THE 53rd London Film Festival concluded last week and, as ever, it was a terrific feast packed both with blockbusters and modest curios to suit all tastes, giving us an early indication of some of the releases to look out for in the coming year.
At the more populist end of the schedule were three gala screenings featuring the increasingly imperious George Clooney. First up, and opening the festival, was Wes Anderson’s take on the Roald Dahl children’s classic Fantastic Mr Fox. It might not have been immediately obvious that the Fox family in Dahl’s book lent themselves so readily to Anderson’s familiar celebration of dysfunction. But with a couple of notable additions (a neurotic son, an overachieving nephew, etc.) this tale of fur and farmers and Michael Gambon with a blunderbuss became fertile ground.
Clooney voices Mr Fox, of course, who is recast in corduroy, and in the spirit of Royal Tenenbaum and Herman Blume, two of Anderson’s most memorable leading men, in a battle against villainous commercial farmers. And with other Anderson-ites (Schwartzman, Murray, Wilson and Dafoe) also climbing aboard, this is a zipping romp. Anderson dabbles for the first time in stop-motion animation to bring the assorted crazies to life, and we are deeply indebted to his peerless attention to detail. Heaven knows how many patient manipulations were required for each twitch and emotional facial tick, but Anderson and his animators make the effort pay.
“More of this is true than you would believe” is the claim made by The Men Who Stare at Goats, a comedy about a unit in the US Army variously described as “psychic spies”, “super soldiers” and even “Jedi warriors”, trained to combat Saddam’s troops with the power of their minds alone. Based on Jon Ronson’s book, Ewan McGregor plays the journalist who uncovers the existence of the bizarre regiment after a chance meeting with Clooney’s character, Lyn Cassady, the best in the goat-staring business. We learn Cassady’s story, including flashbacks to his training from Jeff Daniels’ Lebowski-esque hippy, alongside McGregor’s own adventure in Iraq.
More than ever, Clooney’s charm carries this one: McGregor takes a back seat on screen but provides a whiny, superfluous voice-over, which is the film’s major misstep. There are, however, a decent handful of laughs, both at the concepts that drive the crackpot unit, and the seriousness with which they are applied.
Up in the Air is Jason Reitman’s more glossy follow up to the indie sensation Juno, with Clooney portraying a travelling businessman who spends most of his time in airports (precisely where I was when I missed the festival presentation).
The first British screening of John Hillcoat’s The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s savagely tender novel, was another huge draw. The film remains faithful to the sparseness and terror of McCarthy’s vision, with a father (Viggo Mortenson) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland peppered by bandits, surviving only on their sense of mutual dependence. Lines such as: “It takes a long time to die of starvation” pass as pep talks and the tone veers from life-fearing panic to absurdity worthy of Beckett. “You don’t know what’s coming down the road,” is the simple moral that evokes so much.
The most notable aspect of Polytechnique, an unflinching dramatisation of a 1989 massacre in a Montreal school, during which a lone gunman killed 14 women, is the confusion rather than knowing hysteria on the faces of the bystanders. This rampage pre-dated Columbine by 10 years and so comes from an era when the concept of a school massacre was yet to be etched into a public’s consciousness. Hostages attempt to reason with the gunman, most unsuccessfully, but some surviving eyewitnesses have contributed their testimony to this painstaking and unsentimental recreation.
There is a lot of shooting in the similarly bleak yet captivating Balibo, the true story of five Australian journalists murdered as Indonesian forces swept into Eastern Timor in 1975. The cub reporters can’t believe they’re the only hacks onto the story of the invasion, but learn in the face of indiscriminate slaughter why most senior newsmen have departed. Anthony LaPaglia plays an older journalist following the trail of blood.