Slices of Life: London Korean Film Festival 2018 Review Roundup

The London Korean Film Festival (LKFF) ran from 1- 14 November in London and is now off taking highlights around the country with its annual UK Tour, the festival this year featured an in-depth special focus entitled A Slice of Everyday Life, along with a mix of UK and International premieres, guests and events across a diverse set of strands; Cinema Now, Women's Voices, Indie Firepower, Contemporary Classics, Artists Video, Animation and Shorts. The Smoke Screen is back from the London stretch of the fest with some samplings of the delights on offer:

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A Tiger in Winter

Director: Lee Kwang-kuk 

Cert 15, 111mins, 2018 Korea

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

The London Korean Film Festival has reached its teens, and its 2018 festival programme, announced in full at the elegant Regent Street Cinema on September 17th, promised a maturity to match this advanced age. Though Korean staples (staples to Western eyes, at least) like intense crime thrillers and crazy comedies remain an essential part of the festival lineup, pride of place this year will be given to those filmmakers who explore the intimate, the grounded, and the surface-level ordinary. This year’s message is that there are so many more layers to Korean culture than the two highly visible poles of the (admittedly great) extreme sensory highs of the films of Park Chan-wook, and the high-wire tension around the Korean peninsula as it acts as a sort of wrestling ring for President Trump and Kim Jong-il to work out their issues.

And so, this year’s festival moves from this global outlook and the highs of genre fare to an intimate view of the day-to-day lives and struggles of the people of the country on the ground. This ethos was well-represented in the teaser film screened to support the programme launch night; Lee Kwang-kuk’s third title A Tiger in Winter, which is a thoughtful, witty and ultimately affecting look at the perils and frustrations of creative inertia and the indignations of falling into the Swiss-cheese holes of the gig economy, as two writers (a chemistry-rich duo of Lee Jin-uk and Ko Hyun-jung) seek to plough through their creative blocks, neither being helped by the weight of regrets, hangovers and missed deadlines hanging over them. Fans of the down-to-earth prism taken by the films of Mike Leigh or,  for a properly Korean comparison, Hong Sang-soo, should apply.

On the same day a tiger escapes from the local zoo, Gyeong-yu, a good-looking but aimless writer (Lee Jin-uk, Miss Granny), announces with surprising casualness at breakfast with his girlfriend that he got fired from his job, or lost his job through cutbacks, he doesn’t care to be clear about it. Seemingly resigned to what comes next and not wanting a fight, the withdrawn Gyeong-yu simply packs up his things into a tiny suitcase five minutes later, and shuffles out into the cold Korean autumn to try to find a friend to shack up with. As played by Lee Jin-uk, Gyeong-yu remains this kind of curiously restrained and soft-spoken fellow for most of his screentime, but he is not an entirely un-relatable character. Ennui in the face of an adult life spent not doing what you think you should to do - in his case write with the vigour we hear that he once had as a student - is hardly uncommon. Gyeong-yu isn’t angry at life, he isn’t raging at the sky, he’s just sort of quietly stunned into a holding pattern, like a chicken hit around the head and left to wander the paddock. It actually makes him seem more vulnerable; the guy is so wire-thin and given to recoil from challenge you’d think the wind would blow him away. His first stop to get a job is a burger joint, and his CV is threadbare. No confidence, and no marketable skills, do not an easy path promise.

Gyeong-yu’s stasis leads to a series of often darkly funny - and more often pathetic - humiliations that are all the more affecting because they never stretch believability. He revisits his old apartment some weeks later and chats amicably to the presumed mother of his girlfriend outside on the steps, only to realise after about five minutes of conversation that, in fact, this woman is the new tenant who has just moved in, and his girlfriend is long gone with no forwarding address. Gyeong-yu ends up having to take work as a driver for hire picking up a mixture of surly characters, except his job isn’t exactly the same as working for Uber. Instead, he turns up to drive various drunk types home in their OWN cars, which makes you wonder how he himself then gets home. Drunk clients are not the most reliable payers either, often more than willing to write off his bill by claiming he scratched their car on the journey home. Shit-faced salarymen sometimes just greet him with harassment and a punch. His only escape are mealtimes with his old buddy who takes him in for a while, and there is a lot of eating and drinking in this film (mostly in cramped living rooms); rare moments of respite and regrouping.

There is enough alternately funny and melancholic incident in this first-act exploration of the pitfalls of the Korean gig economy to keep the interest going (as well as make you scared if your skillset is in the arts), but Lee Jin-uk’s very inward performance is given a much-welcome contrast by the arrival into the narrative of the delightfully peculiar Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach) as Gyeong-yu’s ex-girlfriend and now-successful novelist, Yoo-jung. Yoo-jung has earned the fame that Geong-yu always strived for, but, interestingly, she is revealed to be arguably even more messed up than he is, writers-blocked to hell but with a 10-bottle a day habit on top of it. She’s also refreshingly frank about her desires to get it on with her ex whilst trying to shake him out of his stupor. The two make for an endearingly clumsy and cute duo, even as the screenplay avoids letting them settle into the expected groove of sudden inspiration. The tiger motif drifts in and out, but the film would be fine just with scenes of Gyeong-yu and  Yoo-jung trying to put pen to paper.


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Hotel By the River

Director: Hong Sang-soo

1h 36min | Drama |2018

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

It had been a while since I last saw a film from Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, but this year’s London Korean Film Festival offered a chance for a refresher with his latest unhurried relationship drama; Hotel By the River. Despite all the years away, I found myself settling into familiar Hong territory quite quickly with this new film; the director has lost none of his touch for teasing out the insecurities of prominent men (or men who think they should be prominent) and the gulf between them and the women in their orbit, not least when plenty of Korean Soju is being imbibed to loosen the tongues. 

This wintery comedy-drama, lovingly shot in evocative monochrome and which actually does take place in a hotel by a river, brings together five characters who are all in search of emotional outcomes but all end up missing each other both figuratively and literally. The five are split into two groups that comprise three related men (the father and two sons, the sons being summoned by the father) and two mid-thirties women who are old friends and have come together as the younger has been dumped by the married man she was having an affair with and is in need of consolation. These two groups, with their own messy histories that are unlikely to be resolved in one weekend, only rarely encounter each other in and around the hotel and often miss any planned rendezvous, and their occupation of different rooms and tables throughout the narrative suggests a constant divide between them. Such a chasm that is reflected in the various relationship failures that we learn the two groups have either suffered or helped create with their own impossible dreams, insecurities, or selfishness. Despite the wry comedy, there is a kind of resigned sadness enveloping this film as a result of all this miscommunication, as if Hong doesn’t think this divide can ever be solved, only chuckled wearily at. There’s a cat though.

The cast are all superb; Ki Joo-bong easily mixes charm and fickleness as the famous poet and patriarch Youngh-wan who has checked into the hotel to muse on what he believes is his impending death, whilst Kwon Hae-hyo and Yoo Joon-Sang  - who play his summoned sons Kyung-soo and Byung-soo - make for a charming and poignant comedy double act as they vie clumsily for their father’s affections and flail against his disappointments. As is Hong’s way, there is plenty of ‘auteur deflation’ in store for this family as their father reveals his own irresolute past behaviour. The women at the other end of the hotel (in what has to be said seems like the lesser strand) maybe are meant to be a sort of opposite end of this sort of male betrayal; the living repercussions the men never see. Does Hong have a guilty conscience? Either way,  Youngh-wan’s sons have plenty of baggage regarding their father’s abandonment of their mother that are just waiting for a good dose of Soju to let loose. Hong regular Kim Min-hee (star of The Handmaiden) and Song Seon-mi exhibit genuine warmth as old female friends Sang-hee and Yeon-ju who seem much better placed, - based on their gentle and nurturing rapport over the film’s brief 90 minutes - to make it out of this hotel on a more stable emotional footing. Yes, all of this is an acquired taste, but I personally enjoy Hong’s melancholic misanthropic musings on how we just can’t get the Rubik’s Cube of life solved.


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The Return

Director: Malene Choi

Cert 12, 84mins, 2018

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

Here is a real find for me from this year’s London Korean Film Festival; a restrained, emotionally resonant but also hard-headed docu-fiction piece exploring the struggles of a group of Korean-born but adopted-abroad children returning to their birth place to find their biological parents, battling with not just the gap of the years but the language and culture barrier. Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee), a Korean born-mid-thirties woman who was adopted by Danish parents when very young, visits South Korea for the first time and shacks up in a guesthouse in Seoul, which curiously seems to be a regular haunt of other adoptees from Europe and the US who are there with a similar quest. Despite their different upbringings and beliefs as to why they are here and what they will find (Karoline seems more pragmatic about her chances of finding satisfaction, whereas another American adoptee speaks in near-spiritual terms about feeling pulled back to Korea, though it ruptured relations with his adoptive folks), what they seem to have in common is that they are each seeking to close some kind of gap in their lives. Many of the adoptees, especially those raised in the US, UK and Nordic countries, recount being bullied at school and singled out as different because of their looks. The warmth this little community generates amongst itself is palpable and appealing to watch, as if being away from home and amongst similar ‘wanderers’ has allowed unexpressed doubts and hopes to finally be spoken and a mutual support network to grow. 

As the hybrid story continues (it mixes scripted and documentary elements based on the director’s own experiences, and levies in some surreal subjective beats to suggest this is really a mystery), we see Karoline be hampered again and again by her inability to speak Korean and navigate the country alone, suffer a seemingly obstinate and evasive Korean adoption bureaucracy (her adoption guide seems weirdly unwilling to phone hospitals to acquire birth records, as if it is just not the done thing), but also experience surprise at the deepening commitment to his birth country fellow Danish Korean adoptee and drinking buddy Thomas displays, once he himself finds his own biological mother. Melodrama and easy resolutions are notably and pleasingly absent. A mellifluous glitchy soundtrack and moody cinematography evoke a suitable sense of loneliness and disorientation in an urbanised South Korea, a country that Thomas muses he feels looks aesthetically ugly due to being developed too quickly, though maybe this betrays a subconscious jarring sensation of his homeland growing up without him in it. Some moments of humour and bonding offset the dislocation of the adoptees somewhat, making Karoline’s trip more wandering than suffering. Interestingly, both lead actors were actually adoptees themselves.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London East Asia Film Festival 2018 Review Round-Up

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The London East Asia Film Festival was established in 2015 as a non-profit arts organisation to champion the growing collaboration and diversity in East Asian filmmaking. Global blockbusters in Asian cinema rub shoulders with emerging talent of the future. LEAFF’s 1st edition officially launched back in 2016 on 20th October at ODEON Leicester Square and 40 films were screened over 11 days at venues across central London. LEAFF is back again in the capital for 2018, and the Smoke Screen has sampled a selection of the lineup that screened in late October-early November, all of which are reviewed below. It was a distinctly Korean LEAFF this year around for the Smoke Screen, it seems, as all the films hail from that nation’s vibrant film industry.

Dark Figure of Crime

Director: Tae-Gyoo Kim

1h 50min | Crime , Drama , Thriller | 3 October 2018 (South Korea)

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Launching the London East Asian Film Festival’s 2018 edition, director Tae-Gyoo Kim’s police thriller Dark Figure of Crime offers more cerebral and sombre material for viewers, even though both title and synopsis suggest a wild and visceral cat-and-mouse outing along the lines of Korean hits I See The Devil or The Chaser. I went in expecting a more outre tone and plot, but the film’s refusal to meet my expectations intrigued me, as did the story. Dark Figure of Crime is, in fact, based on a series of grim real-life events, which no doubt explains the more grounded approach but also why film has met with some controversy back in its homeland. It is a well-acted and serious-minded piece, though it won’t be for everyone.

