These are my notes from LFF 2019. They were written either immediately after my seeing the film or shortly thereafter. I am not a film reviewer, so these are impressions rather than full-blown reviews.
Continuing from last year, I once again noticed the continued increase in stories about women and made by women.
There was a mix of excellent films to baffling arty films that I stayed through until the end despite wanting to leave. The films are grouped under “The most striking”, “Very good to eminently watchable” to “Nope to meh!”, but they are in no particular order under those headings. I don’t give much away and I just hope I’ve given you enough to go out and see some or all of them.
The most striking
The Kingmaker – documentary centred on Imelda Marcos and the lingering – even resurrecting – power of the Marcos clan. It makes for sobering viewing to see the reclaiming of power by, and acceptance of, a family responsible for a tremendous amount of suffering for the Philippines. The documentary is unflinching and even, amazingly, non-judgmental. The viewer can make up their own mind because there is enough material for all to see. The Marcos’ seem to love attention. Set the camera in front of a megagalactic narcissist like Imelda, hit record and job done!
Il Traditore (The Traitor) – to any Italian who grew up in the 1980’s-1990’s, the collective of events under Mani Pulite (clean hands) are indelible memories. This film is about Tommaso Buscetta, a member of Cosa Nostra, organised crime from Sicily. He turned states evidence to Giovanni Falcone, a judge/magistrate who was later murdered by blowing up a 20km area of highway. The evidence Buscetta gave to Falcone was pivotal in understanding how organised crime worked.
The film is gripping and two and a half hours fly by, even when the courtroom scenes – actually, particularly then. It’s packed full of details and mobsters. Sometimes keeping the names straight is a challenge, but no matter because you don’t need to know the names necessarily. It’s not a classic chase and shoot ’em up gangster film, but there’s plenty of violence. At one point there is a counter. I was puzzled as to what it was. It’s the number of all the dead during a particularly bloody gangster war central to the film. I also very much enjoyed how much of the film was in Sicilian. I understand just enough of the language and I love hearing it. There are not many films with as much Sicilian as this.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – I loved this film. It’s the story of two women falling in love in a very unlikely situation and in deeply patriarchal times. Both of their characters emerge as if revealed by melting ice. There are some extraordinarily unforgettable scenes – one around a fire (and the basket of sound choir blew me away) and one in the medicine woman’s hut. The painting resulting from the visit to the latter is utterly unique in subject matter, despite that the event depicted is not rare. The only men in the film are either off screen or they’re porters or messengers and this aspect of the film is particularly disarming. The women can be themselves in relation to themselves.
La Llorona – There are not many films from or about Guatemala and not many Guatemalan actors. So that the filmmakers got this made at all is remarkable. The subject matter makes it even more so. The story is a modification of the myth of the crying woman (la llorona). La llorona is an avenging angel and in this story, she avenges the thousands upon thousands of lives lost in the Guatemalan genocide of the 1970s to the late 1990s. How she avenges them is as surprising as it is profound. The casting is superb, especially because two of the main roles are played by non-actors.
Because of its political nature, the film was shot on the premises of various embassies and ambassadors’ homes in Guatemala. The Guatemalan ambassador to the UK was in the audience during the screening I attended. He praised the film highly, but used the term tragedy instead of genocide. I found that choice of words unsettling and it underscores that Guatemala still hasn’t come to terms with its history.
Greed – I was uncertain how this film would go. I’d either love it or hate it. And I loved it.
Steve Coogan was superb playing an ultra rich fashion billionaire loosely based (97% quipped Coogan’s during the intro) on Philip Green. The entire cast was fantastic and there were many hilarious scenes. But this film is really a vehicle to show the grotesque reality of the ultra rich, fast fashion and predatory financing (well, which isn’t the exclusive territory of retail fashion). There is an excellent scene between David Mitchell, whose character is writing the billionaire’s biography, and a journalist where the latter simply explains how companies are bought, privatised, borrowed against and then usually end up in bankruptcy, which impoverishes the workers but not the owners. And the contrast between the lives of ultra rich built on the exploitation of a workforce composed mostly of women of colour in poor countries is another highlight. Nothing hits us over the head and it’s nothing we don’t already know, but still – man alive – this film packs a massive punch. Stay through the credits.
