Films reviewed: “Beeba Boys”, “A Bigger Splash” (pictured above), “James White”, “My Golden Days”, “Our Little Sister”, “Remember”, “Truman”, “Valley of Love”, “Victoria” and “Virgin Mountain”.
London Film Festival 2015 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Experimenta, Family, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Laugh and Official Competition. Here are the Thrill and Love reviews. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Beeba Boys – 2.5/10
Director/Writer: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Randeep Hooda, Ali Momen, Waris Ahluwalia, Sarah Allen, Gulshan Grover
Strand: Thrill Gala
“I could have been a doctor or something.”
Sometimes, when a watch’s hourly beep goes off, there’s a groan from fellow cinemagoers that such a dummy doesn’t know how to change the settings. But with Beeba Boys, the sigh was in the knowledge of how much was left in what’s either a bad comedy or a bad thriller; I can’t decide. The worst scene might be when Sarah Allen chucks her phone from a swimming pool over her head, hears a traffic screech, then takes a look in the wrong direction like Mr Bean.
A Bigger Splash – 8/10
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: Alain Page, David Kajkanich
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts
Strand: Love Gala
“We’re all obscene. That’s the fucking point. We all see it and we all fucking love it.”
David Gordon Green announced in June his long-gestating Suspiria remake would be transferred to a “great Italian director” – a shrouded figure (possibly in a giallo mask) revealed last month to be Guadagnino. Perhaps financiers were waiting with a litmus test for A Bigger Splash, a sumptuous, Sicility-set black comedy that passes the Argento artistry test with flying, overwhelming colours.
Taking inspiration from Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, Guadagnino stages the flirtations and double-crossings around a holiday home and its outdoor swimming pool. Marianne (Swinton) is a rock star recovering from a throat operation, which leaves her boyfriend Paul (Schoenaerts) to do more of the talking. However, they’re outdone by Marianne’s ex Harry (Fiennes), a loquacious schmoozer so comfortable with his surroundings that he’ll strip off and urinate on a grave. When the GIFs arrive around the 2016 release, it’ll no doubt centre on Harry’s choreographed grooves – truly dancing like no one’s watching – that’s like his Grand Budapest Hotel character on coke.
Under Harry’s arm is Penelope (Johnson), his 22-year-old blonde daughter initially assumed by Marianne and Paul to be his latest fling. “People keep making that mistake,” Harry notes, although from their intimate body language – she appeared to him just two years prior as an adult – you might make that mistake again. Hanging around on a nearly empty island, they lounge around in bathing suits (and often less) while sipping cocktails under the eternal summer rays. But beneath the vacation vibes are unanswered questions, romantic jealousies and ever shadier territories, all played out in an emotional lava lamp environment, exploding on the big screen in red hot fashion.
While I Am Love performed a similar trick, A Bigger Splash has more fun with its mysteries and narrative subversions. Any two of its characters could be paired up for a unique brand of (mostly sexual) tension. The overeager life of the party, Harry has history with the other players (not to mention a brief stint managing the Rolling Stones) and set up his buddy Paul with Marianne, but now rues his matchmaking skills – and has his error standing and sunbathing before him. For comic juxtaposition, Marianne is the Silent Bob of the pack with a hoarse throat, meaning every syllable has that extra power. “Why do you hate me?” Swinton’s rock star croaks to Penelope – who, to be fair, toys like a cat with everyone else too, including her unconfirmed biological father.
But around the edges of the luxurious lifestyle are clues of a different kind of drama in the shadows, especially in the rocky waters where the foursome paddle aimlessly until sundown. The melodrama, as entertaining as it is, is also their cure for boredom and upper-class ennui. That’s the ultimate decadence: crafting their own personalised destruction, while splashing about in a pool in between to cool off from simmering self-hatred.
James White – 7/10
Director/Writer: Josh Mond
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi
“Without him, I wouldn’t have you.”
A rich, studied character study of a fuck-up – when a job interviewer points this out, he doesn’t argue – whose mother is dying, slowly and painfully. Forced to reorganise his life and character, James puts in the effort, without any simplistic montages or easy transformations. He does his best, which is always captivating with impressive Abbott fragile and bordering on violence. Nice support from Kid Cudi, too.
My Golden Years – 7/10
Original title: Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr
Starring: Quentin Dolmaire, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Mathieu Amalric
“Men come, but women go off.”