Veteran Korean actor Yoon-seok Kim slips easily in to the role of world-weary but competent Busan detective Hyung-min, who is contacted out of the blue by a prisoner who is jailed awaiting trial for murdering his girlfriend, and is invited to meet to discuss a range of unsolved disappearances that the suspected killer is now mysteriously keen to confess to. This is the erratic, mercurial Kang Tae-oh (played with gusto by rising star Ji-Hoon Ju, who just manages to keep it from reaching the level of scenery-chewing), who confounds Hyung-Min by veering between thuggish, misogyinstic fronts, an air of childish innocence, and zen-like poise. Tae-oh goes on to sporadically provide clues to the detective about a series of seven disappearances and unsolved murders, but some of the leads are revealed to be blatantly false, whilst others take Hying-Min and his team tantalisingly close to a body or a vital piece of new evidence, but actually pinning any of these on Tae-oh remains impossible. Hyung-min, determined to solve the cases and finally bring closure to the families of the missing, feels he has no choice but to keep pursuing each of Tae-oh’s leads, but this risks putting the suspect in the driving seat and ruining Hyung-Min’s career. An ex-cop who was rundown into ruin by betting his career on trusting a serial killer’s ‘confessions’ that turned out to be a wild goose chase, warns Hyung-min that Tae-oh might not just be looking for attention, but might be attempting to manipulate the jury in his upcoming trial by creating a sympathetic portrait of a hapless suspect facing underhanded police attempts to pin any number of crimes on him. The tension comes from not knowing what will break first; the case or the patience of Hyung-min’s superiors to let him pursue this.

Pleasingly, neither cop nor criminal fit the classic archetypes here:  Hyung-min isn’t the picture postcard image of an unstable, hard-drinking and rule-rule-bending cop (he’s dogged and takes risks in offering Tae-oh money to keep him talking, but is clearly deeply moved by the plight of the families of the missing that he meets) and Tae-oh isn’t the next Hannibal Lecter either. In fact, it is never really clear what Tae-oh is: mentally unstable, an overrated thug trying to get what he can, or just lucky. Is he really brilliantly playing the police in order to reduce his sentence, or just wasting police time because he can? Is the inability of Hyung-min to really pin any of the cold cases on Tae-oh more due to bad luck or careful planning on the suspect’s part in case he got aught? Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, Dark Figure of Crime features a based-on-a-real-story plot where we wait for the sudden breakthroughs or satisfying sense that the world has been righted in vain. This might frustrate some viewers, but there is something to be said for an alternative view of a cop/criminal mind game that throws the whodunit out the window in the first act and feels more worryingly plausible for it, as instead of table-turning reversals and increasingly blurred moralities, we are pointed to a more likely truth that when a cop retires there will be a pile of case files on his desk marked ‘unsolved’. But in each one is a tale of sadness.


The Witch Part 1: The Subversion

Director: Park Hoon-jung

Thriller Scifi Horror| South Korea | 2018 | 126 mins

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Genre mashup The Witch sees a young and unworldly Korean female high school student suddenly have her life interrupted by a bunch of murdering superpowered teens and their affiliated hit squads, who invade her home and claim the girl is suppressing memories of her real existence: that she was in fact trained from birth to become a murder weapon via illegal experiments that enhance strength, speed and cognition. She managed to escape the government hospital, but appearing on a talent karaoke show blew her cover (don’t you just hate it when that happens?). Genetically engineered children running amok is not a hugely original plot conceit to be sure, but star Kim Da-mi is a sympathetic lead (one who can also handle the expected last-act turn) and has a cute chalk-and-cheese rapport with her mouthy BFF from school Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi). Main villain Choi Wo-sik, looking like a boyband’s fifth wheeler, chews on the scenery appropriately. But despite some satisfyingly crunchy super-powered fight sequences that make Marvel look tame - with combatants being kicked through four walls and minion’s heads being embedded into concrete with a single slam - the film takes a long time to really let rip with the craziness. Some wobbly internal logic doesn’t help either. Interestingly, this is a Warner Bros co-production with Korean interests (and not their first), and the director penned Kim Jee-woon’s bloody, torture orgy I Saw the Devil.


February

Director: Kim Joong-hyun

Drama | South Korea | 2017 | 82 mins

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★★☆

I started my journey into South Korean cinema through the somewhat obvious routes of the films of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, but since then I have become so much more aware of how richly varied Korean cinema is; its not all melodramas dialled up to 11 or visceral revenge hunts with crazy twists. February, from director Kim Joong-hyun, is a great example of Korean cinema in a distinctly social realist mould, and this is not the first film I’ve seen over the last few years that shows a sincere interest in the state of the rich/poor divide following South Korea’s rapid industrialisation and the global financial crash. A tough watch with a distinctly unsympathetic lead that refuses pat resolutions to personal crises, February focuses on the struggles of young, broke twenty-something Mingyeong, who spends her days sleeping in a storage container she has broken into at night, taking money for sex hookups with an older man with a child (who she ends up moving in with despite not taking well to a maternal role), and sneaking into college classes unregistered to try to get a social work qualification. Newcomer Jo Min-kyoung gives a superbly modulated performance as Mingyeong, an ambiguous lead with an unclear amount of pain in her past who never stops sliding around on the spectrum between desperate victim and cruel con-artist.


Glass Garden

Director | Shin Su-won

Drama | | South Korea | 2017 | 116 mins

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Easily the most bizarre film I saw at this year’s LEAFF, female director Shin Su-won’s (Pluto, Madonna) Glass Garden is a weird mashup of sci-fi body horror film complete with practical effects that you’d expect in a Hammer horror film, and a sober study of mental illness, exploitation and plagiarism. Jae-yeon, a PhD student in biology with an untreatable foot disability, hopes to prove through experimentations with with chlorophyll implantation that humans are able to break free from reliance on external air, and can thus avoid deterioration even after death. After blowing her research post at her lab when she objects to another student borrowing her research to help the chief professor gain desperately needed funding, Jae-yeon decides to retreat to the countryside into her ramshackle research lab. As she finds a quiet place in the woods, a novelist with deteriorating health reaches out to her in awe of her research, even as her work starts taking her into very dark places that involve taking the chlorophyll injections to the level of forced experiments on captured people. As Jae-yeon, lead actress Geun-young Moon (A Tale of Two Sisters star), gives a committed performance as a smart but vulnerable woman desperate to find value in her failing work after the sheer volume of hope that has been bled into it, but the sight of various cast members wandering around caked in green makeup (as they mutate into tree creatures under Jae-yeon’s mistreatment) takes the film too far into the zone of silinesss, which just jars with the profound tone and sincere attempts to draw allegories from the scenario. This is a film with almost too much on its mind.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London East Asian Film Festival 2018 opens with "Dark Figure of Crime", perfect for fans of "Memories of Murder"

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Director: Tae-Gyoo Kim

1h 50min | Crime , Drama , Thriller | 3 October 2018 (South Korea)

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Launching the London East Asian Film Festival’s 2018 edition, director Tae-Gyoo Kim’s police thriller Dark Figure of Crime offers more cerebral and sombre material for viewers, even though both title and synopsis suggest a wild and visceral cat-and-mouse outing along the lines of Korean hits I See The Devil or The Chaser. I went in expecting a more outre tone and plot, but the film’s refusal to meet my expectations intrigued me, as did the story. Dark Figure of Crime is, in fact, based on a series of grim real-life events, which no doubt explains the more grounded approach but also why film has met with some controversy back in its homeland. It is a well-acted and serious-minded piece, though it won’t be for everyone.

Veteran Korean actor Yoon-seok Kim slips easily in to the role of world-weary but competent Busan detective Hyung-min, who is contacted out of the blue by a prisoner who is jailed awaiting trial for murdering his girlfriend, and is invited to meet to discuss a range of unsolved disappearances that the suspected killer is now mysteriously keen to confess to. This is the erratic, mercurial Kang Tae-oh (played with gusto by rising star Ji-Hoon Ju, who just manages to keep it from reaching the level of scenery-chewing), who confounds Hyung-Min by veering between thuggish, misogyinstic fronts, an air of childish innocence, and zen-like poise. Tae-oh goes on to sporadically provide clues to the detective about a series of seven disappearances and unsolved murders, but some of the leads are revealed to be blatantly false, whilst others take Hying-Min and his team tantalisingly close to a body or a vital piece of new evidence, but actually pinning any of these on Tae-oh remains impossible. Hyung-min, determined to solve the cases and finally bring closure to the families of the missing, feels he has no choice but to keep pursuing each of Tae-oh’s leads, but this risks putting the suspect in the driving seat and ruining Hyung-Min’s career. An ex-cop who was rundown into ruin by betting his career on trusting a serial killer’s ‘confessions’ that turned out to be a wild goose chase, warns Hyung-min that Tae-oh might not just be looking for attention, but might be attempting to manipulate the jury in his upcoming trial by creating a sympathetic portrait of a hapless suspect facing underhanded police attempts to pin any number of crimes on him. The tension comes from not knowing what will break first; the case or the patience of Hyung-min’s superiors to let him pursue this.

Pleasingly, neither cop nor criminal fit the classic archetypes here:  Hyung-min isn’t the picture postcard image of an unstable, hard-drinking and rule-rule-bending cop (he’s dogged and takes risks in offering Tae-oh money to keep him talking, but is clearly deeply moved by the plight of the families of the missing that he meets) and Tae-oh isn’t the next Hannibal Lecter either. In fact, it is never really clear what Tae-oh is: mentally unstable, an overrated thug trying to get what he can, or just lucky. Is he really brilliantly playing the police in order to reduce his sentence, or just wasting police time because he can? Is the inability of Hyung-min to really pin any of the cold cases on Tae-oh more due to bad luck or careful planning on the suspect’s part in case he got aught? Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, Dark Figure of Crime features a based-on-a-real-story plot where we wait for the sudden breakthroughs or satisfying sense that the world has been righted in vain. This might frustrate some viewers, but there is something to be said for an alternative view of a cop/criminal mind game that throws the whodunit out the window in the first act and feels more worryingly plausible for it, as instead of table-turning reversals and increasingly blurred moralities, we are pointed to a more likely truth that when a cop retires there will be a pile of case files on his desk marked ‘unsolved’. But in each one is a tale of sadness.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival Review: Dogman

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Director: Matteo Garrone

15 | 1h 43min | Crime , Drama , Thriller | 19 October 2018 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

The fresh air of the street outside feels so good after the LFF screening of Matteo Garrone's (Gomorrah) grimy but gripping DOGMAN. Best in Show this film is is not. Instead, as with Gomorrah, this is another dive into the sub-levels of the Italian underworld and the toxic masculinity it breeds, though we are really swimming with the fringes of the little leagues here. Set in a Italian coastal city suburb that memorably looks like it has been abandoned in anticipation of the whole damn place being bulldozed, the plot concerns Marcello, the titular 'dogman' of the title, and his daily existence jumping between fawning over the variety of pooches brought to his run-down veterinary and dog-pampering service on a crummy street corner, and acting as some kind of simpering and semi-willing accomplice (and coke provider) to local mafia thug Simone.

