London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems (Oct 12th-27th)

London Film Festival 2011 Part 2London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems: Welcome to the second part of DVDfever’s London Film Festival retrospective.

Last time we looked at the big budget and indie movies from the US and UK. In this part we’re mining the rich seam of creativity from everywhere else in the world. From Austria to Argentina, via Korea and Iceland, you’ll find something to suit your taste. And to save you time (and hard-earned money) we’ll make it clear whether you should be first in line, would be better off waiting for the DVD, or quite frankly shouldn’t bother at all. As a bonus, we’re also going to point out some of the remarkable documentaries coming your way.

So which nations really stood out from the pack with their festival fare this year? I never thought I would say this, but quite honestly, it’s pretty much a dead heat between Norway and Argentina… closely followed by Iceland – with the usual suspects, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy also giving a good account of themselves. So, rather than looking at genres or themes, we’re doing a country-by-country rundown, to highlight not just the best from each nation… but also the odd miss.

If you can judge a comedy by the laughs-per-minute rule, then there is no competition this year. KING CURLING (right), directed by Ole Endresen, rules. Straddling the territory between Zoolander, gross-out US fare, and Strictly Ballroom – which set the standard for hilarity, warmth and sporting obsession – this shows the lengths that Nordic competitors will go to in order to secure the much-coveted curling title.

And en route it features marital, mental and physical breakdown, extreme birdwatching, dreadful haircuts and fashions, appalling interior decoration, and a gawdawful Rod Stewart impersonator. Yet somehow, every character is endearing, and it’s all topped off with a great soundtrack including the glorious Eels. Recommended without reservation.

To prove it’s not a one-trick pony, Norway also boasts the festival’s best thriller, the gripping HEADHUNTERS. Directed by Morten Tyldum, it’s the first adaptation of any of Jo Nesbo’s dark novels, from the same production company that makes the Wallander TV series. Roger, the anti-hero, begins by doing everything to annoy the audience – acting smug and self-satisfied, sporting a beautiful wife, and believing he can pull off any money-making scam, leaving no trace or casualties.

But when sets his sights on something far more lucrative, he becomes a pawn in a much bigger scheme, and is relentlessly pursued across every terrain, in all weathers. His personal, professional and criminal worlds collide, and he might not just lose his love and his job, but also his life. And by this stage we are fully on Roger’s side, as he tries to keep his head above water and escape absurd situations and a truly ruthless opponent. Again, unmissable.

The best romantic comedy is MEDIANERAS (right), directed by Gustavo Taretto and fleshed out from his original, much-praised short film. Part of its genius is the casting. Argentine actor Javier Drolas plays a stressed-out insomniac web designer who is still looking after the dog his girlfriend left behind when she walked out on him. Spanish actress Pilar Lopez is perfect as the would-be architect forced to spend her days doing window dressing in Buenos Aires, and her evenings asking herself “Where’s Wally?” while listening through the walls to her neighbour playing her grand piano very stridently.

They both live in high-rise flats in adjacent blocks, and they both go dating, but their paths never cross. In fact, the idea of internet dating is neatly summarised by Drolas as resembling the McDonalds’ menu: everything there looks larger and more delicious. So the entire film consists of the duo’s delightful, whimsical parallel lives – packaged around the director’s “love letter” to the city itself. But are they fated never to meet? You’ll have to watch to find out. And I strongly urge you to do so.

BACK TO STAY, from debut director (and screenwriter) Milagros Mumenthaler, is an altogether different, Chekhovian drama of languid pace, which meshes The Three Sisters with The Cherry Orchard in plot and tone. Its title in Argentina is “Open Doors, Open Windows”, but it seems that the spoiled sisters who live in a crumbling mansion, while mourning their wealthy grandmother, might never escape. Beautifully filmed, they are trapped, enervated and disempowered by a mix of grief and lack of ambition while bickering and siding against each other.

Their neighbour, and the only person who really seems to care about them, is played by Julian Tello, who also features in Laura Citarella’s OSTENDE, which is a curious mixture of seaside postcard from a windy resort, Rear Window Hitchcock-style thriller, and French drama. The central character has won a prize to stay at the beach hotel, but is she witnessing a deadly crime, or perhaps just imagining a far-fetched plot at the deserted location?

One of the major themes dominating the festival is ageing, illness and mortality – and tackling it headlong is VOLCANO (right), co-produced with Denmark, directed by Runar Runarsson and featuring a stunning performance from Theodor Juliusson as Hannes. Recently retired and looking forward to spending time with his small fishing boat, his world falls apart when his wife suffers a stroke and is unable to move or speak. His fortitude and love are tested to the limit, as the rest of the family turn against him, and Runarsson never flinches from giving us a very grown-up film about facing death.

