London Film Festival 2014

Another October, another LFF. I was at a wonderful wedding in Philadelphia for the first half of this one, which meant I had to leave ’71, It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and Leviathan for another time. And I decided to forgo Whiplash for the Surprise Film. But, for what it’s worth, here is my roundup of what I did manage to catch.

4. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
This was essentially “The Seven Stages of Grief – The Movie”.

Originally this was going to be a film about a guy whose wife disappears after a tragedy [spoilers available upon request], and his attempts to find her/win her back. Then Jessica Chastain talked writer/director Ned Benson into turning it into two movies, back to back: “TDOER: Him” and “TDOER: Her”, each following one half of the couple. That’s what they shot, but a double-length whammy of grief is a tough sell. So outside of the art circuit, they’re releasing “TDOER: Them”, an edited-together single movie cutting between their perspectives – and that’s the version we saw.

If you think “hey, if they ‘found’ this version in the editing room, I bet it’s a bit of a mess”, you’d be right. There’s no real storytelling structure here, it just cuts back and forth between James McAvoy being torn apart by frustration and Jessica Chastain being torn apart by grief, for what feels like three hours. Sometimes it’s very affecting, but more often it feels like someone playing a Coldplay song into your face VERY LOUDLY.

Too often it doesn’t amount to much more than “look at these people being sad”. But it’s nicely shot on New York locations, and the amazing cast (including Bill Hader, William Hurt, Viola Davis, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Isabelle Huppert) is consistently excellent. In particular, the movie just soared right up whenever McAvoy was chewing the fat with best friend Hader, or Chastain was mulling the meaning of life with her university lecturer Davies. These was some actual playfulness and energy in those scenes that were eagerly devoured by the audience.

Sadly, strong female roles for actresses to really sink their teeth into are as rare as ever. So if you need your fix of that, this movie delivers. On that basis, it might be worth a recommend. I just wish it was less of a depiction, and more of a story.

Grade: C-

3. White Bird In A Blizzard

Shailene Woodley narrates the story of her mother (Eva Green), her decent into apparent madness, and the day she disappeared. This movie marries a Lynchian sense of “darkness behind the curtains”, Eva Green giving it her best crazyeyes Eva Green acting technique, and the Gregg Araki “hip teenagers ponder the dark ennui of life” school of late-night dialogue.
For all these reasons, I loved White Bird In A Blizzard – right up until the ending. In the last five minutes, it completely falls apart as a genre film. We’ve loved the satire on suburban life. We’ve loved the seduction scenes and the dry, arch dialogue. But this is a mystery movie, and we demand a satisfying resolution to the mystery! Instead Araki ties it off with what amounts to little more than a montage and a quick voiceover. It’s like the end of Unbreakable, only ten times more annoying.

This could have been great, but, alas… fans of Woodley, Araki or Green will enjoy the ride but maybe not so much the destination.

Grade: C+ Available on VOD now.

2. Foxcatcher

Easy to admire. Hard to love. Not-too-smart gold medalist wrestler Channing Tatum gets an offer from ultra-rich eccentric (in real life a diagnosed schizophrenic) John DuPont to set up a wrestling team at his Foxcatcher farm, then draws his smarter brother into the circle too. A dark, bleak satire on The American Dream, and what if means to have “meaning” in your life – or to try and add it where it’s missing. Foxcatcher is very good, but I doubt I’ll ever really want to watch it a second time.
Mark Ruffalo as the elder brother is phenomonal. Steve Carrell as DuPont is mesmerising, but you never quite tune out the nose.

Grade: B+

1. Surprise Movie: Birdman

The trailers play up the Birdman/Batman angle, and even cram in a whole bunch of effects shots from towards the very end of the movie. So, ignore/avoid the trailers. This is mostly NOT that movie, and it’s a shame to have that late-blooming element spoiled.

Instead, Birdman is mostly an acidic, flip satire of backstage shenanigans in the run-up to a play’s opening night. It shifts wonderfully back and forth between actorly shade-throwing, knockabout action, narcissistic acting-out, delirious melodrama and hallucinatory fantasia.

The disguised edit technique (see Gravity, Children of Men, The Secret In Their Eyes) is used here to represent almost the entire movie as one unbroken shot. In other movies that’s used to ramp up tension. Here it’s used to give events a woozy, up-all-night vibe – more than once the action progresses a day or two in the space of a few seconds as the camera moves down a corridor and into a room, taking us from a rehearsal into a backstage argument into the next day’s formal preview, all without an apparent break. By the time reality seeps away, the audience is ready.

Micheal Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and Andrea Riseborough are all great. Norton especially.

Grade: A

Best Performances based on these four movies:

Lead Actor: Michael Keaton. Basically a defining Keatonesque performance. Not a 180 turnaround from previous roles (like Steve Carell in Foxcatcher), but more of a distillation of his essence. This might be the movie by which he is remembered. Or the *other* movie by which he is remembered, anyway.

Lead Actress: Jessica Chastain. It’s a great performance, and so much better than the script deserves.

Supporting Actor: Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo. I suspect people will go for Ruffalo (who is GREAT in Foxcatcher), but Norton is just as good. But it’s a comedy role, and they just don’t get the recognition.

Supporting Actress: Viola Davis. She’s just such a pro. Lifts the entire film. Which does need lifting.

TL;DR: go see Birdman. Out in the UK in Jan, in NY and LA now.