Some stern cinematography from DP Nicolai Brüel, and atmospheric production design from Dimitri Capuanikeep Dogman a grimly compelling visual feast at all times. But the film is at its best when we are watching the ludicrously imbalanced (at least at first) relationship between Marcello and Simone play out. Star Marcello Fonte certainly wins the 'most oleaginous mob underling' of the year award as the weedy pet groomer, hunched over and rake-thin like some kind of Igor cosplayer. Co-star Edoardo Pesce, as Simone, is like a real-life version of Marvin from Sin City, with a nose extended nearly four feet out from his face thanks to endless bone breakages. Right away it seems Simone has Marcello under this thumb, a thumb that could squash him effortlessly at a moment's notice. The shell-suit rocking Simone frequently turns up at Marcello's store at all hours, to grunt out demands for cocaine, money, or for Marcello to act as his getaway driver for various house break-ins. In one particularly bizarre but strangely touching (and very funny) moment, Marcello turns back from a getaway drive to re-break into the house Simone just broke into, so as to rescue the dog the thug shoved into the fridge to shut it up. Dogs get more love than humans in this world, it seems. One blackly comedic moment in a film laced with more than a few of them

But as much as the film derives its strength from teasing you about how close to death the gollum-like Marcello is skirting via his ongoing partnership-come-serfdom with Simone (think the same long teases the HBO show The Sopranos built up around any number of hapless wannabes who cruised too close to Tony Soprano's inner circle thinking they could handle it), Dogman gets more interesting when we start to see how Marcello might yet find a way to become top dog. Intriguingly, it starts to seem that Marcello's own pathetic outer shell might actually be his best defence, and even a weapon of a sort. Simone headbutts, robs, and cheats everyone around him seemingly because they are a challenge and a threat to his alpha male status. Marcello is the one person he perceives as totally ineffectual, and thus spares him his full wrath. All that is left is for Marcello to learn to exploit that, and the leash might soon be around the other neck. Maybe, the narrative eventually suggests, this put-upon, insecure and weak man, has been waiting for this moment all along. A muscular, grimy and unsettling watch, though admittedly not hugely subtle.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Lizzie

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Director: Craig William MacNeill

R | 1h 46min | Biography , Crime , Drama | 14 December 2018 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Lizzie Borden is perhaps not a household name in the UK, but what went on in her household back in 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts made her notorious. Lizzie Andrew Borden (July 19, 1860 – June 1, 1927) was an American woman who was the main suspect in the August 4, 1892, axe murders of her father and stepmother. Borden was ultimately tried and acquitted of the murders, but the deaths cast a shadow over her life forever and she became a cause celebre during and after her life, the story endlessly dissected in podcasts, essays and works of fiction. She has since even been claimed as a kind of feminist symbol.

That latter development seems to have been very much in the mind of director Craig William Macneill. Rather than tease us with the question of ‘did she do it?’ (spoiler alert; the narrative eventually reveals who swung the axe with no doubt left about it), he instead turns his focus, via a script from writer Bryce Kass, towards the miserable and oppressive domestic situation a young woman like Lizzie could find herself trapped in. This is a grim, austere story of the pressure cooker of frustration, rage and fear that results when patriarchy squeezes just as tight as the corsets of the time. It is more dogged than devastating, ultimately, though given the subject matter it is certainly a timely take on the murder mystery.

With the presence of Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart as the two female leads, Macneill has plenty of female star power on his hands, though it is really Sevigny’s show. Following a pre-credit flash forward to the bloody aftermath of the murder, we jump back to a scene in Lizzie’s (Sevigny) home life: an attempted late night trip to the theatre meets with vicious disapproval from her stern father Andrew whilst the stepmother she cares nothing for looks on sullenly. As played by Sevingny, Lizzie is a figure of trembling energy and a barely-repressed tongue who is strikingly blunt in her expressions of loathing for her father, a plainly dressed and miserly type who keeps his wealthy household in candlelit gloom despite the availability of gas lamps. Lizzie’s demonstrated love of the arts suggests a creativity and passion for culture that is slowly being snuffed out by her controlling parent. Lizzie, we also learn, is in her 30s and unwed, and thus seen by the family as of little further use in terms of preserving their legacy. An equal match for Sevigny’s impudent volleys of sarcasm and indignation is the puritanical chill emanating from actor Jamey Sheridan as Andrew Borden. He is one of those actors who looks and sounds like he could be simply dropped back into that time period and he’d fit right in. Andrew’s nightly rapes of new Irish immigrant maid Brigette (Kristen Stewart, stuck in mousey mode) only enrages and frightens Lizzie more, not least given the sexual attraction between the two that has sprung up over the autumn weeks.

The decision to focus in the film’s second half on the clumsy beginnings of a lesbian relationship between two women who barely even know each other, but are desperate to share their isolation with someone, offers the film’s a much-needed release from what is otherwise a somewhat one-note journey of oppression and breakdown before the bloody finale we know is coming. Already suffering dizzy spells and epileptic fits which render her exhausted and frightened, Lizzie also fears her father intends to pass the management of the family fortune, and her inheritance, to her pervert uncle. As a woman in 1800s America, she has no say in any of this, and this would mean any chance of long-term escape with Bridgette would be closed off. Lizzie and Bridgette understandably cling to each other even harder as the walls close in, and, always under observation in the house, have to communicate via letters passed to each other in the corridors as if they are two schoolchildren in class. It is a painfully touching gesture to see.

Inevitably, things cannot stay in this unstable state and - somewhat mechanistically - we see Lizzie reach breaking point as the incidents of humiliation and threats pile up. Still, by this point we have had a brutally effective portrait of a woman’s domestic prison drawn for us, and Sevigny gets a few juicy final act scenes that help continue the process, begun earlier, of wrong-footing us about how much of an addled victim Lizzie really is. Far from being an unstable, random killer who acted unconsciously in a fit of despair, we get hints that Lizzie might in fact be all too aware of not only how to ‘get away with it’, but keen to reap the benefits of the power that being known as a murderess might offer, not least when it comes to unsettling any man who challenges her from that point on.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Bisbee '17

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Director: Robert Greene

1h 52min | Documentary , Western | 5 September 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

Director Robert Greene’s previous documentaries have explored the uses of artifice to blur the fact/fiction line, such as in his docufictional ‘making of’ Kate Plays Christine, where we saw actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves researching real life people for a biopic. In his new film, Bisbee ’17, things are a little different, as Greene’s camera is recording, for the most part, someone else’s recreation of a 100-year old historical event. But he also freely mixes into the recorded footage his own cinematic ‘takes’ on past events, creating a strange and maybe at times too self-self-conscious mass of layers to this study of one Arizona town’s dark past and how it reflects on America’s often troubled history of labour and race relations and the intersections between them. Still, though the film feels too smart and too busy for its own good at times, the story remains fascinating (though troubling), and the cinematography always striking.

The title of this doc refers to 1917: a troubled year in the mining town of Bisbee, where deep copper mines - the lifeblood the town and key to the war effort-remained for years in the purview of powerful mining companies. They control over the main source income for the town gave them huge power, not the kind of power that took kindly to organised labour when a major world war was going on. On July 12, 1917, about 1,300 striking miners and their supporters—local citizens, immigrants from Mexico and Europe and many members of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) activist union (also called ‘Wobblers’)—were rounded up by a gang of some 2,000 deputized citizens under the eyes of the town sheriff and deported en masse from the copper mining town to Tres Hermanas, New Mexico. The charges were the dubious ones of ‘necessity’ ; that their strike demands posed a threat to the American way of life. Despite being dumped far from their camps and homes in a harsh desert, their fate was no longer the concern of the town. It remains a shocking story regardless of the audacious and complex approach taken by Greene to illuminate it, and one that cannot exist outside the discourse of ‘build the wall’ that rages around the wild Trump administration.

Greene actually gets most of the key facts over to you in an opening text crawl, and no one really disputes them. What he is really more interested in is how the locals have told, and continue to tell, the story and to justify it to themselves and others. Fascinatingly, Greene arrives in town when the locals are already deep into arranging their own re-enactment of the deportation to mark the centennial, and his camera travels around the various individuals and groups who are getting ready to take their ‘sides’ in the event; making era-appropriate costumes, staking out their viewpoints, and in many cases narrating their relationship to the participants who were involved back then. Filmmakers like David Lynch have long made it a cliche that small, picturesque towns should be stuffed with secrets and odd folk wandering about, but Bisbee proves the cliche exists for a good reason; the townsfolk are a colourful and often eccentric bunch; from the conservative Ray family men, whose role on both sides of the re-enactment as both deputy and deportee will mirror how their family was bitterly divided back in 1917, to young cafe worker Fernando whose Mexican heritage gives his role as a deportee extra charge and an experience that seems to really affect him. Various artists and historians, and a local radio host, have plenty to say too, often so stridently you wonder if there aren’t fights regularly breaking out over town about this issue. Many descendants are surprisingly forthright in their defence of now-dead relatives who served as deputies or played some role in executing the deportations, whilst critical voices point to the difficulty certain townsfolk always have had in confronting the actions of one’s flesh and blood, as well as the how the long shadow the mining barons cast over the citizenry persists to this day. There is a strange fascination in watching the interviewee’s faces as they act out their roles when re-enactment day comes. What are they thinking? When does re-enactment stop and the person resume; particularly in the case where someone’s assigned ‘side’ aligns with their views on the deportation? Is it a positive sign that townsfolk with opposing views of the justness of the decoration are at least willing to come together for the purpose of seeing the re-enactment through, thus at least mutually acknowledging this chapter of Bisbee?

The town itself lends itself to cinematic framing too, and Greene’s DP has a field day not only lensing it in striking widescreen, as if a scene from a classic western is about to break into the narrative, but lets us savour some of the more eye-catching locations that are dotted about the town, such as the scarred earth and vast pits that marks the Dante’s Inferno that is the mining zone, a region surrounded by giant piles of excavated earth so dense that they have formed their own mountains. It is a shame then that the film rarely slows down to let us process all these voices, as Green often interrupts whatever point is being debated with one too many over-elaborate re-enactments, though these are undeniably well-shot in some memorably locations, including the re-opened mine (the company moved out in the 70s), an empty but gorgeously designed school, and what appears to be an ornate theatre built into the basement of a post office.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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Director: Morgan Neville

PG-13 | 1h 34min | Documentary , Biography | 9 November 2018 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

Such are the cynical times we live in that it is easy to read the synopsis of Morgan Neville's new documentary about the legendary American public TV children's presenter Fred Rogers, and imagine that this will be a sordid tale of deception and failure. In fact, Neville's entrancing and poignant doc, which works as a great time capsule into the ramshackle world of low -budget American public service television from the 1960s onwards, suggests some people actually aren't too good to be true. Fred Rogers, who for 30-plus years hosted the now- beloved "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood", really does seem to have been the kind, thoughtful and immensely empathetic showman that he was widely feted as being when he died in 2003.

