LFF Day 5 – Happy End | Thoroughbreds | Funny Cow | Gemini

Happy End

Michael Haneke is anything but a boring director and as Happy End opens with the live streaming of an overdose it feels like we are in for a controversial treat. Sadly in reality the film’s most controversial aspect is its almost gleeful avoidance of plot or dramatic events. In fact the real meat of the story is skipped over with the audience left watching characters refer obliquely to events without us actually seeing them.

With Funny Games Haneke tortured the audience by making them complicit in the suffering of the characters. With Happy End Haneke instead tortures the audience by boring them with tedious inaction and irrelevant diversions. No film of the festival has been such a slog or required so much energy to just stay awake.

The BFI’s synopsis claims this film to be “formidably intelligent” and a “slyly satirical gem”. Clearly the film was too smart or too sly for me as I truly did not enjoy it, and not in an exciting or scandalous way; I was just bored senseless.

With a cast including Isabelle Huppert and Toby Jones Happy End is a waste of good talent and everybody’s time.

Happy End screens at the festival on 9th and 13th October and is released in UK cinemas on 1st December.

Thoroughbreds

From a disappointing master to an encouraging newcomer. Thoroughbreds is the debut feature of Cory Finley and stars the always impressive Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as a pair of privileged young women who start off as reluctant study buddies and, without ever really becoming friends, start to flirt with murderous ideas.

The two leads handle their unsympathetic roles with confident assurance and are accompanied briefly by the late great Anton Yelchin as a local drug dealer out of his depth with two women who have everything to lose but the privilege not to ever risk losing it. Despite there being no likeable characters the film absolutely sucks you in and has you rooting for the baddies.

Finley directs with a witty eye and his script and imagery are accompanied by a perfectly off kilter percussion-heavy score. The result is a dark and deeply satisfying little gem.

Thoroughbreds screens at the festival on 9th, 10th, and 11th October and is in UK cinemas on 9th March 2018.

Funny Cow

Funny Cow is a curious beast. The first feature written by actor Tony Pitts, the film follows an aspiring comedian (Maxine Peake) from her childhood, through an abusive marriage, to success as a stand-up. I was expecting a familiar rags to riches period drama following the rise of her career but Funny Cow is nothing so simple as that.

It is hard to explain what Funny Cow actually is without just showing you the entire film. It is not a comedy; let’s make that clear for a start. This film is a bleak drama with occasional light relief and then when the laughs really start coming they are marred with period-appropriate inappropriate jokes and then a deeply depressing trip to the toilet. Even when we see Peake’s comedian as a success in scenes peppered throughout the film she isn’t being funny, instead she delivers a dark monologue to camera.

Without any marketing material out yet I can’t tell whether Funny Cow meets expectations or not but I honestly wasn’t expecting to feel so deflated by the end. Maxine Peake is incredible in the lead role and I hope she gets more chances to showcase her skills. It is refreshing that Funny Cow does fall into the formulaic mould of Billy Elliot or numerous other British films but at the same time I wish it had found its own coherent shape.

Funny Cow screens at the festival on 9th and 15th October.

Gemini

I am unfamiliar with the work of writer-director Aaron Katz but having seen and enjoyed Gemini I have a sudden urge to devour his back catalogue.

Lola Kirke is the personal assistant to Zoë Kravitz’s movie star but after a night of partying Kirke finds herself turning from assistant to amateur detective when tragedy strikes and blood is spilled. The resulting film is a joyfully authentic modern noir set in modern-day Hollywood and filled with self involved murder suspects.

Aaron Katz has produced a film that looks stunning, is deftly plotted, and has enough self-awareness to be incredibly amusing throughout. The film has a lot to say about the town in which it is set, and the perils of celebrity, but it never stops being fun and never strays from its noir influences.

One of those films that I struggle to explain the joys of so please just go and see it for yourself.

Gemini screens at the festival on 9th and 11th October.

