26 hours at the BFI London Film Festival

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It is 2.30pm on a Friday afternoon and I am currently perched on a stool in Pret a Manger, just off Leicester Square. On the table next to me is a family fresh from M&M World, the kids excitedly pulling never ending supplies of small coated chocolates out of an enormous yellow bag. Ahead of me an Italian couple are paying great attention to their freshly prepared wraps but scant attention to one another and to my left sit a father and grown up daughter obviously enjoying a long overdue catch up. The restaurant is full of similar scenes punctuated by the occasional glow of a laptop screen and the flash of white shirts dashing around clearing trays and wrappers. I am not in the city to catch up with loved ones though, I am not on a family outing, I am not a tourist and I am not at work. I am here because I need to grab some quick lunch in the middle of my 26 hours at the BFI London Film Festival.

At least it is the middle in terms of movies, two down and two to go. I actually started at 9pm last night so I’m way past the midpoint in terms of duration.

I love the London Film Festival. I am sure that will come as a surprise to no one, but I so rarely come to movies without knowing anything about them and the LFF is a chance to do just that. (I’m trying it with Interstellar, having so far avoided all articles and clips, but it isn’t easy. I actually got up and walked out of a screen while they showed the trailer the other day.)

I know my immersion in film news, set reports and advance word is entirely of my own doing but I’m hardly going to stop reading the magazines and websites am I? I still like going into a movie blind as much as the next guy. Every year when I open the LFF guide 95% of the two hundred or so films are ones I’ve never heard of. I try to choose the movies based on cast and directors but often selecting what to see is like sticking a pin in a map and I like it that way.

The festival has only recently started putting films in competition and this gives it another edge. So many of the big spring ceremonies give statuettes to the same five or six big hitters but the festivals are the place to look if you want to see who really deserves the prizes, irrelevant of marketing, box office and aggressive campaigning. Last year the London Festival gave best film to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida which is staggeringly brilliant and is likely to be my movie of 2014 come December. (Unless there is some eleventh hour release sci-fi epic like Gravity on the way but what are the chances of that happening two years in a row?)

Last night then, my time at the festival started off with Shailene Woodley in White Bird in a Blizzard. It was a completely unstar-studded screening which is actually quite rare. Often you get cast and production crew Q&As which is obviously also a considerable part of the attraction. Last year I saw Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hollander present The Invisible Woman and got to make sycophantic comments to Emily Mortimer after a screening of her TV show Doll & Em. (She responded by saying I was sweet which I’m still being pretty insufferable about twelve months later)

I can report that White Bird in a Blizzard is quite an odd little movie. It features Woodley as a 1980s teenager whose mother, played in flashback by a nutso Eva Green, suddenly disappears. (Gone Mum?) Following Divergent (and prior to its sequels) Woodley is obviously trying to make more grown up films but in this case this just seems to mean films with more nudity. Her breasts are on show quite regularly across the 91 minute running time which, considering she is initially playing a 17 year old and my own eldest daughter is not so far away from that age, is something I found profoundly uncomfortable. I’m sure younger male audiences will not find this a problem.

The film was compelling but seems to be an odd mix of different tones with cast members under the impression that they were playing in completely different genres. The leading lady is obviously going for serious and grown up teen drama, her friends seem to think they are making a Mean Girls sequel and Thomas Jane is in there playing full gritty 70s noir. As for Eva Green, at times she looks like she is in a Tim Burton directed Carry On Film, all glaring eyes, hour glass dresses and unsubtle flirting. Interestingly the movie does not yet have a UK release date.

Today’s first film was considerably better. Foxcatcher has been doing the rounds at the international festivals for some months now and is winning awards and great word of mouth all over the place. It won best director at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. No surprise then that this is one I had already heard of and was very keen to see. The big screening of this was last night with stars Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum both in attendance. This second showing was once again a straight, no fuss performance although it did get a huge round of applause at the end. (This is something else that commonly occurs at the Festival and yet another reason why I love it.)

With Carrell and Tatum headlining you might think this is a comedy but in actual fact it is the true story of what happened to Olympic Wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz when they were taken on by millionaire benefactor John De Pont prior to Seoul 88. The film is actually a powerful portrait of mental illness and what can happen to people when this goes ignored and untreated. Steve Carrell in particular is brilliant as the unstable Du Pont and that along with his big false nose pretty much guarantees Oscar success. Channing Tatum is also superb though, changing his whole physicality to play the impressionable young athlete Mark. The always reliable Mark Ruffalo plays the older sibling and is also great. Sienna Miller is in the film too as Dave’s wife but her part is quite small. This makes me think that perhaps most of her performance was edited out but that’s only because she is a relatively famous actress so perhaps this is not the case. Foxcatcher comes out on Boxing Day so I will review it in more detail then but it is definitely one to catch on its release.

