The London Film Festival 2014 Part 1: Mainstream

men-women-and-childrenAs a fan of Jason Reitman’s previous work, from Juno to Labor Day, I was already predisposed to MEN WOMEN AND CHILDREN (right), but more so when learning that its subject is our ever-present online world, and that the knowing narration is by our own national treasure, Emma Thompson. Reitman says he’d been a fan of writer Chad Kultgen since his debut, and got ahead of the game by reading his novel, Men Women and Children before it was published. Stylistically Reitman has chosen to mimic what we see in dramas like Sherlock, where every text message, tweet, status update, email or website pops up as characters compose, delete, send and read them, even while they walk or eat. In a world of competitive teens and parents, Reitman focuses on three families, with mums and dads variously laidback, overprotective and hypocritical about their offspring’s online activities. Porn-addiction, pro-anorexia websites, jock culture, casual hookups and virtual worlds ensure that everyone is desensitised, numb to genuine interaction until two teens fall in love and decide to go their own way. Reitman coaxes terrific performances from a strong ensemble cast including bearded Adam Sandler, fresh-faced Ansel Elgort (Fault in our Stars), and Jennifer Garner. No doubt you’ll be texting your friends about this while watching.

Fish-out-of-water opposites attract in Jen McGowan’s comedy-drama KELLY AND CAL, which marks a comeback for Juliette Lewis as bored, lonely housewife Kelly, struggling with postnatal depression and a constantly crying baby, while her husband works longer and longer hours. When she is accosted by young neighbour Cal, she doesn’t realise that he’s wheelchair-bound, and is initially mortified, then intrigued by him. He’s had a promising athletic career cut short by an accident. She looks back on her misspent youth as a bass player in a 90s girl group. Neither belong, and they become rebels together, in spite of the disapproval of almost everyone, including her mother-in-law (Cybill Shepherd on top form). As Cal’s admiration turns to love, you wonder if a happy ending is possible for either of them?

LAND HO! Is a warm comedy, co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, and featuring two main characters, outrageously outspoken retiree Mitch and his one-time brother-in-law, Colin. To pull themselves out of a slump, Mitch buys them two first class tickets to Iceland, which is where the action takes place. They drive around the stunning landscape, encountering hot springs, extraordinary food, massive waterfalls, friendly natives, geysers, and beaches of volcanic rock, renting a huge car and attempting to get their groove back. Think The Trip with gnarlier guys in colder weather. Made on a miniscule budget, using AirB&B for rural accommodation, this road movie shows that you can still produce something with older, unknown actors, yet wide appeal.

ping-pong-summerWho could have predicted that one of the funniest comedies of the festival would feature table tennis and the early days of hiphop? PING PONG SUMMER takes director Michael Tully back to his youth, and specifically to Ocean City, Maryland where he holidayed with his parents every single summer. And he’s packed this nostalgia-fest with souvenirs of his own mid-eighties experience, from crazy golf and seafood buffets, to arcades and the boardwalk, all accompanied by a fabulous soundtrack. The story focuses on awkward 13-year-old Rad (newcomer Marcello Conte), who is rightly mortified by his uncool parents (John Hannah and Lea Thompson), while his goth sister barely speaks to anyone.

He makes a new, eternally upbeat, best friend Teddy, takes a shine to local girl Stacy, and it all goes a bit Scooby Doo when they’re picked on by local bullies and warned off speaking to the spooky neighbourhood oddball, Susan Sarandon. Rad is fairly hopeless at playing ping pong, but nevertheless takes up bully Lyle’s challenge of a crunch match. It all looks hopeless until he starts to train with help from Sarandon (who is a genuine table tennis nutter in real life). But will Rad get the girl? Main thing is not to take this too seriously, folks. Just immerse yourself in the totally rad world that Tully has created, and enjoy.

Best comedy of the festival has to be Justin Simien’s debut, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, a sharp satire which has already scooped the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Set in an Ivy League college, this positively bristles with fabulous performances and witty dialogue, as every character seeks to affirm their own identity, either by winning elections, writing piercing columns, throwing memorable parties, controversial vlogging, or just having extraordinary hair.

Blackness is the hot topic for students of all colours, as black culture becomes commodified and appropriated, with individuals categorised as “whiter than Michael Jackson’s baby” or only “technically black”, and ashamed to admit that they like “Mumford & Sons and Robert Altman movies”. And there’s genuine horror and a virtual riot when white students see nothing wrong in holding a crass “blackface” party at Halloween. Just as entertaining, yet more knowing than Spike Lee’s early work, this is a confident first film that blows a hole in political correctness and should accelerate the careers of a few actors (Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon P Bell) along with Simien’s own.

COMING SOON: Part Two of The London Film Festival 2014 review includes all the best from the rest of the world…

Check out the BFI London Film Festival 2014 website here.


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