London Film Festival 2011 – Days 10-12

Wild Bill (Dexter Fletcher, 2011)

A 35-year on-screen veteran of film and TV, Dexter Fletcher makes his writing and directing debut with a warm, funny and tightly-plotted East End drama that adeptly mixes crime and family plot strands. Charlie Creed-Miles plays the Bill of the title (“More like Mild Bill,” as one wag obligatorily but unwisely observes at one point) – coming out of prison on licence after an eight-year stretch for a veritable portfolio of offences accrued while working as a low-level drug dealer, to find that his children, 15 year-old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11 year-old Jimmy (Sammy Williams), are fending for themselves after having being abandoned by their mother, who has run off to Spain with her new man, and don’t really want to know him. Soon, Bill finds himself besieged on all sides: his probation officer (Olivia Williams) and the police want him to steer clear of his old crew; the old crew want him to slot right back into his old life or get the fuck out of Dodge; social services (represented by Jaime Winstone and Jason Flemyng) want him to stick around and take responsibility for his kids. And there are further complications as Jimmy finds himself sucked into the life his father is trying to leave behind.

As the title suggests, Fletcher and his co-writer Danny King draw as much inspiration from Westerns as they do from the subgenres you might expect Wild Bill to fall into – it’s a relief that this isn’t a post Lock Stock guns and geezers romp, a grim-faced slab of overheated social “realism”, or a posturing “urban youth” flick of the kind I’ve seen too many of over recent years (the other side of that coin is: it should be noted that the film can validly be criticised for portraying an Eastenders fantasy version of East London – almost entirely white, with a couple of token black people and one token Asian (Hardeep Singh Kohli!)). The genre strictures mean there’s a certain predictability to the way the plot unfolds, but the ride is pleasurable all the way, thanks to nifty dialogue, moving performances (from Creed-Miles and Poulter in particular), and Fletcher’s genuinely sharp sense of composition and visual narrative – shooting in the shadow of the Olympic construction site, moving slickly from the intimate to the expansive – he’s not just an actors’ director.

Wild Bill is one of a few movies I’ve seen at the festival this year with abandoned or lost children at the heart of the story. And like films as different as Tinge Krishnan’s Junkhearts and the Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid With a Bike (reviews of both to come), it’s a moving and big-hearted film about how just caring about someone other than yourself might be enough to save you.

A note about the music – the choice of pop tracks is a cut above throughout: the confident opening montage set to the Clash’s Guns of Brixton is probably the most predictable choice on the soundtrack. The leadup to Bill’s final confrontation with his old crew is set to the great Watershed from Mark “Talk Talk” Hollis’s only solo album. You wouldn’t catch Guy Ritchie or Noel Clarke doing that. Yeah, they totally had me at Hollis. — Indy Datta

Without (Mark Jackson, 2011)

The directorial debut of Mark Jackson, Without is a smart, intriguing and unnerving thriller. From a set-up that could be pure-schlocky horror, Jackson’s film builds into a splendid character study. Central to the film’s success is a superb central performance from Joslyn Jensen in her feature debut. She plays Joslyn, a young woman starting a new job as a carer for an old man in a vegetative state. She moves into his family’s house in a small, remote community while they’re on holiday – taking care of him 24/7.

While the situation may be far from original, there’s enough invention in Jackson’s direction and freshness in Jensen’s performance to make the film truly stand out. It’s the sort of film that you should know as little as possible about before you see it, as the creeping sense of unease needs to build organically. Up until the final act, Without is a superb debut that suggests great things from both director and lead actress. While there are some small problems with the ending, the journey to it is one to be cherished. — “Ron Swanson

Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (Makoto Shinkai, 2011)

A beautiful, sad and wise animated film from Makoto Shinkai.

1.

Asuna is a lonely young girl who tries her best to keep her desolation at bay. An encounter with a Quetzlcoatl – an ancient guardian of a mysterious nether world – propels her into an epic adventure deep beneath the earth’s crust, in the company of a mysterious teacher and an outcast young warrior.  She encounters beautiful ruins, and strange scary beasts, and learns that the nether world of Agartha is being slowly killed by “Topsiders” only interested in plundering its treasures. But this film isn’t concerned with saving either world. The central theme is grief and loss, and Asuna learns that love can be destructive as well as a force for good. — Sarah Slade

2.

It could have been better in some ways, like they didn’t have to show the book stuff and her dad dying. But it was really good and you need to see the monsters to believe them.  — Charlie Slade

Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011)

The director of Miss Bala, Gerado Naranjo, is nothing if not a craftsman. The majority of the film is made up of long, long tracking shots, meticulously and intricately choreographed, resulting in a handful of virtuoso sequences where calm explodes into Heat-inspired action without pausing for breath. There’s no doubting Naranjo’s technical prowess – on a visceral level, Miss Bala is thrilling. The trouble is, he seems far more interested in visual acrobatics than crafting a story about actual, recognisable human beings.

