Review - London Film Festival 2020 Part 1 (The Painter and The Thief, Mangrove and Kajillionaire)
Hey everyone, hope you're all still having a good apocalypse! It's been busy for me over the last few weeks because, in a virtual form, the London Film Festival is here. I'm gutted that I can't get that specialness of a weekend away in London watching films this year but the big plus side to going digital is that it is now more accessible than ever. As part of that, BFI offered what they've called "Film Academy accreditation" for young people, allowing them to get access to press and industry screenings of pretty much every film at the festival. With no worrying about rushing across London to the next cinema or thinking about gaps where I could grab some lunch, I've been able to watch a huge swathe of films so far (though I admit that still being a university student has slowed me down somewhat on the watching). I've seen a bunch of excellent films and there's more I'm planning on covering in two weeks time but for today, I want to talk about three excellent films with you, in the order I saw them. Best of all, the films I'm covering today are all going to be available to watch very soon, so keep your eye out for them!
If you're interested in what I've seen but haven't discussed, I have an ongoing Letterboxd list of all the films here.
The Painter and The Thief
Our first film is a documentary called The Painter and The Thief, a documentary that is absolutely compelling in how strange it gets. I'm not talking twists and turns on the level of something like Tiger King, but let me explain to you what I mean. In April 2015, an artist by the name of Barbora Kysilkova had her art in a gallery, when her two most valuable pieces were stolen. The thieves were captured, though the paintings were lost, much to Barbora's distress. In court for the trial of one of these thieves, a man by the name of Karl Bertil-Nordland, Barbora's attention is captured. She walks up to Karl and asks if they can meet after the trial, to talk as neutral parties about the event and also so that she can paint him. In a twist that would be ridiculous if it wasn't real, the two become friends and gradually, we are taken through their lives leading up to and leading away from the theft. More pieces surrounding the case are drip-fed to the audience in a genius fashion, allowing it to become completely compelling as these stranger than fiction lives unfurl in front of us. You likely know nothing about the story and believe me when I tell you what a valuable tool that will be while watching the film.
To talk about my own writing form for a minute, what I usually do with the second paragraph of a review is I talk about the performances on screen, how well the actors have (or haven't) managed to embody their characters. With The Painter though, I am left a little unsure what to do, because I've never reviewed a documentary before. In a slightly perverse way, I guess I'm going to review the people in the film, by which I mean just say how fascinating they are. As I'll get to in a minute, filming on this documentary began very early into the case, allowing very intimate footage across a long time span and therefore a total understanding of these complex humans. Barbora starts out as a briliiant artist with a fascination for darkness and Karl is similarly one dimensional as a drug addled vagrant with a bizarre adoration of art. Their relationship allows the best bits of both of them to flourish and of all the "characters" I've met so far in the festival, they're the two I keep thinking about. To say they have tragic backstories sounds so obvious that it's almost pointless to point it out, but I did want to quickly raise it, only to draw attention to the fact that the film is very happy to let its stars be defined by their present actions and not merely their traumas.
Then let's get into the filmmaking stuff! I think documentaries can be such a brilliant form of filmmaking because they have a potential to be wildly versatile. Sometimes they can be strangely poetic like the early shorts of Mark Jenkin, other times they can transform themselves into thrillers like Three Identical Strangers and then most common, they're a collection of talking heads used to tell a story, with a recent brilliant example being You Don't Nomi. My favourite breed of documentary though are the ones that are very playful and interrogative with form, like The Act of Killing, Close Up and king of them all, Exit Through the Gift Shop. I'm delighted to say this is a documentary firmly in that excellent latter company. Many moments are taken to contemplate the ethical considerations of representing pain in art and while these discussions refer to Barbora's paintings, it's clear that their inclusion is the film reflexively examining itself. That's especially important considering the fact that the filmmakers have been filming these two for four very difficult years of their lives. Importantly, it does this self examination while being totally gripping, structuring itself like a thriller for the first half, before mellowing out into a study of Barbora and Karl. If you watch The Painter, you're probably not going to be thinking about the construction of it, but that is the true skill of it. Through a very gentle steering of the audience, it leads you where it wants to take you and succeeds because you'll barely notice the way it nudges you along.
Even in an age when we are over-saturated with documentaries, The Painter and The Thief stands out. It takes the exceptionally good fortune of filming a good story before it was clear where it would lead and spins it into something captivating. I'm not sure where its release future lies but it's currently scheduled to release in the UK on the 30th of October. If you come across it, I implore you to watch it and am very happy to give this film an
Before I explain what makes Mangrove so brilliant, I do want to quickly establish what it is. Unlike the other things I'm reviewing this week, Mangrove is not a film but an episode of TV. Specifically, it's an entry in the upcoming anthology series Small Axe, a BBC series from Steve McQueen, director of Widows and 12 Years a Slave. The only thing connecting each episode is that they're all about the real lives of London's West Indian community between 1969 and 1982, meaning they can be appreciated individually. Judging from Mangrove though, you're still going to want to check out every single episode regardless, if they retain this level of quality.
