Berlin 2016: Homo Sapiens

13 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals, Uncategorized

We’re now three days into the Berlin Film Festival, and despite fierce competition from some hotly-tipped heavy hitters (including world premieres of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special & Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, to name but two), the film that has made the biggest impression, and continues to stick with me, was one I saw on opening night: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens.

Homo Sapiens is the perfect festival film. It is dialogue-free, and consists of a series of static camera shots from abandoned, dilapidated and overgrown locations from around the world, presented without commentary or descriptive text. For an hour and a half.

Now, before you high-tail it to your nearest Deadpool screening, bear with me a minute. Festivals give you the opportunity to take a risk with the sort of films you wouldn’t normally go to see (or even be able to see) at your local multiplex. Often those risks don’t pay off, but sometimes they do, and when they do you can feel your cinematic horizons broadening with every frame. Enter Homo Sapiens, a film of formal simplicity that provides a wholly unique, and utterly enthralling viewing experience.

A shot fades in, and immediately the viewer is drawn into an eerie game of cinematic  I Spy, encouraged to decode the image, reverse-engineer the effects of time, rewind the decay to figure out where we are, and what we’re looking at. A golf course? A supermarket? A scrap yard? Geyrhalter cheekily – or cautiously, or cruelly – omits specific location information even from the film’s end credits, so we’re left on our own, scrutinising for clues as we luxuriate in each image’s immaculate composition (a sequence featuring shards of sunlight cutting through holes in the ceilings of cathedrals and cinemas is one of many highlights). Is that a hammer-and-sickle emblem over there? Are we in a former Soviet state? A vending machine stands tall, out of place in a thicket of weeds – is it inscribed in Japanese?

Homo Sapiens makes the modern world seem strange, and before long there’s an odd sense of welcome familiarity, even nostalgia, when recognisable iconography appears, be it a McDonald’s sign or a Twilight film poster. This is the present-day post-apocalypse, and we’re picking through the rubble, accompanied only by wildlife, the elements and the sound of what remains when the human element is removed.

This deserves to be seen on the big screen (in Dolby Atmos if possible), and with any luck it will become an indispensable text for anyone embarking on a project set in a world where human society has collapsed. With this collection of astonishing imagery, Geyrhalter has revealed that such places already exist – you just have to find them.




Berlin 2016: Hail, Caesar!

12 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals

Film4 Site Editor Michael Leader reports on the Berlinale’s opening film, written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen…

Hail Caesar

Since it follows the Coen Brothers’ essayistic dive into 1960s Greenwich Village, Inside Llewyn Davis, by three years, there’s a temptation to expect Hail, Caesar! to be a similar exploration of a community on the cusp of change. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a character based on a fearsome fixer and architect behind numerous notorious cover-ups during his time as an MGM executive, is the latest example of what is becoming something of an archetypal Coens protagonist. Like Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, he is plying his trade in the midst of social upheaval; ‘real world’ threats both spoken and subtly implied, from television to McCarthyism, loom over Mannix’s kingdom, and hint that tinseltown’s lavish spectacle may falter in the post-war, Atomic age.

However, for most of the film, his crisis of faith is a mere backdrop for a smorgasbord of arched-eyebrow pastiche, with the Coens taking the opportunity to roam free on an idealised backlot, hopping from studio to studio and peeking in on broad riffs on familiar 40s films. Hail, Caesar! soon reveals itself to be best described with statements voiced, like its title, in exclamation. Channing Tatum – in an athletic, Gene Kelly-style musical number! Tilda Swinton – as identical twin gossip columnists! Scarlett Johansson – as a seasoned starlet in the thick of a potential scandal! What initially presents itself as an existential drama coiled around a caper (involving the kidnapping of a caddish Kirk Douglas-alike, played by George Clooney) soon unfurls into a series of impeccably realised routines, eye-catching cameos (Christopher Lambert, as a European-in-exile director?!) and film-fan in-jokes.

There’s much to enjoy here, not least a standout turn for Alden Ehrenreich, who turns a parody of wooden Western stars into the film’s most unironically winsome character, but those who responded to Inside Llewyn Davis’ mingling of drama and cultural criticism might be left a little baffled by this lighter, fanciful take on a dark aspect of industry history. Scurrilous tales of Golden-Age Hollywood have experienced a revival in recent years, thanks in no small part to film critic Karina Longworth’s enthralling podcast You Must Remember This and Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ noir-ish crime comic The Fade-Out, which both draw inspiration from Mannix’s exploits. With that in mind, Hail, Caesar!’s most surprising quality is – in the face of Hollywood Babylon-esque legend – that it presents a rather uncynical, even romantic, view of a bygone era and cinema itself. And isn’t that the best way to start a film festival?

TIFF: five favourites

28 Sep, 2015 Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

Elena Lazic reports from the Toronto International Film festival on her five favourites of the fest.

