The 53rd BFI London Film Festival kicked off this evening with the world premiere of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox, but for some of us, it has already started. A number of pictures have already been screened to the press, and I will soon be writing more expansive verdicts on my favourites from that bunch (The Informant!, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Mugabe and the White African) but here is a brief take on everything else I've seen in the past few days.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura)
Manoela de Olivieira is 100 years old and he has been making movies since the early 1930's, but his latest – shamefully – is the first of his films I've ever seen. So I'm not entirely sure how representative of his style Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is, but I can't say it has prompted me to immediately seek out more of this centurion's work (where on earth would I start?). The film begins with a man (Ricardo Trêpa) relating his tale of woe to a fellow passenger on a train, and over the next hour, we see how his love for the beautiful, mysterious girl who lived across the street (Catarina Wallenstein) turned his life upside-down. Olivieira's filmmaking style is elegant and refined, but there's something awkwardly stilted and theatrical about a number of scenes. This strange element of artifice extends to some of the interactions between characters, but the film remains an oddly intriguing and often beguiling shaggy-dog story, even if it occasionally left me scratching my head.
The Exploding Girl
This slight American independent feature charts the friendship between two uninteresting, inarticulate teenagers, with one half of the pair hoping to edge the friendship into more intimate territory. Zoe Kazan plays the epileptic Ivy, home from school for the holidays and missing her boyfriend, and Mark Rendall is her studious pal; but while the performances are entirely believable, writer/director Bradley Rust Gray gives them very little of interest to do. He keeps the dialogue banal and the emotions muted, but the film is too understated for its own good, drifting aimlessly towards its close without ever doing enough to endear me or interest me in its characters' dilemmas. Frankly, it all grows rather tedious very quickly. Oh, and nobody explodes, disappointingly.
A Single Man
Colin Firth collected the Best Actor award at Venice for this performance, and his guarded, emotionally complex turn as the grieving George certainly impresses. A Single Man accompanies George during one day as he is haunted by memories of his dead lover (Matthew Goode), and spends time with both an old friend (Julianne Moore) and a flirtatious young student (Nicholas Hoult), all the while making meticulous plans to end his life. The film has been adapted for the screen by Tom Ford, who is making his directorial debut, and a very confident first-time effort it is too. The visual style is striking, with Ford draining the colour from scenes in which George appears alone, before slowly bleeding a warm sunlit glow into the image when he makes a connection with someone – it's an effective, if ultimately overused motif. He also employs jump cuts and bold staging, and he successfully finds a balance between George's present-day trauma and the frequent flashbacks. For about half of A Single Man I was riveted, but at some point in the second half, Ford's grip on the material loosens, and it takes a much longer route towards the climax than seemed strictly necessary. The film is never quite as impressive in its latter stages as it is early on, but the ending packs a punch, and it certainly is a solid piece of filmmaking as a whole.
44 Inch Chest
If Don Logan lived to a pensionable age, he might have turned out to be something like Old Man Peanut, the character played by John Hurt in 44 Inch Chest. Peanut is a gangster from the old school, and he's in no doubt about the fate deserved by the young man to whom Colin (Ray Winstone) has lost his wife (Joanne Whalley). Colin's mates have rallied around, and so they all find themselves holed up in a dingy basement, with "Loverboy" tied to a chair while they wait for the distraught cuckold to pull himself together and finish the job. 44 Inch Chest was written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the pair behind Sexy Beast, and their new film bears many similarities to that unexpected hit: amusingly profane dialogue, memorable characterisations, and – unfortunately – some shoddy storytelling in the film's second half. A large chunk of 44 Inch Chest takes place inside Colin's increasingly tortured mind, and it's here that the film gets horribly confused with itself, leading to an unconvincing shift in Colin's motivation. First-time director Malcolm Venville does well to maintain a sense of variety in the potentially stagey single setting, but the film's trump card is its cast. Stephen Dillane and Tom Wilkinson are excellent as two of the more understated characters, while Ray Winstone pulls out all of the emotional stops as the despairing central figure, but the film is stolen by the hilarious double-act of Ian McShane and John Hurt, who relish every line of the ripe dialogue Mellis and Scinto constantly serve up for them. This is a flawed film elevated by a terrific cast, and I haven't even mentioned Steven Berkoff's typically...er...restrained cameo appearance.
Bruno Dumont's latest stirs up a number of fascinating and typically provocative ideas about the nature of religious devotion, but the director's opaque storytelling sucks away the film's dramatic impact. Giving a compelling performance in the central role, newcomer Julie Sokolowski plays Céline, an utterly devout Christian whose adoration of God consumes her life. When she meets a Muslim teenager (Yassine Salihine), the pair begin spending time together, but she makes it clear that Christ is the only man she has room for in her life. However, a meeting with Yassine's persuasive older brother encourages Céline to question her deeply held beliefs, and to make a life-changing decision which I found rather hard to believe in. Those of us familiar with Dumont's occasionally repellent oeuvre will be primed at this point for something horrible to occur, but the film shies away from ugly shock tactics, and there's a sense of grace in this picture that his work has rarely had before. His fractured, elliptical approach to narrative gets in the way, though, and many of the film's later sequences are ambiguous to the point of confusion. This is Dumont's most interesting and accomplished film for a couple of years, but it falls frustratingly short of its rich potential.
Samson and Delilah
The opening moments of this Australian film play like an aboriginal take on the romantic comedy, but such thoughts quickly dissipate as the story of Samson and Delilah's troubled relationship takes a series of dramatically dark turns. The titular couple (played by Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson) are young aborigines who flee their violent domestic lives and head into the city, where simply surviving is a mammoth task. Writer/director Warwick Thornton paints a painfully authentic portrait of lives lived on the margins, and makes potent points about the status of aborigines in Australian society, but the story itself is a little lopsided, and Thornton eventually allows the film to bypass numerous possible endings in an overextended final act. The central characters remain consistently watchable throughout, though, and Thornton allows large portions of the film to play out without a word of dialogue, relying on his young actors to carry the picture with their expressive faces, and both are up to the task. Gibson is a particularly strong presence, as the Delilah who displays the real superhuman strength in this relationship.
There's a good movie in here somewhere, a documentary about love in which couples who have been together 30, 40 and 50 years tell us how they met, and how they have managed to keep their love burning over the intervening decades. We get glimpses of this movie throughout Paper Heart, but those glimpses are buried beneath a horribly twee faux-documentary starring the irritating Charlyne Yi. She begins the film by telling us that she doesn't believe in love, and that this movie is her quest to understand it, which is why she spends some time interviewing the couples I mentioned, all of whom have charming stories to tell. But the focus of the film gradually shifts to a fictional relationship between Charlyne and Michael Cera (playing himself - no, really playing himself this time), who begin a romance during the course of filming which suffers under the duress of constant camera surveillance. Quite why Yi and director Nicholas Jasenovec (who hires Jake Johnson to play him on screen) went down this route is unclear, as Yi's constant giggling and lack of screen presence renders the scenes involving her and Cera dull and self-indulgent, and the strained air of manufactured quirkiness quickly grates.