The Meaning of Life Unraveled

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Voltage Pictures

It’s one those enduring mysteries of cinema: How does Terry Gilliam continue to attract such cascades of goodwill? I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t dearly love the maverick to finally produce the masterpiece he’s been threatening his whole career. For many years now each new film has been a flawed, compromised release, but we always accept Mr. Gilliam’s word that it wasn’t his fault this time (the death of a principle actor, the Weinsteins) and eagerly come back for more, desperately hoping that this will be the one. You can imagine executives feeling the same, warming to his passion and unbridled energy and taking a chance on his perpetually roving and fearless imagination. Somehow, anyway, Mr. Gilliam managed to convince a new round of financiers to give him another shot, and from all accounts it was pretty much plain sailing this time.

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The Woman Who Fell to Perth

Under the Skin (2013)


Excitement about Jonathan Glazer’s third feature has been palpable at the 57th BFI London Film Festival. After a 7-year wait, the film divided crowds in Venice a couple of months ago, and then wasn’t given a press screening at all here in London, leading to a mad scramble for tickets and ever-increasing speculation.

The anticipation for many, based on early descriptions, was that Mr. Glazer had delivered one of those rare head-spinning exercises in genre experimentation, fractured narrative, retina-searing visuals and cochlear-crunching sound design that would go down in history as an all-time esoteric sci-fi classic. You know the type — I’m talking about some of our favorite films here: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris,” “Stalker,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Altered States” and perhaps more recently, “Enter the Void.”

Well, even sometime after “Under The Skin” has settled in my subconscious, I can’t really be sure if it lives up to such expectations or not. What I can say for sure it that it definitely comes close enough to make it an essential film for fans of out-there cinema.

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Dead Ringers

The Double (2013)


Sometimes the scheduling at film festivals and the sheer volume and variety of consumed material causes some unlikely connections and comparisons to emerge that would otherwise pass unnoticed. “The Double” received its 57th BFI London Film Festival press screening directly after Terry Gilliam’s latest, “The Zero Theorem,” and for the first half an hour it felt like we’d been left stranded in Mr. Gilliam’s universe. Both films are notionally very different, but the opening act of Richard Ayoade’s second feature will draw comparisons with “Brazil” in the way it posits its hero amidst an unforgiving and absurdist bureaucratic nightmare.

In fact, “The Double” recalls several films visually and tonally, notably some works of Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s “The Trial” in particular. Some may be surprised by Mr. Ayoade’s cine-literacy and visual expressiveness, certainly in comparison with his first film, “Submarine,” which was generally rooted in the humble origins of small-scale British comic drama, despite its lush cinematography and Wes Anderson-esque flourishes. This redoubling of cinematic flamboyance from the former comedian and actor may raise some eyebrows in Britain; while not being as incongruous a cultural rebirth as Takeshi Kitano’s was to Japanese audiences, it’s still roughly akin to Americans imagining, say, that Aziz Ansari had directed a film like “Black Swan.”

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Father Figured

Starred Up (2013)

Sigma Films

British cinema has a long and distinguished tradition of prison dramas, from the slang-’n’-sodomy staple of Alan Clarke and Roy Minton’s “Scum” through to the more emotive exploration of Michael Winterbottom’s “Everyday.” Such a wearingly established genre has it become that prospective audiences could be forgiven for believing they really don’t need to watch another entry, but such an assumption would be badly misplaced. Director David Mackenzie and debut writer Jonathan Asser put a new spin on the genre that breaks free of the monotonous cycle of British social realism which always assumes that each new film has to be grimmer, tougher, meaner than all those that have gone before.

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Banished for Life

Closed Curtain (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

Most people reading this will be aware of the backstory by now: Director Jafar Panahi has been under house arrest and banned from filmmaking since 2010 for supposedly inciting insurrectionary activities in Iran. “Closed Curtain” is the second film he’s managed to direct while under house arrest (with the collaboration of Kambuzia Partovi) and again managed to miraculously smuggle out of Iran for the benefit of international audiences.