Last Black Man In San Francisco – I first heard about this film from the podcast The Nod so when I saw it listed in this year’s catalogue, I knew I had to see it. It’s a multilayered film about a young black man and his obsessive relationship with the house he grew up in as a child. The house is located in a district that was predominantly black, but which has since been gentrified. His father lost the house because of substance use (before the opiates crisis became a white crisis). With his childhood buddy, who is an aspiring playwright, he visits the house every two weeks or so and maintains it, despite its current white occupants.
I thought about how we let places and objects, large or small, define who we are, sometimes with very negative effects. Where we are born is nothing more than a random event and objects come and go. None of these things ultimately restrict who we are or can be. Of course, they are influences and they can in fact restrict outer expressions of ourselves because of the way society is layered. But all these things are just fragments of ourselves. And the final scenes really bring this theme to bear. Showing complex and multi-faceted black male characters on the screen who don’t fit into the usual stereotypes shouldn’t be an exceptional thing in 2019 and I hope this film is one of many to redress the balance.
It Must Be Heaven – Elia Suleiman’s latest is an ode to Palestine and the many forms of resistance.
The main character, who is Elia really, is mostly silent. The world around him is noisy. His face is incredibly expressive and his silence is never distracting or a negative. His character travels to various parts of the world, trying to get his film made. He keeps finding occupation in a variety of forms wherever he goes. As he said after the screening, he found the Palestinian-ness of everywhere. This was a wonderful film; a real gem. Hilarious, moving, poignant and joyous.
Piranhas (La Paranza dei Bambini) – Italian films take special precedence when I select which films to see at LFF and if they’re set in Napoli, they become automatic must-see’s.
There was no doubt, I’d see Piranhas. I’ve gotten over the notion of films showing where I’m from as a violent and poor place giving us a bad image. I don’t really care. Naples is all that and has been all that for millennia. It’s a place of endless wonder, joy and warmth as well as desperation, sorrow and deprivation. And so are so many places. Naples and Neapolitans don’t own the copyright to human experience.
The film is about baby gangs usurping power from their adult counterparts. The story is based on actual events (and Roberto Saviano’s novel The Piranhas), but it’s not a retelling of these events or the novel. The gangs are made up of adolescent boys and children whose lives and choices are limited by class and completely absent services and defined by violence and exploitation. But they’re kids. They’re beautiful kids with fire in their bellies, clever brains and endless and misguided courage. They do what they think they can do. They try to solve their problems the only way they believe is available to them. Can you blame them? What would we do in their circumstances?
And my goodness, the city. If you know and love Napoli, this film shows its tiny details, narrow streets, old buildings, old markets where few tourists go, balcony life, Spaccanapoli clear across, the sounds of scooters, and it’s mostly in contemporary Neapolitan. The juxtaposition of great beauty and vibrancy with great sadness and decay is also what Naples is all about, just as are the lives of the beautiful characters.
The director, Giovannesi, said they auditioned something like 6,000 young people to find the eight characters and they found the lead working in a local tough guy bar. None of the actors had any prior experience acting and none of them were privy to the script until just before shooting. So they learned the story as it went along. Whatever you might think of the film, the story or the deeper implications in real life, their performances will blow you away.
Bombay Rose – I believe this is the first full-length feature animation from India and it’s wonderful. It’s the story of a young, poor, Hindu woman, Kalima, and the young, Muslim man, Salim, both eking out a living in Mumbai.
There are twists and turns in the story and a cast of lovely characters and even two cats. There is a lush soundtrack. And the animations are gorgeous, organic and vibrant, sometimes looking like animated oil paintings. The shifting between colour and black and white confused me a bit, but I believe that might have been an homage to old Bollywood films. There is also a weaving in of the story of Layla and Majnun, as a nod to the very real impact the Mughals had on Indian culture.