The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ success in realising the usually disastrous combination of farcical black comedy and romance proved to be my favourite film of the festival. Entertaining from beginning to end, The Lobster has its strange cake and eats it, balancing comedy and tragedy, violence and extreme tenderness, its tonal shifts never distracting from the central human plot, but always working in its service. Colin Farrell’s deadpan performance is endlessly watchable and makes his character’s outbursts of romantic feeling and ultimate sacrifice all the more moving in the end. With its intensely designed cinematography echoing the absurd and polarised structure of the film’s world, The Lobster felt to me the most wholly realised film at the festival.

Green Room

As the most violent and graphic film on my list – and possibly at the festival – it might seem strange to single out Green Room for the respect it has for its audience. The film does not waste time in lengthy exposition or explanation. Rather, entering the world of punk rock without being given any particulars proves part of the pleasure, as we spiral into a world of suddenly escalating violence. Although they appear in what is essentially a straightforward siege/slasher film, the lead characters (a rag-tag punk band) are presented as refreshingly intelligent; instantly and acutely aware of the dubious atmosphere of what turns out to be a neo-Nazi club, they prepare themselves for the worst quickly and efficiently.


Winner of the Grolsch People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness – the festival’s absurdly fun strand of late night screenings – Hardcore is entirely shot with GoPro cameras from the perspective of a bionic man on the run, like a first person shooter video game with the boring bits ripped out. Operating in a fantastical world, the violence in the film is too extreme, too omnipresent and too choreographed to be painful to watch, instead proving intensely enjoyable in all its OTT glory. As in a video game, we admire all the cool and inventive ways contrived to eliminate enemies and we cheer on our hero, even as his face remains obscured to us, because we ‘are’ him.

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition

Initially released in 1999, this animated film is of my generation but somehow passed me by, and so proved a total revelation for me at TIFF. Brad Bird’s debut effortlessly achieves what recent ‘dark’ Pixar films are aiming for: lasting and genuine emotional impact. The difference with The Iron Giant is that I did not feel manipulated, as I did with Toy Story 3, or, to some extent, Inside Out, both films that seemed to purposefully, almost sadistically select a subject or a direction calculated in advance to crush your soul. The Iron Giant feels less clinical, starting from a place of genuine innocence in its tale of a lonely boy and his friendship with what might be a giant metallic killing machine.

The Club

Nuanced films about tough subjects are to be cherished and admired, as they are so rare in contemporary cinema, and The Club is one of them. Dealing with the issue of hushed-up child abuse in the Catholic Church, the contemporary setting of the film is instrumental in effectively questioning the on-going responsibility and complicity of the Church in these crimes. The film’s accusations extend beyond individual priests to deliver a more structural and damning verdict, serving to highlight how ancient institutional principles of secrecy and protection are untenable in our modern world.

TIFF: five favourites

28 Sep, 2015 Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

Manuela Lazic reports from the Toronto International Film Festival on five favourites from the fest.

The Witch

What if the sorceresses and deadly spells in which people believed so fervently in the 17th century had been real? The Witch takes this premise and explores how belief systems operate, demonstrating that in fact, no one, whether in 1630s New England or 2015 Toronto, can comprehend the existence of true, absolute evil, even when presented with empirical evidence. Even the parents of the cursed family at the film’s centre eventually blame a supernatural being; they cannot imagine it being simply an external figure – it must be someone within the family. The Witch distinguishes itself by its reliance on human psychology rather than graphic horror to intrigue and terrify.

How Heavy This Hammer

Depression is a tough subject to tackle onscreen: even the best-intentioned filmmakers risk oversimplifying or exploiting it in order to manipulate an audience. With How Heavy This Hammer, writer-director Kazir Radwanski avoids this by keeping the origin of his main character Erwin’s dissatisfaction opaque. Erwin’s increasingly jaded attitude marks his descent into isolation, as even the quick gratification of video games loses its appeal. His rudeness and passive aggression towards his blameless family is off-putting, yet Radwanski nevertheless succeeds in creating unexpected empathy for this difficult character.


Holidays can become boring. When you run out of silly games to play, you may have to raise the stakes to keep everyone entertained. This is how a gang of male friends cruising along the Greek coast in Chevalier comes to compete for the title of ‘best man.’ Every interaction becomes an act and a test, with notes taken and a mysterious rating system implemented. Director Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) also shows each participant in more intimate moments where doubts surface, revealing the difficulty of maintaining ideals of masculinity which no one can actually define. As they grow increasingly determined to win the competition, these complex characters concoct ever more absurd exercises, which prove dryly amusing but also surprisingly moving in their audacity and courage.


