Blogging the London Film Festival: the highlights

Ten to watch, as recommended by us

The 53rd London Film Festival begins on 14 October. Among the hundred-plus films drawn from around the world are the latest Coen brothers comedy, a biopic of the poet John Keats and not one, but two, films starring George Clooney. Over the coming weeks, the NS culture team will bravely attend as many screenings as possible and blog about it here. In the meantime, here is our pick of ten highlights to whet your appetite:

Fantastic Mr Fox (dir: Wes Anderson)

Anderson, director of quirky comedies such as The Royal Tenenbaums, makes his first foray into animation with this adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's story.

The White Ribbon (dir: Michael Haneke)

The Austrian-born Haneke has long been known for his punishing films, but his last, Funny Games, proved a little too much for our own Ryan Gilbey. Will this tale of malice and spite in early-20th-century Germany fare any better?

Bluebeard (dir: Catherine Breillat)

Famously retold by Angela Carter in her story collection The Bloody Chamber, this fairy tale gets a low-budget treatment from the provocative Breillat.

Tales from the Golden Age (dir: Cristian Mungiu)

The 20th anniversary of the fall of communism is being marked by various arts projects. Here, the acclaimed Romanian director Mungiu presents a series of vignettes of life under Ceausescu. You can read the NS review of his previous film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, here.

Oil City Confidental (dir: Julien Temple)

After giving us documentaries on the Sex Pistols and the Glastonbury Festival, Temple turns his attention to Britain's much-maligned pub rock scene.

She, a Chinese (dir: Xiaolu Guo)

Guo is better known for her novels (the most recent of which we reviewed here), but she is also an accomplished film-maker. She, a Chinese tells the story of a young immigrant in Britain and features a score by John Parish, the PJ Harvey collaborator.

Hadewijch (dir: Bruno Dumont)

With a visual style that has more in common with the painters of his native Flanders than any of his contemporaries, Dumont cuts something of an outsider figure in French cinema. Hadewijch is tipped to be his best work yet -- while you wait for it, read this 2007 NS interview with the director.

Journey to the Moon (dir: Kutluğ Ataman)

Ataman, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, may be better known to NS readers as a video artist -- Fisun Güner wrote about him in April. Journey to the Moon reconstructs an incident from 1950s Turkey.

Perestroika (dir: Sarah Turner)

Structured around a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express, this exploration of amnesia is a promising highlight of the festival's experimental film strand.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (dir: Werner Herzog)

Herzog, the visionary German director who has been making films since the 1960s, is enjoying a late surge in popularity. This remake of a 1992 Abel Ferrara crime drama, starring Nicholas Cage, is a departure from his recent run of documentaries. You can read our Q+A with the director here.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories