Film Review -Manchester By The Sea (2016) starring Casey Affleck in the role of his career

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In a weekend packed with films, Saturday evening saw me at the European premiere of Terence Lonergan’s new film Manchester By The Sea and it certainly proved to be a powerful example of film-making.

Both written and directed by Lonergan, it’s the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor who lives a solitary life in Boston, only to be pulled back to his former home of Manchester when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away. Although suffering from a known condition and given a limited life expectancy, Joe’s death shakes Lee and through a series of flashbacks we see how close the two brothers were.

Joe’s death also brings an even larger adjustment for Lee, in the form of his 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). With his mother out of the picture, Lee is his only family and the film’s highlight is the relationship we see develop between these two men, as they each cope with their losses in their own way.

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Brothers Joe (Kyle Chandler) & Lee (Casey Affleck)
Lee’s return to Manchester also requires him to face his past and it’s only as the story moves forward that we begin to understand the underlying reasons behind his closed-off, almost emotionless at times, personality. It is here where the true brilliance of Affleck’s performance becomes so apparent. His portrayal of a man trying (and perhaps failing) to deal with so much pain, loss, grief and guilt is a revelation and it’s a performance that stays with you. He beautifully captures all of these emotions, while all the time keeping them tightly reined in, resulting in Lee always be somewhat apart from everyone around him. You understand what he’s thinking, even when he’s still and on the surface, calm. Through the glimpses into his previous life, we see when his world was simpler, as a husband to Randi (Michelle Williams) and a father and this makes the film all the more heartbreaking.

Affleck has been a great actor for many years, but with such a stunning performance, Manchester By The Sea marks a turning point in his career that I sincerely hope earns him the recognition he deserves.

Williams may have a smaller role than I expected, but she gives a very believable, delicate and moving performance of a woman whose life took an unexpected turn, which has left her irreparably broken. However, the other performance of note is that of Lucas Hedges as Patrick. The film marks his biggest role to date and it’s a performance which I’m sure is only the beginning of a successful career.

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Casey Affleck (Lee) & Lucas Hedges (Patrick)
It is a film that is quite slow in pace and its subjects of grief and loss could have resulted in a rather difficult story to sit through. However, although I do think it is perhaps a little too long, what surprised me about Lonergan’s script is how witty it is in places and this is emphasised by Hedges’ performance and his rapport with his uncle. Patrick is dealing with the loss of his father in his own way, which includes his continued efforts to sleep with one of his two girlfriends, even going as far as to ask his uncle to keep her mother occupied! Indeed Affleck and Hedges have a genuinely lovely relationship in this film and even when I felt it was a little too slow in places, the strength of their scenes maintained my interest and emotional investment in the lives of the characters.

It is also wonderfully shot by Lonergan (who even has a brief cameo in the film) and the setting adds to the general mood. You can see how this fishing community would be both a beautiful, but perhaps also lonely place to be.

Overall, I enjoyed this film and am pleased I went to see something I may not have picked out at my local multiplex. It won’t appeal to everyone and I can see how, for some, it may be just too slow a story. However, I found it to be a delicately crafted exploration of human emotion and how we each cope (or try to cope) when we have to face heartbreaking moments and that moving on is harder for some of us than others. This isn’t an easy, light film by any means, but I would still urge anyone with an appreciation for quality storytelling and tremendous acting to go and see it.

Manchester By The Sea opens in the UK on 13th January 2017 (in the USA it’s 18th November 2016). Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/gsVoD0pTge0

 

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Film Review – A Monster Calls

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The standard at this year’s London Film Festival is already impressive. However, I don’t think anything will strike as much of an emotional chord with me this year as A Monster Calls. Based on his book of the same name, Patrick Ness brings his poignant story to a new audience, directed by J.A Bayona. I for one admit I’d never read his book, but I may do so now.

A Monster Calls is the story of 12 year old Conor O’Malley, who is facing something no child should have to face – the loss of his mother, who is battling cancer. As she fights on, Conor immerses himself in the world of his imagination, through his drawings, and it is here where the yew tree in the grounds of the churchyard at the back of their house comes to life; every night at 12:07 the monster comes to call (although, personally I didn’t really see the tree as a monster). The tree will tell him three stories and then Conor must tell it his story; his deepest secret.

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It is certainly a powerful and emotional subject, but A Monster Calls handles the themes of loss and grief in a deeply moving and thought-provoking way. The world of Conor’s imagination and the tree’s stories, designed to help him deal with the truth, are brought to life through beautiful animation, which enables the fantasy to merge with the reality just as the colours in Conor’s drawings do.

Added to the animation is the quality of the visual effects – namely the visualisation of the mighty tree. It’s superbly done and what at first may seem frightening to the younger viewer, soon becomes a source of comfort to this lost little boy. Liam Neeson voices the tree and is the perfect actor to do so, bringing the requisite gravitas that is both a little intimidating, but also kind and I loved the bond that grows between boy and tree.

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Felicity Jones breaks your heart as Conor’s mum, who would do anything to have more time with her son. In my view she’s one of Britain’s finest actresses and this is another touching performance from her. Sigourney Weaver is also very good as Conor’s grandma, struggling to find a way to connect with him as he grows more and more angry with life.