Mangrove is the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protestors who were put on trial for inciting violence with the police. If you're anything like me, you know absolutely nothing about this case and so while I won't go fully into details, let me lay out some brief context for you. The Mangrove was a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill, a safe place for those displaced from their old homes. Though owner Frank tries to run a respectable establishment, he remains consistently subject to violent and seemingly racially justified raids as the police try and find evidence of misdoing. With enough finally becoming enough and the restaurant on its last legs, Frank and a group of other fed-up, consistently oppressed members of the community hold a peaceful protest. Unfortunately, due to the events of the last few months, you probably know what happened next. Police became involved, the riot became violent and it was the protestors who were taken to court. For me, part of the genius of Mangrove is its structure. The first hour establishes the Mangrove and the people who circle it, climaxing in the riot. The next hour is spent in the courtroom where the events of the riot are re-contextualised. Shots or moments that felt out of place or confusing at the time are justified expertly through assorted witness statements and by the end, you will have gone on an exhausting and turbulent enough ride that you deeply empathise with the Mangrove Nine.
Part of that empathy though also comes from excellent performances, both from the characters we're meant to love and the ones we're meant to hate. Leading the ensemble as Frank Crichlow is Shaun Parkes. I didn't recognise him from anything else and he totally blew me away here as a man torn between the personal and political. The great strength is his realisation (that the audience are also led towards) that the personal and political are deeply and unavoidably intertwined, and that he has no choice but to stand up for himself and others like him. Alongside him we find Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-Lecointe, a member of the Black Panthers. I confess, I've never been terribly sold on her work before (ironically, especially in Black Panther and the Marvel Cinematic Universe) but she works wonderfully here. There's a level she operates on, in this limbo between serious and comic, that allows the tone of Mangrove to pivot around her when needed. In a similar position is Malachi Kirby, playing Darcus Howe, an outspoken critic of the police and structural racism. When he speaks, you're appropriately captivated, there's really not more you could ask from someone playing an influential speaker. There are simply too many other actors doing great work to talk about them all, whether it's Jack Lowden as a compassionate and cheeky lawyer, Gary Beadle as a shoulder for Frank to lean on when times are tough or Sam Spruell as a deliciously detestable police officer. Every single actor has brought their A game, without fail.
It's hard to know exactly what else to talk about with this final paragraph. I adore Mangrove, that much should already be clear to you. Every single aspect of it is so polished to perfection that it blinds you to narrowing down onto any one aspect. The score is wonderful, Mica Levi turning up and casting her usual black magic on that. Cinematography is a treat too, coming from Shabier Kirchner, whose confidence behind the camera will have you shocked this is first major production. I also love the editing from Chris Dickens, previously the superstar assembler of Hot Fuzz, Berberian Sound Studio and Rocketman. I cannot find a single weak link in this entire joint. Perhaps the thing that deserves to be highlighted is just how easy it all feels, particularly the way McQueen's message is communicated. I have spent this entire summer trying to talk to family members about the roots of structural racism and the need for dismantlement or at least rebellion against the system. At almost every turn though, I find myself failing either due to their stubbornness or my lack of knowledge on the issue. Mangrove faces no such hurdle. You're shown a charismatic, likeable group of people who are just as law abiding as the rest of us (i.e. most of the time, but only breaking out in insignificant ways). Then, you're shown their continuous oppression and the exhausting lengths they're expected to go to, just to prove that they aren't criminals. McQueen makes it all seem effortless and the two hours we spend in Mangrove fly by. It takes a lot of work to make genius look this easy.
You really must see Mangrove. There is the political side of it, yes, but even if you divorced it from that, it's an incredibly gripping two hours that I can't imagine you regretting watching. Best of all, it's going to be on the BBC, so you can watch it free and easily. From what I've found, it seems that Mangrove will be airing on the 15th of November, so keep your eye out for it and the rest of Small Axe, which I can only hope is anywhere near as good as this. Mangrove is truly brilliant and deserves a
The most surreal of this weeks collection is Kajillionaire, a film I worry I may have a really hard time explaining to you because of how off the wall it is! The core of the film is a young woman called Old Dolio, who has an unconventional relationship with her parents. They're grifters, a group of outsiders who reject the system that the rest of us are so stuck in. While a glamorous idea in theory, the reality means they're incredibly detached from Old Dolio and all three are forced to live in an old office building that has pink foam dripping down the walls. Their life consists of a rotating selection of grifts and heists, trying to scrape enough money just to get by in ways that are incredibly unglamorous. Then one day, while enacting one of their heists, they encounter a young woman called Melanie, who introduces a new way of thinking to Old Dolio's life. Director Miranda July has a bit of a reputation for her offbeat and strange independent films, so I was expecting something strange and while Kajillionaire certainly has plenty of quirks, the plot is totally coherent. Unlike some other weird gems from this year, you'd struggle not to follow it and as far as I'm concerned, that only made the emotional connection easier.
