Monday, October 16, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI - BFI London Film Festival 2017 - Closing Night Gala


With THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, writer-director Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES) has created a genuinely surprising, slow-paced character drama that's also scattered with his trademark dark, filthy humour. But don't be fooled by the trailer that's basically a "best of" some of the funniest bits. This is a much slower, darker and in some senses profound drama that he's created before, and to my mind, all the better for it. 

The starting point of the film is that Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand - FARGO) is angry the local police have not found the man that brutally raped and murdered her daughter Angela. In a fit of frustration and pique, she hires three old billboards outside of the town on a little-used road and puts up a provocative sign asking for justice from police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson - WOTPOTA). This sets of a series of events that seem to spiral out of control in a tat for tat revenge plot.  It pits Mildred against Willoughby and his stupid racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell - MOON) and Dixon against the poor schmuck who sold Mildred the billboard space (Caleb Landry Jones - TWIN PEAKS) and the town against Mildred.  As her violent ex-husband's hapless young girlfriend points out, violence begets violence. And that's the point when Mildred (and we) realise that the point of the film isn't to find out who did it, and to apportion blame, but to get to a point where we can just let it go.

I loved this film for three reasons. First, as with all McDonagh films, there's a strand of nasty humour that I absolutely adore. Second, McDormand's performance is genuinely award-worthy - not simply for the angry swearing but for the profound pain that underlies it, and invokes our sympathy even as she does selfish, near-unhinged things. Third, I am so rarely surprised by cinema, but this movie totally surprised me three times.  It took characters and events in directions I couldn't have predicted but which made sense and surprised me. I have real respect for authors who can take a character that I initially hate and turn my opinion around and that's what happened here - and it was utterly satisfying. 

So a great film - if deeper and darker and more considered in its pacing than McDonagh's previous work. This may disappoint some fans but I hope they appreciate it for the layered and disturbing but ultimately hopeful work that it is. 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Venice, London and Toronto 2017. It opens in the USA on November 10th; in Australia and New Zealand on January 1st; in Italy, Spain and the UK on January 12th; in Argentina, Germany and Singapore on January 25th; in Philippines on February 14th; and in France on February 28th. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

LADY BIRD - BFI London Film Festival 2017 - Day 11


LADY BIRD is a funny, moving, beautifully observed relationship drama centring around the teenage girl of the title.  It's an assured directorial debut from writer-actor Greta Gerwig (MISTRESS AMERICA) and features another impressive performance from Saoirse Ronan (ON CHESIL BEACH) in the lead role, fearlessly matched by Laurie Metcalf (ROSEANNE) as her mother.  This relationship is at the heart of the film, with its class-frustrations echoed in Lady Bird's relationship with her long-time best friend.  To be sure, we also see the 17 year old navigate relationships with boyfriends too, but these aren't at the heart of the film

Christine McPherson is a quirky, smart but frustrated teenager who adopts the Lady Bird persona to mark herself as different from the bland Sacramento society in which she lives.  She dreams of moving to New York and attending a liberal arts college where she'll find people with interests similar to her own. The central tragedy of this film is that she takes that frustration out on those who love her the most, principally her mother Marion.  Marion is another strong personality, and as much as she loves her daughter, she's frustrated that Christine doesn't appreciate what her parents have sacrificed to put her through private school.  Marion is also deeply hurt when she discovers that Christine has been mocking their house as being "on the wrong side of the tracks" because it doesn't live up to the flashier houses that some of her friends live in.  This relationship is at the very heart of the film and is so relatable and brilliantly observed that it's worth watching the film for that alone.

But there's so much more to admire in this film. Christine is oblivious to the fact that her father (a beautifully tender performance from Tracy Letts) has lost his job.  And although he's not the centre of the film there's such humanity in seeing this highly qualified man having to apply for the same graduate entry jobs that his also over-qualified son is applying for.  He seems to be a truly selfless and decent man, and reminded me a lot of Willem Dafoe's character in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.  I also loved the relationship between Christine and her childhood best friend - and the way Christine ditches her for a more glamorous set to attract a new boyfriend.  It's a betrayal and reconciliation we've seen a million times in teen comedies, but so much more authentic and real here.  Finally, I loved the way Gerwig handled Christine's love life, and a particularly touching scene between Ronan and her boyfriend played by Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA). My only minor criticism of the film is that I wanted to see more of that relationship after that scene - it felt strange to me that it didn't continue.

Overall, this is a truly impressive directorial debut from one of the most original and intelligent voices in cinema.  I really admire Gerwig's mission to give us something that feels more authentic than typical coming of age dramas, and her willingness to show life as it is - financial struggles, selfishness, arguments, even Christine's deliberate acne - the movie we LIVE rather than the movie that plays in our head, as she said in the post-film Q&A. 

LADY BIRD played Telluride, Toronto and London 2017. It will be released in the USA on November 3rd, in the UK on December 29th, and in Spain on May 4th 2018. The film has a running time of 93 minutes.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE - Day 11 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


The following is a group review from Meester Phil, Duncan and Nicki and I:

Lynne Ramsay (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) returns to our screens with the extreme revenge thriller YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE.  Joaquin Phoenix plays an extremely disturbed man who was abused by his father as a child and takes care of his mother as an adult.  He's also a veteran who now earns a living rescuing people for money armed with a blunt hammer.  At the start of the film he's commissioned by a politician who's wife just committed suicide to find their runaway daughter who's been captured by a paedophile ring.  Except his exfiltration is messed up by some corrupt cops. At that point, the film goes into a revenge thriller involving potentially some politicians and maybe the idea that the dad was somehow molesting the daughter. The film is deliberately tricksy with the timeline and motivations and how far we can trust the slippery memory and perception of the lead character. 

Duncan and Nicki describe the movie as too arthouse, bizarre, all over the place and difficult to follow.  They came out wondering what the point was.  And we're still sitting in the bar trying to figure out what exactly happened. Even Meester Phil conceded that Lynne Ramsay may have been being too obtuse for her own good.  But everyone did love the cinematography - particularly the way in which Lynne Ramsay used extreme close-ups and almost shot from the victims point of view, looking up at a looming killer.   Meester Phil in particular loved the use of mirror imagery, lights through rain, blurred imagery, and the beautiful and impactful shots of underwater scenes. All agree that it was visually great.  Finally, we all really loved Jonny Greenwood's unique and dramatic score, and the use of already existing music for juxtaposition.  There are some very twee songs that underscore some very violent scenes and it works brilliantly.

My final comment is that a lot of the way that violence and revenge was handled reminded her of Park Chan Wook. I walked out of the film thinking that Ramsay had watched a lot of the Vengeance trilogy and taken something of Lynch's use of music.  

