London Film Festival Roundup

London Film Festival Roundup

Festive Behaviour: LFF

Our man at the London Film Festival, James DC, gives us a roundup of notable films he seen at this year’s LFF

the-invitation-2015-film-600x400DER NACHTMAHR (The Nightmare)
Director : AKIZ
Thursday 8th, 3.45pm @ NFT3

Saturday 10th, 9pm, @ Hackney Picturehouse

Straight off the bat I will state that I was blown away by this low budget indie horror – it is an unassuming little gem and shows up most other similarly themed films as the vapid, humdrum, cliche-ridden rubbish they patently are. I would also maintain that it is one of the most radical and innovative teen-horror films of the last 20-odd years and is all the more remarkable for having been directed by a first timer; the painter/sculptor AKIZ.

I still become genuinely excited when contemplating this film, after weeks of first seeing it, and that, to me, is proof positive that it is an instant classic.

The story revolves around Tina, a 17 year old German girl who sometimes sneaks off to all night techno raves with her mates, in Berlin. She is like many a typical teenager – rather shy and quiet when she is around her parents, but ready to go wild and take drugs when in the comfort zone of her friends. And, par for the course, she seems to be having a few problems with her boyfriend, and the like.

On one particular night she takes a few dodgy pills and ends up vomiting in some bushes, then drops her necklace in the middle of a darkened road. She goes back to pick it up, but suddenly a car comes zooming up and knocks her over at high speed. The others try to revive her, but the film then jars to a whole other scenario, and we are unsure whether what follows, throughout, is just a drug-induced hallucination, or has some basis in the ostensible ‘reality’ of the story (and that is the ambiguous beauty of this finely balanced story).

Later, we see Tina at home, about to go to bed. It is late at night and her parents are fast asleep. As she is getting into bed, she hears unearthly, high pitched shrieks from the basement. She becomes scared, but after searching the house and finding nothing, tries to go to sleep.

A few nights later, the alien noises are back, and she starts to quietly freak out. She cautiously follows the strange grunts into the kitchen and is shocked to see a small, utterly weird, homunculus type creature, which has pulled all the food out of the fridge and is messily eating it off the floor. It then placidly offers her an egg, but she surprises herself by replying that she is allergic to them, as if this were some kind of normal interaction – is she dreaming, or is this apparition actually real?

As the narrative develops, Tina, after initially rejecting it, gradually becomes closer to the creature, be it a figment of her imagination, or not. It follows her around and ends up becoming a sort of companionable familiar. But then, in a nod to E.T., the creature is exposed to the authorities who imprison and monitor it in a secret laboratory, and Tina, distraught, must find a way of rescuing it.

Apart from all its other considerable attributes, Der Nachtmahr is one of the most adroit and graceful films about the trials of adolescence I have ever seen. It is highly effective by way of containing a lucid, yet relatively intricate and inventive plot; as opposed to the trite cornerstones of the traditional ‘rites of passage’ story. The virtuosity of the mise en scene, alongside the abstract, open-ended structure of the narrative, imbues the tale with an electrifying energy, lifting what would otherwise be an unexceptional metaphor – the creature is, in many ways, a manifestation of the teenager’s burgeoning sexuality and accompanying neurosis – beyond easy categorisation and into the realm of multi-layered symbolism. The mercifully unexplained creature, and its odd, symbiotic relationship with the girl, perfectly encapsulates The Other, the Freudian Uncanny, the shock of the new, the potentiality of madness, the unconscious fears and anxieties of imminent adulthood, and the sex-death impulse, all at once.
The film is effectively a two-hander, alternating between Tina, brilliantly and naturalistically played by Carolyn Genzkow, and the awesome prosthetic effects and puppetry of the paradoxically ugly, yet cute creature, which looks so authentic and ‘solid’ as to belie the myth that CGI always renders special effects the most realistically. Many sequences are so pleasantly surprising and peculiar that one finds oneself chuckling at the leftfield wit and ingenuity of the spectacle. Add in a barnstorming techno/electronica soundtrack, subtle sound design and a witty cameo by rock legend Kim Gordon, and you have one of the most astonishing and impressive genre debuts in years – don’t miss this one.
Director : Karyn Kusama
Friday 9th, 8.45pm @ Cineworld Haymarket
Saturday 10th, 1pm @ Vue Islington
A veritable masterclass – straight out of a Hitchcockian film tutorial – in how to ratchet up the suspense in an enclosed space, The Invitation is a superb chamber piece, which cleverly wrongfoots the audience right up to the bleak, disturbing climax. For much of the time it feels like a very well crafted, understated arthouse/indie drama, but then things start to shift, uneasily.
Near the start, we see Will arriving, with his new girlfriend, at the plush Californian apartment of his ex-wife, Eden, for a dinner party with a bunch of mutual, old friends. It soon transpires that they once had a son who died a few years earlier, and this reunion is an attempt to heal old wounds and move forward. As the guests gradually settle in, Eden and her new husband reveal that they are acolytes of a New Age inflected pseudo-religion, and want the others to join them in ‘blissful harmony’ by accepting the movement’s various decrees. But as the night wears on, there is more than meets the eye to such seemingly innocuous homilies.
Unlike many other modern genre films of this type, the female director, Karyn Kusama, exerts a real grip on proceedings, never over-egging the thrills and keeping the atmosphere nice and subtle. She knows how to properly slow down the pace in the static, dialogue-driven shots of the ensemble, and when to quicken the rhythm in the more kinetic scenes. Moreover, in the few dynamic set-pieces, she keeps to the tried and tested, basic rules of good cinema, never hampering what is going on in front of the camera with unnecessary ‘shaky-cam’ shots, frantic editing or bombastic, overly manipulative music, which usually all work in tandem to paradoxically mollify the impact of a given scene’s powerful, abrupt action in so many films, these days. This, in itself, is a revelation for a seasoned cinema-goer, like me.

