BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the BFI London Film Festival this weekend to catch a handful of films. I’ve picked a broad range, from headline galas to complete leftfield choices that may be my only chance to see a film on the big screen.

Here’s what I’ll be catching:

– La La Land (Damien Chazelle, US)
– Frantz (François Ozon, Germany)
– Dancer (Steven Cantor, UK)
– Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
– Paul Verhoeven in conversation
– Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (Pedro Rivero, Alberto Vázquez, Spain)
– Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, US)

I’m most excited about the Queen of Katwe red carpet premiere that I’ll be lucky enough to attend, and Frantz will be screening at the specially-created Embankment Garden Cinema. 

I’ll be firing out reviews of each as I get the chance over the weekend. Maybe I’ll see one or two of you down there!

Film review – A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016)

Kicking off the 2016 BFI London Film Festival in style tonight was Amma Asante’s triumphant ‘A United Kingdom’. After the glitz and glamour of the red carpet, the film’s central themes proved to be an apt starting point for a programme that festival director Clare Stewart claims will focus on diversity.

The film tells the true story of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). Khama is the King of Bechuanaland (the country now known as Botswana) and in 1948 he marries London girl Williams amid opposition from their families and countries, sparking a political debate that led to the country’s independence movement.

Asante is the first black woman ever to direct an opening night film at the London Film Festival, and she was keen to point out the relevance of her being the person at the helm telling this important story.

“[The Botswanians] were comforted that it was going to be told through the gaze of a woman of colour… There was relief, and of course a curiosity, as to how their country, and they as a people, would be reflected on screen.”

Pike and Oyelowo

The resulting picture is a moving portrayal of a changing time in two countries with a message that is as valid today as it was then. True, there has been much progress in the world since 1948, but looking back at the changes in the past 70 years should give humanity hope that as much progress can be made again in the next 70 years. Indeed, many comments from the stars on the red carpet referenced that there is still much wrong with the world and a film like ‘A United Kingdom’ serves to highlight that we should never give up the fight. This is a fact not lost on Asante, especially given the marginal bandwidth available in the film industry to both people of colour and women – something that should be considered one of the big talking points of this year’s festival.

Oyelowo and Pike work together perfectly, each delivering powerful performances worthy of the story they are telling. The film’s genesis lies with Oyelowo, who started writing the script six years ago after reading the Susan Williams book Colour Bar, and his passion for the story seeps into his emotional delivery.

The film perhaps suffers from appearing saccharine, with the story telling us that their love was so strong it overcame political opposition and brought a continent together. The truth is that the film isn’t too far from being perfectly accurate, with only a couple of timeline changes for the benefit of pacing.

This is a story that is one piece of a much larger puzzle that can be filled in with what can be seen as companion films: Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom (2013) and Hotel Rwanda (2011) are two good recent examples. There is a rich history that is still being written in Africa, from which deeply moving stories continue to be drawn in both film and literature.

It is remarkable that the actors and actresses involved knew little of the source material before receiving the script. It is likely that the same can be said of the many viewers this film will eventually reach – I have to admit that I was also blissfully unaware of the history of Botswana before seeing this film. Khama’s story isn’t one that has been well-documented and that is something that Oyelowo and Asante will be more than happy to rectify.

A truly important story told in such a captivating manner deserves to be seen. A wonderful start to the festival.

 

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival came to a close this evening with the European Premiere of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. With all the stars out on the red carpet, it had all the hallmarks of a blockbuster finale on the scale of any of the Apple product launches we’ve become so accustomed to.

The biopic plays out in three distinct acts, all during iconic Jobs-headed product launches: the 1984 launch of the first Macintosh home computer; the 1988 launch of the NeXT Computer for NeXT Inc. (the company Jobs set up after being forced out of Apple); and ending with the 1998 launch of the first iMac computer.

Jobs worth

Jobs worth

Whilst it may risk being a big advert for Apple, the poor picture painted of the figurehead of the company throughout ensures that is never the case. The Steve Jobs we get to know over the course of the three acts, which play out in real time in the lead up to each of the presentations Jobs is giving, is narcissistic and self-centred, only relenting from the power trip when he finally achieves the success he has been driving for. It shows softer sides of his personality and attempts to justify his unique traits but the focus on his tempestuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and their child Lisa ensures his best side is never seen.