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE has a running time of 85 minutes. The film played Cannes 2017 where it won Best Screenplay alongside THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor.  It also played London 2017. It goes on release in the Netherlands on Oct 19th, in Belgium on Nov 15th and in Spain on Nov 24th. 

THE FLORIDA PROJECT - Day 11 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a beautifully shot and acted social drama that's a rightly tough watch.  It tells the tale of three kids living hand-to-mouth in motels in Orlando, a stone's throw from Disneyworld and yet a world away from rich kids being indulged.  The star of the film is Brooklyn Kimberly Prince, who plays a young girl called Moonee.  She's very precocious and full of attitude that she's learned from her young and damaged mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  Halley barely has enough money to buy food but somehow has money for cigarettes. She so feckless with money that when she has it she wastes it and then turns tricks to get more.  It's hard not to hate her, but then you realise that she probably experienced as dysfunctional a childhood as her daughter is currently experiencing.

So what we get in this film is a two-hour portrait of an unfit mother and I spent most of the film inwardly anxious that her kid should be lifted out of this and into care. And that offset what I think was meant to be an enjoyable portrait of kids getting up to capers - scamming people for free ice cream and whatnot in a jaunty comedy.  I was just too angered by the social trauma to be amused.  I also found that Moonee's antics started to grate. I'll freely admit that this is a highly subjective criticism, but I'm not used to having small kids around and I just found her behaviour deeply annoying. In fact, for me the most memorable and affecting performance in the film was Willem Dafoe's motel manager who exhibits common sense and humanity in a performance against type and worthy of awards recognition. I also think the heightened saturated colour and cinematography is some of the most memorable of this festival.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated R. 

THE LOVERS - Day 11 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Azazel Jacobs' THE LOVERS is a light, art-house version of IT'S COMPLICATED in which husband and wife Mary and Michael, who are both cheating on each other, discover that they're actually attracted to each other again.  The first hour of the film proceeds with hardly any dialogue - the emotional arc is all conveyed through looks, texts, reactions.  It's really quite wonderful to see and you need actors like Debra Winger and Tracey Letts to pull it off and sustain the audience's interest. The second thirty minutes of the film sees the culmination of all this lying  takes its toll - both on the couple, their son and their lovers. I have to say that I was a bit surprised in how Jacobs decided to resolve the issues, and that the film is pretty forgettable, but I certainly enjoyed it while it lasted. 

THE LOVERS has a running time of 94 minutes. The film played Tribeca, Melbourne and London 2017 and was released earlier this year in the USA and Canada.

Friday, October 13, 2017

DOWNSIZING - BFI London Film Festival 2017 - Day 10



DOWNSIZING is a deeply patronising movie that pulls of the remarkable feat of being both annoying liberal and socially conscious AND offensively racist. There's probably a decent 45 minute episode of Black Mirror in there somewhere, but the surrounding 90 minutes of meandering, indulgent padding renders the whole work frustrating and meaningless.

The big concept of the film is that a bunch of Norwegian scientists have invented a way to miniaturise humans to 5 inches tall. And if humans can do this, they can leave a much lighter environmental impact, as well as use their current net wealth to live a deeply luxurious life. After all, you may not be able to afford a 10,000 sq ft mansion but you can probably afford one the size of a shoebox. This range of motives for "downsizing" reflects a parody of the cultures that DOWNSIZING deals with. So the liberal touchy feely hippie Scandies downsize to save the world and their mini-colony looks like The Shire. By contrast, Americans downsize to afford a luxury retirement in Disney like gated communities. 

Of course, this being (a piss-poor attempt at) sci-fi, none of the actual world-building makes sense. The downsized wouldn't survive rain or insects and there's an irony in the amount of energy being created in the downsizing probably making climate change worse. None of this would matter if the story was captivating and you cared about the characters. But the story is all over the place. Is this about an everyman recreating his life once his wife leaves him? Is it about finding yourself on a gap year trip to Norway? It is a piece of propaganda about climate change? Or is an undercover expose about illegal immigrant working conditions? It's like writer-director Alexander Payne through Big Ideas in the air like so much confetti and the result is a baggy, poorly scripted and edited mess that outstays its welcome. Worst of all, much of its comedy in the latter half of the film lies in taking the piss out of a Vietnamese woman's strong accent. In 2017. This is just flabbergastingly offensive on a Jar Jar Binks level. 

DOWNSIZING has a running time of 135 minutes. The movie played Venice, Toronto and London 2017 and will go on release in Spain and the USA on Dec 22nd, in Australia, New Zealand and France on Dec 26th, in Norway and Turkey on Jan 5th, in Argentina and Bulgaria on Jan 11th, and in Germany and Sweden on Jan 18th.

HAPPY END - Day 10 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Meester Phil and I walked out of HAPPY END after an hour of tedium and inanity.  Advertising blurb suggesting it's a sharp satire of contemporary French financial and racial inequality in the shadow of the Calais migrant camp was wildly overblown. There's a rich family. It includes Isabelle Huppert. They run a construction company. There's a feckless grandson who may or may not inherit the company. There's a granddaughter who's mum just attempted suicide. There's a little baby who's shot on an iPhone with text messages indicating her train of thought. What there isn't is drama or meaning or any kind of coherence.  In fairness that might have all been resolved in the final 45 minutes but life's too short to find out.

HAPPY END has a running time of 107 minutes. It played Cannes, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto and London 2017.  It opened earlier this month in France and Austria. It opens in Belgium on Oct 11th, Germany on Oct 12th, Hungary on Oct 26th, Sweden on Nov 3rd, the UK on Dec 1st, the USA on Dec 22nd, and Norway on Dec 25th.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER - Day 10 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is an exceptionally brilliant dark horror movie based on a Greek myth that I won’t name for fear of spoiling the story. The first hour of the film sees building dread and foreboding. A heart surgeon called Stephen (Colin Farrell) has struck up a sinister looking relationship with a 16 year old called Martin (Barry Keoghan). Is he seeking sexual favours, grooming him? The gift of an expensive watch and the lies speak to that. But then Stephen introduces Martin to his family - wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and his kids Kim and Bob. So maybe Martin is just a loner who needs mentoring? About 45 minutes into this exquisitely paced film, Kim and Bob suffer paralysis and loss of appetite. A battery of medical tests suggests there’s nothing wrong with them. And an hour into the film we learn the reason for this mysterious mythical illness. The reactions it provokes are both darkly funny and tragic, as family members vie to make their case, and cold hard-headedness faces sentimentality.