However, the star of this film is young Lewis MacDougall. He is superb as Conor and you become more and more emotionally invested in his story as the film unfolds. I defy you not to be crying by the end, especially with the added beauty of Fernando Velaquez’s score.

I wasn’t sure what to expect before I saw this film, but it will be one of my film highlights of the year and is sure to break your heart, but also remind you of the power of love and courage and how those we love will always live on through our memories.

A Monster Calls opens on 6th January 2017 in the UK and the USA. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/gXRrcXHD3UQ

 

Film Review – La La Land lights up the London Film Festival!

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The anticipation for this film was evident by the Odeon Leicester Square being full first thing in the morning for this encore screening. London Film Festival director Clare Stewart welcomed us to Saturday morning’s screening of La La Land by saying it would be the best 10:30 a.m. ticket we’d ever bought. I’d read all the buzz about this film, its recent wins at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals and I admit, I was worried it may not be as good as everyone had said. I needn’t have worried though – Claire was absolutely right too!

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, responsible for 2014’s excellent Whiplash, it is a truly magical film experience. What’s it about? It’s the story of a passionate jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) whose paths cross as they struggle to achieve their dreams in the City of Angels. After the initial spark between them, we watch over the course of four seasons (which all ironically look the same in sunny LA) as they fall in love, but also have to realise that not everything in life is as it is in the movies.

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There is so much to love about La La Land. Damien Chazelle has created something that is both old-fashioned and contemporary all at once. It immediately makes you think of the era of Hollywood classics, such as those starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as Mia and Seb sing, dance and in Gosling’s case, play across the screen and the audience’s hearts (and the fact the actors have made such an effort to do all of this themselves adds to the film’s overall quality). As well as the golden era of Hollywood glamour and style (it looks visually beautiful), the film also captures the modern craziness of LA, particularly through the crushingly awkward auditions Mia puts herself through and the shallow people she encounters in the world she so wants to be a part of.

Another strength is the work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose gorgeous lighting of scenes adds a magical mood and style that illuminates the screen and drenches it in colour. The scene in which Stone and Gosling dance together, overlooking the LA skyline is a brilliant example of this, as well as the merging of old and new, as the spellbinding classic mood is broken by a very modern ringing phone! He has clearly worked closely with Chazelle to capture the essence of the story and together they ensure that you never know when we will shift from reality to the gorgeous fantasy-style dream sequences.

The music is also a high point of La La Land, although I wouldn’t class this as a musical as such. It’s a romance in which the leads occasionally sing. Justin Hurwitz’s score is spot-on, working wonderfully with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. There is also input from John Legend, who also has a small role in the film, lending another level of credibility to its musical side, as does Gosling’s evident work at mastering the piano, in order to truly convince in the role of Seb. I will certainly be buying the full soundtrack as soon as it’s available.

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Acting-wise there are strong performances in both lead and minor roles (I loved the all too brief appearance of Whiplash’s JK Simmons!), but the film belongs to Stone and Gosling, who reignite the old-fashioned Hollywood romance for a new generation. They are a superb duo, equally adept at bringing the fun, comedic and emotional aspects of their characters to life. I loved Mia’s sense of humour (particularly early on) and her kind heart, which Stone conveys so seemingly effortlessly through her eyes. I also admit to falling under Gosling’s spell as Seb. He brings a true depth of emotion to him, while also looking utterly cool and sophisticated in every outfit (full marks to the costume designer, for creating looks that were modern, but also classically stylish).

In the Q&A afterwards, Chazelle said that it is a film about timing; sometimes the timing is on and sometimes it isn’t, which is certainly true for Mia and Seb, but also for all of us in life. He hoped that it conveys to the audience that life may not always be as you dreamt, or as it was in your favourite movies, but that that’s okay; we all find our own path. It’s a lovely message and by the end of La La Land you feel that sense of hope.

This has already been an impressive film festival for me. I’ve seen more films than past years (reviews will continue to be posted here as quickly as I can write them), but La La Land will almost certainly be my highlight and possibly even one of my all-time favourite films. I laughed and cried and fell under its spell and I hope its success will signal a new era of films which draw on the magic of a bygone era, to bring a new audience to this genre of film. I’m not quite ready to put money on the Awards season, but if I had to, I think this film is a strong contender.

La La Land opens in the UK on 13th January 2017 (it’s 9th December 2016 for the U.S.A, you lucky people) and I cannot urge you enough to go along and be swept away by it. In the meatime, here’s the latest trailer: https://youtu.be/VDMf9m7FXd4

Television Preview – The Fall series 3, plus Q&A with Allan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

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As I took my seat in the auditorium at the BFI in London tonight and the lights went down, I felt a little apprehensive and perhaps a bit nervous. I was after all about to sit and watch the first episode of series three of The Fall in public; this being the series which in previous years has had me watching from behind a pillow! However, it was too tempting to miss, particularly as this preview screening was to be followed by a Q&A with the show’s creator, writer and director Allan Cubitt and stars Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan (more on the Q&A at the end of this post for those interested).