Muna Moto – Cameroonian film made in 1975. It was restored with the help of a variety of film organisations, some with a specific intent of making more African film available to everyone. And that’s a great thing. I can’t wait to see more. I wasn’t familiar with the director, Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa, and this was his first feature. The story is about young lovers who want to marry, but custom and class prevent them. The film opens with a festival (the festival of the umbilical chord) meant to bind young and old generations to the local traditions, complete with rituals, drumming and costumes and what looked like pretty much the entire village participating. There was no artifice in any of the film or the actors. I can only suppose they were not professional actors, but they brought the story to life with such vitality and simplicity that it made it all the sadder.
Very good to eminently watchable
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – according to his son and nephew, this documentary is the definitive one on Miles Davis’ life and work.
Maybe it is or maybe not. I’m not an expert on Miles Davis. His music is phenomenal, but this documentary was really more about his life. The music feels secondary, so if that’s an issue for you, then skip this. Some of the stills in the beginning were a bit dull, but the later 16mm video clips were interesting. The words are all Miles’ and they’re narrated by Carl Lumbly (in Miles’ gravelly voice) and they’re from Miles’ autobiography.
There are lots of interesting interviews, but the best ones are with some of the women in his life, particularly Frances Taylor. I want to know more about her now. The two things that struck me the most were, one, Miles’ observation that the trigger for his depression and fist foray into heroin use were the racist and oppressive conditions he found on his return to the US from Paris where he had felt much freer and wasn’t subject to Jim Crow law. Second, his recounting of the racially motivated arrest by the NYC police while he was just standing under a marquee with his name on it while smoking a cigarette and how that incident would keep cropping up now and again. I obviously cannot help but see the connection between his mental health and racism. The documentary may not be superb, but it’s darn good and thought provoking.
Jojo Rabbit – hmm… a funny film about a boy during WWII Germany and his imaginary friend, Hitler, with Scarlett Johansson as the mom… that’s a huge premise to take on. HUGE. I’ve watched The Last Laugh, which wrestled with whether the Holocaust is off limits from comedy and I highly recommend the film. But this wasn’t completely about the Holocaust, except it was in large part. It’s somewhat discomfiting to say I enjoyed this film despite a few eye rolling things (the Americans liberating the town where the boy lived, even though it was probably the Russians as the characters themselves said in the film and the Madonna-esque performance of Ms Johansson, which was hard to believe). But it was zingy. It had some very funny lines and scenes. It was a sweet and terrifying story of a 10 year old boy in a small German town. But it’s told through this weirdly innocent and sweet gauze, sort of a Mel Brooks like absurdist view, but without the musical numbers. Would a 10 year old remember the very serious and life changing events like that? Probably not.
Lost Lives – based on the eponymous book cataloguing 3700 lost lives on all sides of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, this documentary was a remarkable cinematic eulogy. Various actors from Northern Ireland read 18 entries from the book and the entries consist of the deceased name, the circumstances and story of his death, sometimes excerpts from interviews with friends and family. It’s extremely moving and at the same time I was shaking my head at the senselessness of it all.
I don’t know how the authors of the book managed to withstand gathering and writing all these stories. They didn’t stop with the Good Friday Agreement; they’re still keeping track of all deaths related to Northern Ireland sectarian violence. It’s an extraordinary feat.
Some of the images that flicked through while the narrators spoke were odd, but there was enough historic stock video that I hadn’t seen before to keep me visually interested. Besides, it’s not about the images, but about the individuals whose deaths are recorded in the book. The score was wonderful. The documentary is a timely warning, although I’m afraid the warnings will only be Cassandras from the grave.
Interesting fact: back when the voices of Sinn Féin and some Irish republican and loyalist groups were banned from the BBC airwaves, many actors, including Stephen Rea would provide the voice overs.
Synchronic – I love time travel films. I will watch them every time. This was fun. It took an hour to really set up and it could’ve used a bit of editing. No spoilers, but there were, as usual, unanswered questions or loose ends that are left over in many time travel films even after you suspend disbelief. Stop reading now if you don’t want to read the questions.