Not that he doesn’t have the best intentions. Stephanie Sigman (who puts in a tremendous, expressive performance) plays Laura, an aspiring beauty queen who, after witnessing a gang-related shoot-out in a club, gets dragged against her will into the grimy world of drug trafficking. Naranjo obviously wants to highlight the human cost of such sordid activity, but his emphasis on visual technique has a distancing effect and suffocates any real emotion, meaning that we never really care about his protagonist. Even when he puts the camera right in Laura’s face, he fails to get inside her head, meaning that despite all the horrors that are visited upon her, you never really understand her state of mind.

What’s worse is that Laura is far too passive a character to put at the centre of a film like this. Yes, she spends a lot of her time afraid for her life, but the fact that she never puts up a fight or even questions what she’s forced to do is infuriating, especially during an extremely problematic rape scene which I’m having a hard time seeing as anything but overtly misogynistic. I’m not saying that she needs to be Buffy, but at times her passiveness almost implicates her in the crimes that she’s unwittingly dragged into, and if she had had some level of indignation or disgust at the things she’s forced to do it would have made her story something far more vital and affecting. Instead, Miss Bala is the worst kind of failure: a self-important, worthy film that doesn’t know how to make us care, all flash and no feeling. — Adam Howard

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Burnishing her reputation as one of the finest emerging filmmakers in the world, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is her first ineffable masterpiece. While other people will get caught up in the entirely bogus controversy over her casting of two young black actors (James Howson and Solomon Glave) in the role of Heathcliff, the headlines should come from her exceptional control of tone, and the way in which she creates a filthy, authentic world where this infamous love story can take place.

This is not Andrew Davies-esque period drama, it’s frightening, grimy and oppressive and the world that Arnold has created teems with violence – even from the weather. Wuthering Heights is as concerned with the effects of the pastoral as the best of Terrence Malick. Indeed, like many of his characters, Heathcliff and Cathy’s only moments of freedom and happiness come when they’re close to nature.

The performances are excellent, but the real star is Arnold. She’s shot the film in a boxy 4:3 ratio, which makes the elements even more imposing – it feels like the rain and wind is lashing through the side of the frame. It’s a great achievement, making something fresh and new, while also staying true to an iconic piece of British cultural heritage.   — “Ron Swanson

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is an all-American average Joe, with a loving wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and daughter, a precarious blue-collar job, and a crushing existential terror that starts out as dreams of apocalyptic storms, until the visions takes over his waking life as well. Thick, purple clouds blot out the sky in an instant, and are instantly gone; birds flock uncannily and unnaturally, and fall dead from the sky; when it rains, it rains viscous golden engine oil.

Is Curtis insane? His mother is a paranoid schizophrenic; he tells his wife, “you know what I came from.” Or is he privy to a reality his family, friends and colleagues are blind to? I saw this on Friday 21st October – the day that wacko American pastor Harold Camping  predicted that the biblical Rapture would take place (after it didn’t happen on the day of his original prediction, 21st May), and director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to his rural gothic Shotgun Stories (also starring Shannon) teases out a connection between the American obsession with the Rapture and the sense of fundamental cultural and economic insecurity that Americans like Curtis feel oppressed by – the sense that their way of life is on the way out.

Michael Shannon has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for self-torturing intensity for a few years now; his performance here is possibly his most prodigious yet, relying as much on his surprising vulnerability and gentleness as on the bug-eyed jaw-clenching stuff. Chastain gets more of a chance than in The Tree of Life to show why she’s flavour of the month. Nichols’ direction is vivid and intense – putting the audience inside Curtis’s perceptions as the world unravels around him.

Curtis’s obsession, which takes hold of him in a way that recalls Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, leads him to build a storm shelter by burying a freight container in his back yard: when the time comes he takes his family down there. After a while, the storm appears to have passed, just a storm after all, but the locked doors of the shelter make it impossible for Curtis to know what he will find when he opens them – his convictions (or delusions) have driven him into a literal corner, where he has cut himself off from any understanding of the world that doesn’t come from within him. Those locked storm doors: are they keeping us safe or allowing us to hide from the truth? — Indy Datta

Sarah Slade is @sladey66 on Twitter. Charlie Slade is 7 years old, and likes Scooby Doo more than Tom and Jerry

Adam Howard (@afahoward) blogs at The Blank Projector.

4 thoughts on “London Film Festival 2011 – Days 10-12

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