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ShortList at the London Film Festival

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Over the next two weeks, we’re doing some hardcore cinemagoing at the 55th London Film Festival (yes it’s still work) and feeding back on the films you should be aware of. We’re pretty much providing you with easily counterfeited soundbites to use down the pub, as and when the films reach general release.

October 21st

Take Shelter

(Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Kathy Baker)

While M Night Shyamalan has sadly become a tragic punchline, his concept of taking a traditionally lurid subject and treating it with alarming sincerity has continued to live on, with mixed effects. In Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols gives us an initial set-up that we're familiar with (guy foresees something horrible about to happen) but handles it with care and maturity, never once slipping into melodrama or cliché.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a blue collar worker who works hard to provide for his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter. His life soon takes an unexpected shift when he becomes plagued by visions that suggest an apocalyptic storm is on the way. With a family history of paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis is conflicted by his rational mind and his fear for what may be coming...

Centred by a powerful performance from Michael Shannon, Take Shelter is never anything less than utterly, terrifyingly believable. By placing an extraordinary situation in extremely ordinary surroundings, the film makes us fear for an outcome that will have very real consequences. In one stand-out scene, Curtis heads to the library to try and find answers for his nightmares. In the Hollywood equivalent, he'd flick through some tawdry book on the paranormal yet in Take Shelter he finds a book on mental illness.

It's this conflict that gives the film extra weight. If you suffered from visions of the world ending, wouldn't you fear for your mental health as well as worry for the future of your loved ones? It's clear that no matter what the explanation, Take Shelter is heading into dark territory but the finale will still leave you reeling. Highly recommended.

Take Shelter is released in cinemas November 25th

Martha Marcy May Marlene

(Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes)

If Martha Marcy May Marlene teaches you anything, let it be to never judge someone by their surname. Okay so this rule might be flexible in certain instances (Hitler and Kardashian spring to mind) but with the breathtaking debut performance from Elizabeth Olsen, all memories of her attention-seeking sisters will be long gone.

Olsen stars as Martha, a young woman who surprises her older sister with a sudden phone call. After going off the radar for months, she needs picking up, fast. A rattled but relieved sister brings her to a luxury holiday home, where she's staying with her boyfriend. Martha's behaviour goes from strange to impossible as her memories of what got her there come flooding back.

The film switches between two different time-frames as we see Martha's bizarre actions slowly explained by her previous months staying with a religious cult, spearheaded by a violent yet charismatic leader, creepily played by John Hawkes.

The fluid movement in time, coupled with a confused and ambiguous heroine, means we're never quite sure what's real ourselves. There's an uncomfortably tense feeling that pervades throughout most of the film, which only dies down once the film flounders a bit structurally near the end. Writer and director Sean Durkin is so keen to keep his cards close that he ends up repeating the same beat a few too many times.

It's a relatively minor quibble in what is a beautifully shot, unsettling thriller with a star-making turn from Elizabeth Olsen. It's tough to imagine many female performances topping hers before Oscar-time.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is released in cinemas February 3rd

October 20th

The Descendants

(George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer)

If, like us, you believe what you're told in the movies, then Hawaii is a place where even the residents enjoy one long holiday. While the new film from Sideways and About Schmidt writer/director Alexander Payne doesn't try to pretend that it's a torturous place to be, it does highlight the fact that human tragedy can happen in even the most idyllic location.

Hawaii landowner and lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has grown comfortable in the back seat when it comes to his family. After his wife is involved in a boating accident which leaves her in a coma, he's forced to reconnect with his two daughters. While struggling to be a father figure, Matt also discovers that his wife was having an affair. Laughs and tears ensue.

Although the film briefly encroaches on sitcom territory with some of its more frantic scenarios, things are always pulled back on track by a set of convincing performances. George Clooney wisely ditches the slick man about town shtick and offers up a far more grounded performance of a man conflicted by what he should be doing and what he really wants to do. This comes over best in a scene where he privately rants at his comatose wife yet scolds his daughter for doing the exact same thing soon after.

There's also a strong break-out turn from Shailene Woodley as his eldest daughter and unlikely confidante. Although the film contains a lot of humour, there's a painful sadness that permeates most scenes. The script works best while exploring the difficulty of letting a loved one go and all of the good and bad things you wished you could say. However, some pace issues and a range of hit-and-miss jokes prevent the film from truly soaring.

