London Film Festival / October

Movies I saw at the 2015 LFF:

The Lobster

Newly single Colin Farrell is sent to a depressing hotel where he must find a partner within 45 days or be transformed into the animal of his choice (a lobster). Extra days can be earned by hunting the renegade singletons who roam the surrounding woods. I loved this movie from the moment he checks into the hotel and is required to register his sexuality. “Do you have a bisexual option at all?” he asks, in the same depressed robotic monotone in which most of the characters converse. On being told no: “In that case… uh… ah… I would like to register as a hetrosexual.”

The movie does drop off a little in the second half, but it’s still very good, and it has a wonderfully savage ending. I really think this is the best surrealist comedy since the days of Bunuel.
Grade: A
 

Carol

This was just so ruddy romantic. And nice to see that at least one of the Mara sisters can act.

When she locks eyes with Cate Blanchett there’s a charge in the air that I haven’t seen in a movie for a long time. This is Brief Encounter level romance. Side note: this is the most red-and-teal movie since Elf.
Grade: A-
 

The Witch

Demented 1600s hysterical horror in which Neil Mcinnery (Game of Thrones) leads his ultra-puritan New England family off into exile to live alone by some woods, becuase the local village isn’t puritan enough for him and he’s too radical for them. But something resides in the woods… (clue: it’s a witch). They probably could have held off from revealing that the witch it real to be honest, but they choose to do it straight away (the director says it’s so the audience would know the stakes were high “because there’s a real m*therf*cking witch out there!)

Anyway, there’s still an awful lot of gruelling tension and fear, as one by one the childen are drawn towards the trees… and the younger ones laughingly mention that actually their pet goat has been rather talkative recently. Remarkable unexpected ending too.
Grade: B+

Tangerine

Kamakazi gurellia filmmaking in the classic American indie style – get in, get your shots, get out. Two trans ladies walk the streets of Hollywood, but one has a very special agenda – get the bottom of a rumour her man/pimp has been cheating on her, and take whatever revenge is required. Screwball antics ensue. This film had more than enough energy to spare, constanly roving camerawork (incredibly, all shot on three iPhone 5Ss, one of which was “charging back up” at all times, and rapid-fire slang-filled overlapping dialogue). This movie had a very moving, humane core, but surrounded it with so much spin and momentum it was like a firework going off. Also: very funny.
Grade: B+
 

Green Room

Claustrophic Punks vs Neo-nazis tale. Best siege movie since Assult on Precinct 13? When a band plays a gig in a backwoods roadhouse (the money is good!) n osooner have they finished their set then they accidenlt witness something they shouldn’t have backstage. A brutal, bloody, teeth shattering arm slicing gun-grabbing breathless maelstrom of violence ensues, involing a lot of crying and shouting through barricaded doors, and occasional partial dismemberment. Patrick Stewart turns up as the owner, and with just a trace of sadness whispers the orders to call in the dogs. Utter carnage ensues. Standouts are Anton Yelchin as a guy who loses quite a bit fo blood as the story progresses, and Imogen Poots as a weepy Nazi.
Grade: B

Anomalisa

Charlie Kauffmann adapts his radio play into a stop-motion puppet animation. David Thewlis, marooned in a hotel room before a conference, can’t connect with his fellow humans – especially as they all have the same creepy bland face, and Tom Noonan’s near-affectless voice (even his wife and son). But when one girl has a different voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh), could he find true empathy with her? This had a lot goind go it, but it wore a bit thin over its running time. It’s kind of like a 90 minute riff on the “Malkovitch Malkovitch Malkovitch scene in Being John Malkovitch”. Contains realistically awkward one-night-stand puppet sex, and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” sung sadly in Italian.
Grade: B

Bone Tomahawk

Western/horror: Four men (including KURT RUSSELL!) form a posse to head out an rescue a woman from a “lost tribe” of “inbred cannibals”. 2 hours of excellent testosterone-filled back-and forth as they make their way through the gruelling landscape (with one of them nursing a fractured tibia). Then, finally at the end… an explosion of nightmarish violence to round the whole thing off. This was a fun B movie which reminded me of something like Jaws (men on a mission hunting down something monsterous).