Although I don’t plan to give much away about what happens in the first episode (and have not referred to anything we were told was embargoed), I will mention some aspects of episode one here and will also try and set out at the end as much detail of the Q&A as I can so some may class this as containing mild spoilers if you wish to know nothing before tuning in.

Disclaimers out of the way, the third series of the BBC’s superb psychological thriller, picks up exactly where we left events; Rose Stagg has been found, but Paul Spector and DS Anderson have been shot. The stakes are high for Stella Gibson as the man she has pursued over the previous two series is rushed to hospital and a desperate battle to save his life begins. As a result, this episode of The Fall finds us in very different territory to previous episodes, in a sense becoming more of a medical drama. Be warned if you are squeamish of hospital scenes as there’s plenty of blood and guts here!

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The dramatic end of series 2!

As well Spector’s fight for life, this opener does set the scene for other storylines that are likely to play out in this series. There is of course Rose Stagg, the woman to survive Spector, who will no doubt have to come to terms with her terrible ordeal, together with her husband (played wonderfully by Jonjo O’Neill). There are also those others affected most profoundly by Spector, particularly his family (I can’t help but feel so sad for his children, who surely cannot remain shielded from the truth in today’s media world) and Katie (still played brilliantly, to the extent I wanted to shake her in to seeing sense, by Aisling Franciosi).

Then of course there is Stella Gibson, who remains one of the most fascinating, strong and multi-faceted characters on television. Gillian Anderson is (unsurprisingly) on excellent form here, in a role she knows so well by now, as we see her emotional reaction to recent events. It’s particularly interesting when she is asked why she reacted with anguish when Spector was shot and you do wonder perhaps if her answer is the whole truth (although Gillian herself says that it is so I believe her!).

One of my favourite moments of the episode was the simple touch of Stella taking the missing person poster of Rose Stagg from the hospital noticeboard; this woman at least she was able to save. There is also a lovely moment between her and Rose’s husband. As she gives him advice on how he should be there for Rose, I again found myself curious as to Stella’s own history. We know she used to have her own rubber band on her wrist and this scene again brings our questions on Stella to the forefront. Creator Allan Cubitt confirmed we would learn a little more, but he and Gillian Anderson have always felt that one of the strengths of the character was the enigmatic nature of her life, so I cannot imagine we’ll ever really know her, and perhaps that’s how it should be. John Lynch also returns as ACC Burns, who finds himself having to defend Gibson’s decision to take Spector to the woodland, which resulted in the shooting. It will be interesting to see how she stands up to any attempts to blame her for what happened and how that will affect her relationship with Burns.

Overall, this is a great start to the third series, laying the base for events to unfold over the coming weeks and it is credit to Cubitt’s style and the characters he has created, that despite Spector being in no position to harm anyone in this episode, I still found myself tensing when nurses went near him alone! It did feel a bit slow in places, but was still an absorbing hour of drama, containing strong performances from its cast. I’m certainly intrigued to see the path the story will take this series and hope the BBC hurries up and announces an airdate!

 

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(L-R) Alan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan (better photo of him below)

 

Q&A with Allan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

Below is as detailed a record of the Q&A as I can write. The BFI usually uploads its Q&A segments to its website, so I’d keep an eye out for this in the future.

1. Discussing the medical aspects of the series

As this episode takes place predominantly in the hospital setting, the Q&A began with a discussion of the medical element of the series as a whole. Allan Cubitt explained how The Fall has always had a medical element, in the context of while Spector took life, others were trying to save lives. He referred to Sally Ann Spector’s work at the hospital and the deliberate cutting between scenes in which the baby died in the neonatal unit in series one, with Spector’s terrible crimes, in order to convey the enormity of what Spector does. He also talked about having to direct a medical drama for the first time with this episode, which was a new experience for him.

He also touched on how those in the medical profession in Northern Ireland have understood the dilemma of treating patients such as Specter for a long time, particularly during the Troubles and indeed reference to putting clinical need above morals when it comes to medical care is discussed in the episode.

2. Redemption for its characters?

The panel was asked if they thought there was any redemption for any of the characters this series and they all said yes, although refused to say which characters! On being asked specifically if he thought there was anything redeemable about Spector, Jamie Dornan admitted it was hard, but when playing him, he did think there were aspects of him that were commendable (albeit very few!), those being the traces of him being a good, loving father and that he approached his career with professionalism, providing a good quality of support to families who’d been bereaved.

3. Man, monster & method?

Linked to the discussion of the redemptive qualities (if any!) of Spector, Dornan was asked if he felt Spector was man or monster and his approach to playing him. He made clear that it would have been wrong to play him as a monster and that there had to be relateable aspects to him. When playing the scenes with his children, Dornan played them as a father and nothing else, as why would he? In those moments Spector is just a father and a husband and he was keen to avoid the “monstrous” tag. On being asked whether he used method acting for the part (basically meaning staying in character the whole time), Dornan laughingly said he didn’t stay in character all the time, as he probably wouldn’t still be married if he had! He spoke about all actors having their own method, but explained how after all these years he now has ways of locking in to Spector’s psyche without too much build up.

