Jailbirds, lovers and Chinese bureaucrats

Jim Moody looks at some of the films on offer at this year's London Film Festival

This year’s London Film Festival, the 55th, opened on October 12 in its usual grand fashion. It is one of the few such events that steadfastly refuses to give awards and instead aims to bring together quality films from a wide swathe of current styles and genres from around the world.

First showing at the festival on Friday October 21, Wild Bill is actor Dexter Fletcher’s excellent directorial debut (he also co-wrote with Danny King and produced). At the beginning, the initially unlikeable Bill (Charlie Creed-Mills) leaves prison on licence after serving eight years for drugs and violence offences, only to find that his two sons, 15-year-old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11-year-old Jimmy (Sammy Williams), have been abandoned by their mother for the last nine months. Their London flat is a tip. Dean has been working illegally to make ends meet. Father and sons find it hard to adjust, especially when the possibility of being put in care looms; but Dean is resourceful and blackmails Bill into staying long enough to prevent this.

Wild Bill takes on the alienating effects of prison without didacticism and shows the corrosion that long terms of imprisonment inflict beyond those imprisoned: to individuals, relatives, families. At first, we do not really care about Bill, self-centred and prepared to abandon the boys to their fate. Only Dean’s implacable fervour to remain out of the state’s caring clutches makes Bill reconsider fleeing to Scotland, as his erstwhile criminal associates have pointedly suggested. Bill’s presence is clearly an embarrassment and threat to the scumbags he knew previously, but his duty becomes ineluctable. Redemption can come in many ways, sometimes when least expected. Poulter and Williams brilliantly express the initial anger and resentment, and then the children’s need and love that gradually win over Bill.

Dark horse (director: Todd Solondz): Knocked out by meeting Miranda (Selma Blair), young and overweight Abe (Jordan Gelber), who works for his father (Christopher Walken), seems bowled over that she even gives him the time of day, let alone agrees to go out with him. That she then says ‘yes’ to his marriage proposal says more about her mental state: on the rebound and under the cosh of prescription sedatives. All that said, it is very hard to discover why we should care that much about these characters. Although Blair and Walken are in their own ways good value, the occasional flashes of humour are insufficient compensation for a tiresome tale about a 30-year-old who needs to grow up. The film’s first outing at the LFF is on Friday October 14.

Sleepless nights stories (director: Jonas Mekas): Chronic insomniac Mekas lays his camera down on dining tables - or anywhere else he can - to collect diary items of a sometimes intimate and sometimes banal nature. But this pioneer of experimental film still effortlessly draws us into his concerns for those he converses with (‘interviews’ seems too unengaged a word). The experience of decades of creation in his arena of artistic expression definitely tells: Mekas gets his contributors to spill titbits of their realities into our ears and eyes without let or hindrance. It is showing at LFF for the first time on Tuesday October 18.

Let the bullets fly (director: Jiang Wen): This masterly concoction of historical and political truths is played out through the story of a bandit who decides to become governor of ‘Goose Town’. This popularised, Sergio Leonesque presentation of anti-hero versus villain has a lot going for it beyond the quasi-western genre it superficially inhabits. Let the bullets fly breathes political commentary at the young Chinese republic’s warlord chaos.

But not only that: it is a wry whack around the head for China’s current political leaders and surplus-reaping ruling class, as well as all who rule us everywhere. It re-voices an inchoate cry down the ages: a modern manifestation might be to call for such heroes as ‘Pocky’ Zhang (Jiang Wen himself) to save China today from those like people-trafficker and drugs lord Huang (the wonderful Yun-Fat Chow). But this is no monochrome, two-dimensional take on the two protagonists. The Huang and Pocky characters are presented in much more complex terms and given depth.

Back at Goose Town, it is denouement time: the masses hear Pocky’s clarion call, eventually, leading to Huang’s fall from power and the looting of his mansion (ie, taking back on an individualised basis the social product he took for himself), while Pocky’s gang disperses largely for profitable pastures new. But will Pocky’s enigmatic desire to stay mean he goes from outlaw to sheriff? Wednesday October 19 is the film’s first showing at LFF.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (director: Sean Durkin): America, the land of cults and weird communes, spawns yet another on-screen formulation of the same. Here, a ‘cult’ is defined as being outside the Christian mainstream churches - themselves all cults of one kind or another. Be that as it may, however, this particular one has no obvious religious trappings; maybe they are to be considered implicit. Women and men sleep in separate dormitories, though new female recruits are forcefully ‘first-nighted’ by the foul cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), and then comforted the next morning by a woman who has already been through the supposedly wonderful experience.