In an unexpected Monsters University twist, Desplechin has delivered a prequel to My Sex Life, or How I Got into an Argument with Amalric returning as Paul Dédalus, the academic whose romantic travails took three hours to document. Except most of My Golden Years recalls the adolescent relationship between teenage Paul (Domaire) and Esther (Emmanuel Devos in My Sex Life… but played by Roy-Lecollinet here).
Split into three chapters, the first is a childhood flashback, the second a mini spy “thriller”. The film really starts with “Esther”, the third chapter devoted to the years falling in and out of love with Esther, a popular girl at school aware of her effect on boys. “You can’t stop watching me,” she notes in their first conversation. “I’m exceptional.” Deeper into the relationship, cracks emerge on both sides, heightened by the nostalgia (prominent songs by The Specials and De La Soul whisk in like memory tricks) of present-day Amalric.
Our Little Sister – 8/10
Original title: Umimachi Diary
Director/Writer: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Starring: Ayase Haraku, Nagasawa Masami, Kaho
A typically sweet Kore-Eda story that’s moving, episodic and to an extent goes nowhere – in that there’s tension from sisters, in their childhood home, wondering if it’s time to move out. Full of small pleasures, such as the secret nostalgia of certain snacks, the film behaves like a novel you wish wouldn’t end. But when it does, you’ll still be smiling.
Remember – 7/10
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writer: Benjamin August
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Dean Norris, Martin Landau
“Poor Zev, he obviously didn’t know what he was doing.”
Last year, I wrote an article called “In Defence of Ryan Reynolds” just before Cannes that predicted The Captive would be Atom Egoyan’s comeback. The surveillance-obsessed thriller, with its jumping timelines, sounded like such a callback to The Sweet Hereafter, it couldn’t fail. How wrong I was.
Some thematic overlaps aside, Remember is nothing like Exotica or Calendar. (A little Felicia’s Journey, but let’s forget about that.) That’s probably why the gleefully trashy, straightforward revenge story is so consistently watchable, despite possibly problematic subject matter (I’m still a bit iffy on this, especially as I saw it in the same evening as Son of Saul).
Plummer stars as Zev, an unusual action hero: elderly, suffering from dementia, and not out to save victims. Prone to losing his memory a few times a day, Zev relies on a handwritten note from another a wheelchair-bound retiree, and is instructed to shoot the Auschwitz guard who murdered their families. However, there are four suspects, and it’s up to Zev to travel across America to stick a bullet in the culprit. Don’t expect a nuanced debate on war criminals.
Remember isn’t an all-out comedy. But it has nervous laughs because its pulpy plot is so ridiculous, especially with a geriatric protagonist wielding a weapon, that each twisty scenario is pure entertainment. A tight squeeze involving Dean Norris as a Nazi (with a dog) is edge-of-seat stuff. Other encounters, including the climax, make up for a lack of tension with weirdness. With its own slice of knowing silliness, I’d rather rewatch Remember than Memento.
Truman – 6.5/10
Director: Cesc Gay
Writers: Cesc Gay, Tomàs Aragay
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Javier Camara, Dolores Fonzi
“Will the dog be depressed if it doesn’t see its owner?”
I was actually pretty bored for the first half of Truman, a Spanish drama about an old man flying from Canada to visit a friend dying of cancer. It’s a story I’ve seen before, so many times, and even with its subplot – the sufferer is more concerned about the wellbeing of his dog – nothing felt original. But perhaps the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, or maybe the second half really is an improvement. Either way, I was swept away after the midpoint by the unsentimentality and wry humour of two companions who respect each other’s decisions, spending four days together accepting it’ll be their final four days together. The final 15 minutes are heartfelt and well-earned. Interesting coda: the director noted in the Q&A that the real dog died since they filmed it.
Valley of Love – 5/10
Director/Writer: Guillaume Nicloux
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu
“What’s a vegetarian burger?”
Huppert and Depardieu appearing onscreen together is kinda like The Expendables for London Film Festival. The film doesn’t hide its self-referential qualities, casting the duo as two famous actors, also called Isabelle and Gérard, reuniting after a long absence. But Valley of Love isn’t a showbiz satire. It’s a ghost story floating around Death Valley, as the fictionally divorced couple follow instructions from their son’s suicide note – at certain points on their journey, he will appear to them. Or so the writing promises.
The vague proceedings are based more on outpourings of emotion as one will feel the presence of a spirit leaving burn marks on an arm and whispering into an ear. When Huppert undergoes an event, Depardieu is unsure if it’s her imagination, and so are we. All that’s left is two top actors, heavily juxtaposed in performance styles, meshing together with perplexing chemistry and occasionally wailing hard enough to send chills down my back. It didn’t grab me by the wrist, but I can still hear the cries.