Why was the doctor killed? Who wrote the message? Why was time limited, but not place? Why take a necklace and then it never reappears?
Knives Out – complete and total fun! A classic, big house whodunnit with Daniel Craig playing the gentleman detective, complete with a brilliant and patrician Southern accent (Louisiana? Anyone place it?). Loads of twists, turn, hilarious moments and comments, and an all star cast.
Gösta – Swedish comedy television series about Gösta, a child psychologist in a small, rural town, and an ever expanding cast of characters. The screening was for several episodes. Imagine if Larry David were a nice guy and spoke Swedish. This is Gösta. Simultaneously very funny and cringeworthy. I’d watch the entire series. Plus I like the sound of Swedish.
Lucky Grandma – chain smoking grandma and Chinatown gangsters. What’s not to like. And it’s great to see an older woman playing the lead and not having to be saccharine. Totally fun film.
Nope to meh!!
The Dude In Me – let’s just start with the awful title. Why? I get that it’s a body swapping through magic film, but seriously get better translators (Korean film). Still kinda fun film because there are some fun fight scenes and the lead is a K-Pop star. But there are many fat jokes and that’s just dull. And people laughed at them too, whilst still rooting for the good guys to smash the faces of the bullies (which I’m all for, but the laughing at the fat jokes makes you a bully too… so….).
Waiting for the Barbarians – dear god I should’ve left, but I needed to see just how bad it could get. This film is based on Coetzee’s eponymous novel and he wrote the screenplay. I’ve never managed to read Coetzee and, now, I never will. Yes, you’re probably rolling your eyes because you knew already. Whatever. It was like The English Patient, but worse. A nondescript English colonial outpost in some far flung exotic place (it looked like Mongolia, and I wish Chingis Khan had just rode in and killed everyone, putting me and them out of our misery). Mark Rylance plays the guy in charge emoting his compassion/white guilt for the locals, by saving a young and beautiful woman who was freezing to death because she had been hobbled. But then he’s washing her feet and I don’t know what’s going on because next I see it looks like he climaxes mid foot wash and he falls asleep on her leg. Kill me now. Why didn’t I leave? But wait, enter Johnny Depp. He looks like a rectangle and acts like a Keith Richards, only this time as a baddie sadist, colonialist, racist. So, out goes fun Keith Richards. Unfortunately, Depp has reached peak one dimension. Sad! Rylance then bring the young and beautiful woman out into the desert, hoping they’ll find her people. When they do and she says she wants to go back with her people, he’s surprised! And he says he hoped she’d have stayed with him. Why on earth would she have? Only a guy could’ve written something so daft. I did leave maybe 10 minutes before the film ended to get to my next film that night. It’s awful.
Lighthouse – maybe I’ll be the only philistine who didn’t like this film. Oh well. The story is about two guys, Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson, trapped in a lighthouse on an isolated rock somewhere off the coast of the 1800s New England. They hallucinate and all sorts of things. They’re drinking moonshine and then turpentine! No doubt they hallucinate and generally lose their minds. It’s a Defoe film, so for sure you know it’ll get weird, but this isn’t a good weird. And Pattinson has certainly come a long way since the milquetoast vampire he was. Best bits for me were the mermaid, a most excellent and terrifying one finally, and the poem – actually more of an incantation to summon Poseidon – Defoe recites as he’s trying to kill Pattinson. If anyone finds it, please send it to me. That was some good stuff. I should say, I didn’t like the director’s first film either, The Witch.
Ema – I’m lukewarm on this film. On the one hand, the protagonists are great. Marina di Girolamo who plays Ema is a completely bonkers narcissist dancer. Gael García Bernal, is fabulous as her awful or is he? husband. Both are deeply flawed individuals who really shouldn’t be parents. They adopt a child. Then they don’t and their story starts from there. There are some good and gritty dance scenes, some very steamy sex scenes and All I could think of was thank goodness I don’t know these people.
Here’s to next year’s batch of stories!!