Saturday, October 18, 2008

LFF Update: Part 1

The London Film Festival started on Wednesday, and in the first of a series of despatches from the LFF, here's a brief rundown of what I've seen so far. Consider these brief summaries as teasers, as I'll be writing full reviews of these pictures in due course.

A powerful performance from Frank Langella lends an illusion of depth to this superficial and rather flat adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage play. Ron Howard directs in his usual bland fashion, doing little to add a sense of urgency or life to the drama, and the first hour is a drag, with much clumsy expositional dialogue and some unwelcome straight-to-camera segments. After while it settles into a slicker, more enjoyable rhythm, and the interview scenes between Langella's Nixon and Frost (well played by Michael Sheen) are always engaging, particularly the last one. Is it Ron Howard's best film in years? Undoubtedly, probably because the story and actors are just too good for him to screw it up, but judged against more normal standards of excellence it doesn't seem very impressive.

The ClassLaurent Cantet's Palme D'Or winner is a marvel. Set over the course of a single school year, the film observes teacher François Bégaudeau (a real-life teacher, the film is based on his book), as he educates a multi-cultural classroom in an often combative fashion. The film is primarily set within that single room (the film's French title, Entre le murs, literally translates as Between the Walls), and Cantet's three unobtrusive cameras catch the fast, fiery exchange of ideas between François and these teenagers as the film touches on race, gender, national identity, class, sexuality, and ultimately a teacher's responsibility towards his students. The fascinating thing is the way Cantet portrays François as a flawed character, who often loses control of his boisterous charges and whose reaction is occasionally downright unprofessional. The result is a portrait of school life that is realistic, complex, and exhilaratingly alive.

Miracle at St AnnaWoefully clumsy, preposterous, contrived, weighed down with subplots and ridiculously bloated, Spike Lee's war epic is also the loudest film I've seen this year, with both the sound of battle and Terence Blanchard's fucking incessant drums and trumpets being played at ear-splitting volume. Having said all that, I found individual parts of it to be absolutely brilliant, and a reminder of how vital a filmmaker Lee can be, but those isolated highlights feel awfully insufficient when set against some of the bewildering choices the director makes as he trudges through this 160-minute ordeal. There are about six different narratives jostling for position at any one time, the film is riddled with anachronisms and distracting cameos, and while the performances are generally good, the characterisations are broad rather than deep. Sure, the final scene bought a tear to my eye, but I hated myself for it, feeling I'd been hoodwinked by a manipulative and ridiculous film.

Atom Egoyan's beautifully structured new film focuses on a teenager who creates a new past for himself, telling friends and classmates that his father was a terrorist, before the story spirals out of his control. Egoyan's direction is crisp and elegant as he moves between different time zones and parcels out fragments of narrative information. He draws superb displays from his actors, including his wife Arsinée Khanjian and Scott Speedman, who suggests real layers of anger and pain in his underplayed performance. Adoration's plot is convoluted and some may balk at the coincidences and revelations that come into play, but the film is fluid, touching, and full of intriguing ideas. If you don't like Atom Egoyan's films then you probably won't like this. But I do, and I did.

BronsonCharles Bronson is Britain's most notorious prisoner, a man who has spent 34 years of his life in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. As Bronson (real name Michael Peterson) has spent a lifetime creating a persona for himself, Nicolas Winding Refn's film plays less like a biopic, and more like a vision of that life filtered through his own skewed perspective. It's a brave idea, but it doesn't work at all. The framing device has Bronson (played by a physically transformed Tom Hardy) appearing on stage in front of an audience, often in clown makeup, to tell his story, and these surreal sequences are mixed up with repetitive scenes in which the central character violently takes on groups of prison guards single-handed. The only part of the film I really liked was a central segment in which Bronson struggled to readjust to life on the outside, but the film never gets inside the mind or under the skin of its subject. The one unqualified success in the picture is Hardy, who offers a display of stunning authority and charisma, but as good as his performance is, it's clear the filmmakers don't have a clue what to do with it.

As well as seeing these films, I spoke to James Toback last week about his new documentary Tyson, and that interview will be published here closer to the film's release date.

Coming up this week – We spend Christmas with Arnaud Desplechin, Rachel gets married, Oliver Stone tackles Dubya, and I meet one of Britain's greatest filmmakers.