Notes From the 56th London Film Festival

The London Film Festival has reached the end of it’s first weekend for 2012 and I thought I would collect a few notes on the films I have seen so far.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

While many smaller and independent films rely upon film festivals to build buzz and find an audience I think this can sometimes hurt the films eventual reception. Often those first festival viewers have low or no expectations for the film and come out feeling very passionately about it. They then set hugely high expectations for subsequent viewers. I feel this sort of situation effected my viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Having already heard many positive views I was excited and then the lobby posters proclaimed quotes like “a game changer that gets you excited about movies again” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) and “beautiful, funny, timely, and tender, this is the American arthouse movie of the year” (Damon Wise, Empire). Unfortunately I didn’t find a film that lived up to this level of praise, at least in my eyes.

Certainly the film has some striking imagery and a loveable lead in six year old Quvenzhané Wallis. Early in the film I could not help but be caught up in a montage of celebration. Fireworks and fun made for a music video like experience.  The music is uplifting and the photography is stunning. As the film progressed however I found myself questioning the politics of the situation presented. The film follows a young girl named Hushpuppy who lives in a poor area of Louisiana called the Bathtub. The residents of the Bathtub live a subsistence existence. They appear to view any type of government or wider society as unwanted and unneeded and actively oppose intervention of any kind. Hushpuppy and her father Wink live in squalor and the risk of flooding casts a constant shadow. When a storm (Katrina?) hits the devastation is immense and is made worse by levees which protect neighbouring cities while leaving the Bathtub residents submerged. Attempts to rescue or help Hushpuppy and the other Bathtub residents are presented as invasions.

Quvenzhané Wallis and Benh Zeitlin

Quvenzhané Wallis and Benh Zeitlin

One episode sees Hushpuppy’s father Wink and some accomplices destroy a levee to help clear water from the Bathtub. I couldn’t help but wonder about the impact this would have on other towns and cities. Was this a justifiable act? The film avoids having to expand on these sorts of issues by adhering to the perspective of Hushpuppy. I feel however that there are opportunities in the story for director Benh Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar to allow us more insight into the situation which they ignore in favour of stylised photography and platitudinal voice over.


The latest from Michael Haneke whose earlier Funny Games and The White Ribbon have provided highlights of festivals past. Amour was a gala screening in the “Love” section of the festival as it looked at a couple dealing with illness in their old age. Haneke’s films often confront the viewer in shocking ways and while Amour can be upsetting I did not find it as confrontational. Instead I found this a more reflective experience though I would not want to down play how devastating the film can be.

The film opens with the discovery of a body which hangs over the rest of the film. Haneke has said “with this story you can expect that there won’t be a happy ending. Why should I play with the uncertainty of the conclusion?” Of course how exactly we reach this point is uncertain and so their continues to be tension and shock at the final moments of life. 

An aspect of Haneke’s films that I love is that they often touch on multiple themes. When I left both Funny Games and The White Ribbon I was reeling with thoughts on how each element within could be interpreted. While working on a viscereal level they also invite speculation about alternative readings. Amour continues this experience. As the film progresses the couple become more isolated and the film is contained to a single location. Repeated scenes involving a hallway window see it becoming a symbol of containment and possible freedom. The intrusions of a pigeon into the apartment also serve to break the tension while seeming to evoke the fragility of life and love as well as its transience. 


Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature feels like a continuation of the body horror stylings of his father David’s early work as it imagines a future in which celebrity obsession has grown to such an extent that fans subject themselves to the illnesses of their idols via injection. Because who wouldn’t want the flu taken directly from Angelie Jolie’s arm to yours? It’s the ultimate way to feel connected to your idol, be physically injected with some of their cells and share a virus. 

The film follows Syd March, a man working for one company that provides this exclusive access, as he becomes embroiled in the machinations of this new industry and it’s more unsavoury elements. For anyone squeamish about needles and the sight of blood the chills come quick as the illnesses are collected and dispensed.  

