London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Day 15

Once again, I’ve included a night time DVD screening that I wasn’t able to include with the previous day’s reviews.

SUPERHEROES (Michael Barnett)

There is, surprisingly given the many whuppings handed to Kick Ass, a small, but growing, movement of ‘real life superheroes’. Almost, but not quite, exclusively young and male, these people dress up in costumes, adopt aliases, and attempt to do a variety of good deeds.

Michael Barnett’s film takes a wry, but never mocking or disrespectful, look at some of the American contingent of this growing community. Some – like the paunchy, middle aged Master Legend – seem to enjoy the costume, the boast that they are superheroes, and the fact that, for a straggly haired 50 year old, it’s not a bad conversation opener with pretty young women. Others are more serious. One superhero group – three men and one woman – shares an apartment in New York, some of their tactics don’t work (including, happily, ‘bait patrol’ in which they attempt to attract muggers to one team member so the others can help), but when they run across situations innwhich they can be useful they seem empowered by their aliases.

Superheroes is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but it’s also surprisingly inspiring. You’re not about to see a costumed man calling himself THE CRITIC patrolling the streets of my nearest town, but when you see one group of superheroes occupy a park so that drug dealers can’t sell there, or another put together (with their own meagre money) packs to give the local homeless a few essentials, it’s hard not to be moved.

This is an engaging and entertaining film, which I expected, but it works on many more levels than that.

4 / 5

SHAME (Steve McQueen)

Artist Steve McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, was about a man virtually escaping from a literal prison, by starving himself to death. His second, Shame, is about a man whose freedom to behave almost completely as he likes has created a virtual prison of sex addiction for him.

Shame is a bleak film about Brandon (Michael Fassbender), and his downward spiral of a life. The arrival of his Sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) would, in another film, be the thing that pulled him out, but McQueen’s interest doesn’t appear to be in redemption (despite a last shot that at least leaves the possibility ambiguous), and anyway, Sissy is equally damaged.

This film might easily have been insufferable; an exploitative wallow in flesh and misery (not that there isn’t much of both on display, Fassbender’s penis may as well have a credit so much screentime does it get). That it isn’t that film is thanks to three people in particular; McQueen, Fassbender and Mulligan. For his part, McQueen’s direction is much less austere, much less that of a video artist, than it was for Hunger – this movie moves when it needs to – but he also has the courage and the ability to hold our attention with lengthy takes, which make up some of the film’s finest moments.

Fassbender and Mulligan give superlative performances, and despite the tightly controlled camera style their work feels loose and improvised (a feeling given credence by the film’s writing credit). Their performances are at opposite ends of the emotional register; Fassbender’s as if having a single real emotion would destroy Brandon, and Mulligan seemingly desperate to feel, and yet the two complement each other perfectly. Even during the copious sex scenes, Fassbender is always deeply in character, with his standout moment coming in a close up as Brandon seems seconds from total mental collapse, mid orgy.

Shame is a film that has grown in stature for me since I have seen it, and moments and images are still going around in my head. I can’t wait to see it again, and it is clearly among the standout films of LFF 2011.

4.5 / 5

THE BIRD (Yves Caumon)

The Bird is basically what people who hate French cinema think all French cinema is; slow, meditative, light on dialogue, it spoon feeds you nothing, instead expecting you to glean from inference and expression what it is communicating. It’s pretty great.

Sandrine Kiberlain plays Anne, she’s divorced, in her late 30’s, and a few years ago lost a child. She now seems to drift through life; working a menial job, living in a crappy, dirty flat and speaking to almost no one. Bothered by a noise in her wall, Anne explores one day, and discovers a bird living in the cavity, which she seems to adopt after letting it out. That really is about it as far as events go here. Yves Caumon isn’t really interested in seismic shifts, instead The Bird deals in tiny moments, steps on Anne’s road to, potentially, coming to terms with the last few years, and indeed the next few.

To say that the film leans heavily on Kiberlain and her performance is an understatement. She has to communicate almost everything silently. At one point she manages, briefly, to talk to man she meets at the cinema. In a Hollywood film this would be the cue for the emotional unloading; a tear stained infodump of huge proportions. The Bird says a lot more than most of those films just through Kiberlain’s silence She never overplays a moment, letting everything play in tiny variations that speak volumes. She’s perfectly cast; an odd angular beauty, whose pale freckled skin and thin body seem fragile, it’s not hard to buy her as someone just a short step from being broken. As a film about grief, The Bird is perhaps the reverse of Antichrist; that film’s screaming hysteria was one response, this one’s quiet picking up of the pieces is another.

The Bird is a beautiful film, well crafted at every level. The visuals are sometimes shabbily realistic (notably in Anne’s flat), and at others, especially towards the end of the film, redolent of Badlands era Malick in their composed loveliness. I was concerned that Caumon would try to put too neat a bow on the end of his film – or, inversely, do something that felt needlessly bleak – instead he finds a lovely ending; hopeful, but not sugary, which, eventually, seems like something you can say about the film as a whole.

4 / 5

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