LFF16 Laugh & Love reviews: “Aquarius”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Women Who Kill”, “Prevenge”, “The Last Laugh”, “Souvenir”, “Heal the Living” and 9 others…


“Aquarius”, “Barakah Meets Baraka”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Ethel & Ernest”, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”, “Heal the Living” (pictured above), “Hermia & Helena”, “Houston, We Have a Problem!”, “The Last Laugh”, “One Week and a Day”, “Prevenge”, “Rara”, “Souvenir”, “Toni Erdmann” and “Women Who Kill”.

London Film Festival 2016 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Documentary, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Official Competition and Thrill. Here are the Laugh and Love reviews.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

After Love
– 7/10

Original title: L’Économie du couple
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Writers: Mazarine Pingeot, Fanny Burdino, Joachim Lafosse
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Cédric Kahn, Marthe Keller
UK release: 28 October 2016
US release: TBC
“You won’t let me go, because you don’t want me to leave.”


A claustrophobic showcase for fine acting, Lafosse’s crumbling relationship drama spends several months in a plush family home furnished with bitterness: the father, Cedric (Kahn), is no longer wanted, and the mother, Marie (Bejo), is attempting to kick him out – but not trying hard enough. In part, she’s affected by their two children, but deep down, he suspects, there’s still something in the relationship.

Well, if not love, there’s at least issues of money buried in their bond. Though Marie paid for the flat, Cedric – an unemployed architect – insists he deserves half of the flat’s value, having injected something money can’t buy: love. It’s a funny and sad moment in a drama that gets a bit too melodramatic. For everyone involved, it’s a survival story.

– 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos
Strand: Love
UK/US release: TBC
“You’re in a building that’s uncomfortable, unsafe and empty. Aren’t you stressed about this?”


Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to Neighbouring Sounds (which I wasn’t the biggest fan of) is a more focused effort, settling down for 142 minutes with Clara (Braga), a 65-year-old music critic whose life is clearly more varied and worthy than that of a film hack.

Aquarius is the name of a seaside building in which Clara owns a flat, and it’s also on the shopping list of a property company that’s already purchased the plot’s surrounding homes. Shunning a generous cheque, Clara refuses to cave in, given her attachment to the place, and a few excursions into her past reveal the geographical memories worth fighting for. Her living room, adorned with LPs, echoes with more than familiar pop songs. Not that she’s an old woman yelling at an iCloud; she’s just as comfortable downloading music on her laptop, as long as it’s in her chosen home.

Braga, an undisputed star, brings colour and vibrancy to Clara. Seriously, it’s a super performance. A widow and cancer survivor, Clara is prepared to stand up to the corporate bullies (and to a lesser extent, her concerned relatives who wish she’d surrender), and the viewer, in turn, is cheering her on. (At the screening, someone started clapping during a fiery argument.) It’s a slow-burn “us vs them” tale with an itchy, nail-biting climax.

Throughout the patient narrative, we gain a rich insight into Clara’s daily routines and relationships, as well as the daily class/race prejudices of the area. There’s no denying it’s a fully fleshed-out character with ace music choices. The bonus takeaway message of Aquarius: don’t mess with arts journalists.

Barakah Meets Baraka
– 6.5/10

Original title: Barakah Yoqabil Barakah
Director/Writer: Mahmoud Sabbagh
Starring: Hisham Fageeh, Fatima Al Banawi
Strand: Laugh
UK/US release: TBC
“You’re boring, classical and talk like my grandmother. Can you sort yourself out?”


He was a road law enforcer who’s never touched a woman’s hand. She was an Instagram star whose face never appears in her videos. What’s possibly Saudi Arabia’s first ever rom-com has charm, wit and a fascinating relationship obstacle – public meet-cutes are forbidden.

Don’t Think Twice
– 8/10

Director/Writer: Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard
Strand: Laugh
UK release: 2017, apparently
US release: Out now
“Without improv, I’m a loser.”


Between Toni Erdmann and Don’t Think Twice, 2016 is proving to be an excellent year for improv comedy in cinema. Mike Birbiglia, the stand-up also responsible for writing/directing/starring in Sleepwalk With Me, steps back slightly with a supporting role in his delightful and poignant examination of professional jealousy.

