LFF Day 10 – Thelma | Downsizing | You Were Never Really Here | Let the Sunshine In

Thelma

Thelma (Eili Harboe) is living away from her devout Christian family for the first time to study biology at university. Isolated from her loved ones Thelma finds university to be a lonely place before she inserts herself into the life of the popular but welcoming Anja (Okay Kaya).

Anja and Thelma become close in ways that the latter isn’t prepare for. As Thelma begins to question her own identity she starts to suffer from seizures and experiences strange visions. Before too long an undercurrent of the supernatural has seeped into proceedings and Thelma can’t decide whether to be afraid or if others should be afraid of her.

Thelma is a striking film to look at and filled with nuanced performances but didn’t strike the right tone for me. An exciting blend of the supernatural and a character study but sadly lacking in the thrills I kept expecting to be around the next corner.

Downsizing

Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is a tricky film to review; I don’t know whether to review the film it sells itself as, or the film it actually is.

The film we are sold is a comedy starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a couple who decide to fix all their troubles by being shrunk down to five inches tall so they can join a thriving community of small people. The idea here is that being small means you need fewer resources and create less waste; it’s the only way to save the planet! Oh, and your money is worth a thousand times more in the small economy. The idea is intriguing and executed well down to the smallest detail. We get to see the scepticism of those around the couple prior to the downsizing, and the small world and the procedure required to get there are convincingly realised.

So far so good! I wonder what the film will explore in this unique situation…

With the first act finished the film takes an alarming left turn. Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau are introduced as questionable racial stereotypes and a different plot is introduced that focuses less on the small world but on issues affecting the world we live in. My man bug bear really is that this plot could have been explored without the whole downsizing premise, and that a second film could have been made to make the most of that squandered opportunity.

The resulting film is amusing but very messy.

Downsizing is released in UK cinemas from 19th January 2018 and I cannot wait to hear what you make of it.

You Were Never Really Here

It is a tragedy that Lynne Ramsay hasn’t directed a film since 2011 and We Need to Talk About Kevin so her new film was met with a long queue of critics anxious to devour her latest. And boy was it worth the wait.

The always compelling Joaquin Phoenix stars as a weary gun-for-hire who will perform any task for a bundle of cash and who is plagued by traumas from his past. Phoenix is called upon to rescue a young girl from a sex trafficking ring and finds himself embroiled in a bigger conspiracy than he first realises.

What makes this film unique is that Phoenix’s character has no interest in unravelling the conspiracy or getting to the bottom of everything. He has a single focus; protecting a young girl from harm and inflicting violence on those who are to blame. Often armed only with a hammer Phoenix is a hulking bundle of sore muscle who is relentless in his pursuit.

If this sounds like Taken then forget that notion as what we have here is something without contrivance, extraneous details, or pulled punches. The violence her is unshowy and brutal. Brawl in Cell Block 99 may be more graphic but this film is much more visceral and harder to watch for it. We spend a lot of time in Phoenix’s head and see flashes of his past as they intermingle with unfolding plot. The results is a heady brew of cinematic gold.

Ramsay’s direction is perfection. Phoenix’s performance is sublime. Jonny Greenwood’s score is bone rattlingly good. An absolute trauma of a film.

Juliette Binoche

Claire Denis directs a showcase for actress Juliette Binoche as she plays a divorced artist searching for love and finding quantity rather than quality.

A witty film in which we watch Binoche work her way through a series of lovers that she finds unsuitable in a variety of ways, all the while declaring her love life to be over. The film is a fun examination of how we are often our own worst enemies and rarely know what we actually want unless it is the one this we cannot have.

Maybe I was too emotionally assaulted by the previous film but Let the Sunshine In failed to grab me in any deeper way. A fun but forgettable affair.

LFF Day 9 – The Killing of a Sacred Deer | The Lovers | The Florida Project | On the Beach at Night Alone

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Two years ago Yorgos Lanthimos made his English language film debut with The Lobster and cemented his place in the hearts of diehard cinephiles. Now he is back, and reunited with Colin Farrell, in a similarly disjointed story of revenge and morality.

