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.

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.