LFF Day 4 – Apostasy | Last Flag Flying | The Final Year | Pickups

Apostasy

Every morning as I head to Woolwich Arsenal station to get the train to the festival I pass two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing next to a magazine rack filled with copies of The Watchtower. They never make any move to talk to me, just stand there waiting for someone to speak to them so that they can reveal The Truth to them and save their soul.

Apostasy is the debut feature from Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, and deals with a mother and her two daughters (Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson) who struggle to follow their faith in a world at odds with their beliefs. As the mother Siobhan Finneran gives a masterclass in subtlety as a woman so sure of her beliefs she will put it before everything else, including her daughters.

Kokotajlo’s film is not explicitly critical of the religion, instead presenting events as plainly as possible and even showing the human side of the devout that we so often walk past on the street without a second glass. It is up to the audience to judge for ourselves the subtle ways the women are controlled and oppressed by their community and the devastating consequences of life in a patriarchy.

With three strong central female performances Apostasy is a stripped back and quietly devastating film.

Apostasy screens at the festival on 8th, 10th, and 14th October.

Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater has had nothing but critical acclaim lately thanks to his hat trick of films Before Midnight, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!!! so it was about time he made something that was just OK.

Steve Carell gives a subdued performance as a grieving father who enlists the help of his fellow Vietnam vets to help him bury his son. He gathers two old friends in the form of a charismatic drunk (Bryan Cranston chewing every piece of scenery he can) and a born again preacher (Laurence Fishburne). The reunited trio embark on a reluctant road trip and along the way reminisce about the joys and pointless losses of war.

With a period setting of 2003 (frequently cemented by repeated references to flip-phones) the film gives the war in Iraq a lot of head shaking disapproval that might have been edgier 15 years ago but now simply echoes popular consensus. While the film tries so hard to be cynical it is undermined by frequent lapses into sentimentality and a few too many close-ups of the American flag. I couldn’t pick up on what the film was trying to convey beyond the fact that war is bad and friends are good.

A fun enough experience but Last Flag Flying ends up overstaying its welcome and then ending abruptly. Not a Linklater classic.

Last Flag Flying screens at the festival on 8th, 9th, and 10th October .

The Final Year

When Greg Barker set out to make a film about the final year of Obama’s administration he can’t have imagined the devastating end the film would have. Trump lurks throughout the film long before his name is even mentioned as the administration discuss various things we now know he is undoing. There’s nothing more devastating than the bad guy winning in the end and realising you’re in the world he’s won.

The film follows Secretary of State John Kerry, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and to a much lesser extent than expected Barack Obama himself. In their final year we see them work to tackle climate change through the Paris agreement, create solid intelligence sharing with Europe and beyond, work on reducing nuclear weapons, encourage immigration, and advocate for diplomacy over military action. The film, as you can imagine, is positively dripping in dramatic irony.

Without the context of Trump the film might not have been so interesting. It doesn’t allow as much unfiltered access as I had hoped and in no way seeks to interrogate its subjects or show them in anything other than the best light. Those we spend time with appear to be the greatest, most flawless, government employees to ever grace the Earth and while they talk of arguments (“structured discussions”) we certainly never see anything close to an uncensored moment.

Fascinating thanks its belated historical context but ultimately toothless The Final Year is an otherwise fascinating look at how good we had it only just over a year ago.

The Final Year screens at the festival on 8th and 9th October.

Pickups

I really can’t help you with this one…

Jamie Thraves directs Aidan Gillen in a drama/documentary about Aidan Gillen (real or otherwise). Gillen is an actor so method that he becomes a serial killer in order to help prepare for a role. At least he does for a while and then is just a lonely weekend dad and beleaguered celebrity just trying to pick up his dog’s poo in peace.

I have no idea.

Pickups screens at the festival on 8th and 12th October.

LFF Day 3 – Columbus | Abracadabra | Golden Exits | Manifesto

Columbus

A slow but pleasant start to the day with Kogonada’s cinematic debut about a man from out of town (John Cho) visiting his sick father who meets a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who can’t escape her hometown of Columbus for fear of her mother not being able to cope.