Ultimately, it's too lightweight to stand as one of Payne's best but, after a seven-year absence, his perceptive handle on the human condition is still warmly welcomed.

The Descendants is released in cinemas January 27th

October 19th

The Ides Of March

(Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood)

In case you hadn’t noticed, Ryan Gosling is having a pretty great year. If you didn’t walk out of Drive literally wanting to be him, then we probably shouldn’t be friends anymore. You may not have the same feeling after seeing this however…

In this talky political drama, he starts off as an optimistic, passionate aide who wholeheartedly supports the cause of George Clooney’s democratic candidate. By the end of the film, he’s a changed man and half of the fun is trying to figure out what’s going to break his spirit, without wishing to sound masochistic.

It would be unfair of us to reveal the intricacies of the plot but things don’t always lead where you’ll expect. While there’s able support from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Paul Giamatti, it’s Ryan Gosling’s lead performance that truly sticks in your memory. As the antithesis to his monosyllabic action-man in Drive, his character focuses on words, rather than actions to get out of trouble. It's a real movie star role and, with Clooney behind the camera and briefly in front as well, you can almost feel the baton being handed over.

The film is a brisk 100 minutes and with the ground that's covered, it means that everything moves along at a breakneck pace. The downside is that some of the supporting characters and relationships don't receive as much colour and development. But ultimately it's Gosling's film and it's his performance, coupled with a memorably cynical ending, that leave a lasting impression.

The Ides Of March is released in cinemas October 28th

The Artist

(Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman)

As you may have noticed, we've not been having the happiest of times at the festival so far. This isn't down to the quality of the films, far from it, but the subjects covered have been bleak to say the least. From killer teens to infidelity to sex addiction to drug trafficking, we've been in need of a massive pick-me-up. So just as we were frantically concocting a cocktail of whisky and pills, The Artist just about saved us.

Let's just get three points out of the way first: it's set in the 1920s, it's black and white and it's silent. Okay, if you're still reading, and you should be, then the film follows the story of silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who relishes his position as Hollywood's number one leading man. But as talking pictures arrive, his status is threatened by attractive new actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who becomes the poster girl for the new era.

Having already received rapturous reviews in Cannes, The Artist is slowly becoming an easier sell. Sure, many will still steer well clear of it but they'll be missing an absolute treat. It's an incredibly entertaining love letter to Hollywood that has the rare, and confusing, effect of actually making you involuntarily smile. It's a refreshingly innocent film, free from violence, bad language and sex (we never even see a kiss) that relies on impeccable acting and classic storytelling to keep us enthralled.

It's already a front-runner for next year's Oscars and it's easy to see why. It would be quite tough to empathise with anyone not gaining pleasure from The Artist. Plus, the next time someone tells you that "they don't make them like they used to", now you can say that "they literally do".

The Artist is released in cinemas December 30th

Miss Bala

(Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, James Russo)

Unless you've been living under a rock and/or you only get your news from the Daily Express, you'll be aware that there's a violent drug war spiralling out of control in Mexico. Serving as an uncomfortably topical reminder, Miss Bala is a gritty thriller very loosely based on true events. Some of which could be lifted right out of the headlines.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a tall, attractive 23-year-old living with her family in Tijuana. Hoping to elevate her family out of poverty, she aims to compete in a local beauty pageant with her friend. But after she's inadvertently involved in a gangland shootout, her life takes a darker turn. Kidnapped by a drug lord and forced into becoming an accomplice, she finds herself trapped in a spiral of escalating violence and mayhem.

Already picked as Mexico's submission for next year's foreign language film category at the Oscars, Miss Bala is not your run-of-the-mill crime movie. Our protagonist is a confused young woman who has no choice but to passively play along with whatever is thrown her way, with the threat of violence all around her. The film steers close to what we imagine reality would be like in such a situation with no grand attempts to save the day but rather an intense struggle for survival.

It's a relentless film, packed with horribly familiar images (such as the mutilated bodies left hanging off a bridge by brutal gang members) and a constant fear that pretty much anything could happen to the heroine. It possesses some genuine breakout appeal and you do worry for the potential Hollywood remake, which would turn Miss Bala into Miss Texas, a Ripleyesque ball-buster.

Miss Bala turns no-one into a hero and also doesn't aim to make any political statement. What the film says instead is that while the battle rages on, there continues to be innocent victims. As furiously paced as it might be, we're offered a particularly sobering ending that truly hits this point home.