What is interesting to parse out through Neville's collage of various modern day talking heads and archive footage of Rogers on set and in interviews, is not just how Roger's approach to children was so impactful but how that 'Gap dad' look (bright plain sweaters and high-waisted pants) masked a more cunning and self-aware operator. When it came to the children, Rogers, who defines his goal in one crucial interview as helping children “through some difficult modulations in life”, struck on a one-two punch approach of expressing sincere investment in each child's uniqueness and worth via an idiosyncratic mix of puppets and live action (with all taking place on some charmingly rickety fantasy sets) whilst exploring with shocking frankness social issues like death, loneliness, and even - and this had my jaw drop- the topic of assassination The sight of a Fred Roger's tiger sock puppet asking its female co-host what assassination means ( one show's air date coincided with the murder of Robert Kennedy) is not something I will forget easily. I clearly was missing out when it came to my children's TV, provided by the good old BBC. Rogers was in the emotional literacy game.

As much as Roger's strict Christian upbringing, safe-looking clothes and sturdy haircut made him look like a fusion of an overgrown child and a slightly lost Sunday school teacher, it is hard not to conclude that beyond appearing inoffensive he also might have been carefully exploiting his image so he looked like he was in on the gag. If you can get Saturday Night Live to parody you in a not-too-cruel fashion, you have probably done something right in terms of getting noticed. In front of a Senate Committee that was set to cut public television funds (a danger it is back in again today) Rogers was brilliantly effective despite his goofy demeanour, and is credited with helping save the budget. The guy knew what he had to do to keep his show going.

I could have done with more of a focus on Roger's childhood (there are hints of bullying) and how he reconciled his religion with the explosion of various civil rights movements in the decades following his show's establishment, particularly gay rights. One of his co-stars, a closet homosexual, recalls how Rogers fretted that an out man caught at gay bars would turn away the show's sponsors, and urged him to keep his private life hidden away. Rogers appears to have come around to his friend and co-worker's sexuality eventually, but were there any other areas where Rogers' beliefs jarred with an increasingly permissive culture? How did he explore such topics where he himself felt internally conflicted with his young audiences, and did he want to? And given how strident Rogers appears in interviews about how correct his methods are for opening children's minds up to the complex and often merciless world around them, I found myself wondering if he ever faced any well-argued pushback from educational specialists or parents, especially those who were atheists. To what extent what Rogers just giving a modern gloss to Christianity with his show, as opposed to genuinely trying to drain away the ideology so as to reach a broader audience? Did parents, and the children who later grew up after watching his show, feel bothered by this?

Regardless, Neville makes a solid case about why Rogers' impact remains so great even if the man himself remains partially concealed from us. Rogers seems in no danger any time soon of being torn from that image of red jumper-sporting kindly uncle and all-round symbol of decency. It is no wonder Tom Hanks is playing him in the upcoming biopic; Hanks, like Rogers, unceasingly seems a symbol of a world that we wish still existed. A world when things made sense because people we trusted were there to explain it patiently and with a smile.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Shadow

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Director: Yimou Zhang

1h 56min | Action , Drama | 30 September 2018 (China)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Chinese director Yimou Zhang is no stranger to fantasy-tinged historical epics featuring exquisitely designed martial arts set pieces: House of Flying Daggers (2004), Hero (2002) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) sit in his filmography. And now we have Shadow, which is very much of a piece with those films in that it boasts the requisite mind-blowing visual design elements combined with impressive feats of athleticism (wire-assisted at times) from an attractive and colourful cast. But it also shares the same weaknesses: namely a very busy plot and nonsensical character motivations that I struggled with at times.

It took me a while to get a grasp on the political situation facing the trio of main characters here, the result of strange editing decisions and a screenplay that requires the cast dump lots of exposition on us early on. We are dropped into China's Three Kingdom's era (AD 220-280) where the neighbouring kingdoms of Pei and Yang are shown to be enjoying an uneasy accord. On one side, peace is maintained by Pei’s King (Zheng Kai), a vain, young kind of chap whose desire to never overstep his kingdom’s reduced boundaries after the last war, which left the city of Jing outside his control and in Yang hands, is shown to have ruffled the prideful feathers of his military leaders. In a strange and frankly hard-to-understand plot device, the King’s chief military commander and advocate for retaking Jing, a guy called simply ‘Commander’, is revealed to be a ‘Shadow’ (Deng Chao, in a dual role); a lookalike raised since stray youth to imitate the real Commander, who wastes away with a degenerative wound in a secret cave under the palace. When Pei’s Great Commander, AKA the Shadow, goes rogue and tries to start a war to retake Jing, the King is stunned at this insubordination, but both he and the Shadow can’t know that they are being manipulated to greater ends by the real Commander, whose wife, Madam (Sun Li), is pinned uneasily between his machinations and her feelings for the Shadow. She has come to care for the young man turned-duplicate, after years of pretending he is her real husband (she is the only other person in on the deception).

Opening text assures us that this strange state of affairs was commonplace once: under constant threat of assassination many nobles secretly employed surrogate men, known as ‘shadows’, who served their masters through impersonation, risking their lives and proving their loyalty by embracing death. Exactly why the king isn’t told his own chief advisor is a duplicate, and how long the real Commander expects to have to hide out in his dingy cave, isn’t revealed to us. The extent to which the resulting chaos that he masterminds wasn’t entirely clear to me either You just have to go with it.

And going along with a bonkers plot and lashings of melodramatic confrontations between the characters is a hell of a lot easier when you have a well-done Wuxia spectacular to delight your eyes, with Zhang collaborating once again with House of Flying Daggers cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and production designer Ma Kwong Win to create an eye-popping visual design that is based on the colour pallette of ink brush techniques from Chinese paintings. The costumes are sumptuous, with everyone on screen in the Pei court decked out in flowing robes which each boast their own unique ink designs This predominantly black, white and charcoal palette is repeated throughout, from the grey, rain-drenched mountain ranges that surround the kingdom, to the slate floors and the calligraphy covered panels within. Water, and constant reference to the yin yang are in the mix too, with several duels taking place atop giant ying yang symbols etched into stone floors. Shadow and the army he assembles to retake his home city in the last act even develop a gleefully mad ‘feminine’ fighting technique (a style we see developed by the Commander’s wife, no less) that involves matching the Yang sword-staffs with…wait for it…canvas umbrellas. And of course, we have fluid fight sequences taking place in the rain, in slow motion, because that has to happen in these epics. The performances are appropriately over-the-top, with particular credit going to Deng Chao in a dual role which requires him to be super-stoic in once scene as the commoner-turned-Shadow, then Machiavelli on steroids the next as the mad real Commander.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Support the Girls

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Director: Andrew Bujalski

R | 1h 30min | Comedy | 24 August 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

Writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess), new comedy drama Support the Girls wears its sexual politics and critique of the modern day American phenomenon of ‘sports bars with curves’ (think the American Hooters chain) lightly. Instead of just focusing in ruthlessly on the more obvious effects of demanding young female employees wear Daisy Dukes and dance around on the bar top to announce the latest sports event on the cable (leering, drunkly aggressive male customers, with a repartee of endlessly obnoxious cat calls) we instead are pointed more towards a layered, empathetic and often quite funny observation of how a team of mismatched women might negotiate one of the more ruthless examples of modern service industry and form bonds inside and out of it to help get by. The bar in question, a Texas ‘breastaurant’ called Double Whammies whose owner bizarrely has insisted on it emphasising a family-friendly vibe along with the titillation, serves as much as a microcosm as it does a particular workplace, though the particular and peculiar atmosphere is richly drawn; from the huge trucks and even huger men driving them who pull in once the clock hits five, to the depressingly identikit beige-coloured stores that line the strip mall the bar is based on. This is not a place, we sense, where the female staff can get much better work elsewhere. In fact, right up the highway a similar bar called ‘Mancave’ with much the same concept is opening up.

Though not all the cast members I thought came up to her level (though Haley Lu Richardson as the super-perky Maci is great), the ever-excellent Regina Hall really anchors Bujalski’s dive into this deep-fried workplace. She plays floor manager Lisa, the den mother of the joint and the longest-serving employee. Constantly on the move with clipboard and cellphone juggled in one hand and the other hand always on the shoulder of a worried employee at the same time, she is the ultimate compassionate, crisis-managing boss who you immediately sense is the only person there who can fulfil the ‘no drama’ demand of the oleaginous, uptight, and casually sexist owner Cubby (James Le Gros’). The first five minutes of the film are a showcase of what a whirling dervish this woman has to be for each day on the job: getting an incompetent burglar removed from an air vent, firing the chef who is the burglar’s cousin and therefore is the likely suspect who tipped him off about the layout of the safe room, whilst trying to organise a sexy carwash to raise cash for the legal defence of an employee who ran down her abusive boyfriend whilst also trying to hide the unauthorised fundraiser from Cubby. She also has to deal with an influx of new employees, one of whom - Jenelle (Dylan Gelula) - is more than willing to sleaze it up to get those extra tips, in violation of the rules and attitude Lisa expects to be adhered to.

Hall makes you feel the constant battle between exhaustion, frustration, and compassion, not least when the drama fails to end outside the Double Whammy’s doors (she has a depressed husband to deal with who suddenly drops the news during an apartment viewing that the apartment is just for him; he is leaving her). Some problems Lisa can’t solve but must just grit her teeth through, such as her boss’s casual racism in terms of the staff’s ethnic balance (no more than one black woman per shift). By sticking the camera close to Hall for most of the run time, we see the ebb and flow of the service industry up close and the negotiations in terms of time, emotional energy and physical labour a leader has to make. We also see how the weird, hypocritical rationalisations of the place can seep into you if you aren’t careful. Its messy, but invisible women like Lisa make it work. Think of that next time you order a burger and fries.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: The Bill Murray Stories

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Director: Tommy Avallone

1h 10min | Documentary | 10 March 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

In case the title didn’t make it clear enough, director Tommy Avallone is a huge fan of Bill Murray, both the actor Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, Lost in Translation and any number of Wes Anderson films), and the more recent phenomenon known as “Bill Murray who randomly appeared at XYZ place and did XYZ thing”. This light but charming documentary explores the various urban legends around Hollywood’s most elusive star (he has no agent and can only be reached by a near-impossible to get 800 number) that have sprung up in the last decade, boosted by social media, most of which involve Murray suddenly inserting himself into the lives and activities of various citizens of whatever city or country, doing something either random or innocuous, and then strolling off to whatever he fancies doing next. Murray over the years has become a sort of one-man photobomber, or lifebomber might be more accurate. But how many of the stories are true?

Intercutting his own failed attempts to get Bill Murray on the phone with interviews of various Murray encounter ‘survivors’ (backed by smartphone footage, including of Murray throwing shapes on a house party dance floor and reading poetry to construction workers), Avallone’s doc is mostly a collage of funny and offbeat stories, virtually all of which feature the sentence “and then I saw Bill Murray standing there, OMG”. It seems a lot of the tales are genuine; Murray did actually turn up at a house party in Edinburgh and do the dishes for the various guests, and did once tend bar in Austin on the spur of the moment, ignoring customer’s actual drink orders in favour of whatever he felt like pouring (and who would complain?).

