LFF Day 4 – Apostasy | Last Flag Flying | The Final Year | Pickups

Apostasy

Every morning as I head to Woolwich Arsenal station to get the train to the festival I pass two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing next to a magazine rack filled with copies of The Watchtower. They never make any move to talk to me, just stand there waiting for someone to speak to them so that they can reveal The Truth to them and save their soul.

Apostasy is the debut feature from Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, and deals with a mother and her two daughters (Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson) who struggle to follow their faith in a world at odds with their beliefs. As the mother Siobhan Finneran gives a masterclass in subtlety as a woman so sure of her beliefs she will put it before everything else, including her daughters.

Kokotajlo’s film is not explicitly critical of the religion, instead presenting events as plainly as possible and even showing the human side of the devout that we so often walk past on the street without a second glass. It is up to the audience to judge for ourselves the subtle ways the women are controlled and oppressed by their community and the devastating consequences of life in a patriarchy.

With three strong central female performances Apostasy is a stripped back and quietly devastating film.

Apostasy screens at the festival on 8th, 10th, and 14th October.

Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater has had nothing but critical acclaim lately thanks to his hat trick of films Before Midnight, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!!! so it was about time he made something that was just OK.

Steve Carell gives a subdued performance as a grieving father who enlists the help of his fellow Vietnam vets to help him bury his son. He gathers two old friends in the form of a charismatic drunk (Bryan Cranston chewing every piece of scenery he can) and a born again preacher (Laurence Fishburne). The reunited trio embark on a reluctant road trip and along the way reminisce about the joys and pointless losses of war.

With a period setting of 2003 (frequently cemented by repeated references to flip-phones) the film gives the war in Iraq a lot of head shaking disapproval that might have been edgier 15 years ago but now simply echoes popular consensus. While the film tries so hard to be cynical it is undermined by frequent lapses into sentimentality and a few too many close-ups of the American flag. I couldn’t pick up on what the film was trying to convey beyond the fact that war is bad and friends are good.

A fun enough experience but Last Flag Flying ends up overstaying its welcome and then ending abruptly. Not a Linklater classic.

Last Flag Flying screens at the festival on 8th, 9th, and 10th October .

The Final Year

When Greg Barker set out to make a film about the final year of Obama’s administration he can’t have imagined the devastating end the film would have. Trump lurks throughout the film long before his name is even mentioned as the administration discuss various things we now know he is undoing. There’s nothing more devastating than the bad guy winning in the end and realising you’re in the world he’s won.

The film follows Secretary of State John Kerry, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and to a much lesser extent than expected Barack Obama himself. In their final year we see them work to tackle climate change through the Paris agreement, create solid intelligence sharing with Europe and beyond, work on reducing nuclear weapons, encourage immigration, and advocate for diplomacy over military action. The film, as you can imagine, is positively dripping in dramatic irony.

Without the context of Trump the film might not have been so interesting. It doesn’t allow as much unfiltered access as I had hoped and in no way seeks to interrogate its subjects or show them in anything other than the best light. Those we spend time with appear to be the greatest, most flawless, government employees to ever grace the Earth and while they talk of arguments (“structured discussions”) we certainly never see anything close to an uncensored moment.

Fascinating thanks its belated historical context but ultimately toothless The Final Year is an otherwise fascinating look at how good we had it only just over a year ago.

The Final Year screens at the festival on 8th and 9th October.

Pickups

I really can’t help you with this one…

Jamie Thraves directs Aidan Gillen in a drama/documentary about Aidan Gillen (real or otherwise). Gillen is an actor so method that he becomes a serial killer in order to help prepare for a role. At least he does for a while and then is just a lonely weekend dad and beleaguered celebrity just trying to pick up his dog’s poo in peace.

I have no idea.

Pickups screens at the festival on 8th and 12th October.

Foxcatcher – LFF Review

Foxcatcher

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic wrestling gold medalist who, despite his success, is struggling to get out from under the shadow of his fellow wrestler and brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). While training for the world championships and 1988 Olympics Mark is approached by millionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell in heavy prosthetics) with an offer he can’t refuse. Du Pont offers Mark a home on his estate, Foxcatcher Farm, where he will have excellent training facilities, a salary, and the ability to hire whoever he likes for his team. Mark readily accepts and asks Dave to join him but Dave declines as he has a family to consider and cannot be so easily bought.

