By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 12, 2013 at 10:59AM
The big gala on the first Friday of the BFI London Film Festival was for Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" [D+], which heads up the LFF's Journey strand (last year's major innovation saw the festival split into multiple themed sections, mostly named after verbs for some reason—Laugh, Dare, Debate, Thrill etc.) Warmly received when it premiered at Cannes, the film's been a longtime passion project for the helmer, who directs for the first time from a script that he didn't write. He's certainly found a like mind in screenwriter Bob Nelson, as many of the director's favorite subjects—the Midwest, the American Dream, thick lashings of social satire—are touched on in this story of a father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) who head on a reluctant road trip together to pick up the million dollars that the dad believes he's won. Also present and correct, unfortunately, is the sneering attitude that Payne all too often takes to his characters.
Payne's work has only become more popular over time ("The Descendants" was lauded with awards, and was his biggest hit to date), so I'm in the minority when i say that I think that Payne's the rare filmmaker whose work has become less interesting with each film he makes. Over the years, the savage wit and sharp satire that marked "Citizen Ruth" and "Election" out as special pieces of work has been civilized and blunted, giving way to a forced, unearned sentiment present both in his previous film and this one.
Both films do at least extend a modicum of compassion to their central characters, though it's hard not to feel the director mocking his subjects *spoiler* when he makes Dern win a 'Prize Winner' hat shortly after having his dreams crushed. But everyone in support, up to and including June Squibb's sweary grandma stereotype (was Betty White not available or something?) and Stacy Keach's lizard-like antagonist, are caricatures at best, and the effect feels closer to an episode of Honey Boo Boo than anything else.
Despite a Best Actor prize at Cannes, I wasn't especially enamored with the central performances either. Dern's fine (if nothing else, it's a reminder of how underutilized he's been in recent years), but only ever really gets one note to play, while Forte is amiable but bland, feeling mostly out of his depth. Payne probably needs to find some new below-the-line contributors, too: Phedon Papamichael shoots the film flatly and without flair, offering little evidence that it was worth presenting the film in black and white, while Mark Orton's score is torturously twee.
Payne's forced emotion, which comes across like a robot imitating how to feel, came in sharp contrast to "The Spectacular Now" [B+], which has come and gone from U.S. screens, but received its U.K. premiere at the festival. James Ponsoldt's last film, "Smashed," had strong performances and a loose, winning authenticity, but was hampered by a script that wrapped up as soon as it had gotten interesting. Here, the execution's similarly assured, but the material's stronger, and the result is a raw and affecting romance. It's a bit of a letdown when the film becomes less interested in Shailene Woodley's character toward the end game, but it's otherwise another winner from the New Sincerity teen movie movement (see "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower"). Special props to Ponsoldt for resisting the temptation to slather the film in wall-to-wall music cues.
Closer to home, the most pleasant surprise of the festival so far (if pleasant is a word that can be used for a film with so many shankings) was British prison drama "Starred Up" [A-]. We'd heard rumblings of good buzz from Telluride and Toronto, but with director David Mackenzie ("Young Adam," "Hallam Foe," "Perfect Sense") being something of a perennial underachiever, we hadn't let our hopes get to high. However, this is quite easily his best film to date.
There'll be a full review coming next week, but in brief, the film nods to Alan Clarke's "Scum" and Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" in its tale of an ultraviolent, high-risk inmate (Jack O'Connell) who gets banged up in the same prison as his father (Ben Mendlesohn), but it's not in thrall to its influences either, Mackenzie finding a muscular-yet-tender tone all of his own. O'Connell's felt like a superstar in training for a while, and fulfills his potential here with a stunning, incendiary performance, with Mendlesohn and "Homeland"-thesp Rupert Friend very good in support. Perhaps most notable of all is the script, by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, whose background as a psychotherapist and as a poet informs the film in different ways: it's authentic, but capable of lyricism. Keep an eye on this when it hits theaters in 2014.
There's a fair amount of brutality in "Starred Up," but it's got nothing on "A Touch Of Sin" [C], the latest from Jia Zhangke, which tells four stories of economic disparity and ultraviolence in contemporary China, all inspired loosely by real-life news stories. It opens strongly, with an attempted mugging that turns into a triple shooting, followed by the tale of a dispossessed miner driven to a gun rampage by bribery and corruption among local officials.
The first segment in particular would make a terrific short (the direction throughout is sturdy and strong, if never quite inspired), but as it goes on, it labors the point, with the settings and characters changing, but the tale remaining the same—person broken by the system, person kills at least one person. Furthermore, Zhangke never reconciles the kitchen sink realism of his earlier works with the genre elements that they kick against.
Even more blood is spilled in "The Strange Colour Of Your Body's Tears" [C+] which marks the return of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, directors of "Amer." This traffics in the same arthouse giallo territory as their last film, with a man returning home to find his wife missing and setting out to uncover the secrets of his building and its inhabitants in order to find her. There are shades of Argento and "Repulsion," with a dream-like, borderline-experimental visual approach that's often deeply unnerving.
In the first half, when the film takes a sort of anthology approach, it works really well, with certain images burning themselves onto your retinas, where they remain for some time. But in the second hour, the film becomes more narratively-inclined and things fall apart quite quickly, brushing against genre clichés and failing to surprise in the same way. It's perhaps an indication that Cattet and Forzani would be better served by embracing their experimental sides and abandoning narrative altogether next time out.
Finally, Xavier Dolan's "Tom At The Farm" [A-] arrived at the festival yesterday. You can read my Venice review here, but be warned: since it was written, I warmed up considerably to the beguiling charms of the Quebecois wunderkind's slow-burning Patricia Highsmith homage. It's a grower, not a shower, as it were, and is Dolan's best film yet.
TOMORROW: "All Is Lost" for Robert Redford, The National are "Mistaken For Strangers," and the inside story of "Jodorowsky's Dune."