There is some attempt at greater depth though: with Avallone devoting some his film’s second half to tracing the desire for these unscripted encounters to Murray’s training on Chicago’s famed Second City comedy improv circuit, while “The Tao of Bill Murray” author Gavin Edwards (who actually got Murray on the record; quietude achievement) suggests these moments are a sort of lighthearted exchange where Murray gets to boost his sense of connection with the everyday and essentially slap himself awake for a few seconds, whilst doing the same for the recipient of his time. Other gushing fans who have had their own brush with the legend see it merely as a way of giving something back; cheering everyday folk with a free Murray moment, a better use of celebrity than yachts or cocaine. Who knows; the big man himself isn’t interviewed

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Jinn

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Director: Nijia Mumin

1h 32min | Drama | 11 March 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

Young actress Zoe Renee gives an impassioned and very believable performance as Summer, a 17-year old carefree black girl in LA keen on dance, parties and keeping her Instagram feed fresh, whose world is turned upside down when her mother (Simone Missick), the popular TV meteorologist Jade Jennings, reveals she has converted to Islam. Writer-director Nijla Mumin’s teen drama Jinn looks like it is setting us up for a familiar religion vs rebellion scenario, and to an extent the film does fulfil that arc. But, though it at times feels a little on the nose (this is probably aimed at a younger audiences) Jinn dutifully covers as many angles as possible to show how complex Summer’s situation actually is. I appreciated that.

Some of the young girl’s reactions and choices are refreshingly surprising. For one thing, despite some initial clashes between Summer - who favours the kind of revealing clothing and sassy poise you’d expect from a kid into modern music videos - and her conservative-conservative-minded mother early on, Summer eventually chooses to give Islam a try to find out for herself what the appeal is. To her own surprise, she finds herself deeply moved by the experience, though this leads to inevitable questions from and tension with her friends; is this really her choice, or her mother’s?

As Summer’s journey continues and her attempt to balance her established school identity with her growing attachment to her religion grows more fraught, I was impressed by the sensitive handling of issues of religion and race; with every main character, Muslim or not, being given at least a couple of scenes to upend any preconceived ideas about them. Summer’s estranged father is an atheist but quietly prods his daughter to see where her mother is coming from, whereas the boy at school she crushes on, Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr), has liberal Muslim parents who eschew the portentous talk of Summer’s mother and even clashes with the Imam in her defense. I was pleased to see the film situate its lead character’s choices as not just something to be wrestled with solo, but as part of a web of connections between friends and family. Every decision about how to express herself that Summer makes is shown to impact someone else, and vice versa. Pleasing one person shuts doors to another. Our identity thus isn’t entirely our own; no one lives on an island.

It is not easy to negotiate these tides, especially in a world where someone like Summer has been brought up with social media, a tool that has, until now, simply re-affirmed her identity. Her being labelled the #halalhottie for her provocative mixing of the traditional headdress with her dancer’s leopardskin underwear is a reminder that identity is something we have exposed to the world now more than ever.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

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Director: Peter Jackson

15 | 1h 39min | Documentary , History , War | 16 October 2018 (UK)
RATING: ★★★☆☆

On the centenary of the First World War, Academy Award-winner and Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson finally presents his long-gestating project made in collaboration with both 14-18 Now and the Imperial War Museum: a new look at the First World War via a roughly chronological collage of colorised and revised archive footage of the men on the front lines. To be precise, it is specifically a look at the British Western Front in Europe, a region well-known in popular culture as cris-crossed with muddy trenches and sand bags, beyond which lay a murder zone of barbed wire and machine gun nests; ‘No Man’s Land’. Colorising past footage of wars is nothing new, but Jackson’s project is reaching very far back into film history with intent to effect such alterations, as well as making other changes.

They Shall not Grow Old actually begins very much with the kinds of monochrome clips we have long been used to as being our window into the filmic record of the First World War. For about fifteen minutes, as various audio recordings of reminiscing British veterans provide the soundtrack, we see the young men of Britain begin to mobilise for war back home. ‘Pal’s Battalions’ joining up from the same town, recruits complaining about overbearing military officers, plain-spoken unselfconscious statements about one’s certainty of victory with the might of the British empire behind them. More circumspect voices start to appear though: with some veterans recalling how it was a time ‘when men just did what they were told.’ This spread of voices, and the disarming frankness many evoke when describing the most horrific sights and sounds (and note the surprising lack of bitterness in many testimonials, despite the common belief that the war was widely regarded as ‘not worth it’), remains the strongest element of Jackson’s film, regardless of the visual trickery.

Then, as we are brought to the muddy fields of the Western Front and the first clashes between British and German troops, the frame expands outwards to widescreen, and the colours seep into what was monochrome footage. All the footage before hand is framed, clumsily in my view to suggest its ‘oldness’ and unfitness for purpose, in a scrappy 4:3 frame and backed by a fake whirring sound to emulate a classic film strip projector. Each frame of the film that follows colour was hand-colourised by Jackson’s team, the footage 3D-digitised, and transformed with modern post-production techniques. To see soldiers in this colorised pallette initially, after the eyes have been primed by exposure to monochrome for a quarter hour, is a jarring experience. At times, when a soldier is caught looking at the camera (even then people knew reality was being mediated- ‘it’s the pictures mate’ some shout) and the frame is sharp enough to see their eye colours and stubble on their face, the moment can serve as a reaffirmation of how people did not see the world in monochrome on those battlefields. Red splashes of blood (this film contains a surprising amount of footage of mangled corpses, both animal and human) also serve as a salutary reminder that people then bled like we do today no matter how much black and white might seem to remove them from what we know to be the realities of the things modern warfare can do to bodies. Colour or no colour, this footage is soberly compelling regardless because of what it so starkly shows; the painfully recognisable humanity and the incredible mechanical forces ranged against such humans. A transition from a laughing ‘Tommy’ hefting a French child in play to the staggering sight of a mine buried 20 feet down detonating upwards in a cyclone of earth is says it all. Then there are the rats, outside toilets that are just benches over shellholes, bodies sunk in mud. Notably absent from these arrays of horrors though are the views of women and soldiers of non-white descent on this carnage, the result of Jacksons’s very narrow focus.

For every moment I felt both lost in thinking; ’so that is what it must have looked like’, there was another where I felt distracted by a certain heavy-handedness in reinterpreting the footage. The colorisation, combined with strange warping effects that presumably come from adjusting the frame rates and maybe even artificially inserting some to create a 24fps mimicry, makes the footage look more like an animated film or rotoscope effort at times. Often the colour palettes fails to appear that distant from the kinds of wistful war posters I have seen. The use of sound effects I had mixed feelings about too. The First World War was, of course, not filmed with synchronised sound. Audiences seeing this footage would not have heard shell thumps or soldiers muttering to each other, or screams of pain. Jackson has, through various methods that range from dubbing, to foley and lip readings, given this film a ‘real’ soundtrack. Certainly this allows an evocation of the inferno of the fighting, particular the sheer wall of sound that a barrage creates (when a soldier describes in voiceover his increasing terror as incoming shell screams in, a sonic demonstration certainly adds punch) but I found the dialogue often out of sync with lips, and the idea of a modern actor 'speaking for' a dead person a little uncanny valley. Overall, the effects of Jackson’s interventions into archive material are often startling, and sometimes very transporting and moving, but in my view this film is best approached as more of a well-intentioned artistic reinterpretation of ‘what it must have been like to be there’ than a restoration or a true document.  If it spurs sober reflection, an interest in going back to the original footage, and sales of serious books about the First World War, They Shall Not Grow Old will have served its purpose.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: The Old Man and the Gun

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Director: David Lowery

PG-13 | 1h 33min | Comedy , Crime , Drama | 7 December 2018 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

I don’t know if actor Robert Redford had told director David Lowery he was retiring from acting before signing on to The Old Man and Gun, but this charming, graceful minimalist crime drama has turned out to be a thoroughly appropriate salute to the film icon. More interested in honouring Redford’s greatest hits and his legendary charisma than trying to follow the beats of other similar films about cops and crooks, The Old Man and the Gun doesn’t really suffer by making little effort to try to dissect the mind of a criminal or show the specifics of police procedurals. Instead, it acknowledges the power of charm and the success sheer boldness can bring, and the difficulty of stopping using those natural talents when you are so damn good at it. What better way to evoke the long arc of Redford’s career?

It also doesn’t hurt that Lowery has a genuinely remarkable true story to draw on either, and one he tells in a way that suitably evokes not only the era in which most of the action takes place (the early 80s), but the sort of intelligent and independent-minded movies Redford was making back in his heyday. From the age-age-appropriate title design to the faded film grain (DP Joe Anderson shot on 16mm), The Old Man and the Gun effortlessly mimics visually the likes of Redford’s 70s vehicles such as the thriller Three Days of the Condor, whist the subject matter recalls ‘caper’ flicks like The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A jaunty, evocative score from Daniel Hart is the icing on the cake. But Redford is the real fuel in this rocket, and he slips into the role of ageing but charismatic bank robber Forrest Tucker as easily as one might put on a comfy faded leather jacket. A lifelong criminal who’s incredible story was told in David Grann’s New Yorker article of the same title, Forrest Tucker was a sort of self-styled ‘Houdini’ crossed with a bit of John Dillinger, who didn’t just rack up an astonishing list of bank robberies, but had an amazing run of audacious prison breaks too, which ranged from abseiling from a third story window via chains of blankets to an Alcatraz flight in a homemade kayak. But his real MO was to display a charming, garrulous persona during his stickups whilst avoiding violence, as if he was sweet-talking the bank out of its money. Everyone who was robbed by him seemed to enjoy it. If Tucker hadn’t been a real person, you would have had had to invent him so Redford could play him, so perfect is the fit.

The film actually opens in the 1960s, as Tucker hightails it away from yet another robbery, having used pretty much the same method we will always see him deploy from that point on: he walks into a bank in a trenchcoat and snappy blue suit, politely wishes the clerk good morning, flashes his old colt 45 from its shoulder holster under the coat, and asks if the clerk would kindly fill the bag on the counter with cash. In our era of CCTV, DNA and drones, it seems hard to believe the same tactic would work today. But not having to face such police tools in the pre-digital era, and with a huge country to hide out in and find easy pickings, Forrest seems to have hit on a pretty surefire tactic. Stopping his car to let police cruisers roar by, Forrest encounters ranch owner and widower Jewel (the great veteran actress Sissy Spacek) who has broken down, and we soon are treated to a cinematic lesson in star chemistry as these two screen icons flirt with each other in an affectionally run-down diner late in the afternoon.

Jewel remains only a supporting character in Lowery’s film - drifting in and out of Forrest’s life over the next two decades - but that is kind of the point. As magnetic a guy as Forrest is, his seemingly never-ending desire to have the police on his tail at all times, to keep doing the thing he is best at for as long has can, means things like a steady partner and family have never factored into his thinking. In many ways, the purpose of Casey Affleck’s character - the aptly-named Detective John Hunt - is not so much to play the archetypal dogged cop figure to Redford’s cool crook, but to highlight what Forrest has lost out on. Hunt, who pursues Forrest in the 1981 sequence of the film after a bank in his precint area is taken down by the aged robber, is pushing 40 and has lost his mojo after years of seeing his closed case files merely replaced by yet more depressingly familiar ones. Yet we see that, for all his sense of drift, he has a warm family life with a wife he clearly loves and two charming kids he dotes on. When we see Forrest in a domestic setting, such as at Jewel’s handsome ranch, he looks as out of place as someone as glamorous as Redford would look pumping gas at a station, and it is a little sad. A short scene around the middle of the film, which suggests an angle the film might have explored further to add interest, sees Hunt track down Forrest’s estranged daughter, and her uneasy interview suggests a father who left a trail of pain in his wake due to his inability to deal with feeling tied down. But whereas Forrest’s cheekily-named “Over the Hill” gang of fellow geriatrics (Danny Glover and Tom Waits, effective in brief appearances) groan about their bad knees and arthritis and worry about putting down enough money for the future, at their heist preps Forrest always seems like the main objective is to make it all as fun as possible. And during the robberies, Forrest is all twinkling eyes and infectious grins, and an amusing montage of scenes where we see various post-robbery police interviews with the bank clerks gives the impression they all thoroughly liked the experience of being stuck up.