The film’s other main strong point is that it mixes a realistically acted, poignant, unsentimental human drama about devastating grief with the tired tropes of the horror genre to ingenious effect, and does so in such a manner that one is kept guessing as to the real premise and intent of the plot throughout most of the running time – this is a remarkable achievement in today’s over-saturated, anodyne moviescape. And as the sense of awful dread slowly crawls towards its apogee, the barbed, underlying commentary on the insidious prevalence of such corrupt, morally unhinged organisations as Scientology, et al. comes to the fore.

All in all, The Invitation is a horror film with real bite, for a change.


Director : Omer Fast
Saturday 10th, 7pm @ Tate Modern
Tuesday 13th, 6.15pm @ Hackney Picturehouse
An intriguing, enigmatic puzzle of a film, Remainder is based on a celebrated novel by Tom McCarthy. I was reminded of the similarly abstract, elliptical storylines of wonderful films like Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento – although Omer Fast’s film is a bit rough around the edges and not nearly as accomplished as either of those.
We are thrown straight into the action, as the film starts: a nondescript guy is seen quietly rushing away from some kind of trouble, or someone, and suddenly the huge glass roofing of a nearby building shatters and crashes down upon him. He is taken to hospital where it is evident he has suffered a type of neurological dysfunction or brain damage.

As he recovers at home, he begins to hallucinate – or perhaps remember? odd incidents involving mysterious plots, people and places. After winning a compensation claim worth millions, he gradually gets to grips with his newly acquired disabilities, and, for some unknown reason, begins to hire ostensible actors, set designers and locations, with which to re-enact the troubling visions he has been seeing. As he gives way to more compulsive behaviour, his day to day experience begins to loop back in on itself and progressively merge with the mental world he is attempting to replicate. Ultimately, as his obsessive attention to detail and ‘authenticity’ culminates in death and destruction, reality and fantasy begin to irrevocably blur.

I will admit that I have a soft spot for strange, open-ended, ‘metaphysical’ films such as this, whereby the structural armature is mercurial and we aren’t quite sure what we are seeing; is it all the viewpoint of the characters’ inner psychosis, or is all this crazy stuff ‘really’ happening?  I like the way such films more accurately mirror our real lives – more often than not life doesn’t flow along Hollywoodised parameters of neat beginnings, middles and endings, and we can be left confused and frustrated by the inchoate, random obstacles that life sometimes throws at us.

There are a couple of thrilling set-pieces and it is stylishly shot, with some witty scenes (the bit with the cats is very funny) and even if you are left non-plussed by the end, the journey is enjoyable enough and you will be left pondering aplenty as you exit the cinema – which is no bad thing in today’s factory-fed movie culture.

