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An LFF Diary

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Aah, Film festivals! That 6 am alarm at the weekend so you can grab the last seat for the new must-see film starring Timothee Chalamet. (For it has been decreed that for the next five years, every must-see movie must star Chalamet).

You’re not even sure that you’ll like the film, but dammit, you’ve paid your festival fee, and you’re determined to wring every last penny’s worth of value from it. 

So you traipse, bleary-eyed to Leicester Square, grab a pastry from Pret (for it has been decreed too that Pret is the only shop able to survive a pandemic) and take your seat. You desperately hope that the score is loud enough to allow you to rustle your pastry package and eat in peace without some cineaste glaring at you.

Welcome to LFF 2021.

It’s my hometown festival, and I love it, but boy can it be an endurance test! Your physical fitness, resilience and time management is tried to the limit as you hurtle across central London from a crack of dawn screening to a press conference to interviews, talks and more screenings before landing, exhausted, on the red carpet for a premiere and yet another screening or two.

Yes, LFF, like most festivals, is demanding, but I wouldn’t change it for a thing. Roll on next year!

So, here, in chronological order, is a summarised diary (of sorts).

The festival starts online a couple of weeks before the opening gala night. That’s when you can watch the ‘smaller’ films, that you won’t have to fight for a seat for, in the comfort of your home.

I discovered two gems:

Playground, a film about school playground bullying (see review on this site). Later in the festival, I interviewed the director, Laura Wandel, which is always a pleasure. Speaking through a French interpreter, she told me that the film had taken seven years to come to fruition. At the end of the festival, I was pleased to hear that her efforts had been rewarded with the Best First Feature Award.

Belle: What a sublimely beautiful film this is. An animated, modernised, virtual world take on Beauty and the Beast by  Oscar-nominated anime director Mamoru Hosoda, this was worthy of being a gala film, in my opinion, not hidden away online.

This year’s opening gala film was The Harder They Fall, a western with an all-black cast. (See my review on this site). The screening was in the spacious and impressive festival hall at the Southbank. Primarily a music venue, it has to be said, the acoustics are not excellent for film, and a number of delegates complained about not being able to make out all the dialogue in the films screened here.

The press conference following the screening was at the very chic Mayfair Hotel, and it was a hoot. British director Jeymes Samuel was full of beans, clearly thrilled at having the world premiere of his film at a festival that he used to attend as a young boy, dreaming of a future in movies. He said he’d grown up on westerns on the BBC, and this was his love letter to the genre. Idris Elba, one of the leads in the film, also grew up on westerns because his father had loved TV programmes such as Bonanza. Meanwhile, for the American Regina King, the genre was not a favourite, but she said yes instantly when Jeymes pitched the film to her, because of the story but also because of the heart and strength of the character she was asked to play.

Obviously, the subject of race came up, and there was an intelligent discussion about how some producers are still wary of taking on all-black projects because they think there isn’t a market out there for them in many parts of the world. But each participant acknowledged the progress and importance of the fact that other producers are increasingly willing to finance black stories.

An unexpected bonus was hearing from Jeymes Samuel about working with Shawn Carter, a.k.a. JAY Z. Carter is one of the producers of the film and was involved with the music. Samuel told us how Carter doesn’t write anything down when he puts together a song in awed tones. Apparently, he keeps it all in his head. And that he is a massive film fan and very cine-literate.

The premiere of the film in the evening was also a fun and raucous affair.  Beyoncé turned up to support JAY Z, and it was a great start to the festival.

Compartment No.6: I ended up seeing this because all the Spencer screenings were full, much to the annoyance of the many delegates who didn’t get in. I had seen Spencer at the Venice film festival but was keen to catch it a second time with a British audience. Nevertheless, my loss of Spencer was a gain of this superb film about a long train journey to Siberia in which a romantically bruised young woman gets the travelling equivalent of being stuck in a lift with the worst person possible. But from unwilling sleeper carriage travellers to two people rediscovering the warmth of human connection and intimacy, this film redefines the parameters of what might be called a room com of sorts. This was a wonderful discovery. Do check it out. 

In the evening, I covered the premiere of Spencer (see my Venice review on this site). I posted my photographs and videos of Kristen Stewart on social media, much to the delight of her legions of fans.

Hand of God: One of the most entertaining films of the festival, this is loosely based on the early life of director Paulo Sorrentino. It starts deceptively simple as a coming-of-age, savagely funny drama about a dysfunctional family. Set in Naples of the 1980s, the title references the city’s obsession with whether or not Maradona would sign for the local team. From the early humour,, the film moves into a a more sombre mood but never becomes hugely enjoyable. It’s visually stunning as well, making use of the beautiful Italian locations. 

The Velvet Underground: Like many, I knew the name but only a little about the background of this iconic, groundbreaking band that developed its sound in the underground New York scene and then went on to inspire some of the most prominent artists in the world. The film is a hypnotic, psychedelic invite into a world that has long disappeared but has left an indelible mark on the music scene.

Last Night in Soho: Some have scoffed at Edgar Wright’s latest offering, but I loved it at Venice, and I loved it even more on second viewing at LFF.

The French Dispatch: Aah, the Timothee Chalamet film at dawn o’clock on a Sunday. He’s only in one segment alongside Frances McDormand. The film is chockablock with great actors, and Wes Anderson’s quirky, idiosyncratic, recognisable signature filmmaking flourishes. If you know about US magazines such as the New Yorker, this film makes much sense. If not, it’s a little harder to take to. I liked it immensely.