Francois Truffaut was the ultimate cinephile. Like many French New Wave directors he paid tribute to the filmmakers he admired (arguably with greater deference than his contemporaries), both in his writing for the Cahiers du Cinema and in his own directorial oeuvre. This trait is nowhere more evident than in his interview series with Alfred Hitchcock, which transformed a then out-of-fashion English director into the ‘Master of Suspense’ in the public imagination. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, film writer Kent Jones goes beyond illustrating the influence of the master on his admirer as presented in the book, by adding interviews with contemporary directors. Jones finds wild and varied connections between different film artists, from David Fincher to Wes Anderson to Arnaud Desplechin, connecting their common experiences of learning from the original interviews, in order to better underline the unparalleled importance of both the two men and their meeting itself.

In Jackson Heights

I have never set foot in Jackson Heights, and yet watching Frederick Wiseman’s exploration of the New York City neighbourhood, I felt as though I were standing on its streets, entering its various religious and political centres, and listening to its residents from all nationalities. Once again, Wiseman immerses himself in cultures – without disturbing or judging them – by filming their public appearances. Humanity shines through as he focuses on certain characters and demonstrates his unparalleled ability to communicate the formal reality of people and places. The radiant images and elegant sound mix effectively delineate the multiple facets of this exceptionally diverse community, and the people and places prove perfect subjects for Wiseman’s empathetic worldview. This is a film full of optimism and light, despite the multiple struggles it presents.

Michael Leader’s 20 LFF 2015 recommendations

Site Editor Michael Leader rounds out our team’s picks for this year’s London Film Festival…

This time last year, I picked a mixture of already-seen and the dying-to-see from the LFF’s 2014 line-up. This time around, I’ve seen far fewer festival favourites – but therein lies the excitement of perusing the LFF’s all-you-can-eat buffet of 2015’s buzziest films. I’ll be gorging on many more come October, but for now here are 20 that I wouldn’t dare miss.


35mm: The Quays Meet Christopher Nolan

Stephen & Timothy Quay are hugely influential and widely respected in animation circles but, unlike their stop-motion contemporaries (think Jan Švankmajer, Nick Park and Henry Selick), they still sit outside of mainstream appreciation of the artform. These restored prints of their shorts In Absentia, The Comb and Street Of Crocodiles, screening alongside a short, eight-minute documentary about the brothers’ methods directed by Christopher Nolan, will be a sure-fire delight whether or not you’re familiar with the Quays’ distinctive work. [Buy tickets]

Elephant Days

The Maccabees’ behind-the-record film Elephant Days isn’t so much up my street as literally shot down my street, reportedly serving as a documentary portrait of the much maligned Elephant & Castle area of South London, which I’ve called home since 2009. The Elephant’s appeared on screen in the past as a forbidding backdrop for inner-city terror (at best, Attack The Block; at worst, Harry Brown); a more personal take on the neighbourhood is long overdue. [Buy tickets]


Elstree 1976

I love Star Wars, but not as much as I love documentaries about people who haven’t so much had a brush with fame, as stood in proximity to it (such as music docs Anvil and Mistaken For Strangers). Jon Spira’s film combines the two to introduce us to ten performers who played bit parts in George Lucas’s blockbusting sci-fi adventure, which should offer a much-needed respite from the relentless hype-train for Episode VII. [Buy tickets]


Francois Truffaut’s landmark series of candid interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, published as Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock in 1967 (afterwards translated into English as Hitchcock/Truffaut), is one of my go-to film books, and it sounds like Kent Jones’ documentary – which features filmmakers including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese – serves as both a fitting companion to the book, and an effective illustration of Hitchcock’s enduring influence. [Buy tickets]

I Am Belfast

No doubt one for fans of Chris Petit, Andrew Kotting and Patrick Keiller, the latest from Story Of Film director/critic Mark Cousins is a ‘metaphorical essay’ about his hometown, which recasts Belfast as a 10,000 year old lady with a rich and complex history, complete with archive footage, a soundtrack by composer David Holmes (Hunger, ‘71), and cinematography from Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love, Hero). [Buy tickets]

In Jackson Heights

After last year’s National Gallery, seasoned documentarian Frederick Wiseman returns with a look at one of New York’s most diverse neighbourhoods, observing the everyday life of a population that speaks 167 languages. Wiseman’s patient filmmaking style isn’t for everyone – his films are rarely under three hours long, and In Jackson Heights is no exception – but the texture and detail found in his work are second to none. [Buy tickets]

The Invitation

I’m expecting to spend most of my time at the LFF gleefully devouring the dark genre delights in the Cult selection (check out the full line-up here), but I’m most excited to see The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) – a slowburn chamber piece that wrests tension, paranoia and anxiety out of the most simple of social engagements: the dinner party. [Buy tickets]

