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I had considered taking a trip down to London for the annual film festival for the last couple of years, but a combination of being uncertain of which films to watch and getting my ass in gear to book the time off work, sort out travel and the like meant I hadn't got round to it. I decided this year would be different and being an Oliver Stone fan, when I saw that W. would be playing I shifted my posterior into first. As soon as they went on general sale, I picked up tickets for W., Frozen River, which performed well at Sundance, and Johnny Mad Dog, produced by Mathieu Kassovitz.

As I write this paragraph, I'm currently sitting on the 09:23 from Stockport to London Euston—in first class no less. Now, I'm not flaunting my ability to travel first class here—I'm taking a moment to point out the crazy way in which train tickets are sold in this country. As I sit in my first class seat that was cheaper than a regular ticket enjoying my complimentary cooked breakfast, I can't help but feel sorry for the people across the aisle and those further down the train that probably spent a whole lot more on their tickets. And the powers-that-be wonder why we don't use public transport. Re-nationalise the lot, I say.

London Film Festival 2008
Altogether now... G-L-A-M-O-R...

Anyway, I'll put the travelogue indulgence of this article on hold as I step off the Virgin pendolino at Euston station, heading for the Underground and onwards to the West End...


Odeon West End, 13:00
Oliver Stone's latest movie received its European premiere the night before my arrival in London and the Times—which I picked up on the way down south—contained a two-page spread about the movie. The reviewer had given it four stars and promised a more balanced appraisal of Bush's presidential tenure than most critics had been expecting. I sat down in seat Z30 of screen two with high expectations.

Already released in the US, W. doesn't officially hit UK shores until after the presidential election and after this viewing, it's clear that the rest of the world is a definite afterthought where this movie is concerned. Released just in time for American audiences to see before they cast their vote, Oliver Stone's movie is designed to provoke debate about the current regime and get people thinking. However, as the critic from the Times (and many other publications) has noted, Stone presents his version of the events of Bush's life and invites the viewer to make their own mind up.

London Film Festival 2008
George W. Bush is portrayed as a Dr Pepper-drinking simple man seeking his father's approval and Josh Brolin's performance is very impressive in the title role. There were moments where I thought he was a dead ringer for Bush and from my TV-news knowledge of the man himself, I'd say Brolin has his voice and mannerisms down to a tee. The humour is surprisingly broad and those of you expecting a butt-numbing serious epic in the vein of Nixon and JFK will have to reassess your expectations. This is first and foremost a movie made to entertain the viewers—to draw as many American punters into the cinemas before the election and give them something to talk about afterwards. Where Stone's previous presidential movies could be likened to a university lecture, W. is more like a pantomime, with some Hollywood heavyweights playing the well-known roles.

Richard Dreyfuss and the always-watchable Toby Jones were my pick of the bunch in their roles of the scheming Dick Cheney and 'Genius Boy' Karl Rove respectively. I did find it difficult to get over the voice put on by Felix Leiter himself Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and while Thandie  Newton is a dead ringer for Condoleezza Rice, her performance seemed a little too forced. However, the scenes with the president and the chiefs of staff together on screen are gifts for any actor and it's clear they're having a lot of fun on screen. There are moments when Stone lets his impartial mask slip, especially when Cheney flashes up a map of the world with the Orwellian 'Eurasia' in huge letters but these are rarer than I expected. Entertainment comes first and there are more laugh out loud moments in this realistic character piece than in most 'comedies' I've seen recently.

London Film Festival 2008

Frozen River

Odeon West End, 15:30
After W. ended, I got up from my seat, followed the crowd out into Leicester Square and then back into the Odeon, back into screen two and back into seat Z30 for the second movie of the day, picking up a plastic bottle of cold Bud that the ushers were selling. Beer in a cinema—who'd a thunk it?