It is actually a difficult watch throughout. It is basically two hours of arguments, eventually becoming tiring. It does successfully portray the frantic and intense atmosphere of a huge-scale product launch in a very real manner. It fails, however, to convince that this is a good platform for great cinema.

Michael Fassbender plays the Steve Jobs we see here to perfection, capturing the nuances required of someone who is heartless to the extent of being cruel. Kate Winslet’s turn as Joanna Hoffman is steadier than her accent, and Seth Roger puts in an adequate performance as Steve Wozniak. The standout performance is quite minor but nontheless critical: Michael Stuhbarg is exceptional as the bullied inventor Andy Hertzfield.

The biggest success is the genius move to film the picture on era-appropriate equipment. The three scenes were each filmed using totally different techniques: 1984 was captured on beautiful 16mm film, 1988 on 35mm film and 1998 on digital film. The evolution of technology is reflected in the format change and portrays each era in a manner that would have been impossible with digital post-production.

Whilst it isn’t a let down, it will be difficult to find a sustainable market for this film. It’s not a straight biopic, it isn’t hugely in favour of Apple, nor is it against it. It’s a struggle to watch and is unlikely to have people raving about its successes as they leave the cinema. 

It could be Danny Boyle’s Newton moment.

Steve Jobs is released in cinemas in the UK in November.

Further Viewing

If you enjoyed the film so much you’re interested in some further viewing, then check out the below videos. In the film you see the 40 minutes building up to the release of three products, but never get to see the keynotes themselves.

1984 – Original Macintosh home computer

The original keynote:

The Superbowl “1984” advert:

1988 – NeXT

The 1988 keynote speech isn’t available on YouTube, but this ABC news segment is a close fit:

1998 – iMac

The full video in all its glory:

Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015)

Suffragette opened the London Film Festival in some style tonight, with the stars out in force at the Vue in Leicester Square to bring their film to crowds in what was also the European premiere. The London Film Festival director Clare Stewart said prior to the screening that it was an “urgent and compelling film, made by British women, about British women who changed the course of history.” How right she was.

Carey Mulligan puts in an excellent performance.

The film, directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, tracks the true story of the early suffragette movements of the late 19th and early 20th century and how their struggles against increasing opposition from all around them got harder as their prominence rose. The focal point is the fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a working class washerwoman who gets slowly drawn into the fight for power and ends up losing everything to fight for her equality. She joins the local branch of the suffragette movement after a chance encounter in the West End, and quickly finds her feet alongside Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, incidentally the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith who was Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916), Violet Miller (a standout performance from Anne-Marie Duff) and Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), a woman whose life is worthy of a film in her own right.

Just as important to the dynamics of this story are the men. Maud’s husband Sonny Watts is an extremely complex character portrayed magnificently by Ben Whishaw. As Whishaw discussed prior to the screening, Sonny is conflicted by the desire to protect and provide for the family he loves and doesn’t understand the importance of his wife’s involvement. However, as the plot progresses he makes some unforgivable decisions that further drive Maud’s determination. Brendan Gleeson provides depth to the role of Inspector Arthur Steed, a man of authority who is investigating the movement.

However, this is a film about women and made by women. It is extremely refreshing to see a film where the women take centre stage and it isn’t about how in love they may or may not be with a man. Screenwriter Abi Morgan said prior to the premiere that “a film that is fronted by an ensemble of women, and they are not being funny or romantic, is hard. That became a huge obstacle.” It didn’t feel like there were any obstacles in the final product, though the story is a tough one to discover if your only experience is the sanitised version of the suffragettes where everyone sits around drinking tea and waving flags that is much easier to tell and even easier to digest.

Meryl Streep appears as British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. It is a positive move to use her in the advertising and posters as her popularity will bring punters to this important piece of cinema. However, it will be a great shame if she ends up being overly celebrated for her appearance, especially given it is so brief. There are at least three actresses in this film more deserving of accolades for their supporting roles.

In 2015 34% of women eligible to vote in the United Kingdom failed to vote in the general election. This figure rises to 56% for the under 25s. Overall that’s almost ten million women. So was the suffragette’s fight in vain? For the most part, no. However, these stats do underline that the right the UK has to vote is now taken for granted. As such, the release of Suffragette is as poignant now as it ever could have been.