Lanthimos’ shooting style is so deliberately paced and framed that it reminded me of Kubrick. There’s a couple of scenes where Stephen walks through hospital corridors that become so tense because of precisely where the camera is placed and the accompanying music. Although we shift locations many times, there’s a kind of claustrophobia in this film as grind toward the inevitable conclusion. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ complete, compulsive control of the frame matches Stephen’s refusal to be ruffled until the last, and the deliberate, daringly deadpan language from co-scriptwriter Efthimis Lanthimos. I also loved the score that borrowed from orchestral music and opera, heightened with dramatic sound effects to emphasise the portentousness of the action.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough for its sustained tension, otherworldly tone and superb construction. I can’t say that I cared about any of the characters but that’s not really the point. I was captivated by the story and the sheer technical brilliance with which it was put on screen. 

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER has a running time of 109 minutes and is rated R. The film played Cannes 2017 where it won Best Screenplay tied with You Were Never Really Here. It also played New Zealand, Melbourne, Toronto and London.  It goes on release in the USA on Oct 27th, in France, Greece and Bulgaria on Nov 3rd, in the UK on Nov 17th, in the Netherlands on Nov 29th, in Hong Kong on Nov 30th and in Hungary on Dec 28th. 

JOURNEYMAN - Day 9 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


JOURNEYMAN is a banal, thin, waste of time. A movie that says nothing new about boxing and adds little to the "Lifetime movie of the afternoon" genre that we haven't seen in rehab movies like STRONGER or MILLION DOLLAR BABY.  The direction is workmanlike, the scope narrow, and really the only reason to watch it is the characteristically good performance by Jodie Whitaker in one of the lead roles.  Paddy Considine plays a local hero boxer who gets punched into a coma in his One Last Match.  When he comes round he's frustrated, violent, and his wife (Whitaker) leaves him with their baby. His lovely friends who'd abandoned him then step in. By the end, everyone's back on side because, hey, they're all basically lovely people.  There's no dramatic tension. There's no real character development.  The boxing scenes don't work. The love story is so predictable it's frustrating.  And there isn't even any criticism of a sport that serially harms people.   I honestly don't know why this has been described as a tearjerker.  Frankly, Considine's performance is a series of physical ticks that was one stutter short of Simple Jack. This is a crashing disappointment after Considine's fantastic directorial debut TYRANNOSAUR - a movie of great artistic ambition and impressive execution. 

JOURNEYMAN has a running time of 92 minutes. It will be released in the UK on February 16th 2018.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

SWEET COUNTRY - Day 9 - BFI London Film Festival 2017



SWEET COUNTRY is a film of power and beauty that knocked me for six and took a while to digest. It stands as one of the best films of this year's LFF, and certainly one of the most important.  It contains a unique directorial vision, a unique true story, and provocative questions for all of us at this time of heightened fear of the Other.

The film is set in post-World War One Central Australia, on a series of small cattle farms. The hero is an aboriginal cattle farmer called Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), a decent man who works for another decent man, station owner Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Unfortunately, their oasis of mutual respect goes against the prevailing tide of racism and injustice in this wild frontier.  A newly returned solider (Ewen Leslie) manipulates Fred into lending him Sam, his wife and niece, to work for him for a few days.  This good turn sets in motion a series of events that culminate in Sam shooting the white man in self-defense and going on the run.  Act Two sees Sam and his wife being chased down by the local lawman (Bryan Brown) and Act Three sees him face whatever justice a black man can get in 1920s Australia.  To say more would be to ruin the plot.

There's so much to admire in this film that it's hard to know where to begin. To state the obvious, the director Warwick Thornton (SAMSON & DELILAH) has a unique interest in bringing Australia's alternative history to the screen - in showing the violence and exploitation that doesn't show up in textbooks. Instead of Aussie folk hero Ned Kelly he wants to give us  a true indigenous hero - Sam Kelly - and he wants to ask us if he'd fair any better in the justice system today.

But the great and wonderful thing is that Warwick Thornton's projects are so much more than just pedagogical. He has a really unique directorial vision. For a start, filming this story as a western allows him to tell us something about the wild frontier (in)justice at this time.  Second, he makes bold choices, all of which seem to pay off.   I loved his use of quick flash-backs and flash-fowards to add nuance to his characters and build suspense for the audience.  For instance, the ostensible bad guy in the movie is basically a racist bully, but he's also a very traumatised war veteran who's self-medicating with a lot of alcohol. I also loved the equally bold choice to have no musical score in this film, but to really ramp up the tension by focusing on the sound of every footstep, locked shackle and cocked rifle.  But most of all, I just love the visual vastness and harsh beauty of the landscapes as a context for this very small-scale human tale - with these people quite simply dwarfed by greater forces - whether nature or institutional injustice.  There's a deep humanity to the tale - and Hamilton Morris' performance in particular.  And I can't think of anything more chilling than Sam Neill's final line in the film.

SWEET COUNTRY has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Venice, Toronto, Adelaide and London 2017.

PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN - Day 9 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN is a really fascinating and subversive story about the real-life creator of Wonder Woman, told in a disappointingly conventional and banal manner by director Angela Robinson (HERBIE FULLY LOADED, says it all).

The story begins in 1920s Harvard-Radcliffe, where Professor Marston (Luke Evans) is a psychology professor with a theory of dominance and submission and proto-feminist views on how women should rule the world. This is frankly unsurprising as he's married to the fantastically smart, sexy, unconventional Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall - dazzling) - who is intellectually everything a Wonder Woman should be.  They both fall in love with Marston's teaching assistants - a student called Olive (Bella Heathcote), a woman who knows what she wants, but is far more submissive than Elizabeth.  The three form a menage a trois that is truly based on love as well as sex, but are kicked out of Harvard.  Forced to earn a more conventional living, Elizabeth becomes a secretary, both women have kids, and Marston invents Wonder Woman after a trip to a S&M costume shop that blows his mind. He combines the dominance and submission of both the women in his life - their fierceness and softness - to create a modern comic that will very deliberately radicalise children with ideas of feminism and, er, bondage. 

I recently got a trade hardback of the early Wonder Woman comics and it was shocking to see how overtly sexual they were - some of the frames are like something out a Bettie Page film. But also how radically feminist they were, despite Wonder Woman's ludicrous outfit.  And I love how this film shows how subversive the character was, but also questions the more dubious aspects of the supposed feminism through the framing device of an interrogation by Connie Britton's moral authority.  The story - and Rebecca Hall's character - are enough to make this film worth watching.

The problem is that everything about the direction is utterly conventional to the point of banality. Every set choice, the way the scenes are constructed, the utterly forgettable score - it's all so dull. And it's particularly sloppy not to have the characters age over the 25 odd years of the film. It was incredible - and drew me out of the film. It's not the origins story that Wonder Woman deserves and I won't be rushing out to see another Angela Robinson film any time soon.

PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN has a running time of 107 minutes and is rated R. The film played Toronto and London 2017. It opens in the USA on October 13th, in Germany on November 2nd, and in the UK on November 10th.

DARK RIVER - Day 9 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Clio Barnard's DARK RIVER is arguably one of the finest film's of the festival. It's a dark, sparse, claustrophobic chamber drama - beautifully acted and edited, with not an ounce of fat on its bones. It's so emotionally intense that the 90 minute runtime feels like three hours in the best possible way.  By this I mean that it didn't feel overlong at all, but I really felt emotionally rung out by the end of it. I suspect that it's a film that's going to be with me for days to come - its scenes haunting me. 

The film rests on the twin performances of Ruth Wilson (THE AFFAIR) and Mark Stanley (DICKENSIAN).  Wilson plays a capable sheep farmer called Alice who returns home after a 15 year absence when her father, who had abused her as a child, finally dies.  She's still massively traumatised by that abuse, and Clio Barnard depicts it as a kind of visceral haunting.  Alice believes her father would've left her the tenancy of the family farm, but the person sitting in possession is her angry brother Joe (Stanley). He resents Alice for leaving, and her need to update farming methods. In fact, he'd rather sell the farm to property developers than co-farm with Alice.  

Over the 90 minute the tension between the two until we have the expected final confrontation and revelation that leads to some kind of emotional pay-off.  There's a real vulnerability and violence to the lead performances and Stanley matches the more famous Wilson pound for pound in the confrontation.  I won't say more for fear of spoiling the outcome.  However, I was surprised to find that Meester Phil had an utterly different interpretation of the final scene to mind, which suggests that this film is even more slippery than I'd thought. 

DARK RIVER has a running time of 89 minutes. The movie played Toronto and London 2017.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

REDOUBTABLE - Day 8 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Michel Hazanavicius’ REDOUBTABLE is not so much a full-scale biopic of Nouvelle Vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard but a portrait of his three year functional marriage to actress Anne Wiazemsky, 17 years his junior, in the late 60s. As the age gap would suggest this is not so much a marriage of equals as one of an acolyte and an over-bearing demanding selfish man, although she is genuinely in love and can't see it at first. As the film opens, Godard discourages Anne from acting, calling actors jumped up fools, and encourages her to go back to university for a proper "political education". What does he mean by this? Why, that Anne should adopt the same Marxist revolutionary views that he has. 

All goes well enough until the 1968 General Strike. It was a volatile period where workers were protesting and Parisian students had also basically shut down the City.  Godard goes to Cannes and with a bunch of other directors has the festival shut down too - something I have some sympathy with - there is something a little absurd, after all, about showing rom-coms and dramas when France is on the verge of revolution. But of course, Godard takes it too far. He demands that other directors and his wife sacrifice opportunities according to his political demands, and viciously mocks those who have the temerity to disagree with him. He puts down his wife in public, embarrasses her with his radical and anti-semitic views, and then goes into a massive sulk when she takes on a film role in Czechoslovakia, culminating in what I think should never be described as a selfish act, but in this case clearly is! - a suicide attempt.

From my description of the events of this film, one would think it was a remarkably grim watch. But it isn't! To be sure, Godard is a massive arsehole with some really offensive views, but the way in which Havanacius portrays this is so witty and inventive that it was still a great watch.  In particular, the director juxtaposes the serious dramatic action with bright coloured costumes and sets and merry music - one of my favourite scenes has a car packed with people viciously arguing set to a jaunty orchestral version of Perry Como's Magic Moments.  Another great scene has Godard trying to shame his wife into refusing a film role that contains a lot of nude scenes, and that scene is shot with both actors unnecessarily nude.  There are so many great moments like this that I can honestly say that this is a truly funny film. I also want to gives special praise to Louis Garrel in his best role since MOTHER as Godard. He goes the whole hog, creating a fake bald patch, wearing those specific glasses, and adopting the Godard lisp.  It's a great performance because it's simultaneously funny, knowing, obnoxious and sad - for example, I never once doubted that Godard loved his wife, it's just that he's also a selfish misogynist too. 

Overall, REDOUBTABLE is a must watch for cineastes and for wider audiences it will resonate as a portrait of a marriage of unequals, of verbal abuse, but also a film of immense wit and humour: a surprisingly fun watch.

REDOUBTABLE has a running time of 107 minutes. The movie played Cannes, Toronto and London 2017. It opened in France and Israel earlier this year. 

THE PARTY - Day 9 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


THE PARTY is a brilliantly observed, nastily witty laugh-out loud dark comedy from writer director Sally Potter.  Filmed almost as a chamber comedy in one apartment, the entire 70 minute movie takes places over an aborted dinner party. It has been convened to celebrate the fact that Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just become Shadow Health Minister, much to the delight of her scabrously rational realist best friend April (Patricia Clarkson).  But, rather bizarrely, her husband (Timothy Spall) is apparently depressed if not borderline potty.  This is somewhat overshadowed in the early scenes by the totally bizarre behaviour of the strung out city banker Tom (Cillian Murphy).  The remainder of the guests are April's new age hippie boyfriend Gottfired (Bruno Ganz), brilliantly mocked by April - as well as a lesbian couple expecting triplets, Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer).

It would be unfair to reveal the plot twists and dramatic turns that propel this short film toward its dramatic conclusion. I was utterly surprised by all of them - particularly the last.  But it felt to me that this film had it all - properly funny, but also with moments of real relationship trauma and deeply felt distress. In particular, the reaction of Martha to learning she's co-parenting triplets felt very raw and credible.  The acting is also universally good, with Patricia Clarkson stealing the show with her nasty put-downs.  I also loved Aleksei Rodionov's cinematography - effectively using lighting to create stark black and white contrast, and with a mobility and fluidity that kept this one-room drama feeling exciting and pacy. The music choices are also used to great effect - in one scene of near-death, the use of Dido's Lament had me corpsing too.

In the words of Meester Phil, this is a frankly delightful film. It's an unhinged expose of the middle class English suburban family and purported intellectuals. 

THE PARTY has a running time of 71 minutes. The movie played Berlin, Seoul, Sydney, New Zealand, Melbourne and London 2017.  It was released earlier this year in Germany and France. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

THE SHAPE OF WATER - Day 8 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


It's always scary walking into a film by one of your favourite directors, with a great cast and an intriguing premise - your most anticipated film of the Festival in fact! - scared that your high expectations will be disappointed. And this in particular in a year of mediocre films - few duds, few highs, just a lot of ok films.  Well, I am pleased to report that Giullermo Del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER is an absolute delight - an adult fairy tale that doesn't gloss over the darkness in life, but reinterprets it as a magical fable of love conquering loneliness and prejudice.

