LFF 2018 – First Report

I’m going to periodically post a selection of reviews from the London Film Festival 2018. If I didn’t like something, and it’s a little under the radar, I’ll probably skip posting anything here (though you can see my thoughts on those files on Letterboxd). For all the things I liked, and all the big ticket items though, I’ll post them in these reports. And without further ado, here is my first report from LFF 2018.

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Crystal Swan 

Set in Belarus, 1996. A teen on the edge of adulthood fakes a visa request to take a trip to Chicago, the “birthplace of house music”. Due to an error, to pull off the ruse she needs to convince a family of rubes in rural Belarus to let her answer their phone when the via checkers call. But will her time with the family change her, or them?

This had a nice Rohmer style 1st act, meandered in the same register for the 2nd act while slightly playing for time… and then took a swerve into something nastily Mungiu-esque in the 3rd. For something marketed as a comedy, and pretty funny up til then, it really did get suddenly very dark. I wonder why is it in the LFF ‘Laugh’ strand without anything resembling a trigger warning?

And yet… personally I like it when films upend expectations, and I dug the contrast between the house soundtrack and the visuals of run-down 1996 Minsk (seemingly trapped in the late 70s) and rural Belarus. Recommend, but: brace yourself.

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After The Screaming Stops

Documentary following the Goss brothers, Matt and Luke, as they attempt to put their differences behind them and reform their band, Bros, for a big reunion gig at the O2.

In the first half this borders on Spinal Tap levels of rock nonsense, and is very funny. Matt especially comes across as Alan Partridge re-written by Ricky Gervais.

In the second half there are more moments of humour, but mixed in with scenes that feels like extended therapy sessions. We get to see the brothers endlessly snipe and argue before their predictable (yet fairly unconvincing) make-up, ultimately their big reunion gig success. Neither of these guys seem to know how to shut up and listen without jumping in with “yeah but-”, so it’s kind of agonising. No-one can put up with these levels of passive aggression for long, it’s just toxic.

Anyway many of the earlier sequences, which are unapologetically edited for maximum amusement value, are pure comedy gold. I’ll never forget Matt Goss’s angry demands that British children be allowed to play conkers without goggles.

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Border

A unusual looking woman has a job sniffing out contraband – and sniffing out guilt – at the customs checkpoint at a ferry port. One day she meets a guy who looks just like her. Don’t you realise, he asks her, that you’re a troll?

This fable was nuts, magical, sad… and really didn’t go where expected. The pacing lags at times, but apart from that I really liked it. Post-Del Toro forest otherworldliness with ScandiNoir complications. With all the world-building, perhaps it would have been even better as a TV show?

Either way, if you’re a Del Toro fan, I strongly recommend this. Forget Bright, this is how you do a gritty modern-day fairy story.

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U: July 22

This story of the Utoya shootings is very well acted and shot, and captured in a single take (opening sequnce aside). Of course, that means it’s gruelling throughout.

This is probably the best film on this subject that could exist, but I’m still not sure it justifies itself. Do we need a harrowing 70-minute “hiding from a gunman” simulator? Is it beneficial?

I can’t deny it’s remarkably well done though, completely unforgettable, and if nothing else serves to show up just how misconceived the Paul Greengrass film of this subject is.

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Asako I & II

An Osaka girl’s romance with a good-looking (but mysteriously brooding) enigma comes to an end when he vanishes. She moves to Tokyo and, some time later, bumps into a guy who looks just like her ex. Is it him? Can she find love again? Whats going on?

A decent chunk of the audience seemed to feel this just went on and on (kind of how I felt about Dead Pigs). Well, I didn’t care, I absolutely dug it.

This felt like a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film, or a Murakami novel, as it traced the edge of plausibility and toyed with magical realism. Softly humorous throughout, and gently romantic (for the most part). It drops off a little in interestingness as it goes on, and maybe fumbles the ending, but I never got bored – and the first half is wonderful.

This is a really good festival so far for films that take a swerve in unexpected directions.

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Ash is Purest White

In China a rural gangster’s moll hopes her man will take her places… but as the years roll by and the country changes around her… well, we don’t always get what we want.

This starts very strongly as a low-level gangsters-and-lowlifes crime story, then a third of the way in takes a hard left swerve… as the film continues, genre conventions continue to fall away, until it becomes a study of a relationship, or more accurately just a woman: a ‘prisoner of the universe’, and alone in the cosmos.

Split into three sections, in three time periods, the opening Act was the highlight. That YMCA disco scene! Those funeral ballroom dancers! Magic. The second and third acts are interesting but there’s a slight danger the frustrations of the character become the frustrations of the audience. In the end the movie, much like life for certain characters, doesn’t quite come together – probably the key point, artistically, but I can’t deny it left me slightly unsatisfied. But there’s so much going on here that I really need to see this one again.

It was certainly good enough to finally convince me to dust off my A Touch of Sin blu-ray, from the same director, Jia Zhangke.


And that’s it from my first report! The next one will kick off with the very good Widows, from Steve McQueen.

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