My final round-up from the 2008 London Film Festival...
Synecdoche New York
Charlie Kaufman is one of the great creative minds currently at work in cinema, but I'm not sure he's the best person to direct screenplays written by Charlie Kaufman. The acclaimed screenwriter's directorial debut is an astonishingly ambitious film that starts promisingly before losing its way in its second hour, and one wonders if an objective director with a more disciplined approach to storytelling and editing may have been able to draw out the masterpiece that is surely buried in here somewhere. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in a committed performance that isn't allowed to go anywhere) is a neurotic, hypochondriac theatre director who sets about staging a play inside a cavernous abandoned space, a play that involves building a life-size reproduction of New York and hiring actors to play himself and those around him. This project gradually consumes him to the point where he (and we) can't tell reality from fiction anymore, and Kaufman continues to pile on fresh, bewildering layers until it becomes almost impenetrable. There are brilliant moments throughout the film, and so many ideas you're just dying to see developed to their maximum potential, but the lugubrious pacing sucks the life out of the thing, and the film lacks the kind of emotional resonance that distinguished Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine. Credit must go to Hoffman for toiling away manfully in the lead role, and Kaufman has surrounded himself with an impressive array of female acting talent, in which Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Hope Davis are the standouts.
There are few things more upsetting in cinema than watching a film as adventurous and imaginative as this implode in the way Synecdoche does, particularly when Charlie Kaufman was so gracious and polite during the Q+A after the film. He certainly deserved better than some dick shouting out "Rubbish!" as he walked past, or to face idiotic questions like "Why don't your films have any proper structure?" Mike Leigh, who was sitting a few seats away from me, clapped loudly and vigorously when Kaufman explained that his films actually have a very intricate structure, but the whole atmosphere in the cinema seemed to be one of disappointment, frustration and awkwardness, and it was a sad way to end one of my most eagerly anticipated screenings.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S Thompson
I was originally supposed to see this at the 10am press screening on Sunday morning, but when I woke up and saw the torrential rain outside my window, I decided my bed was a much more enticing proposition. Instead, I made time to catch Gonzo at its afternoon screening later in the week, and I'm very glad I did, because this is a fantastically enjoyable film. An eclectic collection of interviewees – including Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe and Sonny Barger – all have funny anecdotes or interesting perspectives to offer, while extracts from Thompson's work, read by Johnny Depp, provide the narration. Director Alex Gibney blends these elements brilliantly with a wide variety of archive footage, and some clever reconstructions, and the film is perfectly paced as it zips through Hunter's remarkable life. As someone who doesn't know a great deal about Hunter S Thompson, I found much of it terrifically funny and surprising (particularly the segments involving the '72 election campaign, which prompted me to seek out his book); and while the film pays tribute to Thompson's idealistic vision and his gifts as a writer, it doesn't ignore his darker, more difficult moments. Gonzo is a very conventional piece of documentary filmmaking, and the soundtrack choices are disappointingly rote, but I had a great time watching it, and it's another hit for Gibney, one of the most interesting directors currently at work in America.
Towards the end of the festival, I always like to take a leap of faith on a couple of films that I know nothing about, and after Lion's Den was recommended to me by Silence of Lorna star Arta Dobroshi, it seemed a good place to start. Pablo Trapero's film opens with Julia (Martina Gusman) waking up in her upturned apartment covered in blood, and with two lifeless bodies lying on the floor. Charged with the murder of one of them, Julie is sent jail, but as she is pregnant she is consigned to a separate section of the prison set aside for mothers and pregnant women, and that's where she stays for the next couple of years, giving birth to her child and raising it within the confines of the jail. As Julie learns how to cope with both prison life and her child, Trapero directs in an understated fashion, quickly undercutting any scenes that threaten to get too hysterical. The film is raw and authentic, with the relationships between the prisoners (particularly between Julie and Laura García's Marta) being convincingly written. At its core, however, the film is elevated above the ordinary by a supreme performance from Martina Gusman, the director's partner, who is stunningly forceful and empathetic throughout.
This haunting Austrian thriller starts with the build-up to a bank robbery, before moving into a surprising new direction halfway through, and developing into an absorbing study of revenge and guilt. Johannes Krisch is excellent as the ex-con working for a pimp, who is in love with Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko), and at the start of the film, the pair are making plans for a new life together. Alex's plan involves robbing a bank, which Tamara reluctantly goes along with, but when the robbery is botched, the film shifts gears, and brings Alex into contact with a local cop (Andreas Lust) and his wife (Ursula Strauss). From this point, the drama becomes more about what these characters know about each other, and how they intend to exploit that knowledge, and director Götz Spielmann moves the story forward at a measured pace, allowing the tension and intrigue to steadily develop. Martin Gschlacht provides cold, crisp cinematography that adds considerably to the film's atmosphere, and the performances are outstanding. I'm not sure about the way in which Revanche finally resolves itself – it felt a little neat to me – but this is still a complex and engrossing thriller, that's driven by the emotions and needs of its characters.
Victoire Terminus (Winner of the LFF Grierson Award for the Best Feature-Length Documentary)
Shot in Kinshasa, Congo during the summer of 2006, this fine documentary follows a group of women who have taken to boxing, and who train in the bowels of the stadium that hosted the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. They do it for sport, and to stay fit, but more important is the fact that for many of these women, this is the only way they can achieve empowerment and assert themselves in a male-dominated society, and there's a real feeling of solidarity among these fighters. Filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent De La Tullaye create a sense of intimacy with their subjects, encouraging them to speak with candour about their lives, and they keep an astute eye on the bigger picture too, with the tumultuous presidential elections becoming an increasingly important element of the story as it progresses. "Any Congolese man who takes power instantly becomes corrupt" a woman says during the film, and all of the interviewees seem to be hoping for the best while expecting the worst. Considering the horrific images that we're currently seeing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one wonders where these women are now.
I've never been a huge fan of Danny Boyle. His best work came early in his career, with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but those two pictures were very much of their time, and his subsequent output was of a very inconsistent quality. So it's safe to say I wasn't altogether enthusiastic about Slumdog Millionaire (despite, or perhaps because of, the adjectives like "crowd-pleasing" or "heart-warming" that had been attached to it) as I made my way towards Leicester Square early on Thursday morning, but whatever cynicism I had was quickly washed away – the film is a stunner. It is the story of 18 year-old Jamal (Dev Patel), a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, who is on the verge of answering the final big-money question. His progress unsettles the show's producers who immediately smell a rat – how can a kid from the slums know so much? – and the police drag him in for questioning, determined to find out how he is cheating. It turns out that each of the questions is linked in some way to a specific incident from Jamal's past, and in this manner we see his story unfold in a series of flashbacks, that follow him, his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the love of his life Latika (Freida Pinto), from the slums to the present day. This set-up initially appears contrived and clumsy, but I was delighted by the clean, ingenious methods that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy found to slip seamlessly between the narrative strands, while developing a sustained level of tension that pays dividends at the climax. The three main characters are portrayed by different actors at the ages of 7, 13 and 18 – supplying flawless performances across the board – and the film is stunningly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, with Boyle bringing an invigorating energy and panache to his direction. By the time the exuberant, emotionally satisfying ending came round, I was fully convinced – Slumdog Millionaire is easily the best work of Boyle's career, it's one of the best films of the year, and it's the perfect way to close this year's London Film Festival.