The Commune is an improv troupe consisting of Jack (Key), Samantha (Jacobs), Miles (Birbigilia), Linsday (Sagher), Allison (Miccuci) and Bill (Gethard). They all care about each other, particularly Jack and Samantha who happen to date, and regularly perform in what appears to be a UCB-type theatre (but seriously, what do I know?) for small, loyal crowds. It’s like hanging out with your best friends at the bar each week – except the pre-drinks routine is creating sketches from audience suggestions. If you’re a comedy geek or still have a heart in this pointless universe, it’s a real treat.

To be honest, with everything going OK for the characters, I could happily watch the daily routines of these artists who require part-time jobs to make ends meet. Birbiglia’s script is, despite what you’d expect from the subject matter, tightly written and clearly the product of several drafts. (He workshopped it with people like Nicole Holofcener and Greta Gerwig doing test-reads.) But as the laughs are thrown around, something’s bubbling underneath – the fear one of them will “make it” without the others.

Amazingly, no one’s made this film yet. Yes, despite the constant influx of semi-autobiographical Sundance/Netflix comedies about how lonely it is in showbiz, Birbiglia’s ensemble feature taps into the competitive fervour that affects everyone, whether or not they’re performers. Jack gets a gig on Weekend Live, following an outrageous improv night (he brings out an Obama impression out of nowhere), and it upsets the group dynamics. Considering how often SNL anecdotes are brought up on podcasts, it’s baffling how only Birbiglia turns a real-life conflict into onscreen drama – and to make it accessible for non-performers.

On a visual level, Birbiglia has a few neat flourishes – which, if we’re honest, is more than anyone expects from a comic-turned-filmmaker – and shoots the improv sequences (they’re actually pretty funny) in long shots, moving across the stage. There’s actual thought placed into the small filmmaking details, but more importantly, a lifetime of showbiz-related pain in the character moments. Bill, for instance, is a teacher who’s seen students leapfrog him to success. Bill and Allison work on a writing package without, to his disappointment, Miles’ involvement. And then there’s Lindsay who, unlike the others, is wealthy and effectively has a risk-free hobby.

Go see it now. Except, in the UK, it’s not out now. It may not be life-changing for everyone, but to that, I say, “Yes, and…?”

Ethel & Ernest
– 7/10

Director: Roger Mainwood
Writers: Roger Mainwood, Raymond Briggs (novel)
Starring: Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, Luke Treadaway
Strand: Love
UK release: 28 October 2016
US release: TBC
“I could have married a deep sea diver.”


A simple tale, told in pastel animation, Ethel & Ernest is an adaptation of Briggs’ graphic novel about his unremarkable parents. In fact, the action – from WWII to the rise of long 70s haircuts – all happens around the humble couple. The accumulation of short snippets is more entertaining and emotionally resonant than it sounds, while the terrific voice cast is a Timothy Spall short from a Mike Leigh movie.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki
– 6/10

Original title: Hymyilevä mies
Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Writers: Mikko Myllylahti, Juho Kuosmanen
Starring: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff
Strand: Love
UK release: Sometime in March 2017
US release: TBC
“We’ll do our best to bring the title home to Finland.”


As with all boxing films, it’s best when it’s not about boxing. And Kuosmanen’s bittersweet biopic of Olli Maki really does treat the sport as something that gets in the way of life. If I were being reductive, I’d say it’s as if Aki Kaurismäki made a boxing film. But he made Rocky VI, and Olli Maki’s tone, while dry in humour, is less absurd than, say, Calamari Union. Ironically, it lacks the extra punch to make it more than a diverting story.

Heal the Living
– 7.5/10

Original title: Réparer les vivants
Director: Katell Quillévéré
Writers: Katell Quillévéré, Gilles Taurand
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval
Strand: Love
UK/US release: TBC
“This is all my fault – I got him into surfing.”


When an early car journey softly transformed into a wave of water, I was instantly won over by Quillévéré’s meditation on life, death and hospitals. Though it sounds like Holby City with subtitles, there’s a glorious poetry in the literal transplant of a heart to another body.