A postscript identifies the years in which women were given the vote in various countries around the world. It is not surprising to see that several countries are still lagging on this front, though perhaps the popularity of this film will help rectify these issues ever so slightly.

This is a powerful piece of cinema and a relevant work of art. It is essential viewing for all women, any of the 33.9% of the UK public who decided not to vote in the 2015 general election, and anyone with a passion for excellent cinema.

Suffragette will be released in UK cinemas on 12 October 2015.

L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop (Andre Téchiné, 2014)

Andre Téchiné’s latest film L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop (literally The Man That You Loved Too, though also known as In The Name of My Daughter but advertised here as the comparatively uninspiring French Riviera) was the opening film of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival. It didn’t kick the fortnight off with fireworks – that was saved for the red carpeted The Imitation Game a couple of hours later – but it was a film that was overall a missed opportunity despite almost being salvaged by a few great performances.

IMG_9218.JPG

The plot centres around Renée Le Roux (played by Catherine Deneuve), the owner of The Palais, a casino in the French Riviera. We pick the story up in 1970s Nice, as her daughter Agnès (Adèle Haenel) arrives home from a long absence. She is met at the airport by Maurice (Guillaume Canet), a man who is part family lawyer and part personal assistant to Renée. The primary reason for her returning appears to be to give her mother’s opinions more backing on the executive board of the casino, but the situation quickly gets complicated when Agnès begins a largely unrequited infatuation with Maurice. Both Agnès and Maurice slowly reveal that they are driven by their own personal agendas and this makes for an interesting triangle of power, greed, love and suspicion.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for the plot to focus on things that aren’t central to the plot, whilst critical points are overlooked. A key aspect of the plot is a power struggle between members of an executive board of a high-class casino, on which there are some suspicious mafia members pulling the strings. This is a potentially fruitful area that is largely unexploited.

Equally, the period immediately after Agnès eventually betrays her mother is almost completely skipped over and we are left to work out where exactly we are on the time line. Again, later in the film when Agnès disappears we pick the story up with Maurice a couple of months down the line. This is something that is explained about 40 minutes later in the film, but it doesn’t exactly make it easy to follow.

Indeed, the method of storytelling chosen at this point is a montage of newspaper headlines, which is frankly quite lazy. Adèle Haenel’s performance as Agnès heads towards a mental breakdown isn’t very convincing and I never really believed she was in turmoil, perhaps because too little time was spent on this period.

IMG_9248.JPG

The overall impression is that of a lack of focus and that Andre Téchiné couldn’t decide what the most relevant parts of the story were. Perhaps it was a stylistic choice to underline the fact this mysterious story is still yet to be unravelled and so much is still unknown, but I would sooner have had a story better told.

The final act of the film is set in a courtroom many years down the line. The make-up on Maurice is extraordinary. Unfortunately, they age him by about forty years and Renée only looks about ten years older, despite the fact we are told she has spent the intervening years (22 to be precise) ploughing all her time and money into searching for her daughter. He has allegedly been enjoying his early retirement in Panama. Surely someone on the set realised there was a mismatch here?

I left the cinema feeling like this was a missed opportunity to tell a really interesting story whilst shedding some light on a real-life mystery that is yet to be unravelled. It’s not a disaster, just not quite what it could have been.

L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop is released in UK cinemas in 2015.

BFI London Film Festival 2014 Preview

This week sees the start of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and I’ll be heading down to London tomorrow to see as many as I can in three days.

Here’s what I chose:

French Riviera (Andre Téchiné, France, 2014)
Black Coal, Thin Ice / 白日焰火 (Diao Yinan, China, 2014)
The Imitation Game (Morton Tyldum, United Kingdom, 2014)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, United Kingdom, 2014)
’71 (Yann Demange, United Kingdom, 2014)
Giovanni’s Island / ジョバンニの島 (Mizuho Nishikubo, Japan, 2014)

Frustratingly I double-booked myself for the Biophilia Sonic Gala so I will have to miss out, though I’m now extremely popular with my brother’s girlfriend who is seeing it for free!

Expect some reviews over the next week or so of these films. Have a great one if you’re also heading down. Maybe I’ll see you there!!