Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2011 Mostly British FIlm Festival Recap

The Mostly British Film Festival ran from February 3 to 10 at the Vogue Theater. It also screened at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael although I didn't attend any of those screenings.

I watched nine films at the festival.

West is West starring Om Puri; (2010)
Crying with Laughter starring Stephen McCole; (2009) - Official Website
Get Carter starring Michael Caine; (1971)
Beneath Hill 60 starring Brendan Cowell; (2010) - Official Website
Heartless starring Jim Sturgess; (2009) - Official Website
I Love You Too starring Brendan Cowell and Peter Dinklage; (2010) - Official Website
Dorian Gray starring Ben Barnes & Colin Firth; (2009)
The Infidel starring Omid Djalili & Richard Schiff; with Archie Punjabi; (2010) - Official Website
Boy starring James Rolleston & Taika Waititi; directed by Taika Waititi; (2010) - Official Website

I should note a few things. First, the relatively unheralded Mostly British Film Festival trumped the mighty San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival by programming West is West as the opening night film. On March 10, SFIAAFF will open their festival with West is West.

I attended this festival at the expense of the first week of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. I did not watch any films during the first week of IndieFest. I guess that is becoming a habit as I passed on the 2010 DocFest to see the Mill Valley Film Festival and Berlin and Beyond.

However, I have no regrets as the lineup at Most British was very strong this year. During its innaugural year (2009), I saw two films. Last year, I skipped the festival to see a full slate at IndieFest. This year, I swapped festivals to see nine films at Mostly British. The crowds were healthy for most of the screenings I saw. The Infidel sold out the Vogue.

Breaking the films by country, West is West, Get Carter, Heartless, Dorian Gray and The Infidel were British productions. Crying with Laughter was Scottish, Beneath Hill 60 and I Love You Too were Australian and Boy was Kiwi.

The Mostly British is closely associated with the Vogue Theater. The Vogue is operated by Peerless Entertainment but owned by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation which is a non-profit whose mission is "to preserve and maintain neighborhood movie theaters in San Francisco." Several Board members of SFNTF are also on the Board of Mostly British. The festival is programmed primarily by Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle. The SFNTF Board President (whose name I have forgotten) referred to the film festival as essentially a fundraiser for the Vogue.


Getting on to the films...my favorite film was Beneath Hill 60. The film was set during WWI in the trenches or more precisely, under the trenches. Both sides employed miners and mining engineers to tunnel under No Man's Land to detonate mines under the enemy's positions. Based on a true story, Beneath Hill 60 follows Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), a mining engineer from Australia whose is put in charge of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company
on the front lines. While there, he experiences the horrors of war and the difficulties of mining. Woodward's group is assigned the task of blowing up Hill 60 in Belgium. I'll give away the ending since is it historical; approximately 1,000,000 pounds were used to destroy the hill which resulted in the largest man-made explosion up to that time.

Beneath Hill 60 reminded me of The Hurt Locker in that how could anything but a riveting drama emerge from a war story about guys blowing things up and/or getting blown up during war. Both sides would use listening devices to detect mining underground and would use explosives to kill the enemy miners. So in addition to the deprivations of soldiers at the front and concomitant dangers, the miners had to work in dark, dank and claustrophobic conditions and make as little noise as possible lest they be detected by the enemy.

I was engrossed by the film although the flashback scenes where Woodward romanced a 16 year old girl dragged down the film's pace. Didn't statutory rape laws exist in 1915? Actually, when did it become wrong (as well as illegal) for a man (Cowell was 33 when they filmed) to "romance" a 16 year old girl (Bella Heathcote)? Anyway, the flashbacks show a carefree (and frankly, childish) Woodward whose demeanor would mature quickly on the front lines. Cowell captured the transformation in Woodward but Steve Le Marquand as battle weary Sergeant Fraser delivered the signature performance of the film.

Sadly, Stein or whoever introduced the film, mentioned that the film will not be released theatrically in the US although it is already out on DVD.


Brendan Cowell also starred in I Love You Too about a immature man who cannot commit to his girlfriend. The film seemed oddly derivative. Cowell's wingman in the film is Peter Helliar but it seemed like a role tailor made for Jack Black or Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly. Cowell runs the kiddie train at an amusement park and in those scenes, he looked like Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek.

Despite these nagging similarities, the film was entertaining on its own merit. It certainly wasn't insightful and covered ground which has been well trodden. Cowell, the always solid Peter Dinklage and Yvonne Strahovski as the love interest carry the film admirably. Their performance made an otherwise predictable film amusing.


The Infidel has had a very successful festival run over the past year. Only the most cursory of synopses is necessary. A Muslim man in Britain learns that he is adopted. Not only that but he learns that his birth parents are Jewish and his original name was Solly Shimshillewitz. In addition to the identity crisis this provokes, the man's son is engaged to the step-daughter of a radical Muslim cleric and the man, who is politically moderately and not religiously observant, is urged by his son to adopt a lifestyle more in suit with the potential in-laws.

That should be enough to induce a smile and the film delivers laughs. Omid Djalili plays the lead, West Wing alumnus Richard Schiff plays his only Jewish friend and the always fantastic Archie Punjabi plays the wife.


Get Carter is a classic which I had never seen. Noir City's Eddie Muller introduced the film along with mystery writer Tony Broadbent. Michael Caine had charisma and always will.

West is West had a few laughs but I much preferred the original East is East. Like Michael Caine, actor Om Puri is one of those types that command attention on the big screen.

Dorian Gray could have benefited from some editing but Colin Firth and Ben Barnes acquit themselves well. Unlike I Love You Too, the actors' performances were not enough to lift the film beyond melodrama with a few scenes of debauchery.

Boy was a heartfelt dramedy based on the life of director Taika Waititi. It was a little too whimsical for my tastes.

Stephen McCole delivered an outstanding performance in Crying with Laughter. Set in the world of stand-up comedy, McCole's character ranges from funny to pathetic to sympathetic.

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