That is about as deep as Old Man and the Gun gets psychologically, which may disappoint some who yearn for a blow-by-blow account of how a man might turn to crime when it looked like he had other options. Forrest doesn’t seem the type for self-reflection, preferring to do his thinking and doing at the same time, usually when being chased by cop cars. Maybe Forrest really was that simple: doing what did what he did because he was just so good at it. And as sedate and as low-stakes as Old Man and the Gun feels despite all the robbing and running, with Lowery seemingly determined to see how much he can make a crime film feel like no crime or pursuit is actually taking place, it is sprinkled with poignant, funny and just simply pleasant moments that are all powered by the sun-sized battery that is the star power of Redford.

A tangible atmosphere of farewell hangs in the air too; not just because Redford is playing a character close to his own age now (though Lowery can’t resist using old film footage of Redford in his glorious blonde prime to illustrate Forrest’s list of his escape exploits), but because the diners, B&Bs and farms he hangs out in all seem particularly shabby and faded when seen through 16mm, as if we are much further back in time than 1981. We might imagine that the ghosts of the stick up artists of the pre-war era - maybe the icons for the younger Forrest starting out on his crime spree - are haunting these spaces. But as effectively symbolic a figure as Forrest is when it comes to serving as a sort of valedictory punctuation mark on Redford’s career, I found myself wondering if the film might also be seen as a sort of cautionary tale about identifying too much with the characters you bring to life on screen. Forrest kept robbing banks because he was good at it, and because maybe he couldn’t think of anything else that would give him the thrill. That made him a cult-like figure, but also left him alone. Redford on the other hand is stepping away from the camera with a varied career as actors, director and festival organiser behind him: unlike Forrest he knows when it is time to call it quits.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

R | 2h 12min | Comedy , Drama , Musical | 16 November 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

The Coen Brothers return to the American West in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which has the unusual honour of being their first Netflix-backed project, and an anthology film that spun out of an aborted larger TV series. Collecting six unconnected stories of eccentric misadventures, punctured pomposity, and sudden and often inelegant deaths out on the frontier in the 19th century, Scruggs is an unmistakably Coen-esque project that retains their rarified atmosphere of morbid quirkiness, good-natured and critical homages, and genuine left-field turns all mixing together.

Each tale is laced with the sense that fate is shaking its head at all these pitiful humans trying futilely to keep on top of things through either short cuts or sticking fast to the straight-and-narrow. An always visually resplendent (DP Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor have outdone themselves) and very droll meander through a lawless land and time, filled with the kind of pseudo-historical ornate wordplay which the Coen’s deployed in the likes of western True Grit, Scruggs still suffers from the problem that afflicts too many other anthologies: not all the tales come up to the same level in the telling of essentially the Coen-esque truth over and over. The series also misses several opportunities to really take a look at this most American of cinematic landscapes through fresh eyes: none of the tales offer a Native American perspective or feature women heavily (with one exception).

I can’t deny the Coen’s get things off to a bang with the introduction (following, of course, the old chestnut of a framing device of an old book of tales being opened to page one) of the titular character; the rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ white-shirted bandit played with gusto and a mile-thick drawl by Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson. Nelson leaps off the screen from the minute we see him, crooning away with a guitar in hand (we even get a shot from INSIDE the guitar) about his life lessons direct to the audience atop his steed ‘Dan’, whose neighs he uses to punctuate his homilies as he rides through a gorgeously-lensed backdrop. This turns out to be no less than the classic Western movie locale of Monument Valley. Ravishing production design and eye-popping locations - plus some neat visual flourishes like having Buster’s dusting off of his clothes create a sort of tracer outline behind him - co-exists with a steady acceleration to warp speed of every western cliche, as a trip by a parched Buster to a tiny, quaint watering hole literally in the middle of nowhere degenerates into a zany and very bloody shootout. Buster subverts expectations by revealing he is a steely-eyed badass simply hiding in the outer shell of a deep-fried gawping bumbler. Flamboyantly spinning pistols and sometimes shooting blind, Buster takes down five swarthy opponents with ease whilst chirping away to us the viewer, then decamps to a nearby town where the upmarket saloon/hotel/poker den is packed with floozies and gambling hawks.

Here the Coen’s display their deft skill once more at crafting moments of absurd, sharp violence, as Clancy Brown’s aggrieved poker playing thug takes a disliking to Buster and throws down on him, with Buster defeating his opponent by simply kicking up the gaming table between them so its central plank flies up and jerks his opponent’s drawn gun upwards to fire fatally into his own chin. “I consider that a form of suicide actually’ Buster cheerily informs the dead man’s brother, who naturally challenges Buster to a revenge showdown out in the dusty, long main street which sees him lose all five of his fingers before a final blind fired sixth shot leaves him laid out. The violence is funny but always a little unsettling.

This violent idiosyncrasy all proceeds at a pleasingly frenetic pace, like a vaudeville musical with lots of theatrical headshots, only to come to an abrupt end as Buster finally finds the bullet with his name on it at the hands of a dandified pistoleer with an intricate set of shoulder holsters and an equally fine singing voice. Buster accepts his fate of course: there is always going to be a fresher, fresher, faster gun coming up behind you. Ignoble ends and failed purposes are the fate of most of the characters in the tales that follow too, but sadly few of them have the same verve or sense of focus in delivering the message, even if each is its own elegant jewellery box of a micro-world that it is hard not to want to get lost in for a week or two. There is a sense of drift, and some tales belabour their points a little. In Near Algodones, James Franco’s wannabe bank robber gets his due and then some in a fast-moving madcap tale that doesn’t outstay its welcome, which features a fun sort of steampunk-y reversal of a standard bank robbery as the weaselly bank clerk that Franco sticks up turns out to have an arsenal of rifle traps and even a homemade suit of pot-and-pan armour at his disposal. Constantly ambushed or captured, Franco’s Cowboy goes through about three different hangman’s nooses in a day. More sombre though a tad one-note is Liam Neeson starrer Meal Ticket, a gothic tale about a travelling magic show man who’s star act is a quadruple amputee who only speaks in the verses he has rehearsed. Tom Waits mines for a rich seam in All Gold Canyon, a vibrant valley location and Wait’s surly grunts and groans do well to emphasise the single-mindedness that led men to churn up the American landscape in the search for the shiny stuff, even if the story ends unsurprisingly.

Zoe Kazan is the only notable female presence in The Gal Who Got Rattled which is set out on the prairie during a long ride to Oregon, but the oddly sweet romantic story still feels too sedate and reliant on the tired cute dog cliche, whilst the capsule tale The Mortal Remains feels truncated and missing a real oomph moment despite ending in an atmospheric gloomy mansion which remains one the of the many visual highlights. Anticlimaxes abound in each and this might frustrate, but that is the Coen’s worldview. A mixed bag then, but a mixed bag of Coen nuts is always going to be worth rooting through.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Roma

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Director: Alfonso Cuarón

2h 15min | Drama | 14 December 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

The queue to get into the LFF screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s creative return to his homeland - Roma - is a testament to not just the festival buzz about this film from abroad, but the director’s well-earned reputation for crafting visually elegant and emotionally resonant movies. Cuaron is the master of those sustained, visceral long takes and superbly staged set-pieces that made thrillers like Children of Men and Gravity so memorably immersive and exciting, especially when seen on the biggest screens. In contrast to those movies, which dealt with dystopian civil uprisings and space disasters in orbit, Roma seems to have Cuarón planted feet firmly on the ground, searching for the epic in the everyday as he recreates a month in the life of a busy middle-class family household in a bustling Mexico City in 1971. But the technical skill and ambition is on full display, pedestrian subject matter regardless. Cuaron gets one of his trademark sustained takes in early too: a five minute unbroken sequence where we watch soapy water from an offscreen bucket flowing back and forth over a tiled floor. If that doesn’t sound particularly arresting, even if you allow for the fact this is all shot in gorgeous monochrome, be patient. Over time, a little moment of magic emerges: in the few seconds where the water ripples ease down, a reflection of the skylight above the room stabilises enough to see several planes flying overhead in the sky. I was hypnotised right away, and ready to be immersed in the Mexico of Cuarón’s childhood.

The water-like ebb of life, back and forth from joy to crushing despair, is very much the concern of Cuarón here, and the image of a plane flying high overhead becomes something of a motif throughout the film, as if each signifies the passing of time like the turning of a page, or an hour glass being turned. Though it takes time for the higher stakes to emerge in this long two-hour plus movie, our point of view character - the family’s household maid Cleo - is wonderfully brought to life through the sensitive and intelligent performance from actor Yalitza Aparicio. Much of the first half of the film is told in long takes that give us a tangible feel of Cleo’s busy schedule, the camera being strategically mounted in a room corner or in the middle of an atrium so we can trace, as it pans back and forth from a fixed point, how the family bustle around from one part of the house to another. Cleo is revealed as part maid, part mother, cook and handyperson all in one. Analysing the dynamic of Cleo’s relationship with the family, particularly mother of four Sofía (Marina de Tavira), becomes an intriguing prospect. Cleo is noticeably from a different ethnic group (indigenous) to the more Caucasian-looking family, and given her job title and obvious lack of privilege, it is easy to imagine class and race disadvantages assigned her this lowly spot and her life with the family is not a happy or stable one. Yet things become more complicated the more time we spend with Cleo and Sofia, and see the way various challenges draw them together in a shared mission to protect the four children (none of whom are beyond 12 years old), and how Cleo’s place in the family blurs the lines between maid and aunt. Roma becomes Cuarón’s love letter to Cleo, and the kinds of women who raised him with love and tenderness. 

But Cuarón and his production design team don’t just lovingly recreate a characterful Mexican domestic space (aided by some sexy Ford automobiles) in sumptuously composed black and white shots, their ambitions stretch to giving us a potent snapshot of the city itself, and as intensely internal as the family dynamics are, we are constantly reminded that the hubbub of life just outside the family front gate goes on. Production designer Eugenio Caballero and sound designer both deserve plaudits. Cuarón reveals this era of Mexico City as a place teeming with vibrant life, from its cinema and music to the brewing radicalism of the political front. One intensely memorable long-take scene, a showcase for Cuarón’s ability to construct jarring moments of fast-moving turmoil, sees Cleo and Sofia’s grandmother visit a furniture store’s upstairs sales room, only to be drawn to the window as a growing roar beneath in the street signifies a clash between police, paid thugs and students is underway. With shocking suddenness the riot spills into the room with them, and what was just hinted at trough a tension-generating roar offscreen and a distant sight of turbulence seen from above, now violently interrupts our field of vision. In contrast a quieter, but equally lyrical moment, comes earlier on, when Cleo and one of the children recline head-to-head in the sweltering afternoon heat on the roof of the family home. Gently, the camera starts drifting away from the snoozing pair, up to the cityscape just behind and above them, as the intricate and evocative soundscape of the metropolis gradually comes to dominate the audio. It is a nice counterpart to the aforementioned opening sequence, a moment where we are invited to just sit back and let the sound of the city breathing in and out flow over us. This is a film packed with sublime moments such as this.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2018 Review: Wild Life

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Director: Paul Dano

12A | 1h 44min | Drama | 9 November 2018 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

If I was to be honest, I’ve never found myself having much time for Paul Dano as an actor, but on the basis of his directorial debut Wildlife, I may have underestimated this guy’s talents. Directing from a screenplay co-written by Zoe Kazan, which is based on Richard Ford’s titular novel, Dano has put together a handsomely mounted and well-acted drama that suggest a keen eye both for composition and atmosphere, and a nose for sniffing out the right talent for the job.

