LFF 2018 – third report

With the LFF now thoroughly under way…

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You was fun, interesting, provocative and unpredictable (especially that third act swerve!), but could it be that it was a victim of its own hype? After having been described as something you’d never seen before it turned out to be… kind of a Kaufman/Gondry kind of deal. It reminded me of things like Human Nature and The Science of Sleep, albeit with its cinematic tomfoolery used in the service of Marxist consciousness rather than its predecessors’ more privileged navel-gazing. Those movies are great bedfellows, though, and there is a lot to recommend in this film (not least of which are the performances of Lakeith Stanfeld, Armie Hammer and Tessa Thompson). Ultimately though, this might be one of those films that’s more fun to talk about at 2am than anything else.

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The Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs turned out to be patchy, unable to sustain its length, and weirdly ugly. I’ve seen a lot of people claim this film looked great. Nope – remorselessly digital, in the worst way: flat and artificial. Some nuggets of greatness drift through its waters, but you have to sieve for them. I liked Scruggs though; the demon clown, the deadly moron entertainer, always looking to correct the narrative, draw focus, rig the game and polish his stature. Very Trump.

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Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan’s Wildlife plays out like a minor classic of 20th century American literature, which is fitting as that’s what it’s adapted from. It looks beautiful, in a sparse rural Montana kind of way, but the simply structured story of abandonment and adultery is ultimately a platform for Carey Mulligan’s towering performance as a wife slowly, wilfully, going over the edge. The film as a whole is slim (which is fine – not everything is War and Peace), but perhaps can’t help but be anything else but a showcase for her acting. The final image is a doozy, though.

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Roma turned out to be a straight-up contender for film of the year – at this point I honestly believe it’ll come down to this vs A Star Is Born. Cuaron’s tale of an indigenous Mexican housekeeper and the 1970 middle-class Mexico City family that employs her is perhaps his masterpiece. It’s beautifully shot, acted with rare grace and subtlety throughout, and filled with moments of transcendence. The scene where a doctor attempts to subtlely excuse himself from a birth was perhaps my favourite moment of the entire festival. Truly great. Coming soon to Netflix, but good lord see it on a big screen if you can. I am slightly worried about the fact that Beck seems to be writing an orchestration for it though. The version we saw had no music at all, over the opening or ending credits or throughout. What are Beck and Cuaron up to…?

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History as Barbarians (Dir: Radu Jude) spoke most smartly about our times to me. A Romanian artist plans a public re-enactment of a famous World War II battle – or was it an atrocity? The battle for narrative, and the power of the endlessly reanimated past in the living present, are huge themes, and this film rips into them with rare power. Probably the most unashamedly smart film I saw at the fest, wearing its brains on its sleeve and pushing towards a deeply unsettling ending.

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Following on from Widows, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer was another powerhouse acting juggernaut / female-led crime flick. The review for this seem more lukewarm than for Widows, which has been getting endless applause both for its genre power (which Destroyer also has) and its insights into how power operates in American society (not so much). I really enjoyed both films, but I’ll say this – Destroyer’s twists were the ones I didn’t see coming, and while Widows had the best actors, Destroyer has the star. There are thing Kidman can do with a glance than no amount of “quality” acting can reproduce. Do yourself a favour and see both.

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My LFF voyage continues in my fourth report…

LFF 2018 – second report

With the pre-festival screenings done, the main event kicked off…

Widows got the festival off to a high-octane start with an excellently enjoyable slice of explosive heist action. But more than that – it was also a compelling exploration of systematic power imbalances, corruption, inequality and the perennially disappointing nature of men. Also; straight off the bat, the best dog of the festival. Much fun to be had in debating the best performance: Davis, Debicki, Kaluuya… for my money though, Cynthia Erivo steals it out from under them (ha!). Probably Steve McQueen’s least interesting film, but still better than 95% of the crime flicks out there.

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More thrills, this time of a highly contained nature, in Norwegian single-location thriller The Guilty. Mostly focussing on the face of one man (an dodgy cop exiled to the boredom of emergency call telephony while under investigation) and the voices on the other end of his telephone line, this film milked its setup for all it was worth. Could he solve the riddle of what was unfolding? Could he, should he, go beyond his remit to try and save a life? White knuckle stuff, with nothing but two rooms a monitor and a Bluetooth headset.

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Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy was one of my most-anticipated films of the festival – that trailer! – but for me it was a minor disappointment. Stylised to the point of slightly tiresome alienation, its characters never felt real to me, and so all their screaming and wailing ended up as light and sound signifying… if not quite nothing, then not a lot. Better in the second half, when it’s just pedal-to-the-heavy-metal (ha!) action, but even then they have Cage face off against his most interesting foes first, rather then build up to them as a climax. Still, the diluted-pupil aesthetic makes this a unique and memorable film, whatever its flaws. And Cage is as Cage does.

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It’s…. nnngggggggggg… crazy EVIL” – Nicholas Cage esquire in Mandy

The Surprise Treasure was a treasure indeed, but we were politely asked NEVER TO REVEAL what it was. It’s not hard to find out. It’s certainly one of the director’s best works and a classic of the biopic genre – now lovingly restored to clarity and caption-readability.

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Note: film shown at the LFF was of a much greater clarity than the above screenshot…

Meanwhile, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead proved that while Kevin Wheatley is one of the UK’s most exciting directors, he only truly hits top gear when Neil Maskell is involved. This film has been described by some as “Mike Leigh on acid” (a comment repeated in the Q&A, to which sadly failed to catch the reaction of Leigh himself, in the audience), and is a darkly humorous and slyly observant slice of lower-middle-class savagery. Tea is served alongside booze, lies and recriminations in a hired stately home as Wheatley loosely plays with the dynamics of Coriolanus (the movie’s working title: Colin, You Anus). A very vaguely psychotic, Brexity Abigail’s Party, with Trap music.

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Neil Maskell, above, radiates the potential for profound psychic violence. You know, like, arguments and stuff.

My LFF roundup continues with my third report…

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.

‘Sorry To Bother You’ And The Overseas Distribution Dilemma

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Image Courtesy of Hollywood Reporter

Whitlock: So I know we kind of talked about this a couple of weeks ago, but in between all of my summer travel and crazy day job transition I got to see two movies that focus on the stories and lives of non-white protagonists – Sorry To Bother You and Crazy Rich Asians. They’re wildly different in scope, tone, and focus, but I thought it was really satisfying to see these perspectives told on screen in a way that said “Hey, we have interesting stories to tell that are worth your $16.50 [well, those are average NYC ticket prices]. I think you get CRA across the pond sometime this autumn, but not really sure when you’ll get to see Sorry To Bother You…any release dates for you yet?

Pope: They wised up and bumped CRA up to September (it comes out today), but Sorry to Bother You has had some difficulties. But the breaking news is… (drum roll) it looks as though Universal has picked it up in the UK for distribution later this month:

That’s a big relief, because as recently as last month Riley was stressing the difficulties he was facing:

Now, there was some talk that Black Panther would help put an end to that attitude. Was that naive?

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