Sally Hawkins (FUNNY HA HA) stars as Elisa, a mute cleaner who works at a mysterious government facility in 1960s Baltimore.  She has two good friends  - the first is her neighbour - a washed-up advertising draughtsman (Richard Jenkins) - and the second is her fellow cleaner (Octavia Spencer - THE HELP). Elisa's life changes when she meets a merman (Doug Jones), who is being held captive at the government facility.  His fate is in the hands of a racist, sexually harassing torturer (Michael Shannon) who wants the merman dissected.  But this offends the scientific mind of Michael Stuhlbarg's researcher. He teams up with Elisa to attempt to liberate the merman from the small-minded nasties cornering him. 

There's so much to love about this film it's hard to know where to begin. First and foremost we have the stunning visual imagination of GDT - creating a kind of hyper 1960s America with a deep green visual palette, a delight in vintage cinemas and interiors as well as the oppressive bourgeois perfection of 1960s American suburban life, as well as steampunky mechanical widgets filling the laboratory. The use of colour is just perfection.  And then I love how GDT mixes a kind of romantic sensuous love affair with explicit scenes showing Elisa masturbating or a pet coming to a bad end.  This is truly adult fantasy.  And of course, we have the beautiful allegory of the prejudice the merman faces with the civil rights unrest we see on TV and the harassment Elisa faces in the workplace.  Complementing all of GDT's unique vision and execution, we have a wonderfully romantic from Alexandre Desplat, and a movie whose love of movies influences everything from plot points to scene settings to the way in which the main character views herself.

Of course, few movies are perfect and there are a couple of things that I would have altered in THE SHAPE OF WATER. I would have changed the one dream-like reverie - the movie felt fantastic enough as it was without this jarring shift in tone.  And secondly, I'm starting to get a bit frustrated by the typecasting of Michael Shannon as sexually messed up government man (viz BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Octavia Spencer as sassy black woman who gets to smack her lips and offer folksy wisdom to the lead white actress. It's getting really old and lazy. She needs to be offered and to accept better more varied parts or she risks being written off as a modern day Hattie McDaniel.

THE SHAPE OF WATER has a running time of 119 minutes and is rated R. The film played Venice, Telluride, Toronto, Sitges and London. It opens in the UK on Dec 4th, in the USA, Canada and Mexico on Dec 8th, in Brazil on Jan 11th, in France on Jan 17th, in Australia on Jan 25th, in Spain on Jan 26th, in New Zealand and Portugal on Feb 1st, in Switzerland and Netherlands on Feb 15th, in Ireland on Feb 15th and in Argentina and Denmark on Feb 22nd. 

ALPHAGO - Day 7 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


ALPHAGO is one of the most enjoyable films at this year's festival - as tense as any thriller, as emotionally involving as any love story, and I learned a lot too! I cannot recommend this movie highly enough - not just to computer geeks and Go fans, but anyone interested in seeing the potential of machine learning to change our lives.* The story begins in Google Deep Mind in London where a bunch of computer nerds have invented an AI that can play Go - the ancient Chinese boardgames that's so complicated and challenging that it's seen as the ultimate challenge to any AI.   The team invite the current European champion to play the AI and he's roundly beaten.  They then spend five months improving the AI using that player as an advisor and trying to address some of the AI's weakness. When this is done they challenge the best Go player in the world - a South Korean called Lee Sedol.  The rest of the film is a play by play of the five game series. 

The amazing thing about ALPHAGO is that even though I knew the result of the match I was genuinely tense in each game. I was nervous for the programmers who seemed so sympathetic that their programme would stand up to the trial. And then I felt utterly emotionally involved in the journey of this waif-like Korean guy who was trying to defend humanity against the threat of AI. I can't tell you the outpouring of emotion at each victory or unexpected move; the fun of seeing the commentators and players faces as unexpected moves are played; and the sheer exhilaration when the match is concluded. Most of all, I was left with a feeling of respect for both sides of the match - the programmers were full of respect for the skill of the human brain and Lee was full of respect for the programmers. It reminded me of how civilised true intellectuals can be.

ALPHAGO has a running time of 90 minutes. The film played Tribeca and London 2017.

*Or indeed end them. I am convinced that once AI gets to a certain point it will figure out it doesn't need humans and that will be the end.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME - Day 7 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


CALL ME BY YOUR NAME has two problems that I couldn’t get over. In fact, even more than that, I had a miserable and difficult time watching this film - even though it was one of my most anticipated and by one of the most exciting directors working today - Luca Guadagnino. The first problem is its length. I kid you not, but basically nothing happens in the first hour of this film. A pretty arrogant and self-indulgent middle-aged man called Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives at an Italian villa owned by an academic (Michael Stuhlbarg) he’s working with. There seems to be an antipathy between Oliver and the professor’s teenage son, Elio and each of them seems to be flirting with girls about town. As we move into the second hour of the film it becomes clear that the antipathy is of the kind one might see in a playground where kids pretend not to really like the girl or boy they actually like. Oliver pulls back from taking the flirtation further but actually teases Elio by suggesting trips to town together and initiating physical intimacy. The messages are mixed but Oliver clearly knows that the relationship would be seen as wrong. He cites this as a reason to pull back. 

And this is where we get to the second problem with the film: the casting of Armie Hammer. For a start, he can’t match the acting ability of Michael Stuhlbarg (magnificent in his one big scene) or indeed newcomer Timothée Chalamet as Elio. When the father generously calls Oliver good, and the relationship meaningful, I just sat there wondering how he’d got that from the flaky, selfish  (and apart from one opening gambit to show his intelligence, not conspicuously smart or interesting) personality I’d seen on screen. A related issue is that while in real life Armie Hammer is 31, for me he looked a lot older than that. And that gave the relationship a pretty nasty feel to it - one of uneven power, grooming and exploitation. I feel that Guadagnino really messed up with his casting and should’ve gone for someone who actually looked like a mid-20s post-doc, and a kid who looked a more mature 17 then a 14/15. And I’m pretty amazed that audiences haven’t screamed louder about this. I wonder if the critical reaction would’ve been as warm if this had played out between an old man and a 15 year old looking girl. It left a very bitter taste in my mouth indeed. 

Meester Phil's points to other issues with the film although he didn't find age to be such an issue:  he found the pacing uneven - that the film somehow didn't cohere or feel credible to him. As a result he wasn't emotionally involved. 

So, for those looking for a truly beautiful gay love story, and one that isn’t shy about explicit sex either, then check out 120 BPM and leave this behind.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Sundance, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, San Sebastian, Toronto, New York and London 2017. It opens in the UK on Oct 27th, in the USA on Nov 24th, in Sweden on Dec 1st, in Canada on Dec 8th, in Thailand on Dec 14th, in Australia on Dec 26th, in France on Jan 10th, in Brazil on Jan 18th, in Greece on Feb 8th and in Germany on March 1st.

