Reviewed today: Damsels In Distress, Michael Winterbottom Screen Talk, Take Shelter, Wild Bill.
Dexter Fletcher wants us to think that he's a proper Cockney geezer like the ones he plays in Guy Ritchie films, but a Freudian slip during his Q&A session accidentally reveals the shocking truth. Part of his directorial debut Wild Bill takes place on an East End building site: in fact, it was shot last year on part of what's now the brand new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. But which part? "It's a restaurant now...Nobu, isn't it?" See what he's done there? He's confused a branch of Wagamama with THE MOST EXPENSIVE JAPANESE RESTAURANT IN LONDON. Fake geezer alert! Fake geezer alert!
Not that there's anything wrong with that, as we'll see. But initially, Wild Bill starts off much the same way as any of the countless Lock Stock wannabes we've been plagued with over the last decade or two. Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles) is back in London after an eight-year stretch in prison, and things have changed. The East End looks entirely different, with construction money flooding in thanks to the upcoming Olympics. The drug trade that Bill used to be involved in has got nastier. And closer to home, he's shocked to discover that his wife has run off and left their young sons Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams) to fend for themselves.
It's this final strand that becomes the dominant one in the film. Bill has plans to abandon his family and spend a couple of years on an oil rig, but social services have other ideas. He's under orders to get his family back on track, which is easier said than done given the resentment Dean feels for him. And, inevitably, Bill's old criminal associates aren't going to leave him alone now he's out on the streets again.
You kind of wish they would: when it's avoiding the cliches of East End gangsterdom, Wild Bill is a sensitive character study, depicting one man's efforts to hold his family together with warmth and good humour. The scenes with Bill, Dean and Jimmy slowly opening up to each other are nicely observed, with Will Poulter an absolute revelation just a few years after his debut LFF appearance in Son Of Rambow.
By comparison with those scenes, the film drags a bit when it lurches into gangster flick territory. Fletcher says he was desperate to avoid making another one of those geezer films, and I believe him, but it has to be said the heart sinks a little every time we cut back to bad boys cutting up skag or smacking their birds about. You find yourself hoping that it doesn't just climax in a bunch of blokes laying into each other in a pub, although you know deep down that's just what'll happen.
But Wild Bill's warmth and humanity ultimately wins out over its geezerosity. And it has one more weapon in its arsenal - a rock-solid sense of the time and place in which it's set. The Olympic stadium constantly looms in the background of the building site where Dean works: a perfect symbol of the money that's flooding into the East End right now, and how that money isn't going to the people who really need it. The last British film that worked so well as a time capsule of London in transition was The Long Good Friday, which captures the goldrush feeling that swept over Docklands during its regeneration. Fletcher was actually in The Long Good Friday, during his days as a child star: you could argue that the final scene of Wild Bill is a blatant nod to the earlier film. It doesn't reach the heights of its 1980 predecessor, but it's an impressive debut for Fletcher as director.
4.00pm: Michael Winterbottom Screen Talk [Wikipedia]
Friday's Alexander Payne interview fitted the standard template of the Festival's Screen Talk events. Start off with a discussion of the subject's latest film: go back to their beginning of their career and walk through it chronologically, with clips for illustration: take some questions from the audience along the way.
Between them, interviewer Sandra Hebron (our first sighting this year) and interviewee Michael Winterbottom have decided that this approach won't work this time round. That's mainly because of the sheer breadth of Winterbottom's back catalogue: an average of at least one film or TV production a year over the last two decades, far too many to cover satisfactorily in a chronological overview that needs to fit into a 90 minute slot. So they don't even try. Instead, Hebron takes five clips from various stages in Winterbottom's career, and uses them as a springboard for general discussion, bringing in the audience for questions whenever it's convenient.
However, she keeps to the classic format at the beginning, and kicks off the discussion with Trishna, Winterbottom's contribution to this year's festival. An adaptation of Tess Of The D'Urbervilles set in contemporary India, it's the third time that he's adapted a Thomas Hardy novel for the screen. He sees one of Hardy's common themes as being the effect of rapid change on previously stable communities. His characters try to use this change to broaden their horizons, only to find that the old barriers still prevent them from getting where they want to be. With that in mind, he saw modern India as the ideal place to relocate the story. Does he succeed? I'll let you know, soon.
In the meantime, Hebron follows up with a clip from one of Winterbottom's earlier Hardy adaptations, Jude. Featuring a screenplay by Hossein Amini (who went on to write current hit Drive, trivia fans), it feels like a very traditional scripted drama. Within three years, he'd completely changed style with Hebron's third selection, Wonderland: the film that was the starting point for the much looser approach to filming that he uses today. Shot in available light, at real locations, with the general public wandering in and out of shot, the setup sounds like a logistical nightmare. But it allows Winterbottom to give his actors the maximum amount of freedom. "I like my films to be observational... I'll let the actors do what they want, and I'll watch them."
Hebron's final two clips show the diversity of Winterbottom's work in recent years. In This World is the best example of something she describes in her introduction - "a pleasing disregard for the division between fiction and non-fiction" - which follows a group of refugees on their way to Europe in a quasi-documentary style. Meanwhile, A Cock And Bull Story takes the cliches of British historical costume drama and puts them in a post-modernist blender, producing a film closer to the spirit of Tristram Shandy than to its actual text. And Winterbottom still has plenty of ideas in the pipeline: from a family drama with John Simm and Shirley Henderson, shot on and off over a five year period to allow the children to age realistically, to a Paul Raymond biopic starring Steve Coogan. "I only want to make films I'm interested in. If you go from one film to another, and they're both the same, why bother?"
