This year saw the London Film Festival reintroduce its official competition strand, with twelve movies screening at the festival specifically to battle it out for the top prize - a prize claimed this year by Jacques Audiard's electric melodrama RUST AND BONE.
While the ‘Best Film sponsored by American Express’ award may not have quite the same ring to it as the Golden Lion or Palme D’or, the slate of films itself is undeniably varied and interesting enough to stand alongside any of its more established award counterparts.
I saw everything in competition, and was pretty impressed with what I saw. There were one or two genuine revelations, some things that were expectedly great, and only a couple of real duds.
I've listed some brief opinions on each in lieu of full reviews (more of which will be coming soon), and in a break with tradition, I've included a rating for each. I hate doing ratings normally, but seeing as this was, you know, a competition, it seemed appropriate to do somee sort of report card. So here it is.
It’s going to be interesting to see what form the inevitable ARGO backlash will take. Seeing as it’s already attracting rave reviews and all but been awarded the Best Picture Oscar six months in advance, it’s a guarantee that a pile of contrarian misanthropic spoilsports (or, more realistically, journalists in in need of pageviews/attention) will soon come along and tear it down as The Worst Film Ever a la THE ARTIST or BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD.
If I had to guess, I’d say the backlash will involve an accusation of self-congratulatory flag-waving, a mention of a lack of depth in characterisation, and an assertion that the whole thing is just a big vanity project on Affleck’s behalf. These are all valid criticisms in their own way, but in the face of how startlingly effective ARGO is as a movie-going experience they ultimately can’t be entertained as much other than stubborn pedantry. It’s difficult to see what you could ask of a mainstream movie that ARGO doesn’t provide.
Based on a true story, ARGO opens in the middle of the Iranian Islamic revolution, and right at the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis: we see the American embassy in Tehran as it is stormed by radical students, who subsequently kept nearly the entire embassy staff hostage for over a year. The storming of the embassy sequence breathlessly sets the tone – it’s tense, immediate, and gripping without ever feeling contrived, and the complex action is impeccably choreographed so that it’s impossible to lose sight of how and why events are unfolding as they are.
Six of the embassy staff manage to escape from the building, and find refuge at the home of the USA-sympathetic Canadian ambassador and his wife. The USA soon learns that the six are on the run and, realizing that it is only a matter of time before their identities and whereabouts are discovered, begin to plan a rescue mission.
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA agent who has made a successful career out of extricating people from dangerous situations. He quickly hatches a plan along with his supervisor (Bryan Cranston), legendary Hollywood make-up man John Chambers (John Goodman), and bullish old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to enter Iran under the pretense of filming a fake science-fiction movie entitled ‘Argo’, so they can then extricate the six as members of the film’s ‘crew’.
It’s in this middle section that the film transforms for a while into a Hollywood insider comedy a la THE PLAYER, with a series of jokes and composite characters poking good-natured fun of The Business of Show. Arkin and Goodman naturally get all the best lines, and their easy charisma and effortless comic timing means that the film never gets too tediously in-jokey for its own good.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent: aside from the aforementioned Arkin and Goodman, Bryan Cranston gives by far his best movie performance as Mendez’s weary superior, and the smaller roles are rounded out by uniformly fantastic character actors, including Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Rory Cochrane, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall, Phillip Baker Hall, and Kyle Chandler – which, excitingly, leads to a scene where Walter White and Coach Eric Taylor talk on the phone. Cue the exploding heads of TV hipsters everywhere.
Then there’s Affleck himself. As an actor, it’s probably his best performance yet – calm, restrained, unshowy perhaps, but he’s developed an unlikely yet undeniable gravitas in recent years that her puts to winning use here. He’s still not going to give you fireworks in a role, but he’s become excellent at doing more with less, a crucial trait of a true movie star – here, a brief but telling glance he makes towards the film’s climax provides arguably the film’s most thrilling, cathartic moment.