Those who loved Country Wedding, a previous festival favourite from Iceland’s Vesturport group, will want to check out the collective’s UNDERCURRENT, directed by Arni Olafur Asgeirsson. With less humour and much more darkness and drama, it opens with a funeral, and focuses on a tightly-knit, but under-evolved group of fishermen who go out on their beaten-up trawler in all weathers, and support each other through setbacks. But how deep is the loyalty of this bunch of misfits when it’s really tested? What really happened on their previous voyage? And will tragedy strike again?

Fans of Danish crime series, The Killing (which includes yours truly) will want to know what else one of its top-notch crew, director Lisa Aschan, can do. And the answer is SHE MONKEYS, a curious coming-of-age tale of the new kid in town, Emma, who joins the local equestrian acrobatics team (a sport I never knew existed). In the midst of fierce rivalry, she gains a friend, Cassandra, who drags her into her highly-charged teenage world of high jinks, high spirits, physical challenges and petty crime. Meanwhile, young Isabella Lindquist, playing Emma’s kid sister, Sara, steals every single scene she’s in and is worth watching out for in future.

One of the very best films in the entire festival comes from those evergreen Dardennes Brothers, in the shape of THE KID WITH A BIKE (right). It stars young Thomas Doret as Cyril, the kid, and Cecile de France, whose stock has been rising steadily, as his potential saviour, hairdresser Samantha. On face value, a drama about a boy who has been completely abandoned by his father, placed in care, and is tempted into a potential life of crime could be pretty dark and unpromising. But thanks to the two exceptional and sympathetic leads, and an expertly balanced mix of grit and hope from the Dardennes’ script, this certainly equals their previous best. Surely Samantha won’t want to foster or adopt Cyril when he falls in with some dodgy characters and lashes out at her? Or can he pull back from the brink to find salvation and even redemption with her?

Another trio of remarkable kids dominate Bouli Lanners’ gently humorous coming-of-age movie, THE GIANTS. Reminiscent of Stand By Me, but with added substance abuse, swearing and peroxide hair dye (making them look like Lost Boys), the exploits of these hapless teenagers get them into deeper and deeper trouble. They rent out their home and lose all its contents to thuggish drug farmers, squabble as they become increasingly feral, and have to fall back on the kindness of strangers. All three boys are superb, but Zacharie Chasseriaud, playing Zak, is probably the name to look out for.

Although it’s a Belgian/French co-production, LAST WINTER actually has an American director, John Shank, who dovetails epic US filmmaking qualities with European pastoral sensibilities in his debut feature. The story is timeless – of one man’s Hardyesque struggle against the elements and fates – yet incredibly timely, as the central character (an impressive Vincent Rottiers) is a farmer swallowed up by economic adversity and tempted to join all his neighbours in selling up and quitting the business.

Starkly beautiful landscapes frame Rottiers’ every bit of rotten luck, as a thunderstorm threatens his crop, his barn burns down, his insurance doesn’t come through, and his sister’s health worsens. Is there any way out for him?

Go to page 2 for more from London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems.

Certainly no newcomer to the festival, but definitely turning in a couple of the best performances is actor Jean-Pierre Daroussin. Both films in which he stars reflect our troubled times. EARLY ONE MORNING (right), from writer-director Jean-Marc Moutout has Daroussin as a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down or Peter-Finch-in-Network type character who finds himself surplus to requirements and is as mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.

It’s also a pretty caustic look at the dog-eat-dog financial world – including a priceless bit of business-speak to explain his demotion: “you’ve signed the internal mobility clause”. Starting with Daroussin pulling out a gun and executing several of his colleagues at their workplace, the film then tracks back to show his life unravelling, the good and the bad experiences, and the sessions with a counsellor, as he’s brought to the point of no return.

An altogether warmer, ensemble piece comes from the always-dependable Robert Guediguian and his Marseille-based group of actors in THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO. This time Daroussin is the grizzled docker who is suddenly out of work, despite being the union representative. At odds with modern life, but supported by his friends, his loyal wife (Ariane Ascaride), and their grown-up kids, Daroussin is forced to re-examine his values when robbed at gun-point, and he’s in the mood for revenge. Guediguian, as ever, champions community over individualism, and perhaps even makes the viewer question their own values.