A distinct lack of charisma on the part of the rapist guru can only leave the viewer wondering why the eminently watchable Elizabeth Olsen as Martha et al of the title - or any of the other women in the commune - would stay for a moment. Motivation to join the cult is hardly apparent. And it is hardly survivalist: it engages in burglary, with a bit of murder on the side, to keep it going. LFF shows it first on Friday October 21.

The awakening (director: Nick Murphy): Mysticism on film often requires a lot more suspension of disbelief than is possible. In this ghost story several inconsistencies make it even more difficult. While the tension and suspense are well constructed, the problem with such works is that, unless they are allegorical or in some other manner to be taken as symbolic, almost anything can be constructed under the rubric of irrationality. And it does not always wash.

Headhunters (director: Morten Tyldum) Disappointingly, this is not a police procedural in the mould of the Marxist pioneers of the genre, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, although it is based on the first novel of their erstwhile acolyte, Jo Nesbø, to make it onto the screen. Instead, in this standard crime thriller Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a disagreeable art thief whose day job is to be Norway’s most successful executive corporate headhunter. He gets headhunted himself in a way that is not good for his health.

Like crazy (director: Drake Doremus): English girl Anna (Felicity Jones) meets American Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and spark a relationship at college in California. She outstays her student visa and gets barred from the USA when trying to return. Jacob comes over to London and they marry, but she still cannot get back into the US. They try a commuting relationship, but the geographical distance produces long intervals of absence from each other. With some inevitability, since the pair clearly lack staying power, they drift apart. Poignancy and thoughts of ‘what if’ deflate into ennui. Even were inhuman immigration laws to be done away with tomorrow, what these two go through tests their mettle in a way nothing else could.

Pariah (director: Dee Rees): Thanks to the Sundance Institute, Rees’s short work of the same title is now writ large here. This coming-of-age piece about a young, inexperienced lesbian in Brooklyn sees her sweetly trying to sort herself out. Naive, 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) gets a date through her more knowledgeable friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), but she is too skittish yet. Try as they might unthinkingly, Alike’s disapproving parents cannot destroy youthful zest and love of life; they especially disapprove of Laura. So said parents pressure Alike into hanging out instead with fellow student Bina (Aasha Davis). But parental plans go agley, as they so often do: on Bina’s initiative, Alike has her first experience with her; but Bina is only experimenting with lesbianism. Clearly, growing up and coming out is not the easiest combination, but the human spirit does its best.

Footnote (director: Joseph Cedar): Two Talmud scholars of quite contrasting research styles seem to be in contention for the Israel Prize. But when it comes to award time, an administrative error gives it to the wrong one. And the wrong one is morbidly self-obsessed professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), father of the rightful recipient, professor Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi). Prize committee chair Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn) has always been Eliezer’s nemesis, and could not care less how the error affects him. But this raises Uriel’s ire and he fights dad’s corner; forced secretly to renounce ever getting the award, he even has to write the judge’s reasons for accepting Eliezer ... only to have Eliezer deplore Uriel’s research in a newspaper interview. A kick in the teeth or what? Sadly, the sound score undermines the drama.

Guilty (Présumé coupable) (director: Vincent Garenq): While murderer Raoul Moat had weirdos celebrating ‘Moaty’, no-one has yet, to my knowledge, ever done the same for Ian Huntley. This illustrates the greater revulsion toward child sex crimes and informs us how those on the receiving end of false allegations of ‘paedophilia’ might feel. It is just such a situation, based on the real-life experience of one man, an official in the legal system, who had this barbarous falsity alleged against him, that Guilty (it should be ‘Presumed guilty’) portrays.

The injustices that Alain Marécaux (Philippe Torreton) suffer during three years on remand in prison are exacerbated by severe deficiencies in the French ‘justice’ system, which despite all evidence to the contrary still wants to cover its back by giving him a suspended sentence. It is more than four years before complete exoneration; ironically, Marécaux returns to his job as bailiff subsequently.

Watch this space for more reviews from the London Film Festival.