Victoria – 6/10
Director: Sebastian Schipper
Writers: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holme, Eike Frederick Schultz
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
“Take this cocaine. It’ll make you feel better.”
After a debilitating, exhausting ride through Schipper’s 140-minute uninterrupted take, a percentage of the press screening – at 9am, with no filmmakers present – applauded the credits. Does this mean Victoria is this year’s Whiplash, a cinematic rush so frenetic and rewarding that audiences feel compelled to physically show appreciation? Or that the gimmick will do well with someone who claps in unnecessary situations?
At a Berlin nightclub, Victoria (Costa) befriends four drunk locals and together they hang out on a rooftop. “Where are you from?” small talk ensues, none of which is skipped because – did you forget? – it’s all a single take. An hour later, she’s caught up in a bank robbery with her new buddies, and it makes the tedious build-up somewhat worthwhile: watching someone’s life change so drastically in real time excused how I felt like throwing up from the shaky camera.
Unlike Birdman, which spanned days and barely disguised its edit points, Victoria really is just one shot. The handheld footage runs along with its cast, who no doubt tapped into their own fears of messing up the take. And it really did make me feel sick. During the many lulls, I wondered if I should actually leave the room just in case, and how I would quit journalism if I was to ever throw up in a press screening. I mean, if my phone went off, I probably would. So, it’s to the film’s credit that I stayed.
Most of the thrills in Victoria concern the filming process itself, rather than the story or characters or anything, really. Victoria has a tossed-off arc about playing the piano that I couldn’t care less about, and the robbery itself – mostly off-screen – takes place off-screen over a minute. (When the car wouldn’t start afterwards, it’s an “oh, puh-lease!” moment.) What’s more exhilarating is seeing members of the general public at the two-hour mark. Are they extras? Or real people who could ruin the edit?
Distracting enough to strip away the dramatic details, the single-shot element is only partially – but not literally – paused for dreamy musical cues offering desperately needed catharsis. But then, I kept wondering if it was to hide an audio error. And then I kept searching for errors, like when Lau forgets to press the button in a lift because he instinctively assumes the camera operator will do it. Still, I’m complaining a lot about an undeniably fun experience; the emotional beats may flop, but it’s worth a hopping into the backseat.
Virgin Mountain – 5.5/10
Original title: Fúsi
Director/Writer: Dagur Kári
Starring: Gunnar Jónsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Sigurjón Kjartansson
“Don’t you deserve better than chasing after a depressed garbage lady?”
A friendless virgin in his mid-40s, Fúsi (Jónsson) is a mountain of a man in a physical sense, but emotionally as shrunken as the miniature army toys he paints for a hobby. “He’d need one humongous boner to penetrate through that fat,” one work colleagues put it, deliberately in earshot of Fúsi. That’s the cruel scenario of Virgin Mountain created by writer and director Dagur Kári, who applies a few neat touches to the overly familiar story of a manchild finding love.
Still living with his mother, Fúsi is reluctantly sent to a dance class. This sparks a dramedy of sorts, hitting all the expected MPDG beats when he meets Sjöfn (Kristjánsdóttir), a younger, more conventionally attractive, bipolar loner. In Fúsi, she sees a gentle, harmless figure: a metal-head willing to request Dolly Parton’s ‘Islands in the Stream’ on the radio for her. Non-verbally bonding in the car, there’s an almost Aki Kaurismaki verve between the pair, leading to a late-night invitation for coffee at her place – which he turns down in fear. And, of course, he spends the film mustering up the courage to declare his affections.
Still, despite the clichéd narrative, there’s a wry sweetness to a bullied, middle-aged figure too aware that strangers judge him for his physical appearances. His daily routine involves a solo pad thai at a nearly empty restaurant, or hiding at home where solitude has become a default, comforting rhythm. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, in an unexpected and unconvincing subplot, Fúsi is suspected of untoward activity when he befriends a 7-year-old neighbour; his inability to clock onto why a policeman asks him questions hints towards the easy laughs that pad out the running time.
What shines is Jónsson’s humanity that carries a role largely written for obvious gags and sentimentality points. As with examples like Life in a Fishbowl and Cold Fever, Virgin Mountain is another Icelandic story with a depressed protagonist whose mood is mirrored by the weather: disappointed breaths are visible in the air, dissipating like the atmospheric soundtrack’s chilly tremolo echoes. Even if the story dips and freefalls, the mountain himself is a rather fine performer with a touch of self-deprecating comedy.