Of course, he’s even better as a director: after the wheels of the plan are set in motion, Affleck takes us straight into a third act that he orchestrates with a confidence and virtuosity that is astounding. He’s already made two cracking thrillers in GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN (another thing he’s good at: picking excellent material), but the final stretch of ARGO sees him go up into another gear entirely. It’s almost certain that the depiction of the operation takes a few ‘Hollywood liberties’ with what actually went down, but who cares: it makes for one of the most thrillingly tense final movements I’ve seen in a Hollywood thriller in years.
What’s perhaps most impressive about ARGO is the way it weaves the seriousness of the crisis in with the light comedy without ever missing a beat. In fact, Affleck goes out of his way to highlight it, particularly in a brilliant sequence where Affleck cuts between a script read-through of the ridiculous fake movie, and the hostages in the embassy being lined up in a firing squad. The movie quietly points out that while the scheme itself is ludicrous, it is no less ludicrous than the machinations of Hollywood as an industry, in high-level espionage, and in international politics. The heroes embrace their inherent absurdities and know their limitations: comfortable in the knowledge that glitz, glamour and derring-do are three of the things America does better than anyone, why not put them to good use for a change? It’s a sentiment that resonates throughout the film-making: ARGO is a perfect example of the kind of grown-up, thrilling entertainment that, when the right talent is involved, Hollywood can do better than anyone.
Killer whales! Katy Perry! Industrial sabotage! Bare-knuckle boxing! Sex with paraplegics! Child abuse!
Believe me when I say that Jacques Audiard’s RUST AND BONE is all over the place. It’s a film that’s defiantly messy by design, with its Frankenstein’s monster of a storyline stitched together from a selection of unrelated short stories (other than the fact they share the same author), with the two newly created characters Stephanie (Marion Cotilard) and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) placed at the heart of it.
Ali is a single father and former boxer who moves from town to town with his young son in tow, making ends meet with petty crime and odd jobs. He eventually lands back in Cote D’azur, staying with his weary sister and picking up a job at a nightclub. It’s here he meets the alluring Stephanie, who he drives home after she gets involved in an altercation. Stephanie works at the local aquatic park, and after a horrific accident leaves her disfigured, the two end up in each other’s company once again, The film follows their relationship as Stephanie attempts to come to terms with her predicament, and Ali tries to reconcile his responsibility towards his young son with his instinctively brutal, fuck and fight mentality.
It’s true that RUST AND BONE’S excitable ambition often threatens to spill over into incoherency, and there are certainly sections that feel unfocused and as if the film is losing a grip on its own tenuous narrative. But despite this there are still two reasons why RUST AND BONE is one of the best of the year, and while Schoenaerts is perfectly decent in his role and probably deserving of his Next Big Thng status, he isn’t one of them.
Marion Cotillard, however, most definitely is. She’s never anything less than excellent, but hear she gets the role of a lifetime to rip her teeth into, where she is required to run the full gamut of emotions, from shock, depression, playfulness, iciness, and hopefulness, all the while also relaying an utterly convincing portrayal of strong woman rendered unexpectedly, helplessly vulnerable. It’s a marvelous piece of screen acting on every level - she can convey in a glance more than most screnwriters can in whole scripts, but it’s her physical embodiement of the role that will stay with you. Working in conjunction with some truly staggering special effects that take the Lieutenant Dan in FORREST GUMP flag and, erm, runs with it, there is never any stage that feel you are watching an actor who is playing disabled, both due to the seamless visuals and Cotilard’s understated, compassionate performance.
Schoenaerts in the other hand is given a role that, while less showy than Cotillard’s, is almost certainly the more complex of the two. The character as written, a huge slab of blank, furious testosterone, does not make for a likable screen presence – in fact, most of the time he’s outright off-putting. This is all fine, were it not for the fact that the film makes a late period switch (one of a number of gear changes in the film) where it decides the film is all about him. Cotillard gives such a warm and engaging performance throughout that it’s hard not to feel a little bit cheated that she doesn’t a least share the focus with him in the latter stages. Schoenaerts is clearly channeling the boiling machismo of the likes of Brando’s Stanley in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but despite still putting in an excellent performance he still doesn’t quite have the astronomic levels of charisma required to pull off the role completely successfully.
