My London Film Festival Review Round Up

The LFF has still got it, a major film festival with global influence and awards season clout, but also a lot of fun for the city itself. The last 12 days in London have been a whirlwind – I just about catch my breath to tell you what I got up to…

My secret favourite film of the LFF has been The Lady in the Van. I know it’s a straight down the middle bit of national treasure cinema, with Maggie Smith, but it is utterly delightful.

Alex Jennings is brilliant as Alan Bennett, playing the writer torn between his life and his creativity, tussling between writing about his Mum back in Leeds, and the funny old lady who’s parked her van in his driveway and not left for 15 years (true story).

It’s a film about the writing process, madness (director Nick Hytner’s been here before with King George), neighbours, community, Camden and love. It’s elegant, witty, a touch surreal and quietly subversive. There’s hardly a whirling or flashy shot in it, yet it’s beautifully in service of the material and with a script and performances this good, you just have to let it roll.

ROOM_mother_child_webRoom was a great buzz title of the festival, a little film that could go all the way to the Oscars, I reckon. Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is sure-footed telling what could be a gruesome story of a young woman (Brie Larson in a breakout role) held captive in a room for seven years, where she gives birth to and raises her son Jack.

Between them they construct their own world out of this single room, with only the presence of their captor haunting them every night as a clue to the outside world. Well, there’s a bit of telly too.

This is a scary, edgy film but told with great softness and sensitivity, even with a sense of wonder. The latter half also takes us into very different territory, continually surprise yet just as daring. It’s the one people are going to be talking about for a long time…

DESIERTOI liked Desierto a lot, too. This was written and directed by Jonas Cuaron, son of Alfonso, and stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a Mexican being smuggled across the border when his group begins to be picked off one by one by an American vigilante sniper (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his terrifying dog Tracker.

You can listen to my interview with Jonas Cuaron on BBC Radio London.

It’s like Gravity (which Jonas wrote with his Dad), but set on earth, in a blasted landscape that might as well be the moon or Mars. It becomes an existential chase movie, a metaphor and just a downright thrilling battle. It’s a study in mania and fear (from both sides – the American is obviously psychotic but the sheer will to survive and arrive that drives the immigrants is just as powerful) and it’s tremendously exciting, brilliantly staged and paced and, perhaps ultimately, chillingly bleak.

GREEN_ROOM_patrick_stewart_webI caught up with The Green Room, a title that got a little buzz after Cannes and is genre fun in a rather gruesome way. Jeremy Saulnier’s film (he did Blue Ruin, about which I was a bit meh) finds a thrash metal band playing a gig in a backwoods venue populated by neo-Nazis and caught up in a murder.

The venue owner is played by Patrick Stewart (yup, that Patrick Stewart) and he swoops in to clean up the mess and our young band have to survive an assault from skin heads and attack dogs. To be honest, although its quite well done and all that stuff, it’s a bit like Scooby Doo with guitars. Imogen Poots (nicely unrecognisable) and Anton Yelchin are the young stars, or Fred and Daphne.

Playing with American mythic landscapes was the intriguing French film Les Cowboys, by Thomas Bidegain, a film maker better known for his writing collaborations with Jacques Audiard on A Prophet and Cannes winner Dheepan.

His directing debut is an update on The Searchers, as a provincial Dad who likes doing line dancing and country singing at the weekends is suddenly plunged into an all-consuming search for his disappeared teenage daughter who has run off with her Muslim boyfriend to be radicalised.

It’s a bit like Taken (the Liam Neeson franchise produced by France’s Luc Besson), but far more nuanced and probing. Its three-acts shift sympathies and locations, continents and timescales and I’m not quite sure where it leaves us ultimately – hopeful or absolutely crushed. I hope it’s on the side of the angels – trouble is, I just don’t know whose side the angels are on these days.

Things are in the air during film festivals. Two films with ferocious attack dogs as crucial elements (The Green Room, Desierto); two films in which desperate people on road trips syphon off petrol from trucks (Green Room, Les Cowboys); two films with young women working in department stores in 50s New York (Carol, Brooklyn).

THEY_WILL_HAVE_TO_KILL_US_FIRST-MOUSSA_webThere was only one film about Malian musicians, the colourful doc They Will Have To Kill Us First, about the continuing struggle of musicians in that war-torn country to keep playing through the ban on music imposed by Islamists in the north of the region during Sharia law.

We follow Songhoy Blues, a group, and a local singer called Disco and another magnificent diva called Khaira Darby who’s dream is to sing once again the blighted city of Timbuktu, a dream to which the film seems to build.

It’s a great doc story directed by Johanna Schwartz but if I’m honest, it doesn’t quite take off the way I’d have liked. I wanted more about the importance, the style, the meaning of Malian music, the lyrics the instruments, the significance in the culture, the historical position it holds. We got too much about the inter-fighting and the politics, about which no-one really cares and which all appear to pointless and hopeless – in film, we want music to soar above all that, to bring people together and highlight the idiocy of warfare and religious ideology.

This film didn’t quite do that, and it didn’t build to the climax that would have had a packed screening out of their seats and crying and dancing with joy. This may have been to budgetary restrictions and filming difficulties. It also lacked a few other voices, such as Damon Albarn whose Africa Express project did much to bring Malian music to the fore, or world musicians attacking the ridiculousness of trying to keep good music down.

I know one shouldn’t blame a film for being what it isn’t, but that’s what this doc needed to be classic and I felt was coming frustratingly close to achieving it.