Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Preview - The London Film Festival 2008

Has a year gone by already? It seems only a few months ago that I was perusing the line-up for 2007 London Film Festival, and eagerly anticipating films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. When you consider last year's Surprise Film was the Coens' No Country for Old Men, it seems unlikely that this year's festival could match the high standard set in 2007, but the full programme for the 2008 LFF, announced today, does contain plenty of exciting prospects from around the cinematic globe. Here's my take on the films to look out for.

Opening Night/Closing Night Gala

The festival opens with
Frost/Nixon, a re-enactment of the interviews David Frost conducted with disgraced president Richard Nixon in 1977. The good news is that this adaptation of Peter Morgan's fine play stars the two actors who brilliantly inhabited the roles on stage; the bad news is that Ron Howard is directing. Still, with such solid material to work from, surely he can't miss with this one. A few weeks later, the LFF closes with Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's story of an Indian boy who appears on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and raises suspicious eyebrows when he correctly answers a series of tough questions. Boyle is one of the most hit-and-miss filmmakers around – even when he's good, he's often bad – but Slumdog Millionaire has received some exceptional early reviews, and the unusual story does intrigue.

Other Films

Che (Stephen Soderbergh)
Originally screened as a four-hour rough cut in Cannes, Stephen Soderbergh's epic account of Che Guevera's life will probably be split into two parts –
The Guerrilla and The Argentine – for its theatrical release. At the LFF, however, we're offered a choice of seeing those two instalments at separate screenings or (gulp!) throwing ourselves into the whole thing and experiencing all 252 minutes of Che in one go. However you do see Che, it's likely to be something special; a passion project for Soderbergh with Benicio del Toro seeming to be the perfect choice for the lead role, but at the moment I'm leaning slightly towards the full-on Che double-bill. It's a decision I might later regret.

W. (Oliver Stone)
I can't wait for this. Stone has been all over the map for years now, but few films at this year's festival have piqued my interest as much as his George W Bush biopic. Josh Brolin plays the drunken young tearaway who somehow blundered his way to the presidency, and a starry cast portrays both his administration (Richard Dreyfuss is Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell) and his parents (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn, no less). The film rushed though production this summer in order to make its bow just before Dubya finally leaves office, and the crafty, tongue-in-cheek trailer/poster campaign has whetted my appetite. Of course, with Oliver Stone at the helm this could easily turn out to be an embarrassing fiasco for all involved, but I can't remember the last time I looked forward to one of his films as much as this.

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Anne Hathaway stars as an ex-junkie turning up at the titular wedding in Jonathan Demme's drama, which has been receiving strong notices, both for the film and its star. Demme's style is well-suited to this kind of thing, and Hathaway is an actress who seems to be improving all the time, so this should at the very least provide an engaging, emotional family drama. The set-up does remind me slightly of Margot at the Wedding, one of the year's worst films, but I'm sure it won't be as bad as that.

The Silence of Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne brothers are among the finest filmmakers in the world today. Twice winners of the Palme d'Or, their stories of ordinary working-class Belgians trapped in situations that are bigger than them have provided some of the most gripping dramas produced anywhere in the past decade. Their new film is called
The Silence of Lorna, and that's about all I want to know about it right now. Part of the pleasure of the Dardennes' films is the experience of going into them completely ignorant of the plot details, and holding your breath as they and their constantly amazing actors take you on a remarkable journey.

The Class (Laurent Cantet)
Laurent Cantet's new film surprisingly won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes, and my huge admiration for the director's previous work (combined with my soft spot for inspirational teacher movies) ensured this film was marked down on my list as soon as it was announced. The story of a young teacher dealing with a mixed group of adolescent pupils in a Parisian inner-city school should be a perfect match for Cantet's keen observation and intelligent social commentary.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
It's Another Woody Allen film; and while I can't really muster up any enthusiasm for the man's work these days, I should note that
Vicky Cristina Barcelona has been well-received so far, and has been labelled more than once with those oft-repeated phrase: a return to form for Woody Allen. His latest takes place in Spain and stars Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and the director's new muse Scarlett Johansson. Will it be any good? Probably not, but least Woody has finally left London.

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
A film dealing with Folman's personal memories of Israel's war with Lebanon,
Waltz With Bashir is distinguished by its use of animation rather than contemporary documentary techniques. This was one of the most acclaimed films at Cannes, and the film's aesthetic style does seem to have produced some remarkable visuals. It will be interesting to see how those visuals help to illuminate the film's serious subject matter.

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
Arnaud Desplechin's films are always full of life and incident, and his latest picture reunites many of the actors who starred in 2004's
Kings and Queen. Expect more of the same discursive, freewheeling storytelling, with a superb cast helping to bring emotional depth to the drama.

Synecdoche New York (Charlie Kaufman)
Undoubtedly one of the LFF's hottest tickets, this is the inimitable Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, and it has proved to be such a head-scratcher so far there was an early fear that no distributor would be brave enough to pick it up. Thankfully, the film is here and should be one of the festival's true originals. It's the story of a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who tries to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse while his life falls apart. It doesn't make much sense on paper, and one wonders if it will all add up to much on the screen. Either way, the prospect of Charlie Kaufman giving full rein to his wild imagination is a thoroughly exciting one.

Tokyo! (Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho)
A collection of three short films set in Japan. I don't have much to go on here, but just take a look at the directors involved! Bong Joon-ho is one of the world's most exciting filmmakers, Michel Gondry is an extraordinary artist whose gifts are probably ideally suited to a shorter format, and Leo Carax...well...OK, I can't get excited about him, but at least two of these instalments should be fun.

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most visually exciting directors around, and his new picture should once more benefit from his moodily evocative cinematography and potent compositions. Having said that, I've felt let down at times by the stories lying underneath the stunning surface of Ceylan's films, so the test of
Three Monkeys is for Ceylan to bring a more lasting sense of substance to his work, and to give us a level of emotional content that deserves to stand alongside his remarkable aesthetic style.

Michael Sheen will discuss his remarkable collection of biopic performances, and Peter Morgan, the writer who has provided him with so much material, will also be interviewed. There's a link between two of the other interview subjects as well, with Danny Boyle and his Trainspotting star Robert Carlyle offering separate talks. The most exciting event on offer, however, is a masterclass with the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but as that occurs on the same evening as the North London derby, I'm afraid I'm going to miss out.

Surprise Film
The first thing most of us do when the LFF programme is revealed is to see what major pictures aren't there, as they might provide clues for the festival's Surprise Film. Last year
No Country for Old Men was an obvious omission from the line-up, and the absence of major pictures like the Miracle at St Anna, The Wrestler, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno seems to name them as prime suspects. I'm going to take a stab at something else, though, and I think Joe Wright's The Soloist ticks all of the boxes for a Surprise Film, so that's my 2008 tip.