Written and directed by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, 17 GIRLS is based on the true story from 2008 of a group of Massachusetts schoolgirls who made a pact to become pregnant. Transplanted to Lorient in France, the narrative centres around a small clique led by Camille, whose own pregnancy leads to a snowball effect among her copycat chums, and would-be friends. During the long, boring, heady summer days, as they target the boys to impregnate them, and they plot and plan to bring up their respective kids together, their parents and teachers panic, the reality of their future lives hits home, and you begin to wonder whether the teenagers are taking or losing control?

If you enjoyed previous festival favourite, Persepolis, you will have high expectations of the same team’s new film, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS. Once again adapted from a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, but now using live action instead of animation, there is a magical realist quality to this love story. Mathieu Amalric stars as an Iranian violinist who has carried a torch for decades, despite having a wife and children, and there is a lightness of touch throughout the film, despite Amalric’s character contemplating all sorts of suicide methods.

Amalric makes his own directorial mark on the festival with THE SCREEN ILLUSION, based on a work with Pierre Corneille. And just as Ralph Fiennes with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, he sticks reverently to the original, yet again with a contemporary thrust. The narrative is followed by hotel CCTV, and the infidelities, rivalries and passions seem to be choreographed and directed by those operating the spying cameras, making this a very modern morality tale. The only slight criticism is that by using this clever device, it can feel a bit alienating and uninvolving for the viewer.

More gritty realism comes from France in LOUISE WIMMER, featuring the magnificent Corinne Masiero (best known for TV crime series, Spiral) in the title role. Living on the margins, doing a crappy cleaning job for an unpleasant boss, sleeping in her car, unable to pay her debts, and disowned by her own daughter, this is not just a story of alienation, but a story for our times.

Also forced to live on the margins of society is Martin, the protagonist in Hans (Edukators) Weingartner’s HUT IN THE WOODS. After losing everything, his job, his mental health, his relationship, Martin is finally evicted from his home. The only thing that keeps him going is his friendship with another abandoned, lonely soul, Viktor. This young Ukrainian boy has a knack for survival and once the sectioned Martin has escaped, they team up to build a home in the woods. But how much of this is real and how much imagined?

You’d have to be made of pretty stern stuff not to succumb to the profoundly moving STOPPED ON TRACK (above-right), directed by Andreas Dresen, and starring Milan Peschel as a family man diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Given only months to live, we witness his mind and body gradually break down, his increasing confusion about even the simplest things, and the differing attitudes of his wife, children and parents. Worth seeing for the remarkable Peschel alone, but be warned – it will make you weep.

But perhaps the main achievement for German film-making – and even of the festival itself – is the DREILEBEN trilogy of self-contained, but interlinked thrillers. Each film has a different director, respectively Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhausler, and each throws fresh light on different people involved in the same crime – bystander, victim, investigating psychologist, cop, even the escaped criminal himself. Try to catch the entire trilogy, preferably in the right order, as there is a massive twist in the final film, and an even bigger twist in the final frame. Highly recommended.

Another promising debut feature is Maria Kreutzer’s THE FATHERLESS, which focuses on a family gathering in a big old house in the middle of nowhere, much like Festen. Only this time it’s the funeral of the father, Hans, that his grown-up children and their partners must attend – and as with Festen, long-held secrets are stirred up and uncomfortable memories confronted. Flashbacks to Hans as the charismatic but flawed commune leader in the eighties add to the texture and mood of the film, aided by the performance of Johannes Krisch (of Revanche and this year’s 360 fame).

The one thing you can always rely on from Italy is variety, and this year is no exception. Broad satire comes from Nanni Moretti, who also gives himself one of the starring roles in WE HAVE A POPE (right) – and which is a fine return to form after the mixed reviews for The Cayman. The premise is that when the new Pope (Michel Piccoli on majestic form) is elected, he suddenly gets cold feet, but no-one must know until the situation is resolved. Cue great deceptions, bizarre international volleyball matches between teams of cardinals, and psychoanalysis from Moretti’s own character.

The always challenging, but never less than compelling director Paolo Sorrentino follows up Consequences of Love, Family Friend, and Il Divo with his first English language feature, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE. Starring Sean Penn as Cheyenne, an unlikely, reclusive rock star with more than a passing resemblance to The Cure’s frontman Robert Smith, it also boasts Frances McDormand as his firefighter wife, Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter, Talking Heads’ David Byrne in a cameo as himself (the film title comes from one of their songs), and locations from a stately home in rural Ireland to New Mexico and Utah. The enjoyable plot ambles along genially, encountering more eccentric characters, until the very last scenes, which variously offer revenge and redemption.

