If you're going to make a film about a family who move into a remote house with a dark history looking to make a fresh start, only to find themselves plagued by horrors that may or may not be the product of the lead character's psychosis, then by God you'd better bring something new to the table. Adam Wimpenny has chosen to tell that story with his debut feature Blackwood, and the whole thing feels drearily familiar. A largely insufferable Ed Stoppard plays Ben, a historian recovering from some unspecified breakdown, who takes his wife (Sophia Myles) and young son to live in a spooky country manor where he almost instantly starts hearing things going bump in the night. Ben immediately suspects that all of these scary happenings have something to do with the PTSD-suffering gardener (Russell Tovey) or the shady local vicar (Paul Kaye), while his wife fears that her husband's fragile grip on his sanity is starting to slip. She should be more concerned about the film losing its fragile grip on the audience's attention, as the various scares and jumps start appearing with the regularity of a metronome, negating their own effect and leeching the film of tension. Wimpenny's direction of his own screenplay is efficient but rote. The film just sort of plods along without any real sense of purpose, never developing the characters fully enough to make us care about their plight, and the director makes a couple of decisions late on that lead to him shooting himself in the foot. So much importance is placed on the ambiguity of whether the visions Ben is seeing are simply the product of his damaged mental state, but when we see something behind him, or when Ben's son witnesses a ghostly figure, that notion is completely destroyed. The film becomes a rote box-ticking exercise in its final moments, as Wimpenny links together everything we've seen in the build-up to the climax, but my interest in the film's sense of mystery had long since evaporated. You've seen all of this ground covered before, and you've seen it covered with a good deal more imagination and style.
The Do Gooders
When watching a film at the London Film Festival one expects a certain degree of filmmaking competence, but The Do Gooders is amateur hour. Chloe Ruthven's film begins with her telling us about her grandparents, who were aid workers in Palestinian refugee camps, which is what prompted her to travel to Palestine, but that thread is swiftly dropped as Ruthven gets distracted by other potential stories. She meets gap year students volunteering in the region and spends some time in a German-run cinema showing politically charged films, but her lack of focus is exasperating. The Do Gooders only settles into some kind of coherent narrative when Ruthven hooks up with Lubna, a Palestinian activist with whom she has a tetchy relationship. Together, they begin to explore the issue of western intervention in Palestine, and to be fair to Ruthven they do touch upon some interesting complexities surrounding the issue of how aid is distributed in country. Frustratingly, however, Ruthven's journalistic rigour is as lacking as her cinematic sense, and she fails to exploit any of the potentially explosive topics that falls into her lap. The Do Gooders falls apart in front of our eyes, as Ruthven's relationship with Lubna breaks down, and she ends up turning the camera on herself while she sobs and complains that nobody appears to be listening to her. This is an aggravatingly inept film, but it almost turns into something interesting by accident, when you consider that the problems surrounding westerners sticking their nose into Palestinian issues might be best represented by a useless UK filmmaker blundering into situations she doesn't understand. The Do Gooders may actually be a brilliant work of self-satire, but given the total lack of self-awareness that Chloe Ruthven exhibits, I doubt she realises it.
The eastern boys of the title in Robin Campillo's second feature (coming nine years after his first) are teenage immigrants who are first viewed in Gare du Nord, weaving through the crowds as they elude security and look for potential marks. One of these young men catches the eye of middle-aged businessman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), who offers Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) €50 for sex. This furtive offer turns into a nightmare for the meek Daniel, when Marek's whole gang turns up at his apartment the next day and begins emptying it of its contents as he watches helplessly, but while this may be the first time Campillo's screenplay wrong-foots the audience it is far from the last. Every time I thought I had the measure of the movie, the writer/director would make a bold and unexpected choice, and what's impressive is how smoothly he handles these sharp transitions. As soon as I saw how Campillo directed the home invasion scene, I knew I was watching director in complete command of his material, and that feeling never went away throughout Eastern Boys. While we might question the plausibility of certain developments, Campillo's confident direction and the entirely convincing performances will soon win over any sceptics. When Eastern Boys focuses on the burgeoning romance between Daniel and Marek, Campillo gives us something that feels tender and true while simultaneously keeping us on guard, wondering who is exploiting whom here, and anticipating a sting in the tail. One explanation for such nervousness is the presence of Daniil Vorobyov as the leader of Marek's gang, whose charismatic but chilling performance brings an added element of danger and unpredictability to the film. When Eastern Boys turns into a nail-biting thriller in its final third, Campillo constantly skirts the edge of implausibility but he never topples over. Eastern Boys is cool, elegant and unsettling, and it succeeds at whatever genre Campillo decides to turn it towards and it offers one of the most unusual and imaginative portraits of immigrant life in contemporary Europe. Here's hoping that we don't have to wait the best part of a decade for the next film from this very talented filmmaker.
Given the continued reluctance of mainstream cinema to create interesting lead roles for women – let alone women of a certain age – we should be thankful for filmmakers from further afield who remind us of the riches that can be found in such tales. Sebastián Lelio's Gloria is the story of a divorcée in her late 50s (Paulina García) who is tired of being alone and spends many of her nights searching the clubs and bars of Santiago for her Mr Right. Gloria is not necessarily looking for love or a long-term partner (one of the rare pleasures offered by Lelio's film is the frank way in which it respects the sexual appetites of its ageing characters) but she seems to have struck gold when she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). It's giving little away to say that things don't exactly work out between the pair, and Lelio enjoys involving us in the tangled situations that Gloria finds herself in, while withholding his own judgement on her behaviour. The film unfolds in a slightly episodic fashion but each of those individual episodes is absorbing and every scene is illuminated by García's astounding central performance as the title character. She totally embraces the character's contradictions – Gloria appears timid and mousy but has a voracious, hot-tempered side – and she creates a totally convincing portrait of a complex, fascinating woman. Next to her, the evasive and mysterious Rodolfo can't help but appear to be something of a cipher, and the suspicion always lingers that he exists as little more than a catalyst, with his actions only serving to push Gloria down a certain path. That's the only area of the film that shows evidence of the director pulling strings, however. For the most part, Lelio's handling of the material displays a light comic touch and an emotional sensitivity that is most refreshing, and he pulls off a couple of big moments towards the end of the film that should cement Gloria's status as a hugely satisfying crowd-pleaser.
