By Peg Aloi
With my usual determination and courage, I was able to access many films at the London Film Fest that span a wide range of genres, budgets and nations.
Well, despite my poor attempt at humor, no, sorry to say that I didn’t attend the gala screening of The French Dispatch this week at the London Film Festival. I mainly cover the festival remotely when I’m in the UK, which means I don’t have access to “big ticket” films like Wes Anderson’s latest or new Jane Campion films (power of the dog), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), or Edgar Wright (Last night in Soho). Online access for press delegates is also quite limited, in terms of time. In addition, most press sessions take place early in the morning. Yet, with my usual determination and courage, I was able to access many films spanning a wide range of genres, budgets and nations. I’ll review some of them for you in my festival coverage, and later when some of them hit the US.
Revised in this dispatch: Everything is vanity, The real Charlie Chaplin, Luzzu, and Shepherd. (Coming in Part 2: Bergman Island, Petrov flu, wild indian, and Titanium. To be reviewed separately: Mass)
My first viewing did not bode well: Everything is vanity is a conceptual film that feels like an overly long short: strong in concept but weak in execution. An arrogant fashion photographer and his new intern meet a model for an industrial shoot that seems to end in violence…or does it? The unexpected breaking of the fourth wall, in which filmmaker Marcos Mereles enters the story in an attempt to mend the choppy plot, does little to justify the film’s lack of a cohesive or engaging story. As the title suggests, the film is a bit in love with its own smarts, and not well enough written or crafted (although that is fashion) to transcend its lack of center.
The real Charlie Chaplin is a gripping documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney that explores the origins of the silent film legend’s career and his enormous cultural impact. It begins with a mention of “Chaplin Mania”, a strange phenomenon that occurred shortly after the start of Chaplin’s career, which convinced ordinary people that they saw Charlie Chaplin, well, everywhere. The exuberant voice-over narration, accompanied by archival footage and silent film-style intertitles, then delves into his difficult childhood. Chaplin was left a poor orphan in a London workhouse after his mother, an actress who struggled to make ends meet after her father ran away with a chorister, was placed in an asylum. His friends remember him as always hungry and always trying to make them laugh. He eventually started working with Fred Karno, the impresario, and learned the skills of physical comedy from scratch, while mastering the cello and ancient Greek. After cruising on tour in America, he was discovered by Mack Sennett, who cast Chaplin as a replacement for Sterling Ford, who had unexpectedly left his starring role in the Keystone Cops films. It wasn’t long before Chaplin was writing, producing and directing his own films, even composing scores and doing makeup. The filmmaker demanded total artistic control and often gave complex instructions to his actors. A treasure trove of archival footage, with never-before-seen audio, accompanies the well-written narration. Chaplin’s tramp persona is deconstructed, from his human influences (London homeless and American vagabonds) to the inspirations for the character’s costume elements (Fatty Arbuckle’s pants, among others). The film is painstakingly researched and detailed, and film history buffs and Chaplin fans alike will find it entertaining and fascinating.
The title of Luzzu refers to the painted and colored wooden fishing boats traditionally used by Maltese fishermen. This film follows a young fisherman, played by non-professional actor Jesmark Scicluna, who gives an incredibly natural and convincing performance. Jes is a hard working fisherman, struggling to support his family despite changing standards. EU regulations limit what he can catch and sell, and large commercial trawlers crowd out independent fishermen. Once Jes discovers there is corruption in his industry, he quickly scrambles to make the most of the ins and outs of the black market that eclipses what was once a satisfying and lucrative profession. He realizes he cannot sustain this strategy, but he works diligently to repair his fishing boat, driven by the belief that his hard work and skill will somehow pay off in the end. It’s an intimate glimpse into a way of life that has lasted for generations but is slowly fading due to financial and political pressures. Luzzu is a moving portrait of a dying breadwinner (how many countries once had a living fishing industry that defined their culture?) and a hymn to an individual’s struggle to survive.
At Russell Owen’s Shepherd is a beautifully photographed film with tinges of folk horror. Tom Hughes, an English actor known for playing dark and complex characters, plays Eric Black, a young man grieving after the mysterious death of his wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss). Depressed and lonely, Eric nevertheless decides to work as a shepherd on a remote and uninhabited Scottish island. On the way with his dog, he stops to visit his mother (moving spectacle by Greta Scacchi). She berates him for mourning a woman she considered flawed and immoral. Eric traverses huge mountain vistas, then takes a ferry to the island where a tiny, ill-equipped cottage awaits him. The woman who operates the ferry (played by the marvelous Kate Dickie [The Witch]) is strange and a little menacing: she seems to know more about Eric than she should. The symbolic function of a ferry crossing is obvious: moving to an unknown place teeming with announcements of death and sadness. Eric is tortured by nightmares and visions, and the island’s lonely atmosphere plays tricks on him as he begins to consider the circumstances of his wife’s death. I enjoyed the unique and beautiful geographical setting of this film. Its folk horror elements (I detected influences as far back as The witch, Lighthouse, and Midsommar) are embedded throughout, infusing the story with a haunting and unsettling quality.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for boston phoenix and Fellow of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes about film, television and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Restlessness, microphone, Orlando Weekly, twisted marquee, and Bloody disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.