Hermia & Helena
– 5/10

Director/Writer: Matias Piñero
Starring: Agustina Muñoz, María Villar, Mati Diop
Strand: Love
UK/US release: TBC
“Well, life is disappointing.”


A fairly uninspiring riff on Shakespeare, Piñero’s sprawling comedy feels mostly like filler set across time periods and locations. Camila (Muñoz) is working on an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but for what purpose exactly? It’s unclear, aside from an excuse to plaster play extracts across the screen. Despite the loose energy, any interest in the knotty relationships eventually fizzles out.

Houston, We Have a Problem!
– 4/10

Original title: Houston, imamo problem!
Director: Žiga Virc
Writers: Boštjan Virc, Žiga Virc
Strand: Laugh
UK/US release: TBC
“The piglet survived the flight.”


A one-note joke stretched out to film length.

The Last Laugh
– 7/10

Director: Ferne Pearlstein
Starring: Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Renee Firestone
Strand: Laugh
UK/US release: TBC
“There’s the saying that time equals tragedy. I just think: why wait?”


When is a joke too soon? And when is a documentary about humour too late? With Pearlstein’s engaging exploration of comic controversy, the much-discussed topic is worth revisiting because of its insightful contributors, choice clips and focus on the biggest taboo of them all: the Holocaust.

The talking heads, ranging from Rob Reiner to Sarah Silverman, often contradict each other and thus complicate an already complicated matter. For instance, Roz Weinman, the one-time standards & practices person at NBC, regrets allowing Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi episode to air and enter the cultural lexicon; Larry Charles, admittedly biased, insists society didn’t collapse as a result.

On the topic of what’s off limits, Mel Brooks notes he couldn’t have made a movie about the Inquisition in 1492 (“then I’d have been in trouble”), but of course he made The Producers and mocked Nazis in the process. The Holocaust itself, he argues, is the one thing he can’t joke about.

The selection of clips is fascinating, especially with the occasional reactions of Renee Firestone, a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor, who watches a few stand-up routines on YouTube. However, the doc’s highlight is the pained analysis, as if opinions are unravelled in real time. For instance, a Joan Rivers gag is debated. “The last time a German looked that hot,” she quipped, “was when they were pushing Jews into the oven.” It’s tasteless, sure, but even Mel Brooks, who disapproves of the gag, concedes the rhythm, delivery and punchline are excellent.

So what crosses the line? It’s hard to say, but worth discussing anyway.

One Week and a Day
– 5.5/10

Original title: Shabua ve Yom
Director/Writer: Asaph Polonsky
Starring: Shai Avivi, Evgenia Dodina, Tomer Kapon
Strand: Laugh
UK/US release:
“We do the surgery, go to the beach, release the cancer in the sea, bring the girl back here, eat falafel – no cucumber for you.”


Weed has been paired with comedy since the silent era when the Lumière brothers filmed a joint heading towards the screen and subsequently terrified uptight audiences. Not so much with films about grief. In Polonsky’s directorial debut, a father tokes up on his dead son’s medical marijuana during Shiva, a period extending a lengthy period of suffering for two periods. Their 25-year-old child, we learn, was in a hospice, likely dying of cancer, and the week-long process of mourning only extends the pain by adding chores.

The tone is generally light, often to a fault, with many of the digressions missing the mark in terms of humour. Nevertheless, there are repressed emotions bubbling at the fore, and these pockets of drama hint at a filmmaker with greater things to come – especially a sneak peek at another funeral that offers a second devastating perspective.

– 7/10

Director/Writer: Alice Lowe
Starring: Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan, Kate Dickie
Strand: Laugh
UK release: Sometime in 2017
US release: Dunno
“Children these days are really spoilt. ‘Mummy, I want a PlayStation. Mummy, I want you to kill that man.”


Sightseers, which Alice Lowe co-wrote and starred in, was whittled down from 120 hours of footage to the 90 minutes that reached cinemas. That luxury wasn’t available for Lowe’s directorial debut, Prevenge, another sickly funny comedy about murder and the benefits of leaving the house more often. Shot in (if I remember correctly) nine days, it stars Lowe, eight months’ pregnant at the time, and this “now or never” deadline bleeds into the tense atmosphere – on a meta level, you can’t stop admiring the film exists, and within the performances there’s a palpable discomfort about the filming conditions.