Did I mention RUST AND BONE veers all over the place? The only reason it kind of fits together is the presence of Jacques Audiard, who I think ironically with this film, despite it not being as perfectly formed and as immediately satisfying as A PROPHET, cements his status as one of our greatest living directors.
The film switches around between aroun a dozen different genres and tones, and Audiard has the film-making chops to make every one of them succeed brilliantly. You want superbly-pitched melodrama? Check out Cotillard’s already famous performance of ‘Fireworks’ on her balcony. Awkward sex comedy? Yep, there’s some of that in there. There’s also two sequences that are more purely heart-in-mouth horrifying than anything in any of the horror films I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen a bunch. So while RUST AND BONE has a schizophrenic quality, Audiard is so visually assured that his ambition almost always pays off with some truly powerful moments, and some of the most indelible screen images of the year.
It’s going to be interesting to see how RUST AND BONE will be received when it comes out next month – a film this odd would never usually get such a wide release, but thanks to Cotillard’s established star quality, the undenable sex appeal of both the leads, and Audiard’s stock being high after the success A PROPHET, it’s already getting a big marketing push. I’m glad to see it get the chance to play in front of the audience it deserves, because while it’s certainly not without its flaws, there are more moments of genuine brilliance in RUST AND BONE than nearly any other film this year.
This disappointing British crime drama is one of the more baffling wastes of time and money I have seen in a cinema for a while. Which isn’t to say it’s an awful film– it isn’t – but its total lack of ambition and inability to do anything of note with the excellent cast it has assembled is depressing indeed.
Joe (Paul Bettany) is a hard-nosed detective in a macho homicide police unit that also includes his brother Chrissie (Stephen Graham) and the intense loner Robert (Mark Strong). Joe and Chrissie’s dad Lenny (Brian Cox) is a former chief of police, now rendered feeble by Alzheimers, who nevertheless regales the department with tales of ‘good old’ police work, i.e. beating confessions out of perps. Tormented by a sex crime inflicted on one of his teenage daughter’s friends and fueled by the hotbed macho atmosphere of the department, Joe begins to let his emotions run over into his police work, and starts to take decisions that will have huge consequences for all involved.
There is a decent film in this premise, but BLOOD isn’t it. Last year Nick Murphy’s THE AWAKENING screened at LFF, and while I enjoyed it I said at the time that it had a whiff of prime-time BBC One about it. Well, there’s more than a whiff of it around BLOOD - in fact there’s virtually nothing to distinguish it from the myriad of unremarkable cop dramas that you’d find on the station almost any night of the week. This is probably in no small part due it being originally based on a TV mini-series, but what’s the point of adapting this story to the screen if you’re to do it with a complete paucity of cinematic flair? And when there are television shows as visually and thematically rich as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland on the air, I’m not sure this is really good enough to even pass muster as TV any more.
Both Murphy and screenwriter Bill Gallagher are equally to blame here – the film feels visually flat throughout, with Murphy shooting the film with a staid functionality, while Gallagher’s script never fully attempts to explore the nature of authoritarian machismo and family bullying in the way that the set-up deserves. The storyline itself plays out almost exactly as you would suspect, with a minimum of deviations from cliché or formula along the way.
The one thing that perhaps identifies this from as a film rather than television is its British A-list cast, filled with actors who I really love; however, none of them manage to elevate the thin material into something that ever nudges above passable. The fresh-faced Paul Bettany never fully convinces as a hard-bitten cop, though not for lack of trying, and Brian Cox is wasted and left to channel Grandpa Simpson in lieu of being given an interesting character to play. Mark Strong and Stephen Graham are typically great, however, and Adrian Edmonson, of all people, shows up for a welcome if unlikely cameo.
Once again: BLOOD is not a bad film, but its casual, will-this-do mediocrity is in many ways even more frustrating that a flat out dud, given the talent involved. Everyone involved can and will do better, but for now, BLOOD just isn’t good enough.