I found the premise a little difficult to accept and little detail is given to suggest how society has reached this state of affairs. Would there really be enough people wanting the illnesses of celebrities to support it as an industry? However should you choose to ignore such questions you will find yourself caught up in a stylish film (frequent hospital whites clash with blood reds) that recalls classic noir as well as horror.

As Syd actor Caleb Landry Jones does well with the physicality required, at times he stalks the screen like a classic vampire villain. Unfortunately his character feels underdeveloped. This keeps the audience guessing as to his motives but may leave some feeling less engaged in his struggle. Ultimately a stylish and scary film then, a very good first feature, but not without minor issues.

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56th BFI London Film Festival – Preview

In a little over a month the BFI London Film Festival kicks off. It brings more than 200 films from around the world, more than any one person could see however I hope to get to as many as time and money permit. Usually I am quite excited to get to the opening and closing night gala screenings as they are red carpet affairs, often with many of the films creative team in attendance. I’ve seen all sort of stars at these (and other LFF) screenings – Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Michael Haneke, Keira Knightly, Naomi Watts, Michelle Williams, even Harvey Weinstein! So I was slightly disappointed to find myself unenthused by this years opening and closing night offerings.

Frankenweenie opens the festival. It’s a Tim Burton directed/produced stop motion film which updates his animated short film (made in 1984) of the same name. It looks like it should be fun but I just can’t muster much excitement for another entry  in the Burton oeuvre. Alice in Wonderland did nothing for me. In addition, as a Disney release, it will have a wide theatrical release anyway which reduces the urgency to see it at the festival.

A new adaptation of Great Expectations directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) closes the festival. The BBC screened a new adaptation of the novel just last year and nothing I have heard about this new one particularly interests me. So while I would expect this to be perfectly well made and entertaining I don’t feel the need to see it at the festival.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for these opening and closing nights there are plenty of other films in the program that I am extremely pleased to see included.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has generated a lot of buzz following its screenings at the Sundance, Los Angeles, and Seattle festivals. Shot in Louisiana the film follows a six-year-old girl and her father who live in “the Bathtub”, a fictitious southern bayou community on an island surrounded by rising waters. A massive storm floods the community and in the six-year old’s vivid imagination this is linked with the ice caps melting, unleashing ancient, long-frozen beasts. Stills and clips I have seen suggest the film is visually beautiful and the unique location and story details have me very interested in checking it out.

Amour is the latest from Michael Haneke who has provided two of my greatest film festival experiences with Funny Games and The White Ribbon, films which were thought-provoking, gripping, and real surprises. Based on this track record I cannot wait to see Amour. Adding to the excitement is that this took the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. I don’t know a great deal about the plot, only that it involves an elderly couple, one of whom suffers a deterioration of health. It sounds like a premise which could well make for a challenging watch.

Hyde Park on Hudson sees Bill Murray pick up the historical political figures torch (recently held by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady) by playing President Roosevelt, it looks to grab some Kings Speech goodwill by including a visit from King George VI, and rounds things out with the always dependable Laura Linney playing Roosevelt’s distant cousin and eventual mistress Margaret Suckley. I am mainly interested to see Murray’s take on the role and hope for a fun look at a specific historical point in time that I currently don’t know too much about.

Argo is Ben Affleck’s third effort as director (following Gone Baby Gone and The Town) and early word is that he has continued to build his skills and has here crafted a tense, exciting, thriller. It tells the true life story of a daring attempt to rescue a group of Americans trapped in Iran, hiding out in the Canadian ambassadors house, by  posing as a film crew filming a science fiction film titled Argo. Blending Hollywood satire with action thriller elements could pose a challenge and the story takes Affleck out of Boston (his hometown and location of his previous directorial outings) but I have high hopes that he has overcome these obstacles and delivered something special. I’m expecting Affleck to attend the screening. He previously attended a BFI screening of Gone Baby Gone and proved to be one of the more entertaining Q&A speakers. Should the opportunity present itself I may let him know that he was the bomb in phantoms.