Sorrentino’s favourite leading man, the lugubrious Toni Servillo has the leading role in Andrea Molaioli’s THE JEWEL. Closely based on the recent true story of the Parmalat Food Company’s rise and fall, it follows the systemic corruption as it spreads through the business, with books being cooked and backhanders standard practice. But can chief financial officer Leda (Servillo) stop the rot, or will he become part of it?

Blind faith in religious ritual resonates through CORPO CELESTE, the debut dramatic feature from documentary maker Alice Rohrwacher. Her central character is 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello), who is struggling with her approaching confirmation into the church while being on the cusp of adolescence. And she’s also singled out to help the local priest on a mission to bring a massive religious artefact back from an abandoned village – which doesn’t quite go to plan. It’s a coming-of-age film that shows Rohrwacher and her young star, Vianello, both have great promise.

Another promising debut is Andrea Segre’s beautiful LI AND THE POET. Set in Venice, it covers the very modern fish-out-of-water scenario of an immigrant far from home, who is greeted by a mixture of open hostility and the odd burst of friendship. Li is a hardworking Chinese mother forced to leave her young son to make enough money to be reunited with him. But running a bar and gathering debts from her macho clientele – Italian fishermen and petty criminals – isn’t so easy. When her only real friend, the much older, self-styled “poet” Bepi – himself an immigrant not that many years before – tries to help, the consequences are bad for both of them.

A Bolivian immigrant, Marcela, is trying to make ends meet in Madrid, and is at the heart of AMADOR, directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Selling flowers isn’t making enough money for Marcela and her unreliable boyfriend – especially now she’s fallen pregnant – so becoming a carer for an elderly gentleman becomes an additional, much-needed source of income. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with the bedridden man, and has already planned how to spend the money she’ll earn (on a fridge for the flowers), when he dies suddenly. So should she pretend that he’s still alive to get the fridge, or tell his daughter that he’s passed away and just get a pittance?

Ageing and coming to terms with his past haunts the protagonist of THE WAVES (above-right), with its writer-director Alberto Morais claiming that Spain is “a country that is a little blind about its past”. Carlos Alvarez-Novoa, better known as a theatre actor, is excellent as the recently-bereaved, troubled widower who cannot forget the concentration camp in Argeles-sur-Mer, where “he died” 60 years earlier – with frequent flashbacks reflecting his painful memories. He wants closure and is determined to go back there, despite his car breaking down. This has as its back-story the true, but largely unknown fact that hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were exiled into such camps, just over the border in France, as the Republic crumbled and Franco’s grip took hold at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Powerful stuff.

Czech Rep:
Perhaps another lesser-known story is of Czechoslovakia’s own version of the Stasi, and Radim Spacek’s WALKING TOO FAST shows that they were just as bad, if not worse than those famously portrayed in The Lives of Others. This film concentrates on the brutality and paranoia of the Czech Secret Service in the 1980s, filled with that decade’s inevitable mullets, big glasses and dodgy fashions, as they carry out their interrogations, affairs and random acts of violence. But there’s nothing comic about their dark exploits, and this should appeal to fans of John Le Carre’s Cold War novels.

Joint Czech and Slovak production, THE HOUSE is director Zuzana Liova’s feature debut, focusing on a father, Imrich, building a brand new home for his teenage daughter, Eva. He wants it to bind them, but it becomes more of a barrier, as she stubbornly aims to leave Slovakia for England. Frustration and lack of communication merely foreground the different generations’ ambitions, and Imrich can see history repeating itself, as he previously cut off his elder daughter, Jana, when she became pregnant.

Seventies life and love in Baku is the setting for Murad Ibragimbekov’s THERE WAS NEVER A BETTER BROTHER, based on his father’s novel, and focusing on brothers, beekeeping, bath-houses and bitter rivalry. If you need a further recommendation, then one of the brothers is played by Russian actor Sergei Puskepalis, who impressed in last year’s award-winning festival film, How I Ended This Summer.

Go to page 3 for more from London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems.

Disturbing in its plot and philosophy, TWILIGHT PORTRAIT (right) is perhaps surprisingly co-written by its female director Angelina Nikonova, and her female lead, Olga Dihovichnaya. Beaten down by her job and her unresponsive husband, social worker Marisha (Dihovichnaya) is brutally gang-raped by a group of police, and desperate for vengeance. But when she tracks one of them down to his grim apartment block, and has her chance for revenge, she instead falls for him in Stockholm Syndrome fashion, and becomes utterly devoted to him and his family. He even metes out a kind of twisted justice at her behest, and they both cross the line.

