BFI London Film Festival 2018: One's to Watch
Dom Luck takes us through some of the highs and lows of the BFI film festival so far.
The Realm (El Reino)
Dir. Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Wri. Isabel Pena, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Time: 2h 2 min
This Spanish neo-noir political thriller explores corruption and morality at a break neck speed.
Manu, (fantastically played by Antonio de le Torre), is a local politician in coastal Spain, living a lavish lifestyle and exerting charm and control across his work and personal life. However, as a party wide political scandal threatens to destroy Manu and all his colleagues, scape goats are sought after, and backs are stabbed. The film chases Manu as he frantically scrambles to one-up the justice system as his former allies and the party rapidly distancing itself from him. Manu goes to increasingly desperate lengths to stay on top and the film quickly develops into an urgent and heart racing thriller.
The film is shot in almost documentary style with shaky hand-held cameras darting around in a frantic race to catch up with the action on screen, somewhere between Paul Greengrass and Armando Iannucci. Composer Oliver Arson employs a staccato blend of electronic beats which seem to constantly be rising in pitch to create a shrill ratchet tension that accompanies the events on screen.
The film’s only flaw if I was forced to pick one, is that as Manu and his perspective are the sole focus, so there is little time to explore some of the interesting but underused female characters, especially Barbara Lennie’s journalist Amaia. Her plot would be a great one to expand on when the inevitable English language six-part TV drama adaptation is commissioned.
All in all, the film rips along at such a break neck speed that the two hour run time flies by. Together with how de la Torre is so tenaciously likeable despite his amorality, this film makes for compelling and thrilling viewing.
Dir. Joe Penna
Wri. Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Time: 1h 37min
All Is Lost meets The Grey in this gruelling & grizzly tale of one man’s struggle for survival in the snow.
My immediate thoughts upon seeing the credits roll for Arctic, were thank god. And I mean that in the best possible way. It is a tough watch, but it really is quite amazing.
The film opens with Mads Mikkelsen, as Overgard, a pilot stranded somewhere in the arctic. The films first surprise is rather than dealing with the crash and watching Overgard learn to adapt to survive Penna opens the film with Mikkelsen having been there for some time and going through a well-trodden daily routine. Some clever exposition shows Overgard trudging through the days, checking the fishing holes he’s dug, eating the fish raw, going up the hill to check the radio, cleaning and rearranging a pile of rocks (the heart-breaking significance of which becomes clear later), crossing off locations from a map. Dually we experience the daily dangers of hunger, infection, frostbite, snow storms and bears. When a chance for rescue goes disastrously wrong the regularity of Overgard’s drudge existence is broken, and he has a new goal to chase.
The film’s dialogue is sparse with only a handful of lines in Danish or English, but in spite of this, and the frosty setting, the film is warm and often funny. Mikkelsen looks a complete mess, never the pretty Hollywood type. He is beaten and brutalised to the extreme, and moments that may have been unbelievable in another actor’s hands ring true as you really do believe if anyone could survive alone in the Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen could.
The last moments of the film feel like they really hung in the edit and I imagine some early test screenings may have saved us from Pena’s crueller instincts. A punishing watch and suitably exhausting, but I’m very glad I made the journey with Overgard.
Dir. Paul Dano
Wri. Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
Time: 1hr 44min
Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan shine in Paul Dano’s first feature film; a thoughtful and sensitive look at the breakdown of a nuclear family in 60s middle America.
Wide eyed 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) and loving parents Jerry (Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Mulligan) have just moved to a sparse Montana town looking for opportunity. Though often uprooted, on the surface the family live an idyllic nuclear existence. The two leads’ likeability and the adoration with which Joe and thus the audience sees them, makes it all the more painful when the thread of their marriage begins to unravel. Joe is forced to grow up hard as Jerry leaves the town to fight the distant but ever-present threat of nearby forest fires, much to Jeanette’s anger and dismay. Joe’s innocent view of his mother is shattered as she becomes imbittered unpredictable and selfish.
To its credit the film never criticises either Jerry for running, or Jeanette for reacting, instead we are left trying to understand the root causes for their actions along with Joe. This is where the films strengths lie, by placing the camera on Joe’s shoulders we experience the forest fire of his parent’s relationship and the destruction it wreaks. Joe is a witness to it all and at times a completely inactive protagonist, as children caught in the wake of a dissolving marriage are. He is helplessly unable to intervene and incapable of separating himself either.
Though little of the film is startlingly original, it is a considered and confident debut from Dano and further proof of Mulligan and Gyllenhaal’s clout.
The Guilty (Den Skyldige)
Dir. Gustav Moller
Wri. Gustav Moller, Emil Nygaard Albertson
Time: 1hr 25min
Jakob Cedergren plays demoted police officer Asger Holm, working as an emergency services phone operator in a race against time in this claustrophobic Danish thriller.