Cubitt also complimented the emotional depth of his lead actors, speaking about Dornan’s personal reaction when they were filming the scene from series two in which Rose Stagg is screaming at the camera. Apparently Dornan watched Valene Kane’s performance on set, with his head in his hands because it had affected him so much, but yet then he was still able to deliver his scenes as Spector talking to the camera afterwards. Cubitt also spoke about Gillian Anderson having not seen those scenes in advance of filming the moments where Stella watches the tapes for the first time, meaning her response to them was genuine, again highlighting the empathetic and powerful actors he has as his leads.

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(L-R) Alan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

 

4. The ease of becoming Stella?

Gillian Anderson spoke about it being easy to “put on” the character of Stella now, saying that on going to the wardrobe fittings (at Selfridges apparently!), as soon as the clothes are on, she becomes Stella. Cubitt agreed that the look created for her really worked, as on arriving in Belfast she is presenting a face to the world of a woman doing a professional job.

5. Stella’s relationship with Spector?

As mentioned above, there is a scene in which Stella’s relationship with Spector is questioned, in light of her “anguished” reaction to him being shot. Stella justifies this by saying she didn’t want it to end without him facing justice, as the families needed that closure. On being asked whether she thought Stella’s answer was the truth or whether there was an unhealthy fascination with him, Gillian Anderson agreed that Stella is fascinated by him, but is obsessed with bringing him to justice. It’s hard for Stella to grasp that he may get off without punishment by dying and Anderson thinks Stella made the right choice to go to help him in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Anderson also highlighted that Stella is a character with flaws, such as her decision to sleep with DS Anderson (Colin Morgan) in series 2, but Cubitt commented that he hoped the characters are true to life in the sense that they are flawed.

6. Stella’s character and background

The panel agreed that Stella Gibson is an important character to have on our screens, as a strong woman in the police force, who is comfortable with who she is as a woman. Anderson admitted that she hadn’t met anyone quite like her and that there were aspects of Stella that aren’t her, but would be fun to adopt. She also spoke about how it is more interesting for the audience not to know her background, although agreed we do learn a little more this series. Cubitt agreed that he’d wanted things to unfold gradually and that the enigmatic nature of Stella has always been important. He talked about there being a scene in which we were to see her call her mother, but that they didn’t keep it, as it would have given an idea of her class and background and that it’s more interesting to wonder what her life away from Belfast is like. We assume she has no partner or children, but on the other hand it wouldn’t totally surprise you if that transpired (he stressed that wasn’t a spoiler / hint at all for the series).

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7. Media criticism of The Fall

The criticism the series has faced in the past was also discussed, particularly those press articles which had criticised it for being misogynistic and glamorising violence against women. Cubitt spoke about how much it had upset him on a personal level, as he was the writer and creator so whose fantasies were they saying they were if not his? It was personally insulting, but he didn’t see people who held those views changing them during series 3, as if people have such a “reductive and simplistic” view then a few more episodes of drama wouldn’t change it. To him it is absurd. He spoke about how he’d been contacted by people who had also praised the emotional truth of characters such as Katie and he highlighted how frequently Stella talks about the idea of men, women and violence, raising this topic in a clear and intelligent way. Cubitt also reminded the audience that Spector says he doesn’t hate women, he hates everyone, including himself and that in fact the most violent we see him is when he kills Joe Brawley. It was a fascinating section of the Q&A, which could have become a whole separate conversation on its own.

Audience Questions

It was then time for the audience part of the Q&A, which thankfully was filled with intelligent and interesting questions.

8. As an icon and role model since The X-Files, does Gillian Anderson feel a sense of responsibility when choosing her roles?

Gillian admitted that she did feel a certain sense of responsibility, but that even if that wasn’t the case, she would probably still choose the same roles as she has done, because those are the roles she is attracted to.

9. Is this the final chapter of The Fall?

Although the BFI audience tonight was urging the panel not to answer this question, Anderson pointed out they’d been answering it all day, so we’d read it tomorrow anyway! All Cubitt would say is that series three was not necessarily the end of The Fall. I guess we’ll all have to watch and see!

10. What made Allan Cubitt think Jamie Dornan was Paul Spector from his original audition for another role in the drama?

Allan Cubitt was asked what he saw in Jamie Dornan’s audition tape that made him right for Spector, seeing as Dornan had originally auditioned for the role of James Olson. Cubitt spoke about having met Dornan before and wanting to bring him in to audition, but then realising he wasn’t right for the part of Olson. His extraordinary presence on camera convinced Cubitt straight away that he was right for Spector, but that it was felt by others that Dornan should come back and audition again for the role. He did and Cubitt was quite adamant that this was the right actor (to the extent it was Dornan or no one for him) and that on sending the tape to Gillian Anderson she also agreed. Cubitt also commented that as the actor would need to spend 50% of the time on screen alongside Anderson as Stella Gibson, he needed someone with just as much emotional depth and that Dornan had that. He also enthused about the stunning casting for series three.