The premiere, unfortunately, was a dud. The biggest crowd of the festival showed up, mostly to catch a glimpse of Timothée Chalamet. But neither he nor any of the stars in the film turned up for the red carpet. Bill Murray did make an appearance inside at the screening, but the lack of red carpet star power was a huge disappointment for the waiting crowd outside.

The Power of the Dog: this is classic Jane Campion: vast, bleak vistas, taciturn men getting naked, prim and proper women simmering with frustration and unfulfilled desires and ambitions, slow-burning character arcs. Expect this to feature heavily in awards show conversations.

Belfast: a real crowd-pleaser, this is based on the childhood of director Kenneth Branagh.

It’s about the political troubles in Northern Ireland, but essentially it’s the story of a family. Unapologetically sentimental, it will wrench the heart out of anyone who has ever had to leave their homeland. 

The Real Charlie Chaplin: I love old Hollywood, and I love films about that era. So, this was right up my street. It’s a riveting documentary about a comedian who went from the slums of London to become the most famous and feted man in the world. At the premiere of one of his films 50,000 fans turned up to see him. He was greeted as an equal by heads of state and monarchs, and yet at one point, Hollywood threw him out on his ear, and he had to go into exile in Switzerland. This is a must-see for filmmakers, writers and comedians. 

I missed the screening of The Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 rites of passage drama. But I was lucky enough to catch a virtual Q +A with the great man. It was a fascinating talk from one of the Giants of cinema. He decried the tsunami of franchises and sequels around currently, comparing it to fast food whilst the nutritious stand-alone films, he said, were being made by only a handful of directors, among them his protégés Scorsese and Spielberg. After a pause, much to the audience’s amusement, he also remembered his director daughter Sofia! He also said that Godfather 3 was never meant to be the final part of the trilogy. It was intended as the epilogue to the first two films.

The Tender Bar: George Clooney brought the Hollywood power to the Southbank at the premiere for his last-minute addition to the festival, The Tender Bar. He’s not in it, but he is the director. The film stars Ben Affleck. As expected, Clooney was hilarious in his introduction to the film at the screening, commenting that Affleck doesn’t get many good roles, and so they offered him this opportunity, after everyone else, such as Matt Damon, turned it down!

The film itself is another coming of age film about a little boy who has a feckless father he barely knows and learns about life, instead, from his hard-drinking, hard-living uncle, played by Affleck, at the bar he runs. It’s a warm-hearted film, albeit bitter around the fringes, with some solid central performances.

The surprise film was the hugely enjoyable C’mon, C’mon.

The Phantom of the Open: The most delightful surprise of the festival. On paper, this didn’t much appeal to me. A film about the worst golfer in the world? No thanks. But what a little treasure I would have missed if I hadn’t taken an offer to attend the premiere. This film could be looking at a slew of Baftas during awards season. It’s funny, touching, inspirational, human and just a joy. Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins are superb. This is one to watch.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon: another film I ended up seeing because I couldn’t get into something else. And how good did it turn out to be! Director Ana Lily Amirpour delivers what’s been described as a punky, subversive adult fairytale. It’s original, sharp, tender and wild all in one, with a standout performance from Kate Hudson, whose career has not reached the heights her fabulous turn in Almost Famous promised so many years ago. But she keeps working quietly in small, low budget films, and she’s fantastic in this one.

She Will: Billed as a cult film, this starts with a gruesome close up of surgery. A knife cutting into skin. It’s the mastectomy of an ageing actress who then retires to a remote Scottish retreat to recover. A recovery of sorts does indeed happen for her, but not in the way she anticipates. The film is interesting and watchable but goes in too many directions to fully work. Too many themes and strands are thrown in the air like balls being juggled frantically, and none of them is ever properly caught. Nevertheless, the film has a haunting quality to it, and some of the themes it attempts to explore are pretty brave.

King Richard: As a massive tennis fan, I was looking forward to seeing this, but it exceeded my expectations. By any standards, the sporting achievements of Venus and Serena Williams are remarkable. But not many people outside the tennis world may know that behind them there is an equally remarkable story; that of their Father, Richard. With little knowledge of tennis, he decided that he was going to produce world champions and put together a plan to achieve this seemingly preposterous dream. Against all the odds, despite everyone thinking that his vision for his daughters was madness, he achieved the unthinkable. As Richard Williams, Will Smith has never been better. He is definitely looking at awards nominations and is a serious contender for wins, including the big one.

The Tragedy of Macbeth: This was the closing gala. The sets are amazing. The direction by Joel Coen is clean and clean and lean. Kathryn Hunter is mind-bogglingly good as all three witches. Frances McDormand is a storming Lady Macbeth, but the film is let down, in my opinion, by the disappointing central performance of Denzel Washington. He looks old, tired and oddly detached from the role.

The press conference following the screening was an interesting if serious affair- Until Frances McDormand decided to be all levels of Frances McDormand awesome when she was asked whether she considers herself to be a role model for women in the industry and outside. She got up and told us a few home truths about how finding your place in life is tough for everyone, not just women.

It was a fitting end to a very good festival which had to combine the safety requirements of the pandemic with the Entertainment requirements of a big, glamorous festival and the social requirements of the film going public who just wants to get back into the cinema.

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