Wednesday 28 October 2015


The 59th London Film Festival took place this October, bringing the usual mix of celebrity galas, red carpets and new discoveries. This was my fourth year of being able to attend the festival, making sure to experience as many of the small, odd little films alongside the bigger behemoths as possible.

Among the highlights from the 238 films shown at a number of cinemas across London (including the newly opened and quite trendy looking Picturehouse Central) were Carey Mulligan's Suffragette, Colin Farrell in Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster, and Cate Blanchett in Carol. Although it's always a tremendous opportunity to see the films that will be attracting huge audiences and a lot of attention come awards season, they aren't exactly my bread and butter, so I concerned myself with catching the indies and documentaries that would draw a smaller crowd.


Looking back at 40 years of Saturday Night Live, this new documentary speaks to a number of key figures from studio 8H's history. It places the show in the context of the time, be it their response to the attacks of 9/11 or their more broad comic sketches during the George W Bush presidency that saw head writer Tina Fey step forward with her famous Sarah Palin impersonation. As a show that has helped launch so many careers, there's the risk of spending too much time on the more famous sons and daughters whilst neglecting others. This doc does its best to avoid that, but is frustratingly light on Bill Murray's tenure and can't help but skip over a lot of the forgotten casts (let's just say '85-'95 aren't well represented).

As a celebration of the show's cultural and social impact it's understandably got a high degree of fan service, and whilst Lorne Michaels is lauded as a powerful figure of light entertainment, there's the undercurrent of megalomania that's not properly covered (for that, see Tom Shales' book of the same name). As it looks at the future, there's hope that its efforts to right the issues with diversity that have always plagued the show will keep it fresh. A fun doc for the fans showing a well oiled machine run by lunatics.


Produced by Johnny Knoxville and  Jeff Tremaine (TV's Jackass), Being Evel charts the career of the most famous stuntman of all time, Robby 'Evel' Knievel. An easily parodiable figure with many imitators and copycats, this doc goes to great lengths to show the many demons the man suffered in his efforts to entertain and stay on top. Before this, I was unaware of what a demanding star Evel Knievel was. To be fair, it was his life he was putting on the line, but the archive footage of him chastising crew members paints him as a complex and controlling figure. There's a wealth of thrilling archive footage of his stunts used, and in an age of Parkour Vine stars (I'm not totally sure that's a real thing, but you know what I mean) it's hard not to appreciate the amount of work that went into the build up of some of Knievel's death defying stunts.


A collection of short stories from the South London borough of Elephant and Castle, this observational documentary follows a day in the life as the band The Maccabees prepare to play. Looking at the architecture of the high rises and the changing landscape that has come about with urban regeneration with snippets of studio footage as the band creates the sound of their newest album, Elephant Days is a strange offering that may only appeal to residents of South London or fans of The Maccabees. That's not to say that it's bad, as it's nicely shot and shows a real interest in its subjects, but it's self indulgent (as any film of this type would be) and hard to shake the feeling that the same ob doc method could be applied to any place and reap similarly varied but interesting results. The band may love the idiosyncrasies of the people in their neighbourhood and want to celebrate it, but it really could be any area of the country.


Among the highlights of the features was King Jack, a film that screams "American Independent" without being cliche. A rebellious street rat of a kid, Jack's routine gets disturbed when his younger cousin Ben comes to stay. Tormented by local bullies, there's a horrific scene of quasi-torture involving a paintball gun that's hard to stomach, reminiscent of Let The Right One In and Mean Creek, but the film is far from a miserable experience, perhaps best described as a hopeful tale of triumph over adversity. Existing in that cinematic world that's in perpetual magic hour, and reminiscent of David Gordon Green's early work, King Jack is a well shot indie with a fantastic central performance by Charlie Plummer.


Alex Ross Perry's follow up to Listen Up Philip sees him re-team with Elisabeth Moss for a story of friendship turned sour from jealousy. The interplay between Moss and co-star Katharine Waterston is the highlight of an often head-scrambling film, but it's never less than watchable, like the cut scenes of Mulholland Drive. Perry is one of the most exciting new directors to emerge in the last couple of years, and this unashamed throwback to 70s paranoia thrillers seems to fit into his particular style.

The benefit of seeing this at the festival was that the director was on hand for a Q&A after the film (including for one member of the audience who was brutally honest in her dislike for the film), and perhaps embellish on some of the key scenes and themes.


Easily one of the most confusing films of the festival was Der Nachtmahr, a German drama with a pumping EDM soundtrack that sees teenager Tina begin to have visions of a bizarre creature that has become inexplicably tied to her. It's the kind of mind-fuck film that separates the young from the old, as the music is so loud and all encompassing that at times there's subtitles provided from the dialogue because it's completely inaudible. A nightmare of looping scenes and alternate outcomes, this is a modern Lynchian nightmare. Lost Autobahn, if you like. Add to that an extreme strobe effect, Der Nachtmahr becomes a real endurance test.


Terence Davies' latest stars Agyness Deyn in an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Scottish prose. Chris Guthrie (Deyn) is a young woman living in a world dominated by the presence of her father (Peter Mullan). I'm of the mind that Peter Mullan is one of the greatest screen actors there is, and his gruff Scottish demeanour particularly suits period films (see Michael Winterbottom's The Claim for more). He's excellent here as the patriarch of the Guthrie family, exuding an intimidating presence whenever he's on screen without the need for bombast.

I'll admit that I'm not familiar with the source text, but there's echoes of Far From The Madding Crowd in the story of Chris Guthrie's journey into womanhood. Deyn is a captivating lead actress, building on her performance in last year's UK indie Electricity to be finally able to shed the suspicious looks that model-turned-actresses get. This is a performance that grows in strength along with her character, and at least to my admittedly untrained ear, has her accent on point.


One of the perks of the festival is that it's hard to say what calibre of film you might discover. You can usually get an inkling from the previous work of the director and cast, but every now and then you find yourself catching a film that you've applied no research to that completely wins you over.

A charming take on the immigrants story, Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to start a new life in 1950s America. Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (who also adapted An Education), this is a common story that rarely gets told with such heart, Ronan is able to deliver a performance of great nuance on her journey to becoming a survivor in this new world that becomes her home. Surrounded by a solid supporting cast (including Julie Walters, Dohmnall Gleeson and newcomer Emory Cohen) with a tremendous lead performance from Ronan, this will surely be a frontrunner come awards season.

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