11. Does Gillian have any advice for young actors when facing rejection?

Gillian’s advice was perseverance and not to take rejection personally as it can be a gift. As long as you leave an audition knowing you gave it everything, the rest is out of your hands.

12. How has Jamie’s view of playing Spector changed since series one, in light of him becoming a husband and father?

Jamie was reminded that at the launch of series one, he’d said he couldn’t relate to Spector as he hadn’t killed someone, wasn’t a husband and wasn’t a father. Now two of those facts have changed (don’t worry, he still hasn’t killed anyone), has his view of the character changed? Dornan agreed that a lot had changed for him since The Fall had begun and that having children is like a reset button for your life (in that everything changes in an instant), but that actually you see less of Spector being a father this series. He spoke about drawing on his love for his niece when he was filming those scenes for series one.

13. Had Allan Cubitt always intended the role of Katie to develop the way she has?

Cubitt said that he had the notion that Katie’s role would develop that way and that throughout The Fall there is the theme at play of people not being parented completely. Katie, for example, has lost her father, something Spector cruelly reminds her about in series two. Cubitt spoke about being fascinated by what Spector thinks of Katie, as she is not on his radar as a victim because he sees her as a child and that it is this warped view that Stella calls him out on. Cubitt wanted Katie to go on a complex journey where she is ultimately learning that there are dangers in the world.

14. When he knew the end game, how did Cubitt map out the story when he had no idea about the number of series he would have?

Cubitt recalled being asked to write for the second series of Prime Suspect, in which he had four hours to map out. That experience had made him realise that that amount of time uses a lot of story! He explained that although he knew the story beats for The Fall, he had also known that there would be detail along the way that he would have to invent and that as characters are invented, they started to dictate side plots as well.

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Sadly that was all the panel had time for tonight. As is always the case with the BFI’s previews and Q&As, it was a fascinating insight in to the making of this excellent British drama. No air date was confirmed for The Fall tonight, but hopefully we won’t have too long to wait to find out what the next chapter has in store for Stella Gibson and Paul Spector!

If you have yet to watch The Fall, in the UK it’s available on Amazon Prime and via the BBC Store. The teaser trailer for series three can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Su8qOzmIRL0

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – My top 20 films to see!

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Friday night was the members’ programme launch of this year’s BFI London Film Festival (running from 5th October – 16th October). It was the second year that I had been along to hear the festival team introduce the programme, as well as to see the screening of trailers and clips from a selection of films from across the festival strands (which for those new to the festival, include themes of Love, Debate, Laugh, Dare, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic, Family, Treasures and Experimenta as well as the gala screenings and competition entries).

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This being the 60th anniversary of the festival, there is to be a new venue added to the list of participating cinemas. As well as the other 15 venues this year (including, the lovely Prince Charles Cinema for the first time too), there is to be a purpose built temporary cinema, constructed in the Victoria Embankment Gardens (see photos above), which will seat over 700 and have Dolby 7.1 surround sound and 4k digital projection. It certainly sounds as if it’ll be an exciting venue and I hope I’ll be able to see something there over the fortnight of the festival.

As I did last year, I thought I’d select my top 20 films from this year’s programme. With over 240 films on offer, it’s not an easy task and I’d say there is even more that is tempting me this year than in recent years. However, these are the 20 that have caught my interest the most and will be on my watch list for the future if I don’t manage to secure a ticket in October.

1. Una

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During a recent trip to NYC, I was able to see the stage production of David Harrower’s play Blackbird. On discovering that theatre director Benedict Andrews is making his feature film debut with an adaptation of that play and that it will be shown at the festival, this went straight to the top of my list. The story centres around two characters, Una and Ray and without giving anything away about the plot (read my review of the play if you want to), this promises to be a powerful, emotionally charged film, with two wonderful actors in the central roles (Ben Mendelsohn from Netflix’s Bloodline and Rooney Mara).

2. La La Land

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Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in this love letter to LA and the Hollywood musicals of yester year. Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress and Gosling a pianist, for whom romance blossoms, in the second film from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. From the clip I saw on Friday, this looks to be something quite special and I’m very much hoping to acquire a ticket for one of its three festival screenings. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/V4HL9QE3ZAU

3. A United Kingdom

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As this is the festival’s opening gala, nabbing a ticket is likely to be more of a challenge, but I’m very excited to see this film whether at the festival or on general release. Based on the true story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), who fell in love and married a London office worker, Ruth Williams, in 1948, causing a stir in both the UK and Africa. Starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, from the trailer this looks set to be a moving and inspiring story of love against the odds. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/url66-67O90

4. Snowden

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It seems everyone has heard of Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who leaked NSA secrets on a huge scale and with Oliver Stone at the helm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role (not to mention Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto in the mix too), this looks to be a very promising political thriller. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/QlSAiI3xMh4

5. Brimstone

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I know I’m getting older when Dakota Fanning is no longer the child actress we’ve all seen grow up! Although I have been unable to find a trailer yet for this film, everything I have read to date about Brimstone suggests this could be her finest performance yet. She plays Liz, a young, mute midwife in the American West, whose past life comes back to haunt her with the appearance of a new preacher in her town (played by the brilliant, and apparently in this story terrifying, Guy Pearce). I’m almost certain this won’t be an easy watch, but it is a film that already intrigues me enough to give it a try.