Black Rock has a set up that makes it sound like a straightforward thriller/horror. Three friends venture out on a camping trip which turns into a terrifying fight for their lives following the arrival of three maniacal ex-soldiers. It is described in the BFI program as “a hugely exciting thrill-ride, buoyed by the genuine strength of the female characters” but a point of interest which attracted my attention is the involvement of Mark Duplass as writer. Duplass is one of a handful of breakout filmmakers from the mumblecore scene having starred and/or written films like The Puffy Chair, Humpday, and Cyrus. How (and if) the mumblecore aesthetic is used in this film, which appears to be a genre exercise, could be the difference it needs to stand out. Duplass has been involved in a number of films this year both in front or and behind the camera and is a talent to watch out for.

Seven Psychopaths is the latest from writer/director Martin McDonagh. I enjoyed McDonagh’s first film, In Bruges, so I am keen to see this follow-up. The cast is intriguing as well with the seven psychopaths including Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Christopher Walken.

The fun doesn’t stop there. I’m also planning to check out The We and The I (Michel Gondry), Antiviral (debut from David Cronenberg’s son), The Hunt (Mads Mikkelson in a Canne award winning role), The Central Park Five, No, Zaytoun, Easy Money (Scorsese said he was “deeply impressed” by this), and Celeste and Jesse Forever. And I haven’t even looked at the numerous experimental, animated, and short features. Once again the BFI London Film Festival is a film lovers delight.


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Cinema Advertising

Last weekend I attended the local multiplex to see Ted (which disappointed me, too few laughs and not enough made of the unique central premise). Arriving at the scheduled time I then had to sit through more than 30mins of advertising. This has been a typical cinema going experience for some time and it continues to frustrate me. It’s true that some cinema advertising is creative and fairly entertaining to watch but there is simply too much of it and as a regular cinema goer I tend to see the same adverts over and over again. It is starting to put me off the cinema experience completely, at least at the big chains which seems to be the worst offenders in this regard (some of the smaller chains keep the advertising to a minimum).
I was curious to know what impact this advertising has on the chains bottom line, is the potential negative impact on customer experience worth it?
Cineworld are one of the largest chains in the UK and it was reading their financial report that I found that an organisation called Digital Cinema Media accounts for 80% of UK cinema advertising (including Odeon and VUE cinemas in addition to Cineworld). Cineworld state that “screen advertising accounts for a significant proportion of the Group’s profits… The formation of Digital Cinema Media Limited in 2008, with a joint venture partner, was a positive step towards taking closer control of future screen advertising revenues. The advantages of screening advertisements to a captive audience in cinemas and the flexibility of digital media to deliver more and varied advertising are potential opportunities to attract more advertisers and to generate higher revenues.” The financial report does not specify revenue from advertising in 2011 but states it was a major element of “other income” which totalled 24.3million pounds.
The Digital Cinema Media site makes the case for cinema advertising. It talks about a captive audience that is engaged and views the cinema as an event thus fostering a positive environment for advertising. I am sure all of that is true and I would agree that in moderation it is especially effective however I wonder if the effectiveness is diluted by the sheer quantity of advertising.
The site includes some interesting top ten lists for advertisers and categories of advertising.


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Summer Blockbusters

Summer is upon us and with it comes the blockbusters, the tent pole releases that studios pump hundreds of millions of dollars into in the hopes of hitting upon a zeitgeist busting superhit. So far we’ve seen some box office hits such as The Avengers and Men in Black 3 and some huge box office failures like John Carter and Battleship (will supposedly upcoming star Taylor Kitsch’s career be permanently knocked off course?).  Interestingly this year has seen some of these films released earlier in Europe than the US, likely in an attempt to stem piracy. Being situated in the UK I’d be happy to see this trend continue.