The two meet and spend long days exploring the Modernist architecture of Columbus and talk about their lives, hopes, dreams, and parental obligations. Their blossoming friendships feels incredibly real as their dialogue is punctuated with as much silence as it is insightful banter.

Kogonada has an amazing eye and the film is filled with exquisitely framed shots of beautiful architecture. As someone with the most amateur interest in architecture this film is an absolute delight. Cho’s character made a great brutalist pun at one point but sadly only myself and his character laughed.

I absolutely adore this film. It was gently moving and a feast for the eyes.

Columbus screens at the festival on 7th and 11th October.

Abracadabra

With my heart filled and brain sedated I moved onto Pablo Berger’s Abracadabra. Kat saw and reviewed Berger’s Blancanieves five years ago so I was intrigued to see what he had produced this time.

Abracadabra is a broad Spanish comedy about a woman (Maribel Verdú) whose selfish husband becomes possessed by a ghost. At first she is delighted by new elements of his personality as he takes an interest in both housework and dancing but before long she uncovers the darker side to her husband’s new persona…

The film is gloriously over the top and had some critics howling with laughter throughout. As for me? I did laugh along occasionally but it was all a bit too much. Perhaps the previous film was still in my head because I just couldn’t get settled into Abracadabra and its frenetic energy.

Abracadabra is a lot of fun but isn’t going to give you a spiritual awakening any time soon.

Abracadabra screens at the festival on 7th, 8th, and 14th October.

Golden Exits

Alex Ross Perry is becoming a festival regular; two years ago Listen Up Philip blew me away, and the following year Queen of Earth pissed Kat right off. This year’s entry falls back in the former category as Perry’s new drama deals with the arrival of an attractive young Australian (Emily Browning) and how she quietly disrupts the lives of the New York couples she entangles herself with.

This makes for a good pairing with The Meyerowitz Stories as both center on New Yorkers dealing with their siblings and the impact their parents’ successes have had on their lives. The influence of Browning on the older men is well-played as is the subsequent impact of those men’s wives. There are no big dramatic showdowns instead small moments of desire, doubt, and derision. Though Browning could come across as a harlot seeking the attraction of married men her character is instead more complex and confusing than that. It is never clear what her intentions are nor whether she should be sided with or railed against.

Everyone in the film is weak, flawed, and lonely. One character repeatedly describes the most mundane aspects of his life and work as “thrilling” but the subtext in his every glance betrays him. Golden Exits is very well observed and shows the less pleasant side waiting to be revealed in all of us.

Golden Exits screens at the festival on 7th and 9th October.

Manifesto

To end the day I saw Cate Blanchett in 13th different roles (and in the flesh) in Julian Rosefeldt’s art installation turned feature film. As she switches between characters and landscapes Blanchett performs monologues culled from various manifestoes on assorted topics; modernism, futurism, communism and Dogme 95 to name the few that the BFI have listed in their synopsis.

The result is a film without narrative and with a single speaking performer (just about). Blanchett changes her appearance as Rosefeldt changes the detailed settings and her new accent starts to deliver a manifesto on a different topic. I cannot pretend to have followed the whole film as my brain constantly fought to pay attention to the words rather than the meticulously crafted imagery that accompanied, and often clashed with, them.

As enjoyable and truly cinematic as a piece of art is likely to get, Manifesto will occasionally lose even the most well read individual but Blanchett is utterly captivating and their of flashes of genius to be found. A humourous and mind-boggling exploration of ideas that should stir something within.

Manifesto screens at the festival on 8th October.

LFF Day 2 – Good Time | Ghost Stories | The Meyerowitz Stories | Word of God

Good Time

Robert Pattinson is unrecognisable as a grungy New York criminal who robs a bank with his brother (Benny Safdie) and then proceeds to have the worst day ever as he finds himself dealing with paint bombs, escaped criminals, a lovesick teenager, and a bottle of LSD hidden in a fun fair.

Good Time is delightfully unpredictable as Pattinson’s day goes from bad to worse via the farcical without ever breaking away from its frankly unpleasant, and often ugly, realism. This is a film without any Hollywood glamour and while its plot reminded me of Victoria its camerawork lacks any smooth grace preferring instead to shove your face in the grime of violence and crime.

