LFF16 Gala reviews: “American Honey”, “Lion”, “La La Land”, “Their Finest”, “Free Fire”, “Arrival” and 5 others…


“American Honey” (pictured above), “Arrival”, “Free Fire”, “La La Land”, “Lion”, “Manchester by the Sea”, “A Monster Calls”, “Nocturnal Animals”, “Sully”, “Their Finest” and “A United Kingdom”.

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

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

American Honey
– 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Strand: Festival Special Presentation
UK/US release: Out now
“Do you have any dreams?”
“Like, future dreams?”


Early on in American Honey, Star (Lane in an incredible debut) aces a one-question job interview with a one-word answer. All Krystal (Keough), her tough boss, needs to know: “Is there anyone who’ll miss you?” With that, Star embarks on a nearly three-hour road journey across America, escaping the misery porn of her home life and impulsively chasing the pleasures of sleeping in motel rooms down the corridor from Jake (LaBeouf).

It’s not a gap year, though. Star’s young colleagues are survivors from disadvantaged backgrounds and desperately need the money, even if the meagre percentages of their sales are funnelled directly into drugs and junk food. The job is basically scamming suburban homeowners on their front door into purchasing magazine subscriptions upfront. And by scam, I mean an actual scam, not when you flick through a new issue to find it’s mostly adverts. The pitches are thus sob stories or recognising pangs of middle-class guilt, and each emotional duel is fascinating – sometimes nail-biting – to behold.

The film’s immersive repetition fashions a heady mixtape of emotions, mostly involving boredom and fear. Star, frequently disobeying orders, is a livewire among livewires, jumping into cars with strangers and sleeping with her boss’s boyfriend. An 18-year-old forging a new identity, she’s reflecting upon the commonalities across America, particularly its ugliness, but is also eager to not get sucked into broken promises of dreams. A scene in which she urinates in front of the Grand Canyon says it all.

There’s more to American Honey than a road trip, of course, and the on-the-nose soundtrack choices, though enjoyable, don’t help. (“American Honey” is on the soundtrack and sung in the car.) Neither do the painful allusions to insects help the inherent complexity of the drama (we saw, Wasp, OK – leave it alone) when, actually, the displacement in each scene is compelling enough. The excellent central trio aside, the kids are non-actors discovered by Arnold and her team, and the subsequent kinetic energy flows throughout with a tinge of homesickness – as to where home is, they’re still on the lookout, and it’s enthralling to sit in the passenger seat for Star’s existential ride.

Arrival – 6/10

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang (short story)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stulhbarg
Strand: Royal Bank of Canada Gala
“Are they scientists or tourists? If they’re scientists, they’re not asking many questions.”


Arrival is a close encounter of a different kind. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the bold, soaring and surprisingly lyrical sci-fi blockbuster dazzles with its slow-burn mystery until an unfortunate crash landing in the final act. It’s yet another example of Villeneuve as a gifted filmmaker saddled with a mediocre script.

My full 600-word review is here.

Free Fire
– 7.5/10

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor
Strand: Closing Night Gala
“Now we’re cooking.”

An ensemble cast of this size may be more equipped for a TV show than a midnight movie, but Free Fire solves the conundrum by fast-forwarding through the boring stuff. “Fuck the small talk,” Chris announces after five minutes. “Let’s buy some guns.” Chekhov speculated that an unused rifle must go off by the third act; Wheatley tees up the crossfire within 20 minutes.

Click here for my full 600-word review.

La La Land
– 6/10

Director/Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, JK Simmons
Strand: Headline Gala
UK release: 13 January 2017
US release: 9 December 2016
“I thought it worked on a ‘one for me, one for them’ basis in this town?”


What if people didn’t just talk about their dreams, but they sang and danced about them too? Well, if it’s Gosling and Stone, you pay attention, and perhaps clap annoyingly during a press screening even though neither are there.

Whereas Whiplash was two monumental monsters navigating their own egos and abilities, La La Land concerns two ultra-nice figures (the characters, not the actors) who lack ego and are, quite possibly, not cut-throat enough for the entertainment business. The plot and chemistry are kept to a minimum, with the showpieces being the, uh, showpieces. It’s Gosling and Stone doing a musical. That’s entertainment enough, it seems.

– 4/10

Director: Garth Davis
Writers: Luke Davies, Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose
Starring: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar
Strand: American Express Gala
UK release: 20 January 2017
US release: 25 November 2016


Google Earth saves the day but not the film in another “based on a true story” drama hitting awards season. The plot is, in a way, Finding Dory, except somehow with more plot holes. Saroo (Pawar as a child, Patel as an adult) is, in the first half, a 5-year-old stranded from his parents in India, until he’s adopted by a couple (Kidman and Wenham) in Australia.