HOWEVER it has a really weird attitude to race. It tries to establish that we shouldn’t see the cannibals as native Americans by having a First Nations actor come in for one scene near the beginning and say “my people do not consider these monsters kin” or somesuch, and then thinks it’s covered itself from that perspective. But it hasn’t really done enough, and then throws in a) Matthew Fox boasting about how many “injuns” he’s killed, b) the cannibals not eating a blank farmhand (“maybe they think negroes are poisonous?” ponders the village idiot), and c) a bunch of mexicans who may or may not be thieves… and then turn out, yes to definitely be thieves. Add it all up and something here doesn’t pass the smell test. The director also went to great pains in the LFF Q&A to say “this is actually three genres in one! Horror, Western, and the old H Rider Haggard ‘lost race’ tales, like Kind Solomon’s Mines!”. Yeah… all those tales were, guess what, kinda racist.
Grade: D for racial tone-awareness, B for everything else.
 

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Billed as the story behind the most famous director-on-director interview of all time, in fact for most of its runtime this documentary is just a straightforward run through Hitcock’s work. If you like Hitchcock, you’ll like this. Most of it is just a subset of observations about Hitchock’s work (and its evolution) that you could find in any decent book on him, but it’s nice to see the points illustated with clips from the actual films.

Here and there it gives something a little more, though – current filmmakers discussing what it is they love about him. It’s here, where it gets a bit more subjective, that the documentary really takes off. Wes Anderson and Peter Bodanovich give good value, and almost 10 minutes of Martin Scorsesee discussing Vertigo. Listening to Scoresesee praising the kiss from Vertigo as the ‘greatest scene in all of cinema’ while rattling off all the technical and thematic concerns behind it is worth the watch alone. When they do come, the points of comparison between Hitchock and Trauffaut are also very illuminating, especially the outtakes from the interview recordings, and Hitch’s criticism of The 400 Blows. Recommended for anyone who cares about either director.
Grade: B-

High Rise

Ben Weatley’s adaptation of the JG Ballard novel, in which a mid-70s tower block segmented by social class (proles at the bottom, snobs on top) decends into anarchy. Fantastic visuals. Stylised editing that sometimes draws a bit too much attention to itself. Gorgeous costumes that occasionally become a bit too cartoony. Some great performances (Luke Evans in particular), some not so great (Jeremey Irons seems unconfident, or perhaps is simply aiming for blankly disengaged).

I really wanted to like this, but the story is thin as it is and the directorial choices are not always in service to it. When the high-rise’s microcosm of society eventually collapses, it just seems to come out of nowhere. In a novel you can get away with more (such as evading the question of why the police don’t intervene) – in a film it’s a lot harder, and Weatley isn’t able to solve that problem. It just seems unreal and disjointed – attributes which can be positives, but not here. It just feels like the film lacks focus and serves as little more than an excuse to put certain things on screen. It tries to give a sense of thematic coherence at the end by dropping in a quote from Margaret Thatcher, but it hasn’t earned it. I heard this discribed as “vertical Snowpiercer“, but for all its faults Snowpiercer was better (and more fun) than this. Less than the sum of its parts.
Grade: B- 


The Assassin

In the tradition of “slow cinema”-meets-wuxia. When the fighting came it was decent. But the visuals needed to be incredible to overcome the longuers, and whilst there was some beutiful landscapes the cinematography wasn’t *that* amazing. The plot required a lot of attention too, and I had to have quite a lot of it explained to me afterwards. Some critics are going crazy for The Assassin, and I’m sure anyone reaching for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” comparisons is going to be accused of laziness. Well, CTHD may be a “wuxia for westerners” as someone once described it to me, but I don’t care, it’s still my favourite. And the Assassin is neither as engaging, exciting, moving or beautiful. So there.
Grade: B-

Evolution

A young boy is being raised by his red-haired, gold-dressed mother on a black-sanded volcanic island. But every other adult is also a red-haired, gold-dressed woman, and they are all raising young boys. Where are the men, girls, elderly or teenagers? Why did he seem to see a boy’s corpse with a starfish growing out of it under the water? Why does his mother feed him worm-like noodle and black “medicine”? And what happens inside the island’s dank, rotting hospital? Poetic. But slow. And with a terrible prosthetic at a key moment. This has the feel of a short story of the uncanny, stretched out to feature length in order to luxuriate the imagery. At the time I felt the pacing could have been faster, but the at least the dreamlike imagery is well done enough to linger long after the movie ends.
Grade: B-