Monday, October 09, 2017

THE VENERABLE W - Day 6 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Barbet Schroeder’s THE VENERABLE W is a deeply painful and provocative documentary about a buddhist monk who has incited genocide against the muslim Rohingya ethnic minority in Burma.  It's shocking for two reasons. First, it's a savage indictment of a religion that we think of as basically lovely and harmless and, in its leader the Dalai Lama, charming and beatific. And yet here we have a member of that same religion spouting hate speech that is so similar to Hitler's depiction of the Jews as to be chilling.  It makes you wonder why the Dalai Lama has been conspicuously silent in condemning these actions, and how the hate speech that began to really gather strength well over a decade ago, has been allowed to culminate in the current refugee crisis. It also exposes the hypocrisy of a religion whose priests are meant to take a vow of poverty but who sport very expensive smartphones.  Maybe these are also donations from worshippers looking to improve their karma? The second reason why it's shocking is that a woman who has been raised to the level of modern day saint by the international community - Aung San Suu Kyi - does absolutely nothing to prevent the genocide.  Apologists may say she's constrained by her alliance with the military dictatorship that truly runs Burma, but her claim that the the Rohingya are burning their own homes is absurd.  

One can only be grateful that Barbet Schroeder - a long-time documentarian of evil - took the time and patience to expose this scandal.  And that he had the intelligence to approach the Venerable Wirathu and appeal to his vanity in order to get him to participate in the movie.  And there's the power of the film - we see Wirathu calmly and pompously espouse hate speech against muslims of a kind and savagery that would make Marine le Pen blush.  He is damned from his own lips.  The power of the film is to show the clear link between the speech and its consequences - footage of soldiers and Burmese civilians beating the shit out of muslims and burning mosques. It's a savage indictment of racial and religious prejudice and makes a great companion piece to AZMAISH - also showing in the festival - which chronicles the rise of anti-muslim violence in India.

I cannot imagine that there is a more timely, relevant or necessary film to watch at this year's festival and yet I was saddened to see that the screening was two thirds empty. Where were all those bloggers using their free passes that were watching BEAST an hour earlier?  It's also a savage indictment of modern film criticism and amateur journalism that they couldn't be arsed to both watch this film or put a spotlight on the issues it highlighted. Shame on them.

THE VENERABLE W has a running time of 107 minutes.  The film played Cannes, Melbourne, Locarno and London.  It opened in France earlier this year. 

BEAST - Day 6 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Micheal Pearce's BEAST is an assured directorial debut that's half claustrophobic family drama in the manner of Lars von Trier, and half serial killer whodunnit. It stars Jessie Buckley (WAR AND PEACE) as Moll - a bullied daughter of an oppressively middle-class family living on the insular island of Jersey.  Given how overlooked and snubbed she is, it's no surprise that Moll is drawn to the charismatic outsider Pascal (singer-actor Johnny Flynn).  She has little concept of self-care, putting herself in harm's way and lying to the police because she wants the attention.  Her family hate Pascal because he's of a lower social class but they are more justifiably concerned that there's a serial killer on the island.  The question is how far Moll suspects and suppresses her suspicions about Pascal and what she'll do with them given that she's alienated most people on the island. 

Where the film works best is in chronicling the passive-aggressive coercion of a manipulative family.  Geraldine McEwan is truly frightening as Moll's mother, and Jessie Buckley demonstrates formidable range as she moves from bullied, self-harming daughter, to passionate lover, to agent of justice. The serial killer piece is good but perhaps less assured in its pacing and reveals. Nonetheless, this is a highly impressive first feature from Pearce and I look forward to seeing how he develops as a film-maker. 

BEAST has a running time of 107 minutes and will play London and Toronto 2017.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

ON CHESIL BEACH - Day 5 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


ON CHESIL BEACH is a very well acted and shot adaptation of Ian McEwan's novella right up until the point whether the author tacks on a two-part time-jumping epilogue that ruins the logic of the film.  More of that after the end credits of this review, in case you want to be kept spoiler free.

The movie starts in a hotel room in a British sea-side resort in the early 60s. A young couple nervously attempt to have sex on their wedding night, but both are inexperienced.  In flashbacks we discover that the girl, Florence (Saoirse Ronan) is an upper-middle class Oxford graduate attempting to make a career as a concert violinist. She comes from snobbish parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West) who have raised her in an incredibly conservative manner. She has attempted to rebel against their snobbery, partly by marrying Edward (Billy Howle), but retains an intense fear of sex.  The flashbacks also allow us to learn more about Edward, a lower middle class boy (but oh how that tiny gradation in class looms large!) whose father is a primary school teacher and whose mother has suffered brain damage. He's also has a first class degree, but from UCL and is currently somewhat drifting in life.  Marriage to Florence thus gives him a job and financial stability.

The beauty of the book and the film is that there's no doubt that the couple love each other. Indeed, that is it's central tragedy. But poor Florence is frigid, for reasons hinted at but made far more explicit in the movie. And poor Edward is too young and insecure to know how to handle her reaction, and instinctively blames it on class rather than emotional trauma. We see more of his family life in this adaptation and I really loved Anne-Marie Duff's performance as Edward's mother - in fact I would argue that this storyline is really the heartbreaking part of the film.  The main story is of course moving and well acted but the choice of epilogue makes Florence less sympathetic.  This isn't a problem per se, it's just that the subsequent actions jar with the portrayal of Florence that we see in the majority of the film.

ON CHESIL BEACH has a running time of 110 minutes. The film played Toronto and London 2017 and opens in the UK on Jan 19th.

Spoilers for the film:  What particularly flummoxed Meester Phil was how Florence could go from being so traumatised by sexual abuse that she couldn't face sex with Edward to being happily married and pregnant three years later. 

THE FINAL YEAR - Day 5 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


THE FINAL YEAR is a bittersweet documentary about three figures working on diplomacy in 2016. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to negotiate a deal on nuclear proliferation with Iran; UN Ambassador Samantha Power is trying to get the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram back; Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor is spearheading the attempts to reconcile with Cuba and keep Climate Change at the top of the agenda. In doing so, all three espouse the doctrine that America is most successful at defending her interests when she uses her soft power and diplomacy rather than her hard military power.  This, they argue, is Barack Obama's legacy.  It is an unashamedly idealistic one, and one that seeks to upend decades of assumptions about how the US does business. And it is depicted by director Greg Barker, who clearly also believes in this humanitarian mission.  The result is a very intimate and humanising picture of hard-working politicians and civil servants who really are working in service of their nation.  