8.30pm: Surprise Film: Damsels In Distress [official site]
Every so often, Seapea asks me "what happened to that nice director we saw once that I keep calling Walt Whitman by mistake?" Well, now we have an answer.
His name was actually Whit Stillman. He came to the LFF in 1990 with his debut comedy of manners Metropolitan, and charmed us all more or less from the word go. His followup Barcelona appeared a few years later: then in 1998, the year this site was born, he brought The Last Days Of Disco to the first ever Edinburgh Festival I wrote daily reports for. He's disappeared off the radar completely since then, building up a mystique like Terrence Malick only with much better jokes. Thirteen years later, and all of a sudden he's back: in the interim, a whole generation has grown up not knowing the pleasures a Whit Stillman film can hold.
Damsels In Distress has a similar form to Stillman's earlier films. It starts off with a small, hermetically sealed community: in this case, it's Seven Oaks college in New York. It introduces us to an even more hermetically sealed sub-community within that one: a group of female students who've taken it upon themselves to improve the student body, led by Violet (Greta Gerwig). It quickly establishes that this sub-community is, to some degree or other, completely up itself. And then it stands back a little, points at that sub-community, and giggles at it for 90 minutes or so, using some of the most precision-tooled dialogue available in American cinema.
It takes a few minutes to tune yourself into Damsels' comic frequency, but a point eventually comes where a line suddenly hits you at precisely the right angle. For me, it's Violet describing the benefits of the suicide prevention centre she runs on campus: "you know how they say prevention is nine tenths of the cure? Well, for suicide it turns out to be ten tenths." Once you've got accustomed to it, you can revel in the distinctive rhythm of Stillman's dialogue: whether it's the girls trying to agree on whether the plural of the word 'doofus' takes into account its apparent Latin root, or the boys fretting about the impossibility of knowing the colour of your own eyes, these are lines that couldn't have been written by anyone else.
And Damsels' script is a very obviously written piece of work: crammed with gags and cultural references both high and low, and layered with the irony we frequently accuse Americans of not understanding. (Nobody in a Whit Stillman film is as smart as they think they are.) It's comedy pitched at a level calibrated precisely to infuriate any viewers too slow to keep up, as could be seen by the procession of whiners complaining on the internet about Sandra Hebron's choice of film into the wee small hours of the following morning.
The frothy gags can obscure Stillman's satirical intent: but the glossy look of the film never lets us forget that the people complaining here about the so-called horrors of their lives are among some of the most privileged in the world. It takes some committed performances to keep us interested in these overentitled little snots, and Stillman's cast is well up to the job. Greta Gerwig could almost be Chloe Sevigny in The Last Days Of Disco 13 years ago, if you screw up your eyes a little bit: her monumental self-delusion is beautifully portrayed. The rest of the cast back her up well, with a special nod to Megalyn Echikunwoke, whose pronunciation of the word 'operator' should go on sale immediately as a ringtone.
If there's a problem with Damsels In Distress, it's this: it doesn't really know how to end. The Last Days Of Disco finished with a big dance number, which was fine - best use of the O'Jays' Love Train ever, in fact - because by then all of the individual stories had been resolved. Damsels goes one further and climaxes with two dance numbers back to back. They're fun, and everything, but you're left wondering what's next for the characters. With its dying fall and musical finale, the end of Damsels feels like nothing so much as the season finale for a TV show: a convenient point to put the story on hold, before returning to it a year later. Could Stillman be considering getting a franchise out of this film? If he was, I'd definitely be there for the next couple, and I'd like to see them as future LFF surprise films. So suck on that, doofi.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Take Shelter [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Curtis LaForche works as a foreman for a company mining sand in Ohio. Although he works hard and money is tight, he has a pretty good life with his wife Sam and daughter Hannah. But recently Curtis has been plagued with nightmares: violent, apocalyptic nightmares always involving a frightful storm with thick, oily rain. Are these nightmares signs of Curtis’s deteriorating mental state, or are they portents of something coming? Curtis isn’t quite sure himself, and is making preparations for either eventuality.
Anyone who has seen Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire will know to expect an intense performance, and with this, and aided by a moody score, Take Shelter builds an atmosphere of foreboding. We know something is coming, but we are kept guessing right through whether it is simply a mental breakdown, or whether Curtis truly is having visions. The skill of the film is that it plays in such a way that you are never quite sure what genre it is in, keeping the options open.
Shannon’s performance is key, and he has strong support from Jessica Chastain as Sam and fellow Boardwalk actor Shea Whigham as his friend and co-worker Dewart. There are a couple of predictable plot turns on the way, but on the whole the way the story develops is handled well, and there is subtlety in the script which gives the ambiguity, and allows Curtis’s actions to be totally believable even at their most extreme. And the sense of an impending storm stays with you even after the end of the film, so that, as remarked by someone I overheard on the way out of the cinema, you feel as though the sun can’t possibly be shining outside.