Miss Bala is released in cinemas October 28th

October 18th

Carnage

(Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C Reilly)

Adapting a play to the big screen is always going to be fraught with difficulty. Transplanting what typically takes place in a single location with a small cast to film frequently irks both audiences. Film critics argue that it's all far too stagey while theatre critics label the whole process rather pointless. With Carnage, director Roman Polanski is treading a very fine line.

Based on the stageplay Gods of Carnage, the film follows a very simple story. There's been a fight between two schoolchildren and the four parents involved must meet to discuss a way of dealing with it. The son of uptight writer Penelope (Jodie Foster) and slightly oafish Michael (John C Reilly) has been attacked by the son of workaholic Alan (Christophe Waltz) and WASPish Nancy (Kate Winslet). What begins as a polite, if brisk, discussion soon degrades into an all-out war.

Unlike recent stage adaptations that have made more of an effort to make things feel cinematic (Doubt, Rabbit Hole), there's not a great deal of flexibility in Carnage. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as there's no ignoring the fact that the plot revolves around four people talking in one apartment but it may turn off some, attracted by the big name cast. However, it'll probably surprise many to learn that Carnage is actually a rather slight comedy.

At 79 minutes, it's a brief watch and in a short amount of time, the four leads descend into a drunken, barbaric mess of cruelty and derision which results in some guilty fun. It's not going to be remembered as the finest moment from Polanski or his stars but as an arthouse equivalent to a lightweight multiplex comedy, it's an entertaining diversion.

Carnage is released in cinemas February 3rd

October 17th

We Need To Talk About Kevin

(Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly, Ezra Miller)

In her first film for nine years, British director Lynne Ramsay is taking a massive gamble. Not only is she adapting a book that's been read by every other person you've ever sat by on public transport but she's also taking on a sub-genre that's become hopelessly derided: the evil kid movie. Attempting to lift the topic out of the cinematic gutter and into the arthouse cinema, Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's blockbuster novel requires us to be completely terrified of a child. Does she succeed? Let's just say that by the end of the movie, you'll be swearing off parenthood.

Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) has become a social pariah. Slapped on the street, hounded at work and threatened at home, her life is a constant struggle. Looking back over the past 18 years, we see the terrible events that have led her here. After giving up her career for an accidental pregnancy, Eva soon finds motherhood far tougher than she expected. Her son Kevin graduates from crying baby to manipulative child to sociopathic teenager, turning her life into a nightmare. And then there's that fateful day at school...

The big screen version of We Need To Talk About Kevin was always going to be troubling. What comes as a surprise though is truly how troubling it all is. While never resorting to graphic gore, the film feels incredibly violent. From the brutal sound effects (everything from cereal eating to nail cutting sets you on edge) to the constant, almost overbearing, feeling of dread, it's a film that's far from comfortable viewing. Which isn't to say that it's not essential.

Tilda Swinton's performance alone is a reason to rush out and book a ticket. It's a gut-wrenching, Oscar-worthy turn which manages to sweep us up on her harrowing journey while also leaving a necessary element of ambiguity to her character. She's matched by a frightening Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin at 16, who is bound to gain iconic movie villain status in years to come.

One of the most unsettling films of the year, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a well-measured shock to the senses that's likely to stay with you for days.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is released in cinemas from Friday

October 14th

Shame

(Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale)

It's no great surprise that sex addiction has never received any real attention on film. It’s an affliction that has most baulking in disbelief and we're betting that even a Michael Douglas biopic would casually sidestep the matter. So, it's with great anticipation that many have waited for artist turned film director Steve McQueen's latest offering, Shame. Well, hesitant anticipation perhaps.

As with his previous film Hunger, Michael Fassbender takes centre stage as another deeply troubled figure. His character Brandon is a brooding office drone, living in a cold, sterile New York apartment. His life is populated by his need for sexual desire at every turn, whether it's office-based masturbation, encounters with prostitutes or a constant supply of online pornography. When his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes for an uninvited visit, his monotonous life faces a fork in the road.

Anyone hoping for something vicarious and erotic will be sorely disappointed with Shame. Yes, there's a lot of sex and nudity but it's all deeply unsexy. Brandon uses sex to fill a void that he's emotionally incapable of fixing so every encounter comes off as sad and unsatisfying. At the opposite end of the spectrum, his sister tries to find contentment through affection, which creates tension between the pair.

