BFI 60th London Film Festival Part 1 by Helen M Jerome

chi-raqa Humphrey Bogart’s starry turns in highly memorable 1940s films noir like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not saw him slice through the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Now we have our own homegrown version of a Raymond Chandler gumshoe, in City Of Tiny Lights, set in the throbbing heart of 21st Century multicultural London, and wittily scripted by Patrick Neate from his own novel. The always-watchable Riz Ahmed stars as private detective, Tommy, who gives it the full Bogie-style voiceover as he walks down those mean streets, and uncovers a web of crime and deception very close to home. Director Pete Travis uses flashbacks to gradually reveal how compromised and conflicted Tommy is by the friendships of his youth, and the torch he still carries for his old flame, Billie Piper (aka the Bacall to Ahmed’s Bogie), as his past keeps on resurfacing. Also worth watching for supporting roles from Cush Jumbo and Roshan Seth.

A Moving Image is also resoundingly a portrait of contemporary London, and more specifically Brixton, seen through the eyes of its youth. They want to know what’s happening to their neighbourhood, who’s moving in and taking over, with Nina (Tanya Fear) as the catalyst, who is also our interpreter. Can the residents reclaim their place of belonging while intercut with real-life people and events that fuel the action, including constant gentrification, development, and even Ritzy Cinema staff protests. So is East London really “Ground Zero for the Hipster Apocalypse?”

Controversy around director-producer-writer-star Nate Parker has inevitably clouded judgement of his incredibly personal project, The Birth Of A Nation. Based on the story of Nat Turner, who famously led a slave revolt in 1831 Virginia, this is a sweeping, epic film, highly emotional and frequently painful to watch. Learning to read as a child becomes a blessing and a curse for young Nat (Tony Espinosa, superb) who as he matures (and is played by Parker), is chosen to be a preacher for the slaves and their owners, calming down insurrection, but meanwhile witnessing and experiencing unbelievable brutality and ignorance. For some time he looks the other way as his master (Armie Hammer) increasingly turns to drink and turns against him, but finally Nat reaches a tipping point that challenges his faith and loyalty. Planning a violent uprising seems like his destiny, and it seems like Parker felt it was his destiny to tell Turner’s tale. The film is faithful to the era, yet arguably compromised by shorthand cliches like playing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over cotton fields, and Strange Fruit over lynching scenes, songs respectively written a decade and a century after the film’s action. It’s also hard to argue with a feeling that he’s underwritten all the passive, female characters, but you can’t fault Parker’s ambition.

But what of the African American experience today? Spike Lee is never one to duck an issue, and much like Ava Duvernay, who brings the festival her excellent documentary The 13th, Lee is motivated by spiralling violence and incarceration in America, plus the Black Lives Matter movement and its cause. So what does Lee do? He makes Chi-Raq (above-right), a hip-hop musical set in Chicago, and based on Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata. Once you relax, suspend your disbelief, and get used to the rhyming couplets and the explicit lyrics, this is quite a ride, driven by a dapper chorus figure, Samuel L Jackson, and warring opponents Wesley Snipes as Cyclops (with glitter eye-patch), and Chi-Raq himself (Nick Cannon), leading the Trojans and Spartans respectively. And they’re expertly matched by Angela Bassett‘s Helen and Teyonah Parris as a Beyonce-like Lysistrata as the strong women who propel the plot, and have the men under their spell.

american-honey Andrea Arnold reeled us in with Fishtank, Red Road and even Wuthering Heights, peopling them with credible British characters living on the margins, with accents and flaws. Now she’s gone across the pond for American Honey, an almost three-hour road trip movie of fleetingly memorable scenes, which is at least an hour too long (much of the audience didn’t make it to the end in my screening). There are several positives, however, especially in the outstanding performance of newcomer Sasha Lane, who feels entirely believable and natural as the not-quite-innocent abroad, Star, who hooks up with a gang of feral youth, piled into a camper van and hitting the highways of America, to scam rich and poor alike, accompanied by an occasionally brilliant soundtrack. She is seduced by the questionable charms of gangmaster and all-round Artful Dodger, Shia Labeouf, and the Fagin-like head of the entire money-making, ethics-free scam, Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s actual granddaughter), but can Star’s conscience act as a wake-up call to stop her becoming just like them?