6. Trolls

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As for something more cheery, you can’t get more colourful than Trolls! Those of us of a certain age remember when these strange creatures with brightly coloured hair were all the rage in bedrooms across the UK and now they are back in this DreamWorks film, which brings together a host of stars including Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel and James Cordon. It’s sure to entertain all ages (although with only one screening during the festival itself, this may be one that has to wait until its final release). Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/xyjm5VQ11TQ

7. Arrival

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After the recent uproar regarding this film’s poster choices, I’m looking forward to seeing the European premiere of this new science fiction movie starring Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks, a linguistics professor enlisted by the US Government to decipher the language of the newly arrived alien species, whose crafts have appeared around the globe. With support from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, I’m hoping this is a more intelligent and engaging sci-fi film. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/ZLO4X6UI8OY

8. Scribe

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I hadn’t heard of Scribe (which also seems to go by The Eavesdropper) until I read the festival programme brochure, but this French/Belgium film has sparked my interest. The story revolves around a middle-aged man, who after a difficult period is offered the job as a scribe for an eccentric businessman. However, life takes a darker turn when one of the private calls he is transcribing leads to murder, in a film that the BFI brochure says pays homage to political thrillers of the 1970s.

9. Lion

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Lion was added to my watch list after I saw the trailer for it on Friday evening. British actor Dev Patel plays Saroo Brierley, on whose memoir the film is based. Saroo was separated from his mother and brother in India when he was five years old, after becoming trapped on a train he had fallen asleep in. Transported hundreds of miles away and all alone, he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman & David Wenham), but 25 years later, he begins the search for his family. I have a feeling this one may make me shed a tear or two. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/-RNI9o06vqo

10. Queen of Katwe

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My tenth choice is another film based on a true story. Queen of Katwe is about a young Ugandan girl (played by Madina Nalwanga), who on finding a chess club run by a football player turned missionary, discovers she is a natural player with huge potential. With such talented actors as Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo involved, I have high hopes for this one. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/z4l3-_yub5A

11. Nocturnal Animals

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Tom Ford’s new film is an adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, in which fiction and reality blend together, as gallery director Amy Adams turns to the manuscript of a novel written and sent to her by her ex-husband (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) when her current marriage hits a difficult path. With such a strong pair of actors in the central roles, I’m hoping there will be a trailer of this film soon to give even more of an insight in to what is already an intriguing premise.

12. The Pass

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I’d intended to catch The Pass at the BFI’s Flare festival earlier in the year, so I’m thrilled to see it’s part of October’s film festival programme. Based on the play by John Donnelly (who has also written the film’s screenplay), which I loved last year at the Royal Court, it’s the story of a young footballer (Russell Tovey reprising his stage role), who over the course of the story (and the years it takes place) grapples with his desires and his inability to face them. If this film is half as good as the stage production, then festival audiences are in for a real treat.

13. Nocturama

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Nocturama has intrigued me, but I’m still debating whether I’ll have the nerve to go and watch it during the festival! As this year’s Debate strand gala it will certainly generate quite a lot of discussion due to its subject matter, which centres on a group of young people, who despite their diverse backgrounds, have come together in Paris to “set the city alight” and following their mission they hide out in a department store. Billed as a controversial film that will be disturbing and compelling in equal measure, I will be very interested to see what reception this film receives. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/H-6EEsn3Akc

14. Free Fire

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At Friday’s programme launch we were also treated to an exclusive look at the new trailer for Ben Wheatley’s latest film Free Fire (so new it seems, that I cannot yet find it online). Following the success he had at last year’s festival with High-Rise (you can find my review of that here), Wheatley’s new film is an action thriller which sees how an arms deal in a deserted warehouse goes awry as the bullets start to fly! If the trailer is any indication, then this is set to be a bloody, but also darkly funny film, which also has a superb ensemble cast including Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer.

15. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

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The BFI warned on Friday that this film is not one for the squeamish or faint-hearted, so whether I’ll pluck up the courage to see it in the cinema or wait until I can watch it at home in the future remains to be seen. My bravery aside, this is still one of my choices from the festival programme. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play a father and son, who work together as coroners and one night are faced with the body of a Jane Doe, whose body defies medical sense. This looks to be a gory and nerve-shredding film experience, but if you’re brave enough, be ready to buy a ticket.

