“Anchor and Hope”, “The Boy Downstairs”, “Brigsby Bear”, “Funny Cow”, “Golden Exits”, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, “Ingrid Goes West”, “King of Peking”, “Let the Sunshine In”, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”, “On Chesil Beach”, “Princess Cyd”, “Quality Time”, “Stronger”, “Three Peaks” (pictured above”) and “Word of God”.
London Film Festival 2017 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Official Competition