Farrell plays a surgeon who has befriended the son (Barry Keoghan) of a deceased former patient. Farrell’s surgeon has a perfect life with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children but the introduction of Keoghan into their lives brings with it a sinister game and drastic consequences.

In any other director’s hands the plot of the film would be a run of the mill thriller but Lanthimos would never be so boring. As with The Lobster all dialogue is delivered in an emotionless deadpan that is increasingly at odds with the events as they unfold. The result is an incredibly creepy and deeply unsettling atmosphere in which I genuinely didn’t know what would happen next. The low energy delivery from Farrell makes any moments of emotional outburst all the more explosive and adds to the overall sense of dread that permeates the film.

As strange a film as you have come to expect from Lanthimos but with a more focussed plot than a lot of his previous work.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer screens at the festival on 13th and 15th October and in UK cinemas from 3rd November 2017.

The Lovers

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts star as a couple whose marriage has run its course. Both have been having long-term affairs (with Aidan Gillen and Melora Walters respectively) and have separately chosen the impending visit of their son as the moment to leave one another. As the big day grows closer the illicit relationships start to feel more and more like hard work and, after an unplanned evening in with a bottle of wine, old sparks start to fly again for the couple.

Winger and Letts beautifully realise a relationship well past its sell by date and then the shock and excitement as the pair start to fall for each other again. The script by writer-director Azazel Jacobs is very clever and beautifully executes flirtation via subtext as the married couple somehow end up seducing one another through their lies about their whereabouts. It’s not often you witness a conversation with at least three layers of understanding to unpick.

There is a lot to love about The Lovers. Don’t underestimate this film, it has a few surprises up its sleeve and one beautiful cover song by Tracey Letts.

The Lovers screens at the festival on 13th, 14th, and 15th October.


Sean Baker blasted into the collective consciousness with his 2015 iPhone-shot debut Tangerine and now follows it up with a more traditionally shot drama surrounding the occupants of a rundown motel in Florida. The motel is named after Cinderella’s castle but the lives of the inhabitants are far from fairytales.

The focus of The Florida Project is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince) and her painfully young mother (Bria Vinaite). On the surface Moonee has a terrible upbringing; living in poverty with a mother who has to hustle each week to pay rent on a cramped motel room. Moonee is often left to her own devices and has adventures during the day with whatever local kids she can convince to come with her. In reality Moonee is incredibly loved; her mother showers her with attention and tries to bring joy to her life and the motel’s manager (Willem Dafoe) keeps a watchful eye over the pair too.

Both young inexperienced actresses give bold performances in a film that meanders through one summer in their character’s lives. Authenticity is the key to a film like this and The Florida Project positively oozes it, or rather it aggressively spits authenticity in your face.

Funny, uplifting, and heartbreaking.

The Florida Project screens at the festival on 13th and 14th October and opens in UK cinemas on 10th November.

On the Beach at Night Alone

Hong Sang-soo has an incredible rate of work with at least one new film coming out each year. Hong reunites with his now frequent collaborator, and controversial real life love interest, Kim Minhee in a story of the aftermath of a love affair. On the Beach at Night Alone is the story of what happens after the credits have rolled on a typical love story.

Kim plays a woman recovering from a relationship with a married film director, a relationship that oddly mirrors her own with Hong. When reviewing Right Now, Wrong Then two years ago I listed the Hong Sang-soo tropes and while his traditional visual style is present this film is firmly focussed on its female lead and not on a bumbling romantic male.

I don’t Hong has ever been so on the side of the female in his film. Here we spend all our time we Kim, we see her struggling to connect to people, and it is her that embarrasses herself while drunk; a role usually left to a man in a Hong Sang-soo film.

On the Beach at Night Alone feels deeply personal and offers a very intimate portrait of a young woman with a broken heart. Long may the Kim and Hong collaboration continue.