Yes, Wildlife’s setting and story arc are somewhat familiar, following the well-trodden path of stories of middle class Americana-flavoured disaffection, which fall short of the Norman Rockwell-esque picture postcard image of the postwar boom when America was the undisputed world superpower and cars were built with real chrome and leather. Think Far From Heaven or Revolutionary Road if you want a comparison. Our POV character is quiet teenager Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who has just endured yet another move thanks to his Dad’s inability to hold down a job, this time to quiet town of Great Falls in Montana, a suburban neighbourhood displaying that quintessentially small-town look of empty long thoroughfares lined with brownstone diners and silver-faced ice cream parlours. But cracks soon show in the facade of this fresh start, with Joe’s frustrated and volatile father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) soon needing to search further afield for work when his inability to stick to the rules in his caddying job lead to him being fired, his macho pride meaning he even spurns with a snort the follow-up apology and offer from a second chance from his regretful boss. 

We’ve seen characters like Jerry before, men knocked out of their patriarchal orbit and all-too aware of the watching eyes of their children. Gyllenhaal, looking much older and heavyset then I recall, is fine in this role. But it isn’t really his show, and therein lies WIldlife’s real appeal. The real star here is Carey Mulligan, who plays the (initially, a least) relentlessly chipper mother of the household, Jeanette. When Jerry, seemingly on a whim to re-assert the control he has lost, volunteers for a dollar-a-day firefighting job to help tackle a wildfire that is spreading outside the city borders (the thick smoke looms over the skyline ominously, like a reminder of the risks from the nuclear standoff), Jeanette is left alone with Joe for an open-ended period of time. With the screen fully turned over to her, Mulligan excels as a woman slowly shaking herself awake from the role she has been brought up to expect was always waiting for her: devoted wife, mother and housekeeper. The changes don’t come all at once, and what is particularly interesting is how ambiguous their affect is, on both Joe and Jeanette herself. If you were expecting a joyous explosion of merriment and liberation backed by era-specific songs, be prepared for something else. The changes in Jeanette are as frightening to her and her son as they are freeing. Because this reduced family unit doesn’t know how to process them. Feminism isn’t a household word yet, after all.

One moment Jeanette is breaking out her fancy blouse and makeup kit and pouring more drinks than is considered acceptable for one before evening time; one of several hints of the more liberated and spontaneous lifestyle she enjoyed before doing the time-time-honoured tradition of marrying and falling pregnant at just 20 (she is only 34, barely older than her teen son). The next moment she finds herself snapping at Joe over lunch in a cafeteria over his lack of worldly knowledge, as if she is now free to re-asses her relationship with this young person she produced from her womb when barely out of her teens herself and on whom she has always doted. Then there is her strange affair with a much older businessman who dangles the prospect of a job at his car dealership (Bill Camp), which then leads to an incredibly uncomfortable dinner at his stately home that sees Jeanette ping pong around between seduction, fear and shame as Joe watches stunned. Is this a desperate pursuit of security, or the search for sex on her terms? Is it just a booze-booze-added fuck you to the world that put her in a box so early on?

Gradually, Joe and Jeanette’s relationship starts to shift, to become more distant, and though he is stuck in the somewhat thankless ‘observer’ role, Ed Oxenbould does more than adequately translate over to us the growing fear in this child that his mother isn’t coming back. But the way Jeanete and Joe’s arc plays out in this film never lets us feel that she should, either, and I appreciated that. DP Diego García and production designer Akin McKenzie do a sterling job too of surrounding this fracturing family unit with a suitably lonely autumnal atmosphere, where characters are often framed isolated into little silos by door frames or the edges of walls. A good start to Dano’s career behind the camera.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Korean Film Fest 2018 programme launch film: A Tiger in Winter

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Director: Lee Kwang-kuk 

Cert 15, 111mins, 2018 Korea

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

The London Korean Film Festival has reached its teens, and its 2018 festival programme, announced in full at the elegant Regent Street Cinema on September 17th, promised a maturity to match this advanced age. Though Korean staples (staples to Western eyes, at least) like intense crime thrillers and crazy comedies remain an essential part of the festival lineup, pride of place this year will be given to those filmmakers who explore the intimate, the grounded, and the surface-level ordinary. This year’s message is that there are so many more layers to Korean culture than the two highly visible poles of the (admittedly great) extreme sensory highs of the films of Park Chan-wook, and the high-wire tension around the Korean peninsula as it acts as a sort of wrestling ring for President Trump and Kim Jong-il to work out their issues.

And so, this year’s festival moves from this global outlook and the highs of genre fare to an intimate view of the day-to-day lives and struggles of the people of the country on the ground. This ethos was well-represented in the teaser film screened to support the programme launch night; Lee Kwang-kuk’s third title A Tiger in Winter, which is a thoughtful, witty and ultimately affecting look at the perils and frustrations of creative inertia and the indignations of falling into the Swiss-cheese holes of the gig economy, as two writers (a chemistry-rich duo of Lee Jin-uk and Ko Hyun-jung) seek to plough through their creative blocks, neither being helped by the weight of regrets, hangovers and missed deadlines hanging over them. Fans of the down-to-earth prism taken by the films of Mike Leigh or,  for a properly Korean comparison, Hong Sang-soo, should apply.

On the same day a tiger escapes from the local zoo, Gyeong-yu, a good-looking but aimless writer (Lee Jin-uk, Miss Granny), announces with surprising casualness at breakfast with his girlfriend that he got fired from his job, or lost his job through cutbacks, he doesn’t care to be clear about it. Seemingly resigned to what comes next and not wanting a fight, the withdrawn Gyeong-yu simply packs up his things into a tiny suitcase five minutes later, and shuffles out into the cold Korean autumn to try to find a friend to shack up with. As played by Lee Jin-uk, Gyeong-yu remains this kind of curiously restrained and soft-spoken fellow for most of his screentime, but he is not an entirely un-relatable character. Ennui in the face of an adult life spent not doing what you think you should to do - in his case write with the vigour we hear that he once had as a student - is hardly uncommon. Gyeong-yu isn’t angry at life, he isn’t raging at the sky, he’s just sort of quietly stunned into a holding pattern, like a chicken hit around the head and left to wander the paddock. It actually makes him seem more vulnerable; the guy is so wire-thin and given to recoil from challenge you’d think the wind would blow him away. His first stop to get a job is a burger joint, and his CV is threadbare. No confidence, and no marketable skills, do not an easy path promise.

Gyeong-yu’s stasis leads to a series of often darkly funny - and more often pathetic - humiliations that are all the more affecting because they never stretch believability. He revisits his old apartment some weeks later and chats amicably to the presumed mother of his girlfriend outside on the steps, only to realise after about five minutes of conversation that, in fact, this woman is the new tenant who has just moved in, and his girlfriend is long gone with no forwarding address. Gyeong-yu ends up having to take work as a driver for hire picking up a mixture of surly characters, except his job isn’t exactly the same as working for Uber. Instead, he turns up to drive various drunk types home in their OWN cars, which makes you wonder how he himself then gets home. Drunk clients are not the most reliable payers either, often more than willing to write off his bill by claiming he scratched their car on the journey home. Shit-faced salarymen sometimes just greet him with harassment and a punch. His only escape are mealtimes with his old buddy who takes him in for a while, and there is a lot of eating and drinking in this film (mostly in cramped living rooms); rare moments of respite and regrouping.

There is enough alternately funny and melancholic incident in this first-act exploration of the pitfalls of the Korean gig economy to keep the interest going (as well as make you scared if your skillset is in the arts), but Lee Jin-uk’s very inward performance is given a much-welcome contrast by the arrival into the narrative of the delightfully peculiar Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach) as Gyeong-yu’s ex-girlfriend and now-successful novelist, Yoo-jung. Yoo-jung has earned the fame that Geong-yu always strived for, but, interestingly, she is revealed to be arguably even more messed up than he is, writers-blocked to hell but with a 10-bottle a day habit on top of it. She’s also refreshingly frank about her desires to get it on with her ex whilst trying to shake him out of his stupor. The two make for an endearingly clumsy and cute duo, even as the screenplay avoids letting them settle into the expected groove of sudden inspiration. The tiger motif drifts in and out, but the film would be fine just with scenes of Gyeong-yu and  Yoo-jung trying to put pen to paper.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

FrightFest 2018 review roundup

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Frightfest, the UK's premier horror film festival, is done for another year, and the Smoke Screen has stumbled out of the auditorium, wiped off the blood and brain matter, and got down to work writing up some of this year's highlights

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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Rock Steady Row

Director: Trevor Stevens

USA 2018. 77 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

I am always likely to respond well to the promise of a genre mashup that manages to somehow gel A Fistful of Dollars, Mad Max, West Side Story, and the aesthetic of comic books into one commentary on Trumpian times. That is what Rock Steady Row, from debut director Trevor Stevens, delivers over 70 highly-stylised, synth-inflected minutes. This cheeky dystopian delight is set in a future world where America has collapsed in all sorts of ways, one of those ways being that tuition has now become so unaffordable that student communities now resemble a wild frontier town in a post apocalyptic nightmare land, where lack of resources means that cruel fraternities have formed to control what little is left. The action takes place in one such hellhole - the war zone-like campus of Rock Steady Row - where two warring fraternities have taken over the ruined campus dorm house row, and bicycles dominate the campus economy. No one can afford a car, and public transport is a long-forgotten dream, hence freshmen and the generally unlucky will grovel to get their Schwinn out of protective custody. The established order gets upset when one newcomer, a man-of-few-words freshman called Leroy, decides to play both rival fraternities against each other, Man With No Name style, when his BMX gets stolen. Leroy handily has a sweet line of martial arts superpowers, which get enhanced when he has 80’s power chords and synth beats blazing from his walkman. Lead Heston Horwin makes for an appealing main man, managing to pull off the requisite balance of emitting wiry toughness whilst winking at the audience, and has buzzy chemistry with co-star Diamond White (playing student journalist Piper, doing her best Lois Lane in the face of the world’s end). Logan Huffman as fraternity godfather and main villain Palmer channels Heath Ledger’s Joker (Palmer uses pencils as weapons for one thing, pencils being another item in short supply) like his life depended on it. Some wacky fights and appealingly bizarre visions of how a post apocalyptic student community would function keep Rock Steady Row a short, sweet treat.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: The Dark

Director: Justin P. Lange

Austria 2018. 94 mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Dying as a result of a sexual assault and murder by her mother’s abusive boyfriend turns out not to be the end of for lonely American teen Mina (Nadia Alexander), as she is reborn mysteriously as an undead flesh-eating ghoul, cursed to haunt her childhood woodland home out in the rural midwest. After crawling out of her grave to wreck vengeance on her family, her hunting territory develops a local legend over the years after as ‘The Devil’s Den’, and her old house falls into a state of eerie disrepair. After presumably a decade of hunting human prey with her mother’s old axe and her ghoulish nails, Nina comes across Alex, an abused blind boy left in the car trunk of the very abuser who we witness ending up as Mina’s recent meal in the film’s opening ten minutes. After killing his obnoxious companion, Mina for some reason lets Alex live, an action that eventually allows her human side to re-emerge as he two bond, though not without the film eventually settling into a path already well-trodden by the likes of Let the Right One In. Exactly how the mythology behind Mina’s supernatural transformation isn’t made entirely clear, and the narrative drags out revealing Alex’s background without offering up a payoff that satisfied me. Still, young star Nadia Alexander leaves a lasting impression under all that putrefying makeup, as does the lensing of atmospheric rural locations.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Climax

Director: Gaspar Noé.