Cut to a more modern time period. Saroo’s enrolling at a business course (or something similar – it’s not important) and dating someone played by Rooney Mara. Not only can I not remember the girlfriend’s name, I can’t remember a single detail about her, as she is not treated as a real person; she exists purely to ask how he’s doing, and to occasionally hug him at pivotal moments.

A similar lack of care continues throughout the script. Though troubled somewhat by guilt (I assume) by the lack of communication with his Indian family, Saroo only springs into action upon discovering Google Earth. It takes over his life more than a decade too late, even though he has a vague recollection of what his hometown was called. Nearly everyone seeing Lion will know the ending, and there’s even less tension in watching someone click through a computer screen.

Manchester by the Sea
– 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Strand: Headline Gala
UK release: 13 January 2017
US release: 18 November 2016
“I think I’m in love with my janitor. Am I sick?”


Amazing. More thoughts can be read in January when my interview with Lonergan goes online.

A Monster Calls
– 4/10

Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson
Strand: The May Fair Hotel Gala
UK release: 1 January 2017
US release: 23 December 2016
“He wasn’t invisible; people just stopped looking at him.”


In A Monster Calls, Bayona takes more care in humanising a tree than he did with any of the non-white characters in The Impossible. The yew, voiced by Neeson, sprouts up after midnight to comfort a weeping child (MacDougall), whose mother (Jones) has cancer, by telling three wooden stories with uplifting messages. A jumbled mess, despite its good intentions, the film is a punishing watch, quickly sinking into its own crumbling foundations.

Nocturnal Animals
– 7/10

Director: Tom Ford
Writers: Tom Ford, Austin Wright
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher
UK release: Out now
US release: 9 December 2016
Strand: Headline gala
“I did something horrible to him.”


Tom Ford once noted the colour black looks better in person than through a screen, and it’s this type of attention to detail that guarantees Nocturnal Animals is a treasure trove of beauty, despite a plot about inner ugliness. It takes a while to unravel (and the divisive ending, I will to some extent defend, although it’s hard to go into it here). Kudos to Michael Shannon for some highly dramatic grunting.

Sully – 4/10

Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Todd Komarnicki, Chesley Sullenberg (book), Jeffrey Zaslow (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Strand: Surprise Film
UK release: 2 December 2016
US release: Out now
“I wish it was July.”


I’m sincerely puzzled that this is a whole movie, and that it played on IMAX screens. A few critics have praised Hanks for his best work in years – maybe in comparison to Inferno, but come on, he’s on autopilot, and it pales in comparison to, say, one of his generic talk show appearances.

On one hand, Sully’s trauma leads to flashbacks of the incident, each replayed from different angles. And, well, fair enough; maybe there’s something to explore there. Still, the lasting impression is the film is padding and struggling to fill its 95 minutes.

There’s zero dramatic tension, since everyone knows what happens, while the court stuff is rushed and neatly tied up with a groan-worthy punchline. Sick bag, please.

Their Finest
– 7/10

Director: Lone Scherfig
Writers: Gaby Chiappe, Lissa Evans (novel)
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Caflin, Bill Nighy
Strand: The Mayor of London’s Gala
“Perhaps because what we do as actors is in many ways an imitation of life, they think any living being can do our jobs.”


I’m always a sucker for films about screenwriters, especially if they don’t involve a scene with a laptop in a coffee shop.

A United Kingdom
– 5/10

Director: Amma Asante
Writer: Guy Hibbert
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Terry Pheto, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Arnold Oceng
Strand: Opening Night Gala
“If I leave, my heart is here.”


Well-meaning and well-lensed, Asante’s timely biopic kicks off LFF a few months after Brexit, while also preceding whatever xenophobic surge will occur in May’s government. (It’s set in the late 40s, a time we seem to be returning to.) At the heart of the drama is an extraordinary story led by an above-average acting duo, both of whom must surely be prouder of their work here than on Jack Reacher. So it’s a shame it all unfolds in a plodding, simplistic manner.

Ultimately, it’s an efficient love story between two boring people who stick up for themselves when the racists of the world unite. Seretse (Oyelewo) is the prince of Botswana, and Ruth (Pike) is his white princess from south London – I think Zone 5. Together, their interracial romance is deemed a colossal faux pas, and the ensuing events could easily be read off Wikipedia. The fact is, both characters are rather bland, which doesn’t seem to be true for the real Seretse and Ruth; when the end credits display a photo of the source couple, some additional text lays on the info and cruelly alludes towards extra dimensions not featured on screen.

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 Gala reviews: “American Honey”, “Lion”, “La La Land”, “Their Finest”, “Free Fire”, “Arrival” and 5 others…

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