Black Mass

If computers every get good enough to direct movies, they will direct movies like Black Mass. Never less than competent. Utterly forgettable. I thought the biggest distraction would be Johnny Depp’s latex face, but instead it was Benedict Cumberbatch’s attempt at a southie Boston accent. Highlight: brief appearance from Dakota Johnson, who blows Depp off the screen early on and then walks out of the picture. Way to drop the mic, Dakota. Anyway, I think Johnny Depp seriously thought he was going to get an Oscar nomination for this. Nah.
Grade: B-
 

Ghost Theater

Everyone loves Ringu, and the critics seemed to love Dark Water too. But this latest feature by Hideo Nakata is like a mediocre episode of Tom Baker Dr Who, with the addition of a lot more blood. When a women is killed and horribly mangled in a car accident her dollmaker husband creates a lifelike mannequin to take her place in the open casket. Of course her spirit possesses the doll and kills her children (because horror). Years later the doll is being used as a prop in a youth theatre production about Elisabeth Bathory – and through a mixture of mind control and vampirism starts killing off the female cast. Utterly illogical in a way that would require a nightmarish poeticism to work, but instead opts for a flat made-for TV prosaicness. Only the opening scene has any panache – with it’s bolts of lightning, torrential rain and roaming camerawork it’s like Frankenstein remade by Brian DePalma. Watch that scene, then turn it off.
Grade: D

Outside the LFF:

Sicario

The trailer does an excellent job in selling this. Excellent tense action scenes from the beginning and throughout. Superbly acted, including Emily Blunt doing a great job as someone who just has to grit their teeth and endure – a performance choice perfectly in line with the script, character and themes but which some people have criticised as being “too passive” or opaque or what have you. Well, that fits the story they’re teling. But unfortunately the film gets distracted from her towards the end, and the rather boldly downbeat ending will leave many viewers frustrated.
Nonetheless, Grade: B+
Warning: if youre oaying close attention, this traiker has spoilers in the second half.

(Bonus point for looking gorgeous thanks to thee world’s best cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Point of order: Deakins and director Dennis Villeneavre will next collaborate on Bladerunner 2, so if you want to feel reassured about that movie, watch Sicario.)

Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro has put quite a lot of energy into telling his Twitter followers that this is “not a horror, but a gothic romance”. Sadly it succeeds at being a horror in Act I, and then fails at being either for the rest of the movie. The horror thrills dissipate as the movie seems to lose interest in its own ghosts (unlike most horrors, they get a good showing near the beginning then turn up less and less frequently, or, indeed, thrillingly. The gothic romance elements fail becuase Tom Hiddlestone’s performance is so bland, and he simply has no chemistry with Mias Walisowska. And both the horror AND romance elements fail becuase everything is so stylised it all seems unreal – as if the set itself is constantly reminding you that it’s “only a movie”. Del Toro is apparently so pleased with the set that he can’t bring himself to shroud it in the shadows it needs, and covering the wall with giant unconvincing moths or adding CGI enhancements to the ghosts so they look like computer-generated plasticine just takes you out of the thing altogether.

Occasionally Crimson Peak stretches towards camp, and when it does it’s suddenly great… but then it backs off again. Only Jessica Chastain is able to channel the appropriately demented vibe that the movie requiers, and so it’s no surprise that she’s the best thing in it. Supposedly the third in a thematic trilogy that includes The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, but not as good as either. Still, it’s probably worth watching for Chastain, the set (which is gorgeous, distracting though it is), and a genuinely unsettling close-up of ants eating a butterfly’s eye.
Grade: C+

The Martian

Matt Damon ego project in which he is a super competent astronaut fighting to get back from Mars to Earth, while the rest of NASA help out but also just gasp awe at how amazing he is. A decent number of moments of interest and excitement: anything involving an airlock blowing out is always going to be fun. But the back-on-Earth scenes are almost parody level in their clichéd-ness (complex astrophysics demonstrated with props grabbed from the surroundings, and framed maps pulled from the wall and excitedly drawn on with marker pen – “I KNOW WHERE HE’S GOING!” etc.).

Jessica Chastain operates well below her usual wattage as the captain of the ship that leaves Matt behind on Mars, and her crew are even duller – Kate Mara and the random crew member she has a baby with at the end being the eyerolling nadir. But yes, some exciting set pieces here and there.
Grade: B-

Listen Up, Philip

God this was dull. Nice in-universe book cover designs though, for Jonathan Pryce’s Bellow-esque author: (link: SlateGrade: D- for deadly dull. Just look at the book covers instead.

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