Featured review of the day: World's Greatest Dad
A Real Life (Au Voleur)
French drama starring Florence Loiret Caille as a pretty young teacher who impulsively goes on the run with a petty thief (Guillaume Depardieu).
Another one for the Starts Well But Tails Off list, this stars Florence Loiret Caille (who reminded me of someone but I can't think who) as Florence, a respectable German teacher who picks up petty thief Bruno (Guillaume Depardieu) and ends up going on the run with him when the cops start closing in. The performances are good (this was Depardieu's final film before his tragic death two years ago) and there's appropriately strong chemistry between the two leads - you can see why bored, overlooked Florence would be attracted to Bruno, even if he's not exactly a Jean-Paul Belmondo in the glamorous gangster department. I liked the suggestion that she only picks him up in the first place because she knows he stole her watch when she fainted in the street and she wants it back. There were lots of good scenes in the first half (my notes say "Wes Anderson feel" but I think that's more to do with the credit sequence) and there's even a decent car chase scene, but once they go on the run - just when you'd expect the film to kick into gear - it runs out of steam and meanders all over the place. Literally, in fact, since they end up drifting down stream in a punt without a pole and...nothing happens. I was expecting a Gun Crazy-style shoot-out amongst the reeds, but no. Still, it had its moments and I'm giving it a pass based on its weirdly brilliant 1930s American folk songs-based soundtrack alone. If someone knows the name of the "Picky pick pick, cloudy cloud cloud" song, please let me know. Three stars. I do sort of wish I'd gone to the Chase the Slut screening instead though.
The Dry Land
Drama starring newcomer Ryan O'Nan as a soldier with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who returns to his small-town Texas home after a tour of duty in Iraq.
Directed by Ryan Piers Williams, The Dry Land stars newcomer Ryan O'Nan (who looks a bit like Matthew Fox's younger, better-looking brother) as James, a soldier suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who returns home to El Paso, Texas after a tour in Iraq. He's given a warm welcome by his loving wife Sara (America Ferrera) and his friends (Ethan Suplee, Jason Ritter) but finds it difficult to readjust to normal life. When he nearly strangles Sara during a bout of night terrors, he decides to take a road trip with his best friend Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama) to visit an injured platoon buddy of theirs (Diego Klattenhoff as Henry) in the Walter Reed hospital. All three men were involved in the incident that injured Henry but James has repressed the memory (which, in turn, is behind his Night Terrors) and Raymond refuses to talk about it, so James is hoping Henry will help recover his memory, but is he really ready to hear the truth? It's fair to say that The Dry Land doesn't really cover any new ground - there's nothing here that you won't have seen in other PTSD-based movies - but it's superbly acted (Valderrama, O'Nan and Jason Ritter are particularly good), nicely shot and emotionally engaging throughout. There are several good scenes but the highlight for me was - spoiler alert - the guitar scene, which is already upsetting enough (it's Henry's guitar but his hands are injured), then has a sweet moment as James picks it up and plays a song Henry taught him (with all three men singing) and then takes a sudden turn in an equally upsetting direction. There's also strong support from Melissa Leo as James's dying mother, who has a powerfully emotional scene with O'Nan towards the end. Four stars. (Animal abuse watch: there's a rabbit shooting scene).
British coming-of-age drama set in the 1970s Northern Soul underground music scene, starring Martin Compston, Felicity Jones and Nichola Burley.
This was one of the films I was most looking forward to - it has a terrific cast (including two of my favourite up-and-coming actresses) and a lot of things going for it, but ultimately it wasn't as quite good as I wanted it to be, though I still enjoyed it. Not to be confused with Soul Boy (also playing at the festival), SoulBoy is directed by Shimmy Marcus and set in 1970s Stoke-on-Trent. Martin Compston stars as Joe, an assistant deliveryman who spends his evenings in crappy local pub nightclub The Onion with his idiotic best friend Russ (Alfie Allen, giving the same performance he always gives). However, no-one in The Onion appreciates Joe's somewhat individualistic dance moves and when he hears about the burgeoning Northern Soul scene in the Wigan Casino nightclub he's persuaded to check it out, not least because he's smitten with haughty hairdresser Jane (Nichola Burley). However, he soon discovers that Jane is a) going out with dancefloor king (and utter bastard) Alan (Craig Parkinson) and b) has her own special space at the front that only the best movers get to dance in. Realising that he has to learn the Northern Soul dance styles if he's going to have a chance with Jane, Joe turns to kindly Mandy (Felicity Jones) to teach him the moves, unaware that she has a huge crush on him. Compston is excellent as Joe and it makes a nice change to hear him speaking in a non-impenetrable accent for once. I also liked that his dance moves were...achieveable (i.e. slightly rubbish). Jones and Burley are equally good and there's strong support from the always excellent but still little-known Craig Parkinson - you'll know his face, because he looks like a cut-price Paddy Considine. There's also a sub-plot with Pat Shortt (from the excellent Garage) as Joe's boss, who's in love with one of his customers (Jo Hartley) but that doesn't seem to go anywhere. There were a lot of things I liked about SoulBoy - the depiction of the Northern Soul scene (complete with Wigan-bound buses from all over the country and a uniform involving long leather coats, singlets and Adidas bags that I didn't quite understand), the 70s period detail and the performances, as well as several individual scenes, but it also has its fair share of problems. For one thing, Allen's character disappears after a fairly crucial plot detail and that entire sub-plot is left dangling. Similarly, without giving too much away, the climax didn't quite work for me and I felt a better director could have made more of the choosing-between-two-women scene. The script doesn't help in that regard - as lovely as Mandy is, there's never a moment where Joe really falls for her, while Jane is sufficiently softened throughout the film so that there's no reason that they shouldn't be together. Still, I did enjoy it and will probably see it again when the National Press Show rolls around. Great soundtrack too, obviously.