Janis, Little Girl Blue

Every year, the LFF’s Sonic strand delivers a strong selection of music documentaries, and 2015’s line-up is no different, judging by the inclusion of Danny Says, a portrait of Ramones manager and ‘pop culture Zelig’ Danny Fields; Sacha Jenkins’ hip-hop fashion doc Fresh Dressed and, most notably, this comprehensive look at the life and music of Janis Joplin, directed by Oscar nominee Amy Berg (West Of Memphis). [Buy tickets]

Listen To Me Marlon

Continuing the trend set by the likes of Amy and Cobain: Montage Of Heck, this bio-doc from director Stevan Riley (Fire In Babylon, Everything Or Nothing: The Untold Story Of 007) sets its sights on another inscrutable icon, the legendary Marlon Brando, offering an intimate portrait through the actor’s personal archive of audio recordings, encompassing everything from press interviews and business meetings to hypnosis and therapy sessions. [Buy tickets]

The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ deft, deliciously twisted, yet ultimately moving satire on the culture of coupledom bagged the Jury Prize at Cannes in May, and finally makes it way to the UK as the LFF’s Dare Gala. This deadpan, dystopian drama, featuring a stellar cast including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman, is like no other film in the selection: an oddball treat for romantics with a perverse sense of humour. [Buy tickets]



Johnnie To, the king of stylish Hong Kong cinema, gathers an all-star cast (headed by Chow Yun Fat) for this lavish adaptation of co-writer and cast member Sylvia Chang’s play Design For Living. Whether they are gangster movies (Drug War), romantic thrillers (Blind Detective) or, in this case, white-collar workplace musicals, To’s films always dazzle with eye-popping costumes and production design that beg to be seen on the big screen. [Buy tickets]

Our Little Sister

I’m a fully paid-up member of the Hirokazu Kore-eda fan club (interviewing the man himself at the LFF two years ago was a festival highlight), so I’m already on board with this adaptation of a manga series about three sisters taking in a younger half-sister after their father dies. Expect the gentlest of gentle dramas, light on incident yet full of heart. [Buy tickets]


Park Lanes

Part of the fun of festivals is seeing films you almost certainly won’t find elsewhere. This year’s “Least likely to show up in your local Cineworld” prize goes to Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes, an eight hour long recreation (take that, Wiseman) of one day in the life of a factory that manufactures bowling alley equipment, which promises to offer an epic, intimate insight into the drudgery and social interactions at the heart of the American workplace. [Buy tickets]


Public House

Another South London story, Sarah Turner’s documentary reportedly bends genre conventions to tell the tale of the Ivy House in Nunhead, which was earmarked for redevelopment until the locals rallied around this pillar of the community, eventually turning it into ‘London’s first co-operatively-owned pub’. [Buy tickets]

Queen Of Earth

Frankly, I haven’t yet come to terms with the end of Mad Men. The only consolation is seeing Elisabeth Moss flourish on the big screen (see 2014’s sci-fi-tinged relationship drama The One I Love). This psychological drama, her second collaboration with writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip), opened recently in the States and was greeted with uniformly positive reviews, praising in particular Moss’s performance as a woman on the verge of an emotional breakdown after a series of life-changing events. [Buy tickets]

The Room--(None)


I’m intrigued to see how Emma Donoghue’s award-winning novel, told from the juvenile perspective of a boy brought up in captivity, will translate from page to screen, but what a dream team to handle the transition: director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, What Richard Did), Donoghue herself writing the screenplay, and Brie Larson in the lead role of a young woman striving to create a semblance of family life in the midst of a Fritzl-like confinement. [Buy tickets]

carol-1024_LRG (1)

Todd Haynes: Screen Talk

It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has only directed six feature films in his near 30-year career, most recently ending an eight-year break from the big screen with the instant-classic Carol. It will be a rare pleasure to hear him look back his small, perfectly-formed body of work, as well as his award-winning shorts and television work, in the LFF’s ever-fascinating Screen Talk strand. [Buy tickets]

When Marnie Was There

Studio Ghibli alert! The legendary Japanese animation house’s first appearance in the LFF line-up since The Cat Returns in 2003 comes with a bittersweet aftertaste, since this gentle gem from Arrietty director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is, for now, Ghibli’s final release – so treasure it while you still can. [Buy tickets]

The Witch

Robert Eggers’ Sundance prize-winning Puritan-era horror became a must-see for me after David Ehrlich, in his fevered Time Out rave, called it “A jaw-droppingly bold gift from God… A major horror event on par with recent festival sensations like Kill List and The Babadook”. A creepy-as-hell trailer, released last month, cemented the deal. [Buy tickets]

Yakuza Apocalypse

I could easily pick out any of the LFF Cult strand’s Japanese Contingent (boasting new films from directors Hideo Nakata and Sion Sono) but I’ll plump for the latest from professionally-prolific powerhouse Takashi Miike: a vampire/mobster mash-up that’s sure to fit comfortably alongside his craziest work. [Buy tickets]