But the documentary is not without its problems.  For a start, although I've characterised it as a portrait of three people, the director actually sells it as a portrait of four - and that fourth is Susan Rice, director of the NSA.  The problem is that she's in roughly three scenes, provides just a soundbite, shows nothing of her personal life, and is basically a pretty anonymous figure.  I wonder Barker just didn't get enough material of Rice because of the nature of her job, or whether she was just less comfortable on camera. Either way, he should've downgraded her from a starring role in the opening credits because it raised expectations the film didn't match. Moreover, I wonder if Rice might have been more of a foreign policy Realist, and as such a fascinating counter-weight to the Internationalists.  But then that wouldn't have fitted in with Barker's narrative.

The other gaping hole in this documentary is both the protagonists reactions to Trump's gathering success in the primaries and then the response to his election. All three seem very complacent about his victory as does Barker. He actually stood up at the London Film Festival and said to the audience "no-one expected Trump to win". Well I did. And I prepared for it.  And if I did why weren't these guys less arrogant about the result.  Maybe if the liberal elite had been less sanguine they might've been better able to prevent it.  

I think what Barker and I know what Power want us to take away from the film is to have renewed hope in the power of diplomacy and the value of service and not to be disheartened by Trump's victory. But frankly I took the opposite message from the film. I took the message that these three people had wasted their time on measures that Trump had immediately overturned - the Paris agreement, the Iran deal, the very idea that diplomacy can be used vs aggression (viz North Korea.)  For me, they have left no legacy, and the film shows how brittle diplomacy is, and indeed how Power is, in particular, to think otherwise. 

THE FINAL YEAR has a running time of 89 minutes. It played London and Toronto 2017.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

BATTLE OF THE SEXES - Day 4 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) have created an immensely likeable and uplifting movie in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. It's the story of an infamous exhibition tennis match played in the mid-70s between one of the all time greats of women's tennis - Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and an ageing former Grand Slam winner Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).  Both are absolutely fascinating characters.  Riggs is a paunchy fifty year old on a second marriage to a rich woman (Elisabeth Shue).  He has a gambling habit and a love of the limelight, and while earning a pittance on the seniors tour become irked that the women are demanding more money.  Those women are led by Billie Jean King - who in a no-nonsense straightforward way asks why, if the women sell as many tickets as the men, they don't get paid as much? What's more, King is willing to back herself - setting up a rival women's tour with tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). In doing so, she goes head to head with the misogynistic head of the USLTA Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). The set up of the film is thus an exhibition match between Riggs and King where she has to win to rescue the reputation of women's tennis and indeed make a point about equality to the millions of people watching on TV.  But as she rightly points out, the real point to be made is against Kramer and his ilk rather than the buffoon-like Riggs. 

Behind the scenes we also have intense emotional battles. As the world now knows, King, though married to the deeply supportive and remarkably accommodating Larry, is equally gay. In the course of the film she begins a passionate affair with the tour hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), something that Larry tacitly condones, but that is hidden from the press and King's parents.  The more fascinating reaction is that of King's rival Margaret Court, who is a wife, mother and apparent homophobe. Having done a quick bit of internet research about her, I can't help but think that it let Court off very lightly.  Arguably the more fascinating relationship, because it's less well-known, is that of Riggs and his wife.  She is evidently a strong woman, and analyses their relationship very clearly.  She loves his humour and large personality, but hates his gambling and general unreliability.  Although one of the smaller roles in the film, Elisabeth Shue imbues it with such humanity and compassion that it really was the stand out part of the film.  

As for the rest, well it's all very well done. And Stone absolutely gets some of the physical mannerisms of King and Carell is almost spookily similar to the real-life Riggs. Is the direction pioneering or meaningfully interesting? No not really. But that's what this film is.  To quote Meester Phil, this is the two hour and one minute version of the one minute forty second trailer. This is a movie that really just tells a good story well - it doesn't over-complicate it, and it's a good time. 

BATTLE OF THE SEXES has a running time of 121 minutes and is rated PG-13.  BATTLE OF THE SEXES played London and Toronto 2017 and is already on release in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It opens in Brazil on October 19th, in Hong Kong on November 2nd, in Spain on November 10th, in Germany on November 16th, in France, the Netherlands, Singapore and the UK on November 24th, in Argentina on November 30th, in Colombia on December 7th and in Poland on December 8th.

120 BPM - Day 4 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


120 BPM is an absolutely harrowing and beautifully constructed and acted 90 minute love story surrounded by a less compelling slightly Basil Expositiony story about AIDS activists in late 80s and early 90s Paris. 

To deal with the latter part first, we open up the movie at a weekly ACT UP Paris meeting where an old hand explains the concept of ACT UP and how the meetings work to four new joiners.  This is evidently just for the audience's benefit and is very heavy-handed. We get this intermittently all the way - this or that drug remedy explained.  And I have to admit that while it was fascinating to see the first ACT UP action, I didn't really need to see them debate again and again with the apparently evil drug companies.  After all, it felt to me that it was the regressive social forces in France that were more to blame for Mitterand's failure to act. And even more frustrating and depressing, it wasn't clear from this film at least that ACT UP achieved anything other than provide each other with a sense of community and support. 

All of this is irrelevant though because the love story at the movie's heart is so beautifully acted, and genuinely affecting rather than cheaply emotionally manipulative.  It's the story of a young boy called Sean who catches HIV the first time he has sex. When we meet him he's courageous, and proud and active and vital but as we see him move through the film he becomes increasingly sick with AIDS.  We watch him fall in love with Nathan and Nathan become his full time carer. And as their story moves to its inevitable conclusion the power and weight of its conclusion becomes almost unbearable. I didn't cry as much as I did in STRONGER, but the weight of emotion is still with me and will take some time to process.  Kudos to all involved but especially the actor playing Sean - Nahuel Pérez Biscayart - he deserves all the awards. 

120 BPM has a running time of 140 minutes. The movie played Cannes 2017 and won the Fipresci Prize, the Queer Palm, the Grand Jury Prize and the Francois Chalais award. It also played Melbourne, San Sebastian, Toronto, New York and London. It was released earlier this year in France and Italy. It opens in the USA on Oct 20th, in Sweden on Dec 1st, in Bulgaria on Jan 26th and in the UK on April 6th.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) - Day 4 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


In a London Film Festival where the prevailing tone has been one of a wake, in the words of Meester Phil, "Thank god for some wit and arseholery." The arsehole in question is paterfamilias Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman with a raffish beard), a retired sculptor full of passive aggressive nastiness and jealousy. On the last of many marriages, Harold lives an indulgent life bitter that his supposedly less talented peers have achieved more commercial success, and demanding that his three children dance to his needs. The eldest is his son Danny (Adam Sandler) - an utterly charming but insecure man who has been constantly overlooked in favour of Harold's younger son Matthew (Ben Stiller), who is far more successfully financially and seems to have discovered a better way of dealing with his father. And then poor Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is so overlooked that her grievances with her dad taking a back seat and comically inserted in parenthesis. 