16. Gleason

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At last year’s film festival one of my highlights was the documentary He Named Me Malala, which I found both moving and inspiring (read my review here and go and watch it immediately). If any documentary is going to have the same effect this year, I think it will be Gleason, which is all about the American football player Steve Gleason, who at 34 was diagnosed with ALS. Filmed over five years as he battles against the disease, while becoming a father, this looks to be a hugely powerful and emotional film, which will make its audience cherish life and not take a moment of it for granted. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/WgkQU32XSFQ

17. A Monster Calls

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I haven’t read Patrick Ness’s book on which this film is based, but on seeing the trailer I’m very much looking forward to its release. Conor is bullied at school, while at home his mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness. In a fantastical turn, a strange tree appears (voiced by Liam Neeson and brought to life with some wonderful effects), offering him an outlet for his imagination as he comes to terms with the reality that he will soon lose his mother. Tissues at the ready everyone! Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/gXRrcXHD3UQ

18. Chi-raq

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This is a film I would almost certainly have overlooked had it not been for the programme launch. The title, a blend of Chicago and Iraq, highlights the sad fact that there have been more gun-related deaths in Chicago in the last 15 years than there were in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Through a hip-hop musical reimagining of Aristophanes’ Greek play Lysistrata, Spike Lee introduces us to a group of women, who so angered by the constant violence between two rival gangs make a pact – unless there is an end to the violence, there will be no more sex for the men and to top is all off, Samuel L Jackson is on hand to act as the chorus! This sounds as if it will be an imaginative way of bringing the serious issue of gun violence to everyone’s attention. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/Jo7nvjZmE1Q

19. A Quiet Passion

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Cynthia Nixon stars in Terence Davies’ film about the life of the American poet Emily Dickinson. I don’t know much about Dickinson, but the combination of Davies, Nixon and the wonderful Jennifer Ehle (she’ll always be Lizzie Bennet to me!) to name just a few involved in this story, already has me adding A Quiet Passion to my festival ticket list. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/eKJpx8FYp54

20. Porto

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Playing within the First Feature Competition strand of the festival, Porto is the story of a love affair between Jake (Anton Yelchin) and French archaeologist Mati (Lucie Lucas). I was saddened by the news of the tragic death of Yelchin earlier this year, as he was an actor who only seemed to be growing in talent with each new role he took on and this will undoubtedly make the festival’s screening of Porto all the more emotional.

………

So those are the 20 films that have most caught my attention and it will be from these that I try and whittle down a schedule that will work across the fortnight. As the variety of films on offer this year is so strong, there is bound to be something for everyone and I strongly recommend you take the time to read through the festival brochure for yourself. You can pick up a copy at the BFI Southbank or download it from the website below. Any films I do see, I’ll make sure to review for this blog during October.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5th – 16th October 2016. Public booking opens on Thursday 15th September. For further information (including membership for access to priority booking) visit the festival’s website here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film Review – The Wave (Bolgen) (2015)

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It was a double cinema trip to the London Film Festival for me last Friday and as well as seeing Black Mass (read my review here), I also attended a screening of this Scandinavian disaster film, also submitted as Norway’s entrant for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars.

The premise plays on the scientific community’s awareness that there are unstable mountains across Norway, which are under constant monitoring and which will one day inevitably collapse, as has happened to others in the past, resulting in a tsunami that would devastate everything in its path. This is quite topical following, earlier in 2015, the first gathering for the world’s leading researchers in this area in Oslo. The film even begins with real photos of previous disasters, with specific reference to the 1905 Loen disaster. The question then – what would happen if another such event occurred today?

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The story is set in the mountainside community of Geiranger, by the Akerneset mountain, popular with tourists for the beauty of the scenery of the surrounding Fjords, which are beautifully shot and brought to the screen by director Roar Uthaug. It does indeed seem to be a truly tranquil place to live and visit. Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Jones) is however moving away to a new job in the oil industry in the city, together with his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who works in the local hotel and his young daughter and teenage son. However on his last day (cheesy I agree), the early warning centre at which he works pick up some strange movement within the mountainside. No one else seems worried, but Kristian has a sixth sense that something could be very wrong – which of course it is.

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The first half of the film builds the unease, as you see the beauty and peace of the area, get to know the dynamics of the various relationships, including not just Kristian’s family, but that of his co-workers and others in the town, while all the time waiting for the inevitable wave of the film’s title to arrive. Kristian’s son says how he doesn’t want to leave, as it is safe in Geiranger. Little does he know what nature has in store for them.

To say this isn’t a Hollywood big budget movie, the effects and visuals used to bring the rockslide and resulting tsunami to life are excellent, as the wave sweeps its way towards the fleeing residents and tourist with terrifying realism and intensity. The wave doesn’t actually take up much screen time, with the remainder of the film focusing on Kristian’s fight to find his wife and son (his daughter is with him at the time of the wave), uncertain whether they are even alive.

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Leading the cast Kristoffer Jones and Ane Dahl Torp are very convincing in their roles and both of their characters feel fully-rounded and are people with whom you can connect. This is of course crucial if you are to care about their plight for the rest of the film. In fact a lot of the characters here are likeable, whether the dedicated team Kristian works with or their neighbours.

As the events of the film unfold and people fight for survival, we are also shown that panic and our desperation to survive can bring out the good in some people (one hotel guest risks her life for Kristian’s son, whom she has never even met, not to mention Kristian’s heroics himself), but can also make others act in ways they would never normally behave (perfectly highlighted when some of the characters are trapped in the hotel basement).

It’s also quite a short film (under 2 hours) and so there is never time for the action to drag or the pace to slow.

Director Roar Uthaug has certainly produced a convincing, engaging and thrilling film, with only a fraction of American budgets (around £4 million), proving that you don’t need lots of cash to make a great film. If you have the opportunity to see this film, I can definitely recommend it.