While it might seem like a rather chilly and sedate film at the outset, the lush orchestral score and Fassbender's impeccably nuanced, Oscar-worthy performance, give the film a melancholic heart. It's bound to turn off many viewers, due to its graphic nature, but it's what the film aims to say about love and desire that'll prove more haunting. One of the stand-out films of the festival.

Shame is released in cinemas January 13th

October 13th

Like Crazy

(Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence)

Sitting somewhere between Blue Valentine and (500) Days Of Summer, this tale of twentysomething romance is a bitter pill. It received a rave reaction when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year and it’s easy to see why so many could relate to the painful machinations of the central couple’s doomed relationship.

British student Anna (played by Cemetery Junction’s Felicity Jones) falls for Jacob (played by Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) while studying in LA and decides to overstay her visa to prevent them being apart. The decision returns to haunt the couple as they find it impossible to then reside in the same country. Instead, they fall into a cycle of trying to be apart, seeing other people and attempting a long-distance connection.

Despite a deceptively sweet start, Like Crazy soon shows us the difficulties of stopping and starting a relationship and all of the resentments that sprout up in-between. With the majority of the dialogue improvised, the scenes between the two feel horribly believable, especially when it comes to the arguments. The central actors are both excellent with Felicity Jones making a strong impression as the posh journalist torn between rationality and romance.

Ultimately, the impression the film leaves will probably depend on the state of your love life at the time of viewing. Either way, it stands as a refreshingly non-sentimental alternative to the majority of relationship-based dramas we're usually forced to endure. Might be best to avoid watching it on a date though, mind.

Like Crazy is released in cinemas February 3rd

50/50

(Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick)

There are certain things you can expect when sitting down to watch a movie about cancer. There's bound to be group-hugging, soul-searching, tear-jerking and probably a scene where the main character's close friend/family member shaves their head in support. We're quite happy to report that 50/50 is not the cancer movie you're used to seeing. Firstly, it's kind of a comedy...

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old guy who plays things by the book. He doesn't smoke, he keeps fit and even refuses to cross the road unless the green man tells him to do so. So, when he's suddenly diagnosed with spinal cancer, he's understandably taken aback, along with those around him. His girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) is tentatively helpful, his best friend (Seth Rogen) keeps trying to see the bright side and his mother (Anjelica Huston) becomes obsessed with taking care of him.

Based on a true story, 50/50 never feels anything but entirely genuine. It certainly helps that Seth Rogen is literally playing himself, as he was writer Will Reiser's supportive friend throughout his cancer as well. The film neatly avoids clichés of the sub-genre by plainly examining how a twentysomething guy would realistically deal with the disease. Gordon-Levitt (a last-minute replacement for James McAvoy) provides us with a believably normal protagonist while the few touching moments are achieved without a hint of sentimentality.

Admittedly, there are scant surprises along the way but as a combination of rule-breaking cancer drama and slightly more serious bromance comedy, it's a winner. Might have you nervously getting that lump checked out a bit sooner too...

50/50 is released in cinemas November 25th

October 12th

360

(Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Anthony Hopkins)

The new film from Fernando Meirelles, director of City of God and The Constant Gardener, and Peter Morgan, screenwriter of The Damned United and The Queen, was never going to be met with anything but extremely high anticipation. Factor in the extra hype of being the opening film of the entire festival and there are some tough expectations to be met. We fear there may be some disappointment...

We're in ensemble movie territory so, like Crash, Traffic or, gulp, Love Actually, 360 follows a seemingly disparate collection of people from around the world. The gimmick here is that one person leads onto the next, who leads onto the next and so on, meaning we only get short bursts with each character. The theme tying them all together is fidelity, or lack thereof. They include Jude Law and Rachel Weisz who play a married couple struggling to stay faithful, Anthony Hopkins as a father searching for his daughter who ran away after he had an affair, Ben Foster as a convicted sex offender trying to avoid temptation on the outside and Jamel Debbouze as a dentist in love with his married assistant.

While it all sounds tempting on paper, the film suffers from a key problem: it doesn't really know what it's trying to say. So, while certain scenes may work well enough individually (especially those with a mournful Anthony Hopkins), the film as a whole feels far too loose and unrefined to have much of an effect. There's little resolution for any of the characters as the film offers mere fleeting glances at their lives, which by the end of the 2-hour running time, start to outstay their welcome.

A handsomely shot yet disappointingly shallow start to the festival which is far less than the sum of its star-studded parts.

360 will be released in 2012

(Image: M. Pratter)

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