Mark is a simple man of few words and is happy to have been chosen by du Pont though suffers without his brother to train with. It is clear that du Pont is lonely as despite his wealth he has no friends and his mother (astonishingly wasted Vanessa Redgrave) is his sole remaining relative. As such du Pont sees Mark as a son and insists on Mark looking up to him as a father-figure. Eventually Dave is convinced to bring his family out to Foxcatcher Farm to work as a coach under du Pont. How he is persuaded is never really clear, nor is why Mark suddenly stops talking to du Pont. Foxcatcher is a slow burning film in which nothing happens before long stretches and when something does happen there seems to be no reason for it. This is most evident in the film’s violent conclusion, a matter of public record but not one I was aware of, which the filmmakers never seek to explain.

Foxcatcher 2

Despite being based on real events Foxcatcher does not feel authentic or logical. While there are a series of events that definitely happened writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have not connected the dots effectively. The gaps between what we know to have taken place are not filled with scenes attempting to provide motivation or explanation just more tedium in which du Pont is showcased as being a little bit weird, his mother so distant she doesn’t get a single line of dialogue, and Mark as a piece of meat slowly moving from room to room. The film’s only moment of consequence, that of the final ten minutes, is actually truncated rather than fleshed out as a police capture that in reality took place over two days is taken care of in minutes. Why stretch the plot so thinly elsewhere only to rush the ending?

The BFI have described the film as a nerve-jangling thriller but I would argue that as it focusses on the relationship between an almost mute athlete and an introverted millionaire there is less a sense of foreboding and more a sense of boredom. Steve Carell and Channing Tatum both put in “proper” acting performances offering subtlety not normally present in their comedic roles but they play uncharismatic characters who, when left alone in a room together, struggled to hold attention. Let’s not even talk about Carell’s facial prosthetics and the mask-like look they give him. Mark Ruffalo is gifted the only part with any character and as such I felt nothing but sympathy for Dave being pulled into the awkward atmosphere of Foxcatcher.

Director Bennett Miller has worked hard on creating a specific tone for the film and that tone is one of being slightly uncomfortable. Imagine the sensation of not being able to get comfortable in your seat for two hours before suddenly falling off it without warning or explanation. That is Foxcatcher in a nutshell.

Foxcatcher is a humourless film populated with impenetrable characters, despite some decent acting efforts, and a plot with no rhyme or reason to it. An odd, unpleasant, and often dull film.

Foxcatcher has a UK release date of 9th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 17th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – Film Review

At the start of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World we learn that the last attempt to stop an asteroid from colliding with the Earth has failed and human life has just three weeks left in existence. Dodge (Steve Carell) hears the news on his car radio and moments later his wife runs from the car, not wanting to spend what is left of her life with our bland lead. Dodge is an uncomplicated man of habit and continues to turn up to his day job in spite of the impending apocalypse. Following a few minor plot points Dodge is embarking on a road trip to track down his childhood sweetheart with his young free-spirited neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) with hilarious and moving consequences.

For a Steve Carell comedy the humour is for the most part quite genuine and understated. Towards the start the comedy threatens to become too broad but never quite breaches and throughout Carell is playing the straight man rather than rolling out another “wacky character”. I much prefer it this way round. With Carell playing a real human type it is a lot easier to buy into the emotional story at the heart of this plot.

Refreshingly the apocalypse takes a back seat for a change. As we join the story after all attempts to avert disaster have been abandoned we don’t ever need to spend time in a NASA control room or in the President’s Oval Office instead focussing on characters and their individual reactions to the end of the world. It’s all about emotions and human relationships and more specifically the last blossoming friendship between repressed Dodge and hippy hipster Penny.

Knightley as Penny is also playing a strangely endearing character much less removed from reality than her roles can sometimes seem. The film completely manipulated me and had me falling for Penny over the course of an hour and a half. Seeking a Friend deploys the now classic trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with Knightley’s Penny performing the thankless task of bringing Dodge out of his shell and being a hipster’s dream woman. The poor girl has an obsession with vinyl records and suffers from adorable hypersomnia. I’d criticise the film more for this if I weren’t so damned attracted to Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a pitch perfect comedy. The humour for the most part was quite subtle with Steve Carell reigning himself in nicely and even the broader moments were genuinely funny and were within the tone of the film. Keira Knightley is fantastic and for a change you can see why someone would fall for her so quickly. The film is also really touching, demonstrating in the most literal sense that if you love something, let it go. I laughed, I cried, and I can’t wait to see it again.