For years, the London Film Festival Surprise Film has followed the same format. After a brief intro that revealed nothing, the film would begin and we would only realise what we had bought a ticket for when the title appears on screen. This year was different. Clare Stewart began the evening by introducing a video clip of Wong Kar-wai welcoming us, which informed us that The Grandmaster would be the first foreign-language Surprise Film that I can recall, but which version of Wong's film were we about to watch? That question was answered when Harvey Weinstein appeared from stage left to promise us a great "ass-kicking" experience. So, we saw the controversial US-edit of The Grandmaster rather than Wong's own version, which has screened in China and other festivals around the world, and what a strange picture it is. The film is a cluttered and incoherent biopic of the martial arts legend Ip Man (effectively portrayed by Tony Leung), with the expositional title cards inserted for US audiences totally destroying whatever sense of flow and rhythm the picture might have had in its original state. On-screen captions introduce every character and the climactic intertitles make far too much of the young Bruce Lee's fleeting presence in the film – presumably under the impression that this recognisable name will mean bums on seats in the US. It's all very insulting and a cursory glance at the comparisons between cuts that are available online reveals what a travesty the Weinstein version is, but the film still contains moments of beauty that deliver transcendence amid the confusion. Many of the film's highlights involve Zhang Ziyi, whose performance as Gong Er has a fire and grace that recalls her great work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and whose revenge-based narrative makes her a far more compelling protagonist than the nominal lead Ip Man. Her fight on a train platform is a thrilling piece of work, even if Weinstein's determination to cut to the chase ensures that it – and many other scenes of conflict – is just dropped into the picture insufficient context. What a curious picture this is; it possesses a style and elegance that recalls Wong's finest work, but it's all diluted by its presence in a broken, compromised piece of storytelling. I'm not sure what Weinstein's tactic is here. Some viewers will be prompted to but the director's cut on blu-ray, while more will simply write the film off as a mess. The LFF's decision to side with the producer over the artist is a troubling one.
How We Used to Live
"Press 0 if you're calling from outside London" Ian McShane recites, before pausing and asking "but why would you be outside London?" That line typifies McShane's wry narration of How We Used to Live, a superb assembly of archive footage that tries to be nothing more than a love letter to the nation's capital. Paul Kelly's latest collaboration with St. Etienne plays like an essay film, but it's an essay film that isn't building to a definite argument. It's more of a meditation on how people live within this great city, and how life has changed across the four decades that it covers. Kelly has raided the BFI national archives to find a treasure trove of footage from the 1950s up to the 1980s, which he has edited into a swift and enchanting portrait of life in London. The film moves in passages, revelling in the way the city reveals a different side of itself after dark before marvelling at how it seems to be scrubbed clean to start every morning afresh, and charting the economic and social changes that subtly but irrevocably leave their mark on the surrounding landscape. Some parts of the city appear to be unyielding while others are unrecognisable – notably areas on the banks of the Thames, once desolate and now thriving – as Kelly depicts London as a living, breathing entity, always shifting its form. The score by Pete Wiggs is alternately jaunty, romantic and melancholy, and it always complements the onscreen imagery, while McShane's laconic commentary is a source of great humour. Of course, your mileage with this kind of filmmaking may vary depending on your appreciation for essay films and your affinity for London, but I could watch this kind of thing for hours and if anything I actually felt a little short-changed by the film's 70-minute running time. How We Used to Live is a poetic celebration of the city I love, and I found it irresistible.
The Long Way Home
The central narrative of The Long Way Home largely involves only seven characters, but it becomes clear from the opening minutes of Alphan Eseli's film that there is in fact an eight character that will play a major role in the drama – the landscape. As we see a man attempt to pull his horse forward, only to see the animal collapse in the snow, we immediately get a sense that life in this bleak, wintry environment is a constant battle to stay alive. The film takes place in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia, where 90,000 Turks troops froze to death in their fight against the Russians in 1915, and it is through this terrain that Saci Bey (Ugur Polat) is attempting to transport a mother (Nergis Öztürk) and her young daughter (Myraslava Kostyeva) to safety. When they reach a seemingly abandoned village they soon meet more survivors – a pair of Armenian peasants and two starving, wounded soldiers – where the film engages in a taut exploration of camaraderie and paranoia. This is Eseli's directorial debut but he tells his story with the calm assurance of a master filmmaker. The first half slowly draws us into the intimate moral drama between his small cast of characters before changing direction with an increasingly engrossing second hour. The director serves up some shocking and ironic developments but they feel entirely organic and an essential part of his superbly structured screenplay. Hayk Kirakosyan's widescreen cinematography emphasises the imposing nature of the endless snow-capped peaks but he is just as adept in the cramped, fire-lit confines of the shelter these survivors take refuge in. The Long Way Home is an astounding war film, one that grows deeper and richer with every step that it takes towards the surprising and deeply moving climax.