of each, and it eventually leads to a surprising conclusion as they struggle to understand one another.

Mr Six was certainly one of my favourite evenings of the festival. I loved the overall experience. Aside from one strange scene involving an ostrich that felt horribly out of place, it hit all the notes it was aiming for; both the big emotional ones and the subtle qualities found in its script, performances, and the accomplished direction from Guan Hu. No word on a wider UK release date yet, but absolutely worth looking out for when it arrives.

9 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Traders.

Traders pic 1.

Imagine a world in which men had been pushed to the point where they willingly put all of their money on the line in a fight to the death; the winner walking away with everything in the other’s possession. Before starting the fight, you find a quiet area, making sure you’re not followed, and dig a hole in which the loser’s body will be placed. If you’re good at it, this can be quite a lucrative business – with frequent sparring partners getting involved out of pure desperation, having lost their job and finding themselves drowning in debt.

Well, Traders brings this scenario to life. An Irish thriller with darkly comedic elements, it’s set around the 2008 financial crash – indeed the film opens with the two central characters losing their highly paid jobs and facing the reality of being unable to afford the lavish lifestyle’s they had been living up to that point.

The film has a definite tongue-in-cheek style to certain parts of its script and acting performances; a tone which some may find slightly jarring as it tackles serious issues like depression and even suicide, resulting from unemployment and debt. But Traders does in fact handle these issues well. It simply does so with a refreshingly irreverent attitude, and dares not to make them the overall focus of the film – because the focus here is instead about finding thrills in a hopeless situation. That’s what the 2008 crash was. The so-called ‘death of the Celtic Tiger’, following a boom for the Irish economy throughout the 1990s and mid-2000s, left many feeling as hopeless as the characters of this film. To look back on it with a sense of humour is something one would like to think is warranted, if not necessary for moving forward.

Jointly written and directed by Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy, starring Killian Scott as its central ‘trader’ Harry Fox, with John Bradley as his hapless friend Vernon (to whom the concept of trading can be attributed; originally pitched as his new ‘business idea’), Traders has been named in the same breath as Fight Club (1999) by critics. It’s not hard to see why; in basic terms, both films involve fighting, men falling back to primal instincts in the face of societal disillusionment, and both provide a subtle critique of their cultural backdrop in entertaining fashion.

This film, though, had a much smaller budget, and in general feels like a more eccentric premise; so that it manages to be almost as successful as David Fincher’s accomplished cult classic is all the more impressive. In time Traders itself may garner a similar reputation in some circles, though its tone may turn others off. For me it was undoubtedly one of the festival’s best surprises.

8 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Speed Sisters.

Speed Sisters pic 1.

The words Palestine, women and racing car drivers don’t often appear together in the same sentence, and if they do one would imagine them appearing alongside the line “would never happen”. But in 2009 the ‘speed sisters’ were formed; a team of five Islamic women whose passion is driving fast cars in competition with men and with each other.

This recently released documentary follows the team’s exploits in their home country, covering the challenges they face in breaking away from cultural expectations and tradition. One older gentleman claims at one point that while the ladies have performed well in what they do, he would never have permitted any of it if they were his daughters; instead preferring women to get a respectable job and raise a family. Racing cars should be left to the men – a sentiment perhaps shared even in some circles in more liberal Western society.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a film overly concerned with parading gender inequality or shoving a political message down your throat. What we see is only what these women face in everyday life – within a region where gender inequality and bias are much more real than a social media fad – and not just them; but wider Palestinian society, the normal people who find themselves caught up in a region in seemingly constant conflict and trying to live a normal life despite it.

Here we see a side of this part of the world that mainstream media and general news coverage won’t show you. The whole experience of Speed Sisters is a wonderful breath of fresh air, only part of which has to do with the young women and fast cars at the centre of it.

9 / 10