First published on Little White Lies (25th April 2012) //
The 9th London Independent Film Festival opened with a whimper at Bermondsey’s packed Shortwave Cinema, before finding its feet later in the week. Plucked from a selection of features and shorts, made predominantly by UK-based writers and filmmakers, and all budgeted under £100,000, the opening night introduced audiences to The Fighter’s Ballad, a dialogue-driven drama set in St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch, the resting place of many a Tudor thesp.
Appropriate then that a near-Shakespearean performance (not necessarily in a good way) is wrenched out from within its stony walls. Competently shot with some restrained visual flourishes, though not enough to sustain interest through its admittedly moderate 99 min running time, director Tony Sebastian Ukpo lets the script take centre stage in Peter Cadwell’s adaptation of his own play.
Which seems a shame, as Ukpo clearly has an eye for strong imagery and achieves much with an often clunky script. Cadwell also stars as the eponymous fighter, alongside a convincing Clive Russell as Father John. Attempting to tackle some of life’s Big Questions, namely concerning God and religion, it seems to set itself up as a modern, East London update of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal – the chess game instead played out through a flat one-on-one delivered in broad monologues by the two archetypes.
The priest, a former alcoholic and now ‘saved’ man, is pitted against the godless nihilist who breaks into the church after hours. We know little of the fighter, apart from that he is dying from an undisclosed illness/wound, and at first his angst against society and circumstances rings true, particularly in the light of London’s recent inflammations. But the effect dissolves as it becomes clearer that Cadwell, offered a big money deal for the script by Channel 4, is unwilling to make a statement, while not offering the audience enough meat to chew in monologues laden with cringeworthy slam poetry-style rhymes. We’re not looking for an answer, but all the questions overflow into false revelation.
Cadwell’s bravura also comes across a little stagey, clearly an actor who has spent much of his career treading the boards; his East London inflections often dripping over into bloated ham territory. What does come across, however, is Cadwell’s belief and passion in his script, some affecting moments arise from personal stories that feel authentic and sincere.
Things didn’t get much better the next evening with Ryan Lee Driscoll’s Axed, a slasher horror that showed early signs of class, flair even, delivered in large part by its star Jonathan Hansler as Kurt, a highly strung father and casualty of a nervous breakdown after losing his big City job. He decides to take his family, including a downtrodden adulterous wife, closeted son and libidinous daughter, to the countryside, where he plans to axe the lot.
Lit and shot like a latenight episode of Hollyoaks, with a comparable script (albeit minus the sex) it’s the kind of regurgitated horror fare that deteriorates quickly into repetitive chases and inexplicable endings, leaving you to wonder: what exactly is the purpose of making more of these films, particularly when funding is already short? There are some intentionally funny scenes though, a tidy circumvention of the ‘horror-film mobile phone conundrum’ (often weakly explained away by lack of reception in most slasher flicks), while audiences can just about suppress laughter at some of the cheesy one-liners. “You’re not going anywhere… except prison.”
The turning point of this year’s LIFF was Wizard’s Way, a sly mockumentary from first-time filmmakers Socrates Adams-Florou (writer of the novel ‘Everything’s Fine’), Chris Killen (the novel ‘The Bird Room’) and Joe Stretch (author of ‘Friction’, ‘Wildlife’ and the forthcoming ‘The Adult’). All of which means the writing is crisp, funny, and often pleasantly twisted, and often all at the same time.
The plot focuses on a pair of recent film graduates (Chris and Joe) looking for a subject for their first project. And after an intro that deliciously sets the tone for what follows, they find a story in Windows (Kristian Scott), the world’s most renowned player of the MMORG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) wizard simulator Wizard’s Way.
But when the makers of the game take it offline, Windows and his loyal bathroom-dwelling sidekick, Barry Tubbulb (Adams-Florou), are left broken man-boys, wallowing in their VHS and fantasy-figurine strewn flat. The shutting down of the game not only sees the demise of Windows’ in-game marriage (the first in the world, ever), but also the end of a life of spunk-tissue routine going from in-game, then to work (in GAME) and back. Joe and Chris seize the opportunity to exploit the distraught duo for their story, until things take a turn into murky moral territory in their desperation to get their film complete.
At its core, Wizard’s Way is a film about friendship. Both pairs of friends have their relationships tested and, while one odd couple fares better than the other, the setup works tremendously in many ways. With quotable lines aplenty and some tidy observations on the platitudes rife in amateur filmmaking, Wizard’s Way demonstrates precisely how you overcome budget constraints with wit and a willingness to experiment. Even throwing in Sadie Frost (who signed herself up for involvement), who makes an appearance as an escort in a blind date scene that rivals the most awkward any Dragonslayer has ever seen.
Proceedings continued in a celebratory light through the rest of the festival, closing out with eventual Best Director winner, Brett Harvey’s debut feature, a film four years in the making, Weekend Retreat. It follows a married couple trying to alleviate the strains on their taut relationship, before unexpectedly finding trouble when a pair of hooded burglars break in.
A truly glorious mix of drama and comedy, the film boasts some impressive performances, particularly from Esther Hall and veteran Dudley Sutton. Reminiscent of a playful Shane Meadows in tone, Harvey handles humour and pathos beautifully, and in equal measure, with only the odd slapstick joke falling flat. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
For more info on this year’s LIFF head to londonindependent.org