The film is, then, a very darkly comic one.  There are properly laugh out loud moments to be sure - but the tone is bitter and tragic. And this is where the casting is absolutely spot on. I love it when Stiller and Sandler play straight roles because there's a certain manic comic energy underlying it. And when they ARE called upon for their slapstick chops, the payoff is all the better for the surrounding dark context. If I have any criticism to make, it's that the film felt over-long and occasionally lost momentum.  I felt that this was particularly the case in the scenes involving Harold's fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson).  Nothing wrong with her performance at all, it just felt a bit redundant. Otherwise this was a truly superb film as one would expect from a Noah Baumbach picture. 

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES has a running time of 110 minutes and will be released on Netflix on October 13th. 

Friday, October 06, 2017

JOURNEY'S END - Day 3 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Saul Dibb (SUITE FRANCAISE, THE DUCHESS) has directed what is the stand out film of this year's festival to date, an adaptation of R C Sherriff's stage play JOURNEY'S END.  This powerfully tragic tale of men on the front line in World War One has been brought from stage to screen still depicting the claustrophobia and tension of trench warfare without ever feeling "stagey" or merely a west end show with a camera put in front of it. Rather, Dibb uses his Welsh location to good effect - his film beautifully depicts the mists rising above the trench, and one can almost feel the damp, stale air.  And his use of candlelight inside the dug-out is atmospheric and sometimes even beautiful. 

The movie begins with a naive new officer requesting to join C Company in St Quentin, France, just as the troops are rotated onto the front line. Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is full of that Dulce Et Decorum Est spirit, but is shocked to find that his schoolboy mentor Stanhope (Sam Claflin) has become a superb commander but also a cynical and volatile alcoholic - something that Stanhope is painfully aware of and scared Raleigh will tell his sister, Stanhope's beloved.  Thus it falls to Stanhope's two junior officers to take Raleigh under their wing - there's the affable, modest, epitome of the stiff-upper-lip, "Uncle" (Paul Bettany) and the working class jovial Trotter (Stephen Graham).  The officers are rounded out by Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) - a ladies man who may or may not be faking neuralgia to get away from the front - something that Stanhope is not having anything of.

Much of the action takes place in and around the officer's dugout as they unwillingly accede to an order for a near-suicide mission to fetch intelligence from enemy lines; and then as the men face a heavy bombardment for the start of the German's Spring Offensive. I found myself physically tensing throughout, I was so involved in the fate of the characters. In such an intense environment, one sees Uncle adopt an air of calm indifference and studied bonhomie to offset Stanhope's nasty aggression.  And it's the play between the two that's really at the heart of this film.  If Bettany's performance is the most instantly likeable it's Claflin who steals the movie. There's a deep and desperate vulnerability to Stanhope that reasserts itself in the film's final scenes. It's a bravura and committed performance that deserves award season recognition. 

JOURNEY'S END has a running time of 107 minutes and played Toronto and London 2017. It will be released in the UK on Feb 2nd. 

STRONGER - Day 3 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


David Gordon Green's STRONGER attempts to tell the story of Jeff Bauman - a young man who had his legs blown off in the Boston Marathon bombing; apparently struggled with peoples attempts to turn him into a symbol of triumph in adversity; but eventually reconciled himself to his fame.  In order to do this, his character arc of frustration and depression is framed by the story of his ex-girlfriend Erin, who gave up her job to nurse Jeff back to health, and fell pregnant by him in the process.  Jeff's reluctance to accept his public role as hero is thus echoed in his reluctance to take on the role of dependable boyfriend and father. 

The film is well enough done. Jake Gyllenhaal looks appropriately overwhelmed and frustrated; poor talented Tatiana Maslany has little to do as Erin but be on the bring of tears. I found the rest of the cast - how shall I say this - insufficiently Boston.  Miranda Richardson was a bizarre choice as Jeff's alcoholic mum. I felt that David Gordon Green was probably trying to portray a loud, obnoxious family of the type we got in THE FIGHTER or that we see pastiched in WAHLBURGERS, but it just fell flat here.   On the positive side, I really liked the way they held back from showing Jeff's experience of the bombing until well into the film, although I wonder if some might find it too explicit or even exploitative. The highlight of the film was, for me, the sleeper story that gets Jeff back on track - I won't say more for fear of spoiling it - but once the true emotional heart of the story was revealed it absolutely broke me and I sobbed my way through the rest of the film.  So, STRONGER is by no means a perfect film, but where it works it really works, and the emotional payoff more than compensates for some of the more eccentric directorial choices. 

STRONGER has a running time of 116 minutes. The movie played Toronto and London 2017. It has already opened in Singapore, the USA, Canada, Estonia and the Netherlands. It opens in Portugal on Oct 12th, in Australia and New Zealand on Oct 19th, and in the UK on Dec 8th.

MUDBOUND - Day 3 - BFI London Film Festival 2017


Dee Rees' MUDBOUND is a profoundly cliched and deathly slow-paced film about racism in post-WW2 Mississippi.  We're on a mud-drenched farm, owned by a small-minded white man (Jason Clarke) and his rather superficial, simpering  but ultimately warm-hearted wife (Carey Mulligan). They live there with their two daughters, and his cruelly racist but caricatured Pappy (Jonathan Banks), while the brother (Garrett Hedlund is off fighting in Germany.  Also living on the farm are the black tenant farmers, of eminent virtue and no character nuance whatsoever. As Meester Phil put it, the mum is played by Mary J Blige in the "Oprah Winfrey" role. The tenants son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is also off in Germany fighting the war, and experiencing far more freedom than he ever found in the USA.

The plot of the story, such as it is, sees the white brother and black son return from WW2 and form a friendship through their shared trauma.  Clearly nothing good is going to come of this anachronistic enlightenment and in due course we get a searingly violent scene set to a beautiful gospel hymn. In fact, I would wager that it's an unintentional irony of this film that all the really truly shitty stuff happens either in church or when set to a hymn.  I think the ending is meant to be uplifting, nonetheless, but I found it all rather patronising and fantastic - as if Germany post-war was an utopia of racial harmony.  

Overall, this is a long drawn-out film, whose paper-thin characters can't stand the weight of history thrust upon them.  And I found the wannabe Mallickian voice-overs deeply irritating.  Seriously - watch the first half and ask yourself - would this be any less good - would my understanding of characters' feelings be any less - without this incessant portentous rambling?

MUDBOUND has a running time of 134 minutes and is rated R.  The film played Sundance, Toronto, New York and London 2017. It goes on release on the internet in the USA on November 17th.