South Africa:
Truly upsetting and perhaps even more shocking is the obsession, fear, denial and self-loathing that spirals out of control in Oliver Hermanus’ BEAUTY, and leads to the brutal gay rape of a young man by the central character, Francois. You have been warned.

MISS BALA (right), from Gerardo Naranjo, stars the impressive Stephanie Sigman as a would-be beauty queen who is recruited by a gang when she witnesses their nightclub hit on the police. Swiftly and unwittingly drawn into their plans, determined to keep her father and brother safe, barely able to emote as lawlessness swirls around her, she simply cannot escape the gang leader’s clutches – and yet she still competes in the surreal beauty pageant. Non-stop bloody violence ought to make this a bit ho-hum, but it’s Sigman’s focused femme fatale that makes this a must-see.

Sri Lanka:
Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s powerful debut FLYING FISH is a series of interlocked, beautifully shot tales of love and violence, with explosions of sex and murder punctuating the nihilistic narrative, foregrounding the acts rather than the characters.

Hong Kong:
Those more used to seeing Andy Lau in crime thrillers like Infernal Affairs will admire his versatility in Ann Hui’s charming and moving drama, A SIMPLE LIFE (right). Here he’s spoiled businessman, Roger, who is waited on hand and foot by his elderly maid, Ah Tao, who he takes for granted – until she has a stroke and their roles are reversed. While helping her locate and live in a care home, and meeting the other ageing residents, Roger remains in denial about her flagging health. Meanwhile Ah Tao accepts her lot with gratitude and gentle stoicism, and we see their relationship strengthen credibly – thanks to both leads’ performances.

If it’s black and white, yet modern comedy you’re after, then Hong Sangsoo comes up with the goods again in THE DAY HE ARRIVES. Hong’s main character is a film-maker returning to Seoul who has comical reunions with his old friends. And they not only drunkenly rake over the past and their old conversations, but Hong also literally re-runs the same scenes, with fresh takes, crucial differences and repetitions in dialogue and rhythm, so the endlessly amusing film is also structured like a piece of music with key motifs.

Last year’s festival gave us Sawako Decides. This year Yuya Ishii presents the glorious, life-affirming comedy, MITSUKO DELIVERS (right), again focusing on a madcap heroine (the mesmerising Riisa Naka) who takes the road less travelled in every part of her life. Occasionally slapstick, frequently surreal, but always warm-hearted, it’s the tale of a woman who changes everything and everyone she encounters.

Set in the middle of the economic downturn as it hits Japan, it shows that if you follow your dream (or in Mitsuko’s case, follow your “cloud”), then even if you are single and pregnant, have lied to your parents about being in America, and have no money, prospects or possessions, things can still turn out to be “cool”. Which is precisely what this film is.

The must-see documentary of this year’s festival is undoubtedly DREAMS OF A LIFE (right), from our own Carol Morley, starring Zawe Ashton (now better known for playing Vod in Fresh Meat). It’s an extraordinary story of an ordinary woman, Joyce, whose decaying corpse was found some three years after her death, above the shopping centre in Wood Green. Getting much further than the police investigation, Morley meticulously reconstructs Joyce’s life, interviewing friends, old flames, colleagues and even her MP, and interweaving them with Ashton’s subtly re-enactments of the key moments. Guaranteed to haunt you long afterwards.

Also worth checking out is DARWIN, Nick Brandestini’s faithful film about a ghost town of only 35 people of all shapes, sizes, faiths and predilections, right on the edge of Death Valley, California.

WOMEN WITH COWS, Peter Gerdehag’s lyrical documentary about two ageing, bickering, yet ultimately loving Swedish sisters, trying to keep their dairy farm going despite one having critical health problems, and the other wanting out, plus nit-picking government regulations. The idyllic-looking surface gradually reveals the real harshness of rural survival in the 21st Century, much like the Belgian drama, Last Winter.

There have already been over a dozen films made about murdered Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, but Marina Goldovskaya’s BITTER TASTE OF FREEDOM perhaps gets closer than any to the real woman, choosing to focus on her humanity as well as her commitment, drive and professionalism.

Michael Barnett’s SUPERHEROES documents more of a frivolous subject, the real-life superheroes who roam the streets at night, righting wrongs and setting themselves up as beacons of moral strength and guidance. Their comic book costumes and invented personas make them hard to take seriously, and inevitably, much humour ensues, but Barnett shows that deep down their purpose remains righteous and well-intentioned.

© Helen M Jerome 2011


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