The first one was “This Is Not a Film” (made with a different co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb), and the early opinion on “Closed Curtain” seems to be that Mr. Panahi’s second attempt isn’t as interesting as the first. The novelty has worn off! The fact that such a fascinating film could be taken for granted in such a way suggests much about the impossibly high standards to which Iranian cinema is now held. We all, after all, have our expectations from Iranian cinema, which include in no particular order: the intermingling of documentary and narrative and resulting metatextual complexity, bold Brechtian devices, startlingly feminist viewpoints, sensational performances from amateur child actors, closeted allegories about Iranian society, submerged critiques of the ruling clerical elite and — if possible — all of the above conveyed with an unusual degree of heart, warmth and universality.

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Being Robin Wright

The Congress (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

A divisive entry in Cannes Director’s Fortnight back in May and now a polarizing presence at 57th BFI London Film Festival, Ari Folman’s almost dementedly ambitious film could well antagonize some viewers with its scattershot approach to a variety of 21st-century concerns, from modern culture, to science, technology, aging and more. But for its sheer audacity and willingness to approach both philosophical concepts and a bewildering animation style, I’d argue it’s a film to be dissected and admired.

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A Seasoned Paramour

Jeune & jolie/Young & Beautiful (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

Prolific, dependable and remarkably consistent, François Ozon has built up an impressive body of work since his arrival onto the cinematic scene more than 20 years ago. His latest film certainly suffers in comparison to its predecessor, “In the House,” now seen as one of Mr. Ozon’s strongest and most successful works. But while “Jeune & jolie/Young & Beautiful” may be modest and even frustrating, it would probably be seen as a highly creditable drama from most other talents.

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The Sisterhood of the Traveling Aunt

Ida (2013)

38. Gdynia Film Festival

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun on the brink of taking the vows that will sequester her from the world indefinitely. Her mother superior (Halina Skoczynska) generously advises her that she may want to connect with her only known living relative before being cloistered, so Anna subsequently acquaints herself with Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking, straight-talking 40-something dropout.

In the process Wanda reveals that Anna is in fact Ida, a Jew who was left on the convent’s doorsteps amidst the carnage of World War II. Thus begins a road movie in which two strikingly different characters embark on a journey of discovery, uncovering facts about their family history which have been concealed up by years of guilt, denial and obfuscation.

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Spit and Polish

Walesa: Man of Hope (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

The latest film from the remarkable 87-year-old Polish director Andrzej Wajda is ostensibly the conclusion to a trilogy of films about the ascendance of the Solidarity movement in late 20th-century Poland, a project which began back in 1977 with “Man of Marble.”

The first film in the series charted the emergence of a (fictional) socialist folk hero, Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a record-breaking bricklayer who would fall out of favor with the authorities before being gunned down in the (very real) workers’ uprising massacres of 1970. That traumatic incident would go on to inspire both Birkut’s son, metalworker Maciej Tomczyk — titular character in the 1981 film “Man of Iron” also played by Mr. Radziwilowicz) and the burgeoning Solidarity movement as it took hold across industrial Poland during the 1980s.

The final film in the series turns attentions to a real-life figure, Solidarity’s leader Lech Walesa (played by Robert Wieckiewicz in the film), who rose from a life of laborer’s anonymity to become not just the head of Solidarity’s hierarchy but also Poland’s first democratic president. The film charts his unlikely evolution from relatively unrefined hardhead to a charismatic and forthright figurehead, whose plain-speaking and brute obstinacy would see him inherit the role of shepherding Poland into a new post-Soviet era.

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Antisocial Studies

Simon Killer (2013)

Joe Anderson/IFC Films

We all know the major film studios have a habit of making serious and costly blunders when choosing film titles from time to time, often falling into the trap of needlessly prioritizing originality over suitability — "John Carter" and "The Adjustment Bureau" are two recent examples that come to mind. But are indie studios guilty of doing the opposite: jazzing up their titles in an attempt to grab a larger share of the market? Recent British releases "Monsters" and "Tyrannosaur" have been accused of misleading titles and/or marketing campaigns.

I couldn’t help feeling this was an issue with "Simon Killer," a film which I viewed almost completely cold, knowing next to nothing about its contents. The title conjures up the notion that it’s about an everyday man with whom the audience is comfortable enough to be on first-name terms, but who’s harboring a deadly homicidal intent — think of similarly titled films like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" or the lesser known "Tony." Without wanting to give any spoilers away, I can confirm that "Simon Killer" doesn’t fit into the same category as those films. As a result of these expectations, my viewing of the film was slightly skewed as I was constantly expecting worse from our titular character than he delivered, projecting my unconscious desires for a cacophony of onscreen carnage, no doubt.

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