By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 19, 2010 at 4:21AM
So, the 54th BFI London Film Festival's been underway for a few days now, and, unsurprisingly, we're already behind on reviews. Fortunately, the big ticket premieres from the first few days were "Never Let Me Go" and "Let Me In," films which have already opened in the US, and been covered in some detail here in the past. We'll share our opinions further below, but in the meantime, we did catch two films worth looking at in a little more detail: the Will Ferrell dramedy "Everything Must Go," and the British drama-documentary "The Arbor."
When we met Nick Halsey (Ferrell) in "Everything Must Go," he's being fired from the sales job he's held for most of his adult life. As it emerges quickly, he's an alcoholic, and his disease is taking control of his life -- reference is made to an incident on a business trip that seems to be the impetus for the sacking. When he returns home, he discovers that his wife has gone, changed the locks, and dumped his possessions on the front lawn outside his house, leaving Nick to do what he does best, and drink himself into unconsciousness.
The next morning, it emerges that his neighbor (an underused Stephen Root) has made a complaint to the police. A local cop, Frank Garcia (Michael Pena), who also happens to be Halsey's sponsor and friend, tells him that he's able to hold a yard sale for no more than five days, which will buy him time to get his life together. Initially reluctant, Nick soon enlists the help of a local teenager (Christopher Wallace, the son and namesake of the Notorious B.I.G, of all people) to sell his worldly belongings, while also connecting, to a degree, with a young pregnant woman, a new arrival in the neighborhood (Rebecca Hall).
Based on a Raymond Carver short story, and written and directed by newcomer Dan Rush, the film's most notable for the truly excellent central performance. While Ferrell's flirted with more serious roles in the past -- most notably in Marc Forster's "Stranger Than Fiction" -- those performances have rarely felt more than a notch or two below his usual shtick. Here, he's a revelation; a broken, angry man who loves drinking over and above anything else. Which isn't to say he's unlikable -- Ferrell lets enough of the essential goodness of the man out through the darkness, even when he's behaving at his worst.
The rest of the cast are generally strong, particularly Pena, who gives his role texture and complexity that wasn't necessarily there on the page. Hall's typically strong in a slightly underwritten role, while Wallace is clearly talented, even if his character's relationship with Nick is, at least at first, perhaps overly reminiscent of the central pairing in "Bad Santa." And all in all, the film's quite a breezy, mildly entertaining way to spend ninety minutes or so.
The trouble is, for a film based on a Raymond Carver story, that focuses on alcoholism, it's far too breezy. Nick's arc is slavishly tied to some Robert McKee-style storytelling -- when his redemption comes, it feels unearned, a pat resolution that betrays the hints of complexity that have come before, and too often the script sacrifices emotional truth for indie quirk-by-numbers: Wallace's interest in business books, Root's S&M-loving neighbor.
Matters aren't helped by Rush's competent, but anonymous direction, or by the kill-me-now twee soundtrack, which mostly sounds like a temp score. And it's a shame, because in a better film, Ferrell's affecting performance might have warranted some awards attention. As it is, when Roadside Attractions release the film sometime next year, it's likely to get lost in the shuffle. It should be noted, however, that our man in Toronto was a little more forgiving - check out the earlier take here. [C+]
"The Arbor," meanwhile, takes a rather more raw look at substance abuse. Playwright Andrea Dunbar was 19 when her first play, "The Arbor," premiered at the legendary Royal Court Theatre in London in 1980. She went on to write the even more successful "Rita, Sue and Bob Too" (made into an excellent film by Alan Clarke in 1986), but never left her estate in Bradford, Yorkshire, sinking into alcoholism, and dying of a brain hemorrhage at just 29, leaving behind three small children, all by different fathers.
The film, from video artist Clio Barnard, takes an unusual approach to Dunbar's story, and that of her children, using actors to lip-sync to interviews conducted with the real people concerned, mixed in with archive footage of Dunbar from the period, and filmed scenes from her work, performed on the Buttershaw Estate where she lived, with the current residents looking on. To begin with, it's a little distracting, particularly when familiar faces like Neil Dudgeon ("Son of Rambow") and Jimi Mistry ("The Guru") pop up.