Though there's a chance you might not be familiar with lots of them, the cast all do a great job here. Playing the parents of Old Dolio are Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger. I personally didn't recognise Winger but Jenkins I knew well already and so was prepared to love him. Both did great jobs and (in one of the weirdest compliments I've ever given a performance) flesh out their characters in a way that allows you to make sense of why they would raise a daughter in a way totally divorced from affection. Their comedic timing is utterly terrific and there are some dark moments where Jenkins scores some absolutely brilliant guilty laughs. As Melanie, we find Gina Rodriguez. In my head, she's a TV actress, whose work I hear is great but I was unfamiliar with. However, while browsing IMDb after the film, I embarrassingly realised I had seen her in a handful of films and remembered that while apparently she wasn't that memorable, I enjoyed all her work in the moment. Anyway, her role here is weirdly in that same vein. She plays a relatively unremarkable character and does so very effectively, but she shines because everyone else in this film is so weird. She's the sweet to balance the saltiness of the emotions of everyone else, brilliantly balancing the film and making a space for the affection that makes up the final act.
Lead of the film though and an absolute treat as Old Dolio is Evan Rachel Wood. She is the reason I sat through as much of Westworld season 2 as I did (the main reason I contemplated watching season 3 before deciding my time is worth more), so I already knew she was great. Wood gets to play a totally different character here than in Westworld, putting on a strange affected voice that works far better than it should. Her whole performance is built of these small mannerisms that build a larger character, a strategy that I found totally effective. As I mentioned she has her voice, but then there's stuff like the way she will carry her arms while walking or how she leans back when other characters lean forward (you'll understand what I mean when you see the film). When the film opens you look into her eyes and don't know who is behind them, but by the end you understand who it is looking out from behind that immense drape of hair. If, for whatever reason, you were looking for more reasons to be impressed by Wood's acting, you're going to find an embarrassment of riches buried in Old Dolio. Loads. Like, a kajillion.
One of the topics that has really interested me since I was first introduced to it in my film classes is the idea of the queer. For most people, if I say something is a queer film then you might just think it's a film about gay characters which, to be fair, isn't wrong. Queer theory is about so much more than that though, it's about a playful pushing against the grain of the norm. It's about taking that which is familiar and asking you to throw it out by presenting a solution that is far more fun. Queer theory is so flexible that you can even argue that Paddington 2 is a queer film, which only makes me love it more. My mini-lecture on film theory is here because when I say Kajillionaire is a delightfully queer film, I don't just want you to think that means that some of the characters aren't hetero-normative. I want you to take everything you know about your average comedy and just tweak it ever so slightly. Characters move differently in this world, jumping and rolling around with abandon, for reasons beyond our understanding. Motivations don't quite make sense, apart from in these moments with these characters. Pink foam drips from the walls in a way that makes you think you must be watching a dream sequence, before slowly seeping into your own dreams. Every aspect of the filmmaking here is slightly queer, creating an atmosphere unlike any comedy I can remember seeing. Tying that together is the superb score from Emile Mosseri. This is a score that has moments of piano playing that sound like they were stolen from a thirties musical, before layering on chanting and non-descript industrial pumping. I have been obsessed with this score since it started playing two minutes into the film. It is teriffic and I can't wait to hold it in my heart for years to come.
Though I realise my praise has been exuberant, Kajillionaire won't be for everyone. Its humour is offbeat in a way almost designed for someone like me and if you don't gel, I think you may seriously not gel. But for me, this is what I want cinema to be. It is weird, takes chances and is remarkably self-assured. Cinema would be richer if we had more films like Kajillionaire, but it only makes Kajillionaire feel that much more special. I had a blast and this film is out in UK cinemas now for anyone interested. I would happily give it an
I mentioned cinemas at the end there and it would feel disingenuous if I didn't mention the recent crisis that has happened around them in the UK. As I'm sure many of you already know, many cinemas in the UK have closed down over the past week after the announcement that No Time to Die is moving to 2021 and this is such a tragedy. If you haven't felt safe going to a cinema yet, then I understand why you may not be sympathetic but as someone for whom these picture houses are a safe place, it's heart-breaking. Throughout the re-opening of the UK, they've been some of the safest places I've attended and while I do understand why owners have little choice, it's tragic regardless. I would adore to see all of the films I've reviewed here on the big screen and while I still have two cinemas open in Exeter, it's been a blow to see others close. Regardless, I think the hope that the London Film Festival is giving me at the moment is that even if cinemas themselves change form or die in the near future, we can rest assured that cinema as an art form is going to remain as strong as it ever has. Great artists will always make great art, I can only hope they have somewhere suitably great to exhibit it.
Anyway, that's it for my first week of LFF. It has been an exhausting blur so far, but one I've loved and since writing these reviews, I've seen some incredible films that I can't wait to share with you in two weeks time. Until then, stay safe and ignore the fucking Tories!