The Wave (Bolgen) appears to be screening at various London cinemas this week. It’s unclear if it will see a wider release in the UK, but you should certainly keep an eye out for it. Magnolia Pictures has now acquired the U.S. rights for a possible early 2016 release. Watch the international trailer here.

Film Review – Black Mass (2015) starring Johnny Depp & Benedict Cumberbatch

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This film had been on my list of ones to watch in 2015 and I wasn’t disappointed during my last trip to this year’s London Film Festival on Friday night. It’s a compelling, absorbing, tension-filled story, which certainly isn’t for the squeamish.

Based on the 2001 book, the film tells the story of the world of organized crime in 1970s and 1980s Boston, where the New England Mafia family, the Angiulo Brothers, controlled the north while the Irish-American gang led by James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) resided in the south, but were growing ever more ambitious. Determined to gain some control of the situation, the FBI saw an opportunity and agreed to make a deal with Bulger, seeing him as the lesser of two evils – he would be their informant, secretly providing information to help bring down his rivals and in return they would protect him, a deal which is championed by Agent John Connolly, who grew up with the Bulgers. However, the result works much more to the benefit of Bulger rather than the FBI, as his gang grows stronger in Boston, elevating him to become a notorious gangster and effectively making him untouchable.

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Johnny Depp is chilling as James “Whitey” Bulger

It’s an interesting and frightening look at not only the world of violent crime in the era, but also how power corrupts, as soon the actions of Connolly and some of his colleagues become as questionable as those of the criminals they were seeking to stop. It also demonstrates how gangsters don’t just appear; Bulger’s rise wouldn’t have happened without the FBI’s actions.

The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (the genius behind the brilliant play Jerusalem) is tight and well-paced and together with director Scott Cooper they have produced a film that keeps you engaged and gripped throughout, aided by a quality ensemble cast.

The acting as a whole is very strong, which is to be expected from such a great cast. However, this is Johnny Depp’s movie. He is the central figure and commands your attention in every moment. Almost unrecognizable thanks to prosthetics; his portrayal of Whitey is utterly chilling. You are in no doubt that he is a very dangerous man and absolutely believe that he could snap at any moment (which he does frequently). The script also brilliantly allows moments where we see the kinder side of him (like all mobsters, he loves his mother, son, brother and little old ladies in his neighbourhood!), but this only makes it more unnerving when in the next scene he is committing cold-blooded murder!

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Benedict Cumberbatch & Johnny Depp as brothers Billy and Whitey Bulger

It’s a superb performance from Depp, which I hope receives greater recognition in the awards nominations and without question is his best work for some time (after so much fluff in recent years). Every expression, movement, laugh and look in his eyes feels true to character and quite uncomfortable to watch. He maintains Whitey’s calm exterior perfectly, but also the sensation that he’s a coiled spring, ready to release at any moment, adding to the tension of the piece. The scene around the dinner table included in the trailer has you bracing yourself for him to erupt. In order for the film to have a depth and weight to it, Whitey needed to feel real and frightening and Depp certainly pulls this off.

There are great supporting performances all around him. W.Earl Brown as his go-to executioner Johnny Martorano and Rory Cochrane as fellow gang member Stephen Flemmi, who clearly grows more and more disturbed by Bulger’s actions, are both very well cast. Dakota Johnson also enjoys a tougher (if somewhat small) role here than in 50 Shades, playing the mother of Bulger’s young son. She’s one of the few people who seem to be able to get away with standing up to him.

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Joel Edgerton as FBI Agent Connolly & Johnny Depp

It also seems incredible that at the time Whitey was committing such dreadful crimes, his brother was the Massachusetts State Senator. Playing the other side of the moral coin to Depp’s crime lord is Benedict Cumberbatch as his brother Billy. Noticeably bulked up in physique for the role, Cumberbatch is a great addition to the ensemble and it’s a shame there aren’t more scenes between him and Depp that delve a little deeper in to their relationship. A man who clearly takes his job seriously, Billy is stuck trying to maintain a balance between his love for his brother and his duty to public office and the strain of this is obvious, as he is clearly aware to a certain extent of what his brother is doing.

Joel Edgerton is also excellent as cocky Agent Connolly, conveying brilliantly his slide from FBI man to an extension of Bulger’s gang, turning a blind eye to Bulger’s crimes and deceiving his superiors about Bulger’s usefulness as a source in order to maintain his ascent to professional success, through his supposed results. Perhaps he really did believe in the beginning that Whitey was the answer to the FBI’s problems, but this seems hard to argue by the end, where his love of power and position, as a result of his link to Bulger, seem to mean more to him than anything else, including his marriage (Julianne Nicholson is also very good as his concerned wife Marianne, who grows ever more fearful of Whitey’s effect on her husband).

Black Mass is a gripping crime drama, which is all the more interesting due to being based on real events. With a strong script brought to the screen by a excellent ensemble, I highly recommend it.

Black Mass is on general release in the UK from 27th November 2015. For those yet to see it, click here for the trailer.