P.S. There’s also an adorable dog called Sorry, but he doesn’t really do much.

Top 10 Road Trip Films (I Own)

For the next week and a half I will be roaming around the South West of England in a yellow VW Campervan called Barney embarking on A Very English Road Trip. To celebrate I’ve compiled a list of the top ten road trip movies I own on DVD. An odd criteria for a film list but these film lists are superficial at the best of times.

Away We Go
A surprisingly light-hearted film from Sam Mendes as a young couple visit friends and relatives while trying to find the right place to bring up their imminent baby. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are a convincing couple and provide the sanity amongst the crazy characters they visit. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Allison Janney are the two main highlights along their journey.

Catfish
The only documentary on this list, Catfish follows the burgeoning online romance between Yaniv Schulman and the sister of a young artist he has been emailing. After some suspicious events Yaniv and his friends travel to the mystery girl’s house and uncover something they had never expected. There is debate about this documentary’s authenticity, either way it makes for a gripping watch.

The Darjeeling Limited
Wes Anderson takes his signature style on the road, or rather on the track, as three brothers travel through India by train, looking for their mother and getting to grips with the loss of their father. Jason Schwartzmann, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson fit perfectly with Anderson’s tone as the three brothers and their journey is as much emotional as it is physical. Natalie Portman makes a brief, but revealing, appearance in the preceding short film.

The Go-Getter
The most indie film on the list unites Sundance darlings Lou Taylor Pucci, Zooey Deschanel and Jena Malone and brought together for the first time the she and him in She & Him. A young man has a quarter life crisis, steals a car and discovers love, and himself, on the road. A little bit twee to ever be successful, this is worth a watch if you are a fan of the cast, or just enjoy a gentle film about someone abandoning life and hitting the road.

Into the Wild
Speaking of a young man having a quarter life crisis and hitting the road… This time round the traveller is played by Emile Hirsch with a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart providing the tempting romance he finds along the way. Stewart’s role is quite small though and this is the biggest single-hander of the lot, with Hirsch the only character present throughout. This was Sean Penn’s last work behind the camera and is proof he should do more.

Little Miss Sunshine
An amazing cast go travelling in a yellow VW Campervan (not called Barney) in order to get Abigail Breslin to her beauty pageant. Darkly funny and more than a little moving this road trip ends the way all movies should, with a big dance number. Kevin Bacon would be proud. The film is notable for featuring Steve Carell’s most subdued performance, and for inspiring the colour scheme of this very website.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Even the Coen Brothers have made a road trip film, theirs being an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey and starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three escaped convicts searching for hidden treasure. Encountering all manner of characters and obstacles along the way this is the quintessential road trip film, and the only one to involve the KKK.

Transamerica
Any good road trip forces the film to shift focus from traditional plot or location and instead focus on the characters who are the only constant through the film, and their relationships. Few films utilise this better than Transamerica as Felicity Huffman’s pre-op transsexual meets her son for the first time as she ferries him across country under the guise of being a charity worker.

Wristcutters: A Love Story
While most of these films involve travelling across the United States, Wristcutters moves beyond the world of the living and instead is set in an afterlife reserved for people who commit suicide. Shortly after his death Patrick Fugit hears that his old girlfriend, Leslie Bibb, has also killed herself and so takes his room-mate and tries to find her. Along the way he encounters some charmingly rustic supernatural elements and Tom Waits, who also provides the soundtrack.

Zombieland
While everyone in Wristcutters is dead, most of the people our travellers come across in this film are the undead. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson travel through the post-apocalyptic landscape in search of Twinkies and instead find Emma Stone (swoon), Abigail Breslin (road trip queen) and more zombies than you can shake a double barreled shotgun at. One of cinema’s greatest cameos is the icing on this zombie cake.

If there’s anything all these films have in common, it’s that the destination is not the important part, it’s the journey and characters that are key when the film has no other consistent element.

Dinner for Schmucks – Trailer Dissection

Out this Friday is Dinner for Schmucks which appears to have just about every current American comic actor in it. And yet… I can’t decide if it will be any good or not. What I do know is that Steve Carell puts on an impressive array of facial expressions. I counted 13, as you can see just under the trailer which I suggest you watch. Is this a case of a great cast in a terrible film?


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