Still, Prevenge is more than a gimmick movie. It’s a surprisingly gory satire on how pregnant women are condescended to with banal conversation, among other things, and Lowe clearly has fun sticking the knife in.

– 6/10

Director: Pepa San Martín
Writers: Pepa San Martín, Alicia Scherson
Starring: Julia Lübbert, Emilia Ossandón, Mariana Loyola
Strand: Love
UK/US release: TBC


A bittersweet coming-of-ager with some excellent child performances, Martín’s first feature details a particularly painful divorce: two daughters move in with their mother and her new girlfriend, unaware of the prejudice that might sway future court decisions. Despite too much meandering, it’s undeniably moving and takes an intriguing tact of sticking with the naïve children’s POV.

– 7/10

Director: Bavo Defurne
Writers: Bavo Defurne, Yves Verbraeken, Jacques Boon
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kévin Azaïs, Johan Leysen
Strand: Love
UK/US release: TBC
“Following in the footsteps of Abba and Cliff Richards…”


Making an odd LFF double bill with Elle, Defurne’s Souvenir is otherwise known as Isabelle Huppert’s Eurovision Song Contest romcom. And it’s a dumb, flimsy flight of fancy. Huppert, in a more overtly comic role than usual, sings her own stunts, but her icy persona still does wonders – why exactly is her character, Liliane, working in a pate manufacturing unit?

That question lingers in the mind of Jean, a much younger boxer and co-worker played by Azaïs. “You need love like a plant needs water,” he tells Liliane. The unlikely romance blossoms, as does a musical comeback. “From stage to factory…” goes one news report. Well, now we know what happens to the runner-up.

Toni Erdmann
– 9/10

Director/Writer: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
Strand: Laugh gala
UK release: 3 February 2017
US release: 25 December 2016
“I’m actually here to negotiate with her. She’s hardly home anymore, so I hired a substitute daughter.”


The best film of the festival. My interview with Maren Ade will be published in February, to coincide with the UK release, and that piece will have my more detailed thoughts.

Women Who Kill
– 7/10

Director/Writer: Ingrid Jungermann
Starring: Ingrid Jungermann, Ann Carr, Sheila Vand
Strand: Laugh
UK/US release: TBC
“She had a higher victim count than you.”


Despite the body toll, Jungermann’s twisted comedy is a laidback affair, finding humour in the death of relationships and the occasional living person. It’s a slyly funny dip into Brooklyn’s dating scene, frequently subverting cinema and societal stereotypes, while confirming the stereotype that every American performer has a podcast.

Committing to a podcast, it seems, is easier than maintaining a long-term relationship. At least, that’s true for Morgan (Jungermann) and Jean (Carr), two ex-lovers who still record and upload audio of murder-related discussions. For instance, who was the hottest female serial killer? It’s not exactly Serial, but no one listened to that after season one, anyway.

The film’s central hook and hook-up is when Morgan starts dating Simone (Vand), a secretive co-worker who’s possibly a sadistic killer with a habit of keeping her victims’ toenails (that detail is sicker than the killing, tbh). Anyone who’s seen A Girl Who Walks Alone at Night will already be seduced by Vand’s elusive mannerisms, and her performance here is to make a stranger seem even stranger. It’s a comic persona fits that meshes well with the film’s surreal tone. The plot’s not to be taken too seriously.

Ultimately, it’s Jungermann’s film. Full of wit and droll one-liners, it’s an endearing watch, aided with a fine supporting cast – including Shannon O’Neill, who injects a boisterous energy into proceedings. The awkward chemistry between Jungermann and Carr is fittingly believable and painful. While the lack of commitment to the actual mystery hampers the dramatic impact somewhat, the sharp finale certainly leaves a mark.

Follow @halfacanyon for more. Unfollow @halfacanyon for less.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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7 Responses to LFF16 Laugh & Love reviews: “Aquarius”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Women Who Kill”, “Prevenge”, “The Last Laugh”, “Souvenir”, “Heal the Living” and 9 others…

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