Moller creates a twist on the classic renegade cop going above and beyond trope, firstly confining his maverick cop to an office for the duration of the run time. This means the only tools at Asger’s disposal are a Bluetooth headset and his willingness to break protocol. When he believes a woman’s life is in danger, Holm is given the opportunity to escape the drudgery of his new office existence and do some real policing. But Moller is not interested in telling a straightforward cop against the world story and instead bends and interrogates Asger, and in turn the audience’s expectations.
The film is office bound, with the camera rooted on Cedergren’s face for the whole part of its run time, relying on clever sound design and strong supporting performances, (almost entirely voice only), to tell the story. It was a fantastically riveting and thought-provoking subversion of the maverick cop breaking all the rules to solve the case. That is up until a somewhat icky and unnecessary twist which I think will cause some noise over here with UK audiences.
Crystal Swan (Khrustal)
Dir. Darya Zhuk
Wri. Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk
Time: 1hr 35min
A tonally shaky story of a young DJ in 1990s Belarus chasing a visa to escape to Chicago, the home of house music.
Watching Crystal Swan felt at times like watching a student film with a better budget. Tonally it leap-frogs from rhythmic study of dance music culture, to fish out of water quirky comedy, a comment on life as a post-soviet youth, hard hitting expose of forgotten communities, attack on Belarus, celebration of Belarus. The plot is hard to explain at length but here goes; The long and short of it is Velya, (Alina Nasibullina), is a young house DJ in post-soviet Belarus. She’s desperate to get to American so forges a work permit from a crystal factory in a far-off town for her visa application. The visa office says they will call the number on the application by the end of the week. She calls it first and it leads to a house in a town near the factory, so she steals from her mother to pay for the train and bus there then turns up at the house unannounced asking to sit by their phone. The family are preparing for the wedding of their eldest son Alek, (Yuriy Borisov), a soldier, and a surly disconcerting presence. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and confront each other on many issues from their opposing standpoints. These interactions are when the film shows most potential, as the clash of the old way and the new westernised youth grapple. However, they take place too late in the film and are not given the breathing space they need to really materialise into anything.
One particular moment which sheds interesting light on Alek’s character and background in the armed forces is too brief to really bear any weight and too clunky to suggest subtlety. The film ambles towards some sort of conclusion and a climax I could see coming a mile off, with one particular scene which was complete misjudged, unnecessary and in shockingly bad taste, though thankfully cut short in the edit.
Check back in with the writer and director for one of their later projects in the future, but I’d recommend you give this one a miss.
Dir. Craig William Macneill
Wri. Bryce Kass
Time: 1hr 46min
Billed as ‘a psychological thriller based on the infamous 1892 murders of the Borden family’, Lizzie neither thrills nor entertains anywhere near as much as it ought to.
Lizzie, (Chloe Sevigny), a young woman in the late 19th century is constantly at odds with her controlling father, (Jamey Sheridan), and step mother, (the dependable Fiona Shaw). When the family’s new ‘Maggie’, Bridget, (Kristen Stewart), arrives at the house, the two begin a relationship, and soon Lizzie begins to plot her escape.
For a film about a lesbian murder plot at the turn of the century Lizzie is remarkably dull. There are some clever time hops and retelling of events with new information granted to the audience but none of it ever really amounts to much. Both leads are pretty inaccessible, Stewart twitching and flinching her way through the film to the point of spasm, whilst Sevigny is so cold and reserved it’s hard to every really get under her skin.
A dry and dull period piece with little to get excited about, even when it gores-up for its murderous climax.
Knife + Heart (Un Couteau dans le Coeur)
Dir. Yann Gonzalez
Wri. Yann Gonzalez, Christiano Mangione
Time: 1hr 50min
Paris. 1979. A low budget gay porn producer Anne is left by her editor and lover Lois. Meanwhile a leather clad sadist is hunting down and executing gay men across the city, of all whom share one thing…
If the film’s set up sounds like the sort of delightful B-movie shlock you’re looking for I’m afraid to inform you Knife + Heart is unfortunately nowhere near as camp or fun as it should be, and indeed needs to be. Gonzalez constructs some genius pastiche 70s porn scenes which are a joy to watch, and the first couple of murders, one of which involves a knife concealed within a dildo, are inventive and alarming. Yet the time spent in these areas becomes fewer and far between, as Gonzalez instead decides to focus on the under baked love plot between Anne and Lois, and the oh so boring journey Anne takes to discover the indemnity and backstory of the masked murderer.
The supporting cast all do their best and seem to be having fun. Nicolas Maury is particularly amusing and compelling as Archibald, Anne’s right hand man and sometime star. There are some first-rate moustaches, laugh out loud lines, a fantastic electronic soundtrack by M83, and plenty of pretty boys to keep you entertained if that’s what you came for. Ultimately though, the film seems to get bored of itself, and loses sight of exactly what was good about it to begin with. I almost think it knows its rubbish, but It can’t decide if it wants to be or not, and really it should have just accepted and embraced itself for what it was.
Keep an eye out this week for the latest at this year’s festival.