Right, I’ve still got two and a half hours to kill until the next screening so I’m off to see the James Bond in Motion Exhibition at the Covent Garden Museum.

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Okay, it is now 11.15pm on Friday evening and I am on the train home. Not surrounded by families and day trippers anymore so much as drunk twenty something’s and older couples with their faces buried in theatre programs.

When I got back to the Odeon West End,down in the corner of Leicester Square, this evening, the red carpets were out and crowds were gathering so I was beginning to think I’d finally see some VIPs. As it turned out, it was all for one man because I was in that cinema all night and no one else of note was there.

The guy was Alan Rickman, attending to present his second film as director A Little Chaos.

Mr Rickman spoke briefly to the audience before the film, thanking them for coming and delivering apologies for the absence of his leading lady Kate Winslet who is working in Australia. Winslet herself then turned up on the screen in a video message professing what I believe was genuine regret at not being there before having to wrap up to tend to the infant child just out of shot. I’ve been a great fan of this actress ever since Heavenly Creatures and there was something so endearing about her sending such a clearly unrehearsed but heartfelt message. I saw her in person with the film Hideous Kinky back at my first trip to the LFF in 1998.

A Little Chaos is a deliberately fictional tale surrounding the building of an outdoor, fountained ballroom in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles. It is basically a 17th Century Ground Force with Winslet as a corseted Charlie Dimmock.

Like so many of Kate Winslet’s movies, she is the best thing about it but, unlike Titanic, it does not rely on her to keep it afloat. The film is hard to define in terms of genre, it is by turns funny, moving, inspiring and political, but it is full of charm and highly enjoyable. It is definitely one to search out on its release next April.

The film has a strong feminist theme which I like and there is a nice soundtrack by first time scorer, renowned 27 year old cellist Peter Gregson.

Rickman’s direction is also, at times, quite beautiful. It is seventeen years since he last went behind the camera but I think we might see him calling the shots on more films in the near future. He seems to trust the performance of his actors and lets them take centre stage while still providing some good framing and cinematography. There is a particularly interesting scene at the beginning where we see a tree being planted. It is filmed from beneath with the root base being lowered toward the camera showing that this actor has a nicely filmic eye.

One of Rickman’s responses in the post film Q&A addressed why he has taken so long between being a debut and sophomore director. I’m not sure if this is an excuse but he said he had wanted to take the lead on another project but had been a little busy with ‘something called Harry Potter’. He said that ‘she’d only written three books when we started so no one knew what a commitment it would be’. Even with this brief mention I got the impression that those films are something he is immensely proud of which is nice. It certainly didn’t come up with Ralph Fiennes last year. For Rickman this wasn’t a populist nod to his big film franchise (it wasn’t the crowd for that) it was just something he likes to talk about.

He also spoke of how the whole production needed to fit around Kate Winslet’s family commitments as for her everything comes second to that (as it should) and again this was said with respect and affection. He gave plenty of credit to his production team, especially screenwriter Allison Deegan, and came across as a warm and humble personality throughout.

I actually saw him once before, impatiently brushing off young Potter fans in Shaftesbury Avenue but I guess you wouldn’t always be in the mood. Today I thought he was a very nice man, not at all the type of person who would want to disembowel you with a spoon or cancel Christmas.

My last film was Son of a Gun. It is in competition and is the first feature from successful short film director Julius Avery. Son of a Gun is a crime thriller, initially set in a high security slammer before moving on and becoming a heist flick. At first you think you are watching a serious prison drama like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet but pretty soon you realise it is all fairly hokey.

On the one hand there have been a number of similar crime thrillers and this one does not do anything very different but actually it has been a while since we’ve had a good one and Son of a Gun delivers. The lead is played by Brendan Thwaites, a handsome young buck best known to viewers of Home and Away or for his role as Prince Charming in Maleficent. What this and possessed mirror movie Oculus show though is that he is clearly interested in making interesting films that challenge him rather than just cruising by on his looks.

The troubled gangster’s moll the hero intends to save from herself is played by Alicia Vikander who was just brilliant opposite Mads Mikkelsen in the Swedish/Danish historical drama A Royal Affair. This is a different role for her (she was also in the recent version of Anna Karenina) but she plays it well.

The stand out actor though is our own Ewan McGregor who also goes against convention a little as a violent and uncompromising criminal. Let’s not forget though that before all the costume dramas, nice guy everyman roles and sage Jedi films this guy was crawling, drug scarred, out of a toilet in Trainspotting so perhaps the gritty feel is not such a departure.

Son of a Gun comes out in January.

That is it then, I finish my time at our capital’s Film Festival. There are still two days of previews and gala screenings to go but for me it is all over until next year. A sudden end perhaps but not as much as White Bird in a Blizzard’s.

Goodnight London, it’s been fun.

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