I’ve managed to catch a few of these summer blockbusters and thought I’d share my thoughts. Looming large over the season has been The Avengers which seems to have been almost universally liked both by critics and audiences. Writer/director Joss Whedon has been chasing mainstream success for a number of years now having earned huge geek cred with television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s spin off Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Then cementing his position with a writing stint on the X-Men comic book. Throughout all of these Whedon demonstrated a great ability to mix genre and change tone on a dime. He also experimented frequently with technique and challenged himself and his audience with the unexpected. Whedon’s experiences in film however have not lived up to the potential that the earlier endeavours suggested. His script for Alien Ressurection appears to contain some positive qualities but the film as a whole never quite works. His Firefly spin off feature film Serenity worked fairly well but failed to connect with wide audiences. His attempts to return Wonder Woman to the big screen were widely reported but never got off the ground. So I was intrigued when I heard the news that The Avengers was to be a Whedon project.

This time Whedon really hit it out of the park. He has managed to wrangle a large cast of characters, giving each a moment to shine, and he’s incorporated some witty one liners of the sort he often sprinkled through his tv series. Credit must also go to Marvel for creating a series of films for it’s heroes which have involved a multitude of film makers over the last few years while maintaining a fairly consistent level of quality and tone. Captain America is perhaps the most different to it’s peers as it embraces it’s WW2 era but also feels of a piece with the hero films proceeding it and with The Avengers. It will be interesting to see how the series continues and at what point audiences demand something with a completely new style.

Men in Black 3 has received a mixed critical reception though it appears to have done well at the box office. I recall enjoying the original’s comedy and spectacle, as well as the performances from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones who had a chemistry that worked to the films advantage. I never caught up with the sequel but I have hardly heard a positive word said about it. Given the poor opinion many have of the second film and the number of years it has taken this third entry to arrive I did not have high hopes. In hindsight that is probably a good way to go into the film as it delivers a satisfying but rather unambitious entry in the franchise. A time travel conceit allows some fun to be had with, especially as it brings Josh Brolin in to play a young Tommy Lee Jones. Brolin does a fantastic job of mimicing Jones’s characteristics and really builds on the character. Should a fourth film be made they should look for an opportunity to bring Brolin back. Fun supporting turns from Jermaine Clement and Michael Stuhlbarg (and a great cameo from Bill Hader) also add to the film. It keeps a great pace throughout, no surprise given director Barry Sonnenfeld’s view that all films should be kept under 90 minutes. In the end it’s a fun film that’s worth catching up with but not one that will last long in the memory.

Prometheus was perhaps managed to generate the most pre-release buzz this year, at least among film fans, as a number of viral videos were drip fed through the preceding months. We saw a faux TED talk featuring Guy Pearce as founder of the Weyland Yutani corporation (known to Alien fans from the earlier films in the series), an “infomercial” for the android David (androids also being a frequent featiure of the series), and teaser trailers displaying stunning visuals but little in the way of plot details. In addition were the stories of Ridley Scott’s conversion to a believer in 3D and the mixed messages regarding the films place in the alien series (is it a prequel? is it new but loosely connected?).

I was as caught up in this hype as the rest of the film world but when early reviews suggested it was not able to deliver on the promise I knew to dial back my expectations. Ultimately I feel it’s a real mixed bag of a film. Many aspects of it are brilliant (the visuals, Fassbender’s terrific performance) and I admire the efforts made to create something with bold science fiction ideas and build on the Alien series in a meaningful way. Unfortunately the nuts and bolts plotting fail to live up to the ambition. Characters behave in ridiculous ways and plot threads are poorly dealt with. Given these flaws I would characterise it as a noble failure. It’s certainly more interesting than the average summer blockbuster and for that it should be applauded.

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Coen Brothers Short Film for World Cinema

I came across this Coen brothers short film on the Open Culture site and found it quite amusing. Open Culture state;

Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema) is a 2007 French anthology film that brings together short films by 36 acclaimed directors. Lars von Trier, Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant, and Abbas Kiarostami all contributed to the project. Meant to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, the film originally aired on Canal+ in France. And, for reasons that remain unknown to us, that broadcast didn’t include the short film contributed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Nor did it appear on a later DVD release.”

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