My movie-watching went from one extreme to the other. Following the big-budget production with big names, I came to Frozen River, a low budget independent movie from first-time director Courtney Hunt. Ray is a working class mother living in wintry upstate New York, finding it difficult to make ends meet after her gambling-addicted husband runs off with their money just before Christmas. The movie opens with the attempted delivery of their bigger and better home, but since dad's disappeared with the balance left to pay, Mom and her two sons (ages fifteen and five) have to go back to living in their run down shack.

Ray meets a native girl called Lila, who introduces her to the trade in smuggling illegal immigrants over the border from Canada across a frozen river through the nearby native reservation. It's here that themes of racism and native customs come into play and the movie taught me a thing or two about life on a reservation in the twenty-first century. The performances of the two central characters are strong and I wouldn't be surprised to see this movie remade with a bigger budget and bigger names. Ray is a compelling character—badass broke Mom with a gun who just wants a better life for her family. Lila is quieter but it quickly becomes clear that the two of them have a lot in common.

The setup of Frozen River could be mistaken for something coming from the Coen Brothers and there is some dark humour in there as well, but the whole movie is played perfectly straight and while comparisons with Fargo may be appropriate, this movie holds up on its own. The only downsides from me were a grim twist that I saw coming and an ending that involves a pretty pathetic gunfight but these are just niggles really. Good performances and an interesting story make Frozen River a movie definitely worth checking out.

London Film Festival 2008

Johnny Mad Dog

Odeon West End, 18:30
I did another loop out of the Odeon and back in the front door. On the way to a different seat in a different screen I was accosted by a guy and a girl from the British Film Institute who asked me a few questions about the festival. Mal, Tom—don't worry, I got a plug in for the site!

My third and final movie of the day was Johnny Mad Dog, a movie about child soldiers filmed in Liberia but based in an unnamed African country. The filmmakers used real child soldiers as actors, so comparisons with City Of God will probably haunt this film but I found this movie just as powerful as its Brazilian counterpart. Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire doesn't pull any punches where the violence of the children is concerned, with some incredibly brutal moments like a boy being handed a rifle and told to shoot his own father. The intense action is contrasted with the attempts of the young girl Laokole and her family to escape the invasion of their city. The paths of Laokole and the fifteen-year-old character of the title cross at key points in the movie and we see the conflict from both sides.

The director was at the cinema and did a Q&A session with the audience after the screening. He said that he wanted to show the reality of the conflict but didn't feel that it was necessary to explain the background. All we know is that one tribe want to overthrow the governmental power of the other tribe. In their brainwashed minds, they are bringing peace to their tribe and the fact that we're not told why didn't get in the way of my enjoyment of the movie. The world is viewed through the eyes of children so we only get to see their opinions of good and bad without the politics.

London Film Festival 2008
Based on the novel of the same name, Sauvaire first spoke to officials in Sierra Leone about filming there but following recent conflicts, they wanted to draw a line under the violence and would not cooperate. Johnny Mad Dog was the first movie to be shot in Liberia and the director has since set up the Johnny Mad Dog Foundation to help keep the kids in the movie on the straight and narrow back home, which he hopes to expand with additional funding. The end credits roll with photos of the real child soldiers of Liberia and it's worth sticking around to see just how realistic the movie that you've just watched really is. I know it's a reviewing cliché to say 'if you liked X then you're gonna love Y' but I think here it's entirely appropriate to say that fans of City Of God should check out this movie.

So that's your lot. It's now half past eleven at night and I'm on the train back home, which should get back into Stockport at one in the morning unless there are leaves on the line between there and wherever I am now. Good night.


One thing I learned today is that you should never get on the wrong side of a film festival patron. I witnessed a couple of moments that I enjoyed in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way. First of all, a lady complained to the guy who sold me my beer that he shouldn't be selling popcorn at a film festival because she expects to be able to go there to get away from the noisy snack. Secondly, I saw a woman a few rows down from me scream at someone on her row. I failed to hear the detail but the offending person wasn't ejected so I can only assume he or she was on their mobile phone and not doing anything more inappropriate.  The first rule of the London Film Festival is: don't mess with the audience.

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