But once you settle in, it proves enormously effective, serving the autobiographical nature of Dunbar's work, and allowing the participants to speak for themselves, while also providing them with a degree of anonymity -- a dichotomy that fellow LFF doc "The Tillman Story" is undone by (more on that later in the week). For someone with little experience in narrative filmmaking, Barnard is able to expertly weave the narrative, dropping hints of the darkness early on while never quite giving the game away.
And make no mistake, it does get dark, particularly with reference to Dunbar's eldest daughter Lorraine. Born to a Pakistani father, she never felt at home, and slipped into the same pattern of substance abuse and teen pregnancy as her mother (while also inheriting her intelligence and articulacy), leading to an almost unbearably tragic event. But Barnard leavens the darkness with humor and an admiration for the essential goodness of people (Dudgeon and Monica Dolan are simply heartbreaking as neighbors Steve and Ann, who served as foster parents for Lorraine at one point).
If the film has a flaw, it's that it feels closer to television than cinema, particularly with the documentary trappings in place. But Barnard's formal playfulness, and the nature of the story it tells (which in the current climate, seems particularly powerful), means that we thoroughly recommend checking it out in whatever format you get the chance to. It hits UK cinemas this Friday, October 22nd and, while there's no news on US release, hopefully the film's strong showing at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier in the year will help it see the light of day. [A-]
As for the more high-profile films, you may have already checked out "Never Let Me Go" and "Let Me In" in general release, although the box office receipts for both films suggest that you haven't. The former sees Mark Romanek's first film since 2002's "One Hour Photo," and the music video veteran is in fine fettle, giving Kazuo Ishiguro's source material an appropriately chilly, otherworldly sheen. He's helped by a mostly strong cast, with Andrew Garfield proving again why he's so in demand, and Keira Knightley turning in what might be her best performance yet. The three actors who play the younger versions of the leads are all terrific (and, if there were a casting Oscar, Kate Dowd would surely deserve it for finding actors so eerily similar to their older counterparts), and Sally Hawkins stands out in a brief role.
Remarkably, it's Carey Mulligan who's the weak link. Out of context, it's a terrific performance, but her intelligence shines through to the extent that you never buy her as being raised in the same environment as her co-stars, and it rather cripples the film. Furthermore, the film skips through the source material's beats, without ever really getting stuck into the meat of it. There's also a lovely score from Rachel Portman, but it's been applied with a shovel, as though attempting to make up for the emotional shortcomings in other areas. An alternate take from Toronto is here. [B-]
"Let Me In," however has proved to be the most pleasant surprise of the festival so far. We're on record as being very skeptical of Matt Reeves' remake -- even considering that this writer never totally drank the Kool-Aid on the original (which is mostly excellent, but tonally very inconsistent, drifting into Sam Raimi-esque slapstick violence when it should be scary).
Even so, the remake is an improvement in almost every aspect: trimmed of the cul-de-sac subplots of the original, it's able to keep its focus on their central relationship -- which is particularly wise, considering the outstanding performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz. We found Moretz overly precocious in "Kick-Ass," but she's tremendous here, and is clearly the real deal.
It's more emotionally affecting than the original, but it's also a better horror film, even if let down slightly by some patchy CGI in places. But in general, Reeves has a remarkably sure hand, and we can see why the film's pushing him towards the A-list. We had some minor issues with the use of the 80s setting -- some slightly too obvious musical choices, for instance, make it feel like "Hot Tube Time Machine" in places -- but for the most part Reeves uses it more effectively than the original -- the film nods heavily to Spielberg's 80s work like "E.T," and in many ways comes off as that film's twisted cousin. If you can find anywhere that's still showing the film, we thoroughly recommend it. Our take from Toronto is here. [A-]