Documentary from the director of Spellbound, examining the lives of people who've hit multi-millon dollar jackpots on the State Lottery in the US.
I really enjoyed this. Spellbound is one of my favourite documentaries of the last few years (it's the sine qua nonof the competition-based feelgood documentary genre) and while this never gets close to hitting those heights, it's still an enjoyable and thought-provoking film. Director Jeff Spitzer basically follows several different people who have all won multi-million dollar jackpots on the State lottery in the US. They include: Vietnamese ex-pat Quang Dao (who still feels guilty about leaving his family in Vietnam and builds a huge plot of land to keep his family together in the US); shy, unhygienic loner James who lived with his parents his whole life and was broke and on the verge of suicide after they died, only to hit the jackpot with his last $10); all-American husband and wife Kristin and Steve (and their two kids - I could relate to the son; his "I'm not good with change at all" was nearly my quote for the day), who win an astonishing $110 million and find it hard to deal with the change in their relationships with their friends but who try to compensate by putting the money to as many good causes as they can think of; university maths professor Robert, who played the lottery "for the fantasy value", despite knowing the odds of winning were 18 million to 1 (hilariously he explains how he picked his numbers and then says "and then I just used those same numbers for 2 and a half years and then I won"); and obnoxious, crotchety old-timer Buddy, who fritters it all away as fast as he possibly can and doesn't help anyone with it (his boss astutely comments that "Winning the lottery is like throwing Miracle Grow on your character defects". There's also: a guy whose bastard friends played a practical joke on him (from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and made him believe he'd won (and taped it); a group of 80+ teachers who hit a massive jackpot but ended up with only a few thousand each after taxes; and Verna, a poor black woman who spends between $70 and $100 a day on the lottery and has only ever won $5000 but remains optimistic that her day is coming and plays numbers based on dreams or numbers she notices popping up in her day-to-day life. The film covers the moment the subjects won (using news reports) and picks up their stories some time after they've won before coming back a year later for an update. Spitzer also includes some animated inserts and some fascinating lottery-based FACTS, such as the fact that an unclaimed jackpot is known as a Clarence Jackson Jnr. The stories are by turns uplifting, amusing and heart-breakingly sad and the film really makes you question whether winning the lottery is all it's cracked up to be. Highly recommended and likely to make by Best of the Fest list. Four stars.
Out of the Ashes
Documentary that tells the remarkable story of the Afghan cricket team, who rose from obscurity to become international competitors.
I might have enjoyed this more if I hadn't seen Lucky immediately beforehand. To be honest, it was a choice between this at the FilmHouse and The Red Machine at Cineworld and I chose this partly because I couldn't be arsed to walk back to Cineworld after spending most of the day there. Anyway, Out of the Ashes tells the remarkable true story of the Afghan cricket team, who rose from obscurity to become international competitors, thanks to sheer hard work (it's worth noting that they trained with minimal facilities and had never faced a professional team before their World Cup qualifying matches) and the dedication of inexperienced head coach Taj Malik Aleem. One slight criticism is that the film foregrounds the team's success, which robs it of some crucial tension at certain points; similarly, it actively shies away from the actual cricket, as if afraid that too much cricket would put people off...a film about a cricket team. That said, there's a lot to like here, largely because the characters are so compelling, notably Taj (there's a heart-breaking moment in the middle of the film that hurts the film quite badly), the Minister for Cricket (complete with personal bodyguard), who criticises everything in Jersey, saying that Afghanistan is better; a good-looking rookie player; and several other team members. The achievement of the team is both remarkable and inspirational but it didn't quite deliver the emotional punch I'd been promised, perhaps because you already know how it's going to end. Three stars.