France 2018. 95 mins.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

A case of spiked sangria makes things get very, very crazy for a Paris-based dance troupe locked away in their studio, in wild child director Gaspar Noé’s throbbing, hypnotic, but sometimes frustrating style exercise.  Set in just one location, a young dance troupe led by Sofia Boutella’s lithe Selva are seen rehearsing for an upcoming American tour in a dingy school assembly hall before being allowed to ease into the snack trolley and punch bowl off to one side, but even before the wacky wine starts causing things to go VERY off kilter, Noé is giving us quite the technical showpiece; with extended takes allowing the agile cast to bust out some mesmerising choreographed dance routines. A pulsating, near-deafening score of the finest EDM beats combined with gliding steadicam shots that seem to ignore no possible angle of view creates quite the bewitching effect on the viewer, although I found most of the dialogue sequences in between the moments of dance sublimity kind of interminable: consisting mostly of men talking shit about women and women complaining about said shit talk. Perhaps the inanity is the point: maybe people should just shut up and dance if they’ve got nothing to say.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Anna and the Apocalypse

Director: John McPhail

UK 2017 107 Mins

RATING: ★★★★☆

It was only just a matter of time before someone mashed up Glee with a zombie movie. In fact, given my limited knowledge of horror movies, it is entirely possible I’ve been unaware of this having already been done, so I won’t say that the sassy, loopy zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse, from director John McPhail, is the first of its kind. But it certainly gets the essentials right: actually have characters who are charming, funny, and whose journey you can invest in, and have the songs be both foot-tappingly decent whilst serving the plot. Star Ella Hunt is a smart, sympathetic and relatable lead as high-schooler Anna, looking forward to the end of high school so she can start jet-setting around the world to experience life before settling down. Problem: a zombie apocalypse has just engulfed her sleepy Scottish town, forcing Anna and her amusingly mismatched group of friends (plus the school jock who teams up with them) to baseball bat their way to freedom. In between the song and dance numbers set in the mundanity of a ‘bog-standard comprehensive’, the screenplay and performances muster up some surprisingly poignant moments, and I was kept on my tones by the cheesier beats always being counterbalanced with some genuinely funny scenes (many involving today’s teens being super nonchalant about a zombie apocalypse; they’ve all seen the movies and its somewhere in the middle of their priority list) followed up by some pretty merciless outcomes for the teenybopper lineup.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Crystal Eyes

Director: Ezequiel Endelman, Leandro Montejano

Argentina 2017 83mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

This neo-Giallo may not be particularly surprising in how it plays out, but it sure looks and sounds the part (think lots of stained glass windows in chintzy corridors with shafts of purple light shining through, and ketchup blood oozing everywhere). The setting is the world of high-class modelling in Buenos Aires, 1985, and it is the first anniversary of the death of Alexis Carpenter, the unstable supermodel who died tragically in a horrendous catwalk fire. Fashion editor Lucia L'uccello wants to honour Alexis in a commemorative issue of her magazine. But the night before the cover photo shoot, Alexis' original dresses are stolen and staff members begin to disappear at the hands of a sinister silhouette in a long black leather raincoat. Is someone seeking revenge? Well...obviously!

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: 2016's Korean Film Festival foregrounds women in Korean cinema with strong gala opener The Truth Beneath

2015, Directed by Lee Kyoung-mi , starring Son Ye-jin, Kim Joo-hyuk . 
103 mins

RATING: ★★★★

The Korean Film Festival runs 3-17 November in London and also continues around the UK beyond that. See the KFF website for more details.

This year's 2016 Korean Film Festival in London promised a special focus on the lives of women through the eyes of Korean female directors. Appropriately then, the festival proper opened with this political drama directed by a woman, in this case Lee Kyoung-mi - who made a strong impression with her acclaimed feature debut Crush and Blush - which was produced by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy fame. Eight years later, and she has returned with The Truth Beneath, which was co-written by Park, and this new work will almost certainly please fans of his expressionistic (some would say slightly mad) approach to filmmaking. Notably, the film also has a female protagonist who drives the story.

This moody, stylistically left-field and unpredictably plotted drama savages modern local Korean politics right from the get go, as aspiring politician Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) and his weary-of-politics wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) see their tightly-run election campaign stumble when their freewheeling but secretive daughter Min-jin (Ji-Hoon Shin) vanishes overnight. Jong-chan is a former news anchor who is now looking to become a politician, and has secured the nomination for the Korea Party in the area of Daeson whilst going up against the lawmaker Noh Jae-soon (Kim Eui-song). Right away, the disappearance exposes fractures in the family and the political scene, as Jong-chan decides to press on campaigning, deeply disappointing his wife and putting his poll lead in jeopardy. Yeon-hong's suspicions only grow when her probing into Min-Jin's absence unearths disturbing revelations.

For one thing, her daughter lied about where she was going and who she was meeting that night. Jong-chan's rival, Yeon-hong fears, would not be beneath destroying their campaign by abducting or harming their daughter. Min-Jin's closest friend at school, from a notably lower social class, seems to have been the last person to see her alive, but is vague about why she has her friend's blood on her plimsoles from that night. Then Yeon-hong breaks into her daughter's email account, only to find that her daughter was being emailed leaked exams by her teacher, giving her an edge that helped her boost her grades. But how does any of this add up?

The more Yeon-hong digs, the more she begins to fear a political motive was involved, but it might have had less to do with disrupting Jong-chan's campaign than protecting it instead. Intriguing though the final revelation is (in that it is a plausible scenario, but involves just enough circumstance to baffle and surprise you), it would be a stretch to say the clues to unlocking this mystery are scattered throughout the narrative in such a way that the final answer will provoke viewers to rethink everything they have seen. Instead, this is one of those films where the last ten minutes really explain everything in a blood-soaked, anguished howl; and this may be unsatisfying to some. It is tempting to see some echoes of the plot of Park's Oldboy here, in that both films feature labyrynthine plots that conceal the real mastermind behind more than a few red herrings or through simple denial of facts to the audience. Still, the film offers a fast pace and tells its story with some stylistic flair and eye-catching mise-en-scene: from the use of variable slo-mo in flashback sequences, a vivid colour pallette, and some gritty and well-executed moments of violence. In fact, there is something nicely erratic about the film; a slightly elevated melodramatic and surreal tone that doesn't stray too far from keeping the film realistic, but isn't exactly 'normal' either.  The soundtrack is appealingly eclectic too, in part informed by Min-Jin's musical tastes and her (hidden from her parents) sideline as an amateur vocalist and guitarist. Son Ye-jin's performance anchors it all, as the increasingly determined- maybe even deranged- mother on a mission.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: Weiner

As  'make up your mind' time arrives in the US, at the close of another seemingly unending and bitterly fought general election campaign, it seems appropriate that the UK's Jewish Film Festival chose today to screen Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's acclaimed political doc, Weiner. It also feels timely to repost the Smoke Screen's review of the film, from earlier in the year. Enjoy at your leisure, and (try to) shake off those election nerves.

The UK Jewish Film Festival  funs 5-20 November across London and the UK, see here for the full calendar.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

15 | 1h 36min | Documentary | 8 July 2016 (UK release date)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Seven-term congressman and New York City failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is probably not a household name to British audiences. But if you had been watching The Daily Show a few years back you would almost certainly would have come across several sketches showcasing the epic double downfall of this politician, a downfall which, given the unfortunate surname of the figure involved and the sexual nature of the transgressions, seemed to confirm his status as a walking punchline and political pariah. 

Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s new documentary tracks the period where Weiner, some time after his humiliating resignation as a congressman for using Twitter to send pictures of his crotch to a female follower, mounts his New York City mayoral campaign in summer of 2013. He actually started ahead in the polls, and drew large crowds. New York, it seems, is a city where you can get a second chance. But Kriegman and Sternberg suddenly saw the trajectory of their film turn 180 degrees when Weiner was forced to admit that new “sexting” allegations had a basis in fact. The media descended and ripped apart his every move, with Weiner trying desperately to forge ahead and turn the conversation back to policy, to no avail. What a story these two filmmakers found themselves caught in the middle of! Contextualising Weiner’s rise and fall with a mixture of footage from his mayoral run and his former career, while intercutting this with examples of the absurd tone and level of media coverage Weiner was subjected to, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of transmitting the sheer nuttiness of that season in New York.

Weiner is undeniably gripping in that awful “car-crash TV” kind of way, as we are shown the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage crushing Weiner in a vice, a situation not helped by his combative, swaggering nature. One "story arc" that emerges from all the footage the filmmakers present to us is that the same qualities that made Weiner such a star congressman - his bullishness and willingness to play to the camera - became crippling flaws when he had to fight on the defensive, and project humility instead of arrogance. In one wince-inducing scene we see Weiner, flailing as his poll ratings sink, getting right up in a bystander’s face inside a downtown bakery after he overhears a snide comment. You can imagine the horrified faces of his PR team as, in full view of a dozen network TV cameras, he rails against the man’s judgement. Footage of this rant was irresistible ammo for news review and comedy shows. Youtube helped make Weiner a star, and we are shown footage of him imperiously holding court in Congress, giving barnstorming soapbox performances which enamoured him to a generation of New Yorkers. But the same digital tools he used to fuel his rise made his fall just as rapid.

Despite all the political farce, there is a story of dark, personal tragedy here. Despite his many flaws, there is still something depressing about watching Weiner’s attempt to discuss policy be utterly ground down by the refusal of the media and audiences at hustings to talk about anything else other than the scandals. Further collateral damage in all this was Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a skilled political staffer who had worked side by side with Hillary Clinton as an aide. Despite having earned a career which had made her well-known and respected across Washington DC, Huma does not come off in the documentary as comfortable being the centre of attention herself. Her reward for agreeing to be part of her husband’s mayoral run, a big step for her given she had previously not been front and centre in his career, is further humiliation as a hungry media descend to “analyse” what makes a woman like Abedin “stand by her man”.

As Weiner’s mayoral race is crushed on voting day, Abedin is told that the woman who was on the receiving end of her husband’s salacious texts is hanging around outside his office with a camera crew in tow, looking for an opportunity to create “a scene”. In the face of such a shameless fame-grab, Abedin and Weiner are forced into a tragicomic plan worthy of the show Veep, as they try to dive into a next-door McDonald’s in order to use the side door into the office. As you can imagine, this is not a documentary to watch if you are looking to re-affirm your faith in the American media and political scene.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.