On the Beach at Night Alone screens at the festival on 15th October.

LFF Day 8 – The Cured | Journeyman | Angels Wear White | Princess Cyd

The Cured

For the majority of its runtime The Cured tries so hard to subvert the zombie canon and resist the clichés of the genre that we all love so much. In the end though the film stops subverting and starts reverting, and the film finally gets some teeth.

The Cured is set in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak in which 75% of infected individuals have been cured and are being reintegrated back into society. The incurable remain in captivity and society does not easily accept those that have been cured. The cured become outcasts as the uninfected protest against them and rally against their inclusion in the normal population. Choose your own metaphor for what the cured represent but in this post-Brexit times the analogy feels particularly pertinent.

For me the film tried so hard to be innovative that it forgot to be enjoyable. All the characters seem to talk at each other rather than to each other and when they aren’t doing that everyone is moping around with expressionless faces. The film is also liberally sprinkled with false jump scares which betray the genre that The Cured is desperate to break out into.

An interesting idea but not the cleanest execution. And a criminal underuse of Ellen Page.

The Cured screens at the festival on 14th October.

Journeyman

It has been six years since Paddy Considine shattered all our nerves with the absolutely brutal Tyrannosaur and now he is back to devastate us all over again.

Considine stars as the middleweight boxing world champion who reenters the ring to defend his title but doesn’t leave in the same shape he went in. Suffering from physical and mental injuries the boxer struggles to recover with the help of his wife (Jodie Whittaker) who is also juggling caring for their young baby.

As you would expect Journeyman is a technical masterclass from the writing and directing through to the two lead performances. Considine has created a meaty role for himself that allows him to take on the machismo of a boxer and the frail form of the impaired. Whittaker has the less showy, but equally impressive, role of a woman trying to remain strong for her husband whilst also dealing with her own life having been turned upside.

Everything about the film is engineered to make you weep and weep we all did. And yet… There is something almost too technical and engineered about Journeyman. The film is self-consciously trying to get you to feel certain emotions and left me feel one step removed; admiring its brilliance but always aware of what it was trying to do.

Regardless of all that; you will cry.

Journeyman screens at the festival on 13th and 14th October and opens in UK cinemas from 16th February 2018.

Angels Wear White

From Chinese writer-director Vivian Qu comes a searing drama about sexual violence, corruption, and the seemingly inescapable wrongs done to women by men with the slightest amount of power.

After two young girls are assaulted by the police commissioner in a local hotel the police and the hotel hesitate in allowing justice to proceed and the young girls involved, including a teen runaway working at the hotel, struggle to deal with the events that took place and the impact it has on their lives.

For the men in the film, only seen in minor roles, the emphasis is in protecting their own best interests regardless of the impact it might have on the victims. The girls too are looking out for themselves but also have to contend with the sexualisation that is being applied to them by outside forces; from the investigators, their parents, and their employers.

Angels Wear White is a devastating and uncomfortable watch. It digs deep into the aftermath of a horrific event and how it ripples through the lives of everyone but the perpetrator. It also discretely highlights bigger issues in society that don’t reflect well on anyone. Qu teases fantastic portrayals from her young cast and has a sharp eye for a visual metaphor.

Angels Wear White screens at the festival on 13th and 14th October.

Princess Cyd

Princess Cyd is in many ways your typical indie drama but that doesn’t make it any less pleasant to watch.

In Stephen Cone’s romantic comedy drama the teenage Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) escapes her home life and visits her aunt (Rebecca Spence) in Chicago for the summer. Cyd is in the midst of discovering herself sexually and can’t quite relate to the aunt who prefers to spend her time reading, writing, and talking with friends. The pair consider one another with fascination and during Cyd’s stay they come to understand and learn from each other.

Princess Cyd only occasionally stumbles into melodrama with the majority of the film made up of subtle moments between characters. There is nothing mindblowing about the film but I don’t think it is in the business for blowing minds.

