When I say jump: Ken Loach's Looking for Eric closes the Mostly British Film Festival Feb. 11 at the Vogue.

Mostly British and Very Entertaining

Dennis Harvey February 4, 2010

Tragically underrepresented in the Bay Area’s densely packed world of globally oriented film festivals is: the land(s) of our erstwhile colonial rulers! Being English-language, films from the UK and its former colonies do have a leg-up in terms of crashing the U.S. foreign-film market. (Although Canada is the exception. . . . ) And those that don’t make it are frequently programmed in the larger festivals like the San Francisco International, Mill Valley and Cinequest.

Still, there’s a fair amount of good work that’s underseen Stateside. Ergo the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation and California Film Institute’s second annual Mostly British Film Festival, which unfolds February 4-11 at S.F.’s Vogue Theatre and Feb. 7-10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

This isn’t a week of Maggie Smith vehicles–it encompasses films from not just from England, but also Ireland, Australia and South Africa. (No, we’re not quite sure how that last got in, either. And no, there’s naught from Scotland or Wales this year.) Not all are brand-new, a handful have even already had Bay Area commercial runs, and there’s a couple famous archival titles. But Mostly Brit’s 32 features run an impressive gamut that demonstrates the variety and vitality of non-U.S. English-language cinema today.

There’s some starry stuff here, starting with opening-nighter London River, an acclaimed drama Brenda Bethlyn as a conservative war widow whose mind gets expanded on a tense trip to modern, multi-cultural London. Anthony LaPaglia, whom you might not have known was a native Australian, appears in the fact-based “Australian opening night” (Feb. 6) selection “Balibo” as an Aussie journalist covering the 1975 invasion of East Timor, as well as in revived 2001 ensemble piece Lantana.

The Messenger’s Samantha Morton plays a grieving mother who adopts a possibly disturbed child in Ireland’s The Daisy Chain. John Malkovich is at his sardonic best in Disgrace, adapted from Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s novel. His arrogant Capetown professor, fired for a serious ethical lapse, retreats to a grown daughter’s farmstead where the post-Apartheid readjustment of power sparks new racial tensions.

Dean Spanley has the imposing quartet of Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Jeremy Northam dominating a slight but sweet slice of Edwardian whimsy. The late Heath Ledger gave arguably his last great performance (no, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn’t one–and I’m not sure about The Joker either) in 2006’s Candy, as a junkie who drags his younger girlfriend (Bright Star’s Abbie Cornish) down as well. A fleeting theatrical release here, it’s perhaps the best–as well as most relentlessly depressing–such story since Al Pacino’s debut feature Panic in Needle Park almost 40 years ago.

More serious turnings of the Way-Back Machine provide screenings of two wildly different British classics. A remastered new print of Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 color ballet-noir The Red Shoes should prove an eye-popping reintroduction to a movie that was many American’s first–or at least most impressive–experience of English cinema. Decades later, cinematographer turned director Nicholas Roeg brilliantly adapted a Daphne du Maurier (“The Birds”) story into the 1973 occult-tinged thriller Don’t Look Now, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as parents traveling to spooky Venice after a child’s tragic death. It’s probably Roeg’s best film, though I’ve a soft spot for both Bad Timing and Insignificance. (You might for The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie as a sexier E.T.)

Mostly British has a lot to offer in the emerging-talent arena. Radio DJ turned writer-director Mark Tonderai’s U.K. Hush is possibly the most alarming and inventive horror-action hybrid since 2007 U.S. indie The Signal. Suffice it to say it’s one of those stories in which things go from bad to much, much worse, without ever growing predictable or gratuitously gory. (Though some will doubtless find it too brutal for their taste.) It’s an exercise in neverending peril Hitchcock might have admired, with lead William Ash showcased in an adventuresome extreme-distress role to rival Sharlto Copley’s starmaking one in District 9.

Other notable inclusions range from contemporary Aussie noir The Square to disparate feature animations The Secret of the Kells, Peter and the Wolf and Mary and Max (which opened Sundance last year).

There are also documentaries Salute (about the repercussions of a 1968 Olympics gesture of Black Power solidarity), The End of the Line (dire seafood over-harvesting consequences) and Rough Aunties (multiracial South African women banding together to fight social injustice). There’s even a musical: Stage-adapted Bran Nue Day, a chipper Australian aboriginal road-trip tale as thoroughly Broadway-pop in sound as The Lion King.

One big coup is the festival’s Bay Area premiere of the Red Riding trilogy a couple weeks before its theatrical release (and a couple years before a projected U.S. remake). Each lent a strikingly distinct texture by different director, the three features–which have been a sensation on the festival circuit this year–cover a decade (1974-83) in scenarist Tony Grisoni’s adaptation of a literary quartet by David Peace. It’s an epic saga of Yorkshire crime, political corruption and noirish intrigue.

The official closing nighter is something truly odd: A comedy from Ken Loach! Yes, the U.K.’s longtime king of brute realism has made a bittersweet but funny fantasy about a sad-sack Manchester resident who conjures his soccer idol (Eric Cantona) as a semi-imaginary friend to offer relationship advice and general buck-up emotional support. It’s said to be very charming–one thing the 74-year-old director of Wind That Shakes the Barley, Poor Cow, etc. has seldom been accused of.

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