With a pulsing synth soundtrack Good Time provides a relentlessly gripping adventure through the scummier parts of New York. It is a lot of fun but you might occasional want to look away.

Good Time screens again at the festival on 8th October and is in UK cinemas from 27th November.

Ghost Stories

Adapted from their play of the same name Ghost Stories comes from the man behind Derren Brown (Andy Nyman) and the man behind The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson). With these combined powers you would expect something dark, witty, and deeply unsettling and that is precisely what you get here.

Nyman plays a supernatural sceptic investigating three stories of a paranormal nature as told by Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, and Martin Freeman. Each tells their story in turn before the film takes a delightful turn that I had thankfully forgotten since seeing the stage show all those years ago.

Nyman and Dyson deftly mix the comical with the terrifying, often letting subtle gags in to give the audience a moment to laugh and release some of the tension that has been tightening their stomachs. I laughed, I jumped, I gasped with realisation, I clenched my buttocks in fear and relaxed them in laughter.

Ghost Stories has no UK release yet but screens again at the festival on 6th and 14th October.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach returns with his special blend of character driven comedic drama that never lacks a cinematic sheen. Dustin Hoffman plays an aging sculptor whose children from various marriages (Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel, and Ben Stiller) struggle to gain his approval and clash over their different upbringings.

Baumbach is the master of creating characters with clashing personalities and simply letting them loose in a room together for our amusement. The plot of The Meyerowitz Storie is tangential to the real pleasure of watching great actors get stuck into their craft. Stiller and Sandler again reminded me that when they let it happen they both can properly act with depth, though Sandler in particular normally tries to hide this from us.

If you like Baumbach then this film is like slipping on a comfortable baggy cardigan and falling asleep in a sunny spot by the window. For everyone else there’s always Sandy Wexler.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) screens at the festival on 6th, 7th, and 12th October and then is available on Netflix from 13th October.

Word of God

The omnipresent Søren Malling stars as a patriarch of an atheist family who refer to their father as “God”. God is a failed writer and semi-successful psychologist who prides himself on making onion soup for his wife and three sons from a secret family recipe and refers to beers as “vegetables”.

God finds out he has cancer and decides he can cure himself not with medicine but by writing his autobiography. Meanwhile his youngest son tries to write poetry to woo a classmate, his middle son becomes an agoraphobic chronic masturbator, and the eldest finds love and religion. As for his wife, well she reached the end of her tether years ago.

As you can probably sense this Danish comedy throws a lot of ideas, and onions, into the pot and the result is amusing but unfulfilling and left me distracted. I definitely enjoyed myself but not as much as some of the other people in the room. Film fatigue perhaps?

Word of God screens again at the festival on 7th October.

LFF Day 1 – Breathe

Breathe

The BFI London Film Festival opened in familiar territory with a repeat of the beige-tinted past we saw at last year’s opening gala with A United Kingdom.

Breathe is the last film you would expect to mark Andy Serkis’ directorial debut as it includes no cutting edge motion capture performances and instead resembles a pair of safety scissors. Breathe is a safe choice in every way; it is a safe first film, a safe opening gala, and a safe choice to show your gran on a Sunday afternoon. Breathe is the quintessential (white) British period drama with the BFI and BBC logos proudly showcased at the start of the film.

The story is heartwarming; a young couple (Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy) have their idyllic existence interrupted when the husband contracts polio, is paralysed and relies on a ventilator to breathe. Given weeks to live near the start of the film events then take a turn for the uplifting as the couple defy all odds, and doctor’s advice, and go on to live full and happy lives with help from friends, privilege, and a stiff upper lip. Despite the rousing real life plot and some determined lead performance the resulting film is underwhelming.

Though better than I was originally expecting Breathe is a lightweight entry into the warm British historical romance canon with a look indistinguishable from its cousins. One to wait for on ITV I’d say.

Breathe is in UK cinemas from 27th October.