A charming indie just waiting to be streamed.

LFF Day 7 – Professor Marston & the Wonder Women | Brawl in Cell Block 99 | Bad Genius | So Help Me God

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

Professor Marston (Luke Evans) and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) invent the lie detector, enter into a polyamorous relationships with a student (Bella Heathcote), and then pool these influences to create the most popular female superhero Wonder Woman. This film may look like a typical period drama but contents may include feminism, sadomasochism, and scenes of a progressive nature.

The film offers a fascinating look at the way Wonder Woman was specifically designed to insert feminist values into the mainstream; something that remains all to relevant today as the reception to the recent Wonder Woman film has shown. That said the focus is definitely on the Marstons rather than on Wonder Woman herself.

With all its good intentions and potentially subversive content Professor Marston & the Wonder Women still feels a bit too safe. Despite three great central performance, Rebecca Hall as strong as ever, I never got the sense that the characters existed outside of the scenes shown in the film.

A refreshing change to the norm but a few degrees short of authentic.

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women screens at the festival on 12th and 15th October and is in UK cinemas from 19th November.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Anyone who has seen S. Craig Zahler’s previous film Tomahawk will never forget its slow build to a shocking and violent climax. In his second feature Zahler has repeated this pattern with multiple waves of calm building to increasing extreme explosions of brutal, graphic violence.

An unrecognisable Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley (not Brad) a man who tries to live his life right and by a strict, if questionable, moral code. Unfortunately events conspire against him and Bradley finds himself descending deeper and deeper into a spiral of savagery as he is forced to use brutality to protect his family.

Starting off grounded in reality Brawl in Cell Block 99 evolves into a bloodthirsty fantasy that makes excellent use of practical effects. This film is not for the faint hearted as the visceral sadism had me audibly wincing and a fellow audience member covering their mouth with a handkerchief, their glasses in hand.

A masterpiece of the macabre. Not one to watch alone.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 screens at the festival on 11th, 12th, and 13th October.

Bad Genius

Talented scholarship student Lynn starts at an expensive new school and finds herself surrounded by wealthy classmates whose parents have paid their way to better education. When exams loom Lynn is seduced by money she and her father desperately need to help her less gifted fellow students cheat.

After initial success Lynn and friends get more and more ambitious, and greedy, and try to pull off bigger and bigger cheating schemes. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven set at a Thai school complete with slick camera moves, double-crossing, and increasing complex cons.

The film is a lot of fun and has a superb young cast led by Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying. The film is sadly let down by an unjustifiable runtime of over two hours and an ending that jars with all the fun had up to that point. There’s a perfect film hidden somewhere in here.

Bad Genius screens at the festival on 13th and 15th October.

So Help Me God

A truly bizarre documentary from directors Jean Libon and Yves Hinant follows Belgian Judge Anne Gruwez as she goes about her work. Gruwez is a fascinating subject to watch as she tackles all manner of horrendous crimes with terrific gallows humour.

We sit in on meetings with murderers, thugs, and thieves as Gruwez handles them all with a no-nonsense attitude. She is equally unphased when exhuming a body or listening to a woman describe how voices told her to kill a child. There is nothing this woman has not seen or heard before. The only time her interest is truly piqued is when learning about new sexual practices from a dominatrix, or advising a family about the trouble that come from marrying first cousins.

The film is an interesting curiosity but doesn’t linger long once you’ve finished watching.

LFF Day 6 – The Party | The Endless | Custody | AlphaGo | Person to Person

The Party

Writer-director Sally Potter has assembled an all-star cast too numerous to bother typing out for what is a sharp, short (71 minute) comedy that takes place in one middle-class house. With its single setting and a plot delivered purely through dialogue it isn’t hard to image The Party unfolding on-stage rather than in crisp black and white on-screen.

The film moves at a moderate pace and the dialogue is frequently witty and wry. As in all good comedy plays the initial decorum gradually unravels as revelations cause people to lose their cool and relax what little filters that started the evening with. Each character is delightfully hypocritical as we listen to half a dozen middle-class liberals fail to live up to their own moral standards.

