'West is West' opens the Mostly British Film Festival.

Mostly British Looks Beyond Speechifying Kings

Michael Fox February 7, 2011

As anyone who saw last year’s twisty crime dramas The Square and Animal Kingdom will attest, the Aussies have arrived on our shores. The annual Mostly British Film Festival, ever attuned to the shifting currents, devotes a sizable chunk of this year’s program to an eclectic survey of new Australian cinema that takes us far beyond genre thrills. Sure, we like guns and roses (almost) as much as you, but lead is not the only mineral found Down Under.

[Editor's note: This article appeared originally Thursday, February 3. Mostly British Film Festival continues through Thursday, February 11.]

The Mostly British Film Festival opens with a U.K. crowd-pleaser, West is West, that picks up the boisterous trail of the Khan family a few years after the events in the hit 1999 film, East is East (screening Wednesday, February 9). It’s now the mid-‘70s, with the youngest son (who fully identifies as British) at odds with his traditional Pakistani father. Humor and heart imbue this tale of assimilation, family secrets and cross-cultural connection.

The festival continues Friday night with a double-barreled blast of taut British classics starring Michael Caine, preceded by a tense, dark Scottish comedy. Crying With Laughter centers on a hard-partying stand-up comic (Stephen McCole of The Acid House) who runs into an old schoolmate and mentions him in his act that night. Big mistake, for the “friend” springs a trap door that launches the comedian into a spiraling nightmare. Betrayal is clearly the theme du nuit, punched home by Mike Hodges’ unrelenting Get Carter (1971) and Sydney J. Furie’s unflinching The Ipcress File (1965). Writers Tony Broadbent and Eddie Muller, those savvy local observers of crime and human nature, provide the introductions.

British film history is also on the menu Saturday morning with the back-to-back pairing of Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and Black Narcissus, one of the 1940s Technicolor masterpieces the innovative cinematographer (who died in 2009) made with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The documentary (which premiered locally at Mill Valley last fall) pays homage to Cardiff as a raconteur with juicy anecdotes and a marvelous memory.

MBFF then sets sail across the Pacific to New Zealand for another succulent slice of nonfiction. Winner of the Audience Award at last summer’s Frameline34 festival, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls profiles the wildly popular lesbian comedians and musicians. (New Zealand also contributed the feisty closing night film, Boy, Maori director Taika Waititi’s autobiographical story of an unlikely reunion between an 11-year-old and his father.)

Now it’s just a long hop, at last, to the commonwealth. Australia Spotlight begins with a reception and Beneath Hill 60 (Sat., Feb. 9), the gritty, fact-based World War I saga of a group of Australians tunneling underground on the Western Front. The rugged national character is on full view Sunday, beginning with the beribboned docs Solo (an up-close profile of a kayaker determined to cross the Tasman Sea to New Zealand) and Contact, in which a sexagenarian Aborigine recalls his remote desert tribe’s first encounter with white people 47 years ago.

Joel Edgerton, whose smart, edgy presence charged both The Square and Animal Kingdom, shows another side in Claire McCarthy’s The Waiting City. He and Radha Mitchell play a husband and wife who find themselves languishing in Calcutta on account of the red tape entangling the child they came to adopt. Cut off from their usual routine and under the spell of the city, they glide in different directions.

Speaking of familiar faces, the romantic comedy I Love You Too features Peter Dinklage in a key supporting role, and Frances O’Connor turns up in the cast of Ana Kokkinos’ Blessed, a sobering look at one day (and night) in a Melbourne suburb from the perspective, first, of several adolescents and then their mothers. MBFF also revives the powerhouse 1981 Aussie war drama, Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir (currently in Bay Area theatres with The Way Back) and starring a still-hungry Mel Gibson (heading our way with a hand puppet in The Beaver)

One of the most acclaimed Australian films of recent years, both at home and on the festival circuit, Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah (Mon., Feb. 7), is both a love story and an understated portrait of Aborigine culture. Actress Rachel Ward also sets Beautiful Kate, her directorial debut featuring Rachel Griffiths, Bryan Brown and Ben Mendelsohn (also in Animal Kingdom) against a natural backdrop—an isolated family home, where the patriarch is dying.
All this talent, and activity, prompts the fervent wish that the Australian film industry isn’t set back too terribly by the flooding currently plaguing the continent.

Returning to the British Isles, Stephen Poliakoff assembled a stellar cast, including Julie Christie and Bill Nighy, for Glorious 39 (Tuesday, February 8), a look at a politician and his family on the verge of World War II that complements the history recounted in the reigning British film of the season, The King’s Speech. The redoubtable Colin Firth turns up immediately afterward as a seductively bad influence in Oliver Parker’s Dorian Gray. Ricky Gervais, this generation’s Oscar Wilde (just kidding), co-wrote, co-directed and appears in the 1973-set lark, Cemetery Junction (Thurs., Feb. 10). Stephen Rea’s many fans, and those in need of a spot of spare, brilliant acting, should check out the Irish drama Nothing Personal (Wednesday, February 9).

The Mostly British Film Festival provides a welcome venue for English-language movies with name or new talent that have a tough time finding U.S. theatrical distribution in the current climate. It should not go unmentioned that another worthy aim of the festival is to spotlight and promote the Vogue Theater, which is one of the city’s remaining single-screen theaters and operates under the auspices of the nonprofit San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation.

Mostly British Film Festival runs February 3-10 at the Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento St. (at Presidio) in San Francisco and February 7-10 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

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