London Film Festival 2011 – Day 9

Lotus Eaters (Alexandra McGuinness, 2010)

An object lesson, in the perils of writing what you know, if what you know is partying with the young, rich, beautiful and boring, Lotus Eaters cares less about its story (apparently beefed up from McGuinness’s almost plotless first draft by co-credited Brendan Grant) and more about hanging out with its characters as they hop from bacchanalian party to Notting Hill café to gallery opening, in the hope that we’ll eventually come to feel their pain.

Unfortunately, their pain is conceived either in terms so rote and unimaginative (Alice is in love with both Charlie and Felix! And she wants to be an actress and taken seriously, not a model!) or so risible (Charlie is a doomed poet heroin addict! With the ripe physique of a rugby-playing public schoolboy!), and the actors (who are … variable) are stranded with such threadbare scenarios to improvise through, with an effect strangely like the zombie line-readings of things nobody actually says in “enhanced reality” TV shows like The Only Way is Essex or, closer to home, Made in Chelsea, that I found myself less feeling the characters’ pain than devoutly wishing it upon them. The film’s obvious literary progenitor is Vile Bodies (filmed by Stephen Fry as Bright Young Things, unseen by me), but lacking anything like Evelyn Waugh’s dyspeptic satirical glare, or the fear of the looming shadow of war, Lotus Eaters is  – despite an attractive cast captured in silvery monochrome fashion photography-influenced images –  an almost entirely unrewarding experience. — Indy Datta

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

George Clooney has an affinity with the London Film Festival. His best directorial effort, Good Night and Good Luck was a Closing Night Gala, he appeared in three different gala films two years ago, and is in two more this year, including The Ides of March, his fourth film as director.

An adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, Clooney’s film is a slick, yet soulless effort, which strains for resonance and political significance, but achieves little more than cheaper satire than it would have hoped for. Clooney stars as Governor Mike Morris, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency: among his campaign staff is a brilliant, young strategist played by Ryan Gosling, whose idealism and beliefs seem to have found a suitable vehicle in Morris, before the two men inevitably come into conflict.

Supporting the two leads, Clooney has assembled a great cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival political operatives, Marisa Tomei as a reporter, Evan Rachel Wood as Gosling’s love interest and the great Jeffrey Wright in a brilliant, Machiavellian role as a putative vice-presidential candidate who could sway the election.

The best moments come from Clooney’s campaign speeches – it’s easy to see him as a Liberal figurehead, and in spite of the predictable revelations of his characters flaws, he’s as attractive a fictional presidential candidate as we’ve seen since Jed Bartlet left the White House.

While The Ides of March may have ideas of being a smart political thriller; they’re ideas that it can’t live up to. In spite of the star power, this is Clooney’s worst film so far – enjoyable enough, at the time, but almost instantly forgettable. — “Ron Swanson

Sleeping Sickness (Ulrich Köhler, 2011)

In Cameroon, a German doctor, Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), and his wife are visited by their teenage daughter, in the days before they leave their lives in Africa to return to a more predictable existence in Germany. In exquisitely written, performed and directed scenes of uninistent but repeatedly telling detail,  reminiscent of the work of producer Maren Ade,  Köhler lays out the dynamic within the family, and between the family and the Cameroonians and expats they deal with. Something in Velten, a man who prides himself on the way he has managed to hold onto his ethical standards in difficult circumstances, and who loves but may not understand his wife and daughter, is out of joint: but what?

3 years later, in Paris, a French tropical medicine doctor of Congolese extraction becomes affected enough by the banal racism that he deals with every day, and so bored with his job dishing out vaccinations to gap year twats, that he decides to go to work for the World Health Organisation, auditing infectious disease treatment projects in Africa.

And that’s all I’m saying about the plot, or anything else. Fresh, strange and compelling, with shades of filmmakers as dissimilar as Claire Denis and Apichatpong Weerasithekul,  Sleeping Sickness is a truly strange journey into the heart of darkness. See it. — Indy Datta

Dreileben (Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler, 2011)

When this year’s festival line-up was announced, one of the obvious highlights was Dreileben. It’s the sort of conceit that suits a festival audience far better than any other: Dreileben is a trilogy of films all floating around one central event – the escape of a convicted murderer into the forest surrounding the titular town.

The three films each have a different director – the idea was conceived during an email exchange between Petzold,  Graf and Hochhäusler – and very different approaches. Although the films were also screened separately at the festival – it was the experience of watching them back-to-back that appealed, and it’s hard to see how any of the three films could survive in complete isolation.

While all three are well made, much of the enjoyment comes from seeing the stories of what would be minor characters in any other telling of these tales fully depicted while the main action takes place in the background. As such, it’s the first and second films which are probably the most interesting (the third, One Minute of Darkness, is a more straightforward thriller – concentrating on the escaped man, and the cop hunting him down).

The second (Don’t Follow Me Around) deviates most from the thriller genre. It’s as proficient as as a drama about friendship, love and rivalry as it is as a procedural. The main character is a police-hired psychologist who stays with an old friend and her husband as she tries to assist the investigation into the escapee. While it’s a well-observed film, seeing it as a second part of a trilogy outside of a triple-bill would be a frustrating experience, because the hunt is barely focused upon.

This is the problem with Dreileben outside of this unique setting. It’s a trio of films that work best as a technical exercise and given the distance of a few days it’s only really the experience that has stuck in my mind. — “Ron Swanson

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