A brief but enjoyable affair which is all leading up to a final punchline that will deliver a satisfying chuckle. The cost per minute is high so perhaps one to watch at home?

The Party screens at the festival on 10th and 11th October and then opens in UK cinemas from 13th October.

The Endless

Directing duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead were last at the London Film Festival with their excellent Spring, a genre hopping romance, and this year return with a film they not only direct but star in as two brothers.

The brothers in question live miserable lives having escaped from a cult years ago and failed to integrate fully into society since. After receiving a mysterious videotape they decide to return to their formal cult for a visit to get some closure. Back at the cult they find everyone alive, well, and completely unchanged since the brothers left.

As the brothers gradually uncover the mystery lying behind the cult the film morphs out of the genre you thought you were watching and into something entirely different. Films like the recent Coherence come to mind as a similarly unpredictable and uncategorisable bedfellow.

There are lots of things about The Endless that really should not work, including some clumsy exposition, but Benson and Moorhead give such authentic performances that the rest of the film just falls into place. I can’t wait to see what new fever dream they come up with next.

The Endless screens at the festival on 10th, 11th, and 15th October.

Custody

Debut writer-director Xavier Legrand has created an unbelievably tense 90 minute drama set in the aftermath of a messy divorce and during the tricky first few weeks of a new custody arrangement.

The wife (Léa Drucker) wants nothing to do with her former husband (Denis Ménochet) and has done everything she can to keep him out of her life with claims that he is abusive. Stuck in the middle of this emotional tug of war is their young son (Thomas Gioria) who now must spend every other weekend suffering an awkward handover between his parents.

I won’t say any more about the plot but the film is a painfully suspenseful and difficult to watch ordeal. Everything is perfectly performed and executed but the experience is every bit as unpleasant as it should be.

A masterpiece I will never watch again.

Custody screens at the festival on 11th and 14th October.

AlphaGo

Go is an ancient Chinese board game with more possible board combinations than there are atoms in the universe. Some humans have mastered the game well enough to make their livings as celebrity Go world champions but it was always thought that computers would never be able to master a game with so many possible ways to play.

Meanwhile… Google’s DeepMind team were looking for a challenge and built a machine learning algorithm called AlphaGo with the intent that if it was fed enough information about past games, and taught the rules of Go, it could slowly learn how to play better than any human.

Last year in Seoul AlphaGo took on world champion Go player Lee Sedol in a best out of five game of Go. This documentary follows the journey of a group of programmers in the UK as they build an AI and take it to Korea to defeat a man whose life is built on the ancient game. The result is a gripping sports drama filled with beautiful nerds that celebrates determination, ingenuity, and shows that AI is unlikely to take over the world any time soon.

Absolutely brimming with charm and best watched not knowing the outcome of last year’s battle of human vs. algorithm.

AlphaGo screens at the festival on 11th October.

Person to Person

Not everyone is going to love Person to Person as the plot is secondary to the characters that scattered across this 16mm shot ensemble piece. The result of watching it will either be frustration that your time has been wasted, or delight at the time you’ve spent in this film’s warm embrace.

The effect of having been shot on 16mm gives the film a timeless quality allowing it to easily fit into 70s cinematic canon despite the presence of mobile phones and the internet. Something about this visual softness endeared the film to me and I fell fully for its easy charms.

There are a few plots to choose from here; a new shirt, leaked nudes, a murder/suicide, a broken watch, a new friendship, and a rare vinyl. None are particularly important and all are portrayed with dry wit and charm. A particular highlight is Abbi Jacobson as a trainee journalist studying under the seasoned pro of Michael Cera.

I can understand someone watching this New York set collage and finding it incredibly frustrating, slow, and inconsequential but I love its lightweight approach to storytelling and would happily watch hours more in this warm universe.

Person to Person screens at the festival on 11th October.