All that remains to say (sorry) is that Remainder is a pretty good attempt to portray the inner life of one man’s disintegrating mind, even if that man is rather nasty, unlikable and morose, and there are a few small flaws in the film.
Mænd og Høns Mads Mikkelsen & David Dencik Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen Produced by Tivi & Kim Magnusson M&M Production Photo Credit Rolf Konow

Mænd og Høns
Mads Mikkelsen & David Dencik
Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen
Produced by Tivi & Kim Magnusson
M&M Production
Photo Credit Rolf Konow


Director : Anders Thomas Jensen

Thursday 8th, 8.45pm, Vue Islington
Saturday 10th, 1pm, Cine Lumiere
Sunday 18th, 1pm @ ICA
The Danish film Men and Chicken is, in the main, a lot of fun. A surreal, bawdy satire which piles ideas of eugenics, bad science and body horror on top of a madcap familial farce, Jensen’s film partly caters to the frat-boy-gross-out comedy crowd, as well as the arthouse audience who like their comedies sprinkled with a frisson of socio-political commentary.

Stiff necked , pedantic Gabriel cannot stand his sex-obsessed, pervy brother Elias (played with wild-eyed elan by Mads Mikkelsen), but events conspire to bring them together in order to visit their hermit-like elderly father, who lives on an isolated island called Ork. However, when they arrive they are confronted by three seemingly insane, brutish and filthy men with strange facial deformations, who then proceed to repeatedly batter them over their heads with stuffed animals on spikes, huge cooking pots, and anything else that comes to hand.

Once their anger at being so ‘rudely’ disturbed is quelled, it turns out that the strange, redneck ‘mutants’ are previously unknown brothers to Gabriel and Elias. After a begrudging invitation to stay at the errant brothers’ gigantic, crumbling mansion, it eventually transpires that the ‘mad professor’ father to them all has long been dead and his festering corpse is kept under lock and key. From here, the film zips and zaps from one bizarre scene and plot development to another, all the while based in and around the brothers’ phantasmagorical, Gothic pile and it’s verdant natural surroundings (I do not joke when I say that the incredible house is the actual star of the film).

It sometimes feels like everything has been thrown into the pot of this comedy-fantasy, but the ensuing stew just about works; from the darker, somewhat disturbing – albeit simultaneously funny – aspects of addictive masturbation, bestiality and mental retardation, to eventual redemption via a slew of mentalist slapstick, insights and finally, brotherly love. These elements occasionally feel a bit forced or contrived, but this is all but negated by the constant array of absurd curveballs on offer, and one can’t help but feel sympathy for the deluded, crazy, yet ultimately good-natured characters.

One of the better bizarre comedies, of recent years.


Director : David Farr
Wednesday 14th, 9pm @ Cineworld Haymarket
Friday 16th, 8.40pm @ NFT2
Saturday 17th, 8.45pm @ Vue Islington

The Ones Below is a low key, but quite effective British chiller. Some journalists at the press screening I was at were overly critical of it, and despite the intermittent feeling that we have seen all this before, it is a good little horror, and that is fine and dandy, for what it is. The film riffs on the kind of twistyTales of the Unexpected TV shows of the 1970’s and 80’s (albeit with much higher production values and a longer running time, hence more complexity) and if you go in with a slight nostalgia tainted antenna about you, not expecting anything too revolutionary, you will enjoy this one for how it tweaks the genre staples, in a well crafted, reliable manner.

The plot focuses on a (initially) cheerful, bourgeois married couple who live in a bright suburban apartment and who are just about to have their first baby. All seems to be going just swimmingly, until a new couple moves into the flat underneath, and it turns out that the woman is about to have a baby too. Soon enough, the new neighbours start to get overly friendly, gradually insinuating themselves into the prime couple’s lives and….well, if you are a horror genre aficionado, you can half-guess the rest.

Some of the psychological overtones essay themes of maternal stress and paranoia, as well as – arguably – the more distressing consumer/status neurosis which seems increasingly prevalent nowadays. There are some relatively unsettling scenes, for this type of horror movie. If you have never seen any of Polanski’s horror films, or Andrzej Żuławski’s magnificently unhinged Possession (1981), which this film knowingly references (among others), then you will enjoy this film more than battle-hardened horror fans, like me. All the acting is of a good quality and David Morrissey alternates between subtly creepy and compulsively psychotic, with relish.

Yes; the plot could have been more original, it could have been ‘darker’ and it could have utilised more inventive or stylish film aesthetics, but it basically does what it says on the tin, and provides the requisite sense of unease, and thus entertainment, for such a modest horror enterprise.

I look forward to the director further developing his skills in the next film. Oh, and by the way, you may want to think twice before seeing this film if you are an expectant mother!

London Film Festival

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