Young Adult is the fastest growing fiction ‘genre’ right now, outstripping almost everything else, and one of the best of the current YA bunch is Patrick Ness, writer of A Monster Calls. But what makes his fiction – and his own screenplay – work in this film is the extraordinary performance of Lewis MacDougall as 12-year-old Conor, bullied at school, troubled by regular, vivid nightmares and worried about his mother’s health (Felicity Jones). His escape comes in drawing the most beautiful pictures, while the world spins and churns around him, haunted by the violent fairytales told by the yew tree monster of his nightmares (Liam Neeson in fine voice) and his strict granny (Sigourney Weaver channelling Theresa May).

Described as Marmite by a fellow viewer, Personal Shopper, will not be top of my shopping list to watch ever again, though I did at least get through the entire film, unlike Goldstone
(with dodgy Aussie racists, miners, and minors) and Brimstone(with mute midwife Dakota Fanning‘s husband’s entrails neatly wrapped around his neck by murdering preacher Guy Pearce), which both promised much, were both unaccountably in the festival’s Official Competition for best film, yet both forced my early escape. Personal Shopper is another Kristen Stewart vehicle, which combines at least three of my least favourite, lazy movie cliches: endless dressing up, texting as a key plot device, and ooooh, a ghostly presence from the spirit world. Some nice scenes of Paris, a bucolic French house, and even St Pancras International can’t save the noodling plot, and if you haven’t guessed ‘whodunit’ way before the low-energy Stewart does, then you must have drifted off. It’s a ‘non’ from me.

christine Before Eleanor Catton wrote her Booker-winning work, The Luminaries, she wrote the novel that Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal is based on, revolving around a group of budding New Zealand actors who need to find something dramatic to interpret for their end-of-year student performance. They are desperate to impress their fierce head teacher (Kerry Fox), who pushes them to the edge, professionally and personally. So when Stanley (James Rolleston) and his friends hit upon the idea of reenacting exactly what’s happened to his girlfriend’s 15-year-old sister, who was seduced by her tennis coach, they don’t seem to realise that they are transgressing, and crossing a line themselves. Collateral damage is dreadful, and all sorts of moral questions are raised, but the clever ending may not satisfy everyone.

Episodic in structure, and filmed in documentary style, Lovesong is So Yong Kim‘s portrait of a love story that won’t quit, told over two acts, three years apart. Sarah (American Honey‘s Riley Keough) is basically a shy single mom with toddler daughter and absent Skype-partner, who suddenly finds a past passion rekindled when her old, extrovert friend Mindy (Jena Malone, also in Nocturnal Animals) drops by. Diners, rodeos and endless skies provide an Americana backdrop for their growing intimacy. Then, just like that, Mindy’s gone, until the second act, where she’s found a husband and is getting married, with Sarah smiling through her disbelief before the ceremony. And you get the lingering sense that this might not be the end of the story. Look out for a great turn by Rosanna Arquette as Mindy’s mother too.

Sometimes, for no reason, you get two films on the same subject in one year. At this festival we had Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine documentary, exploring the true story of Christine Chubbock, the TV journalist who killed herself live on air back in 1974. But on a different level altogether, we fortunately also get Rebecca Hall in a jaw-droppingly good performance in the title role of Antonio Campos‘ dark drama, Christine. Her Chubbock is alienated and frustrated; she cannot connect with anyone in her personal life, and cannot get a break in her broadcasting career – until it finally breaks her. With a dream supporting cast, including Michael C Hall and Tracy Letts, the story explores the nature of news, sensationalism and voyeurism, but also loneliness, thwarted ambition, alcoholism and isolation, all revolving around a potentially award-worthy turn from Hall.

COMING NEXT: Part Two of our London Film Festival round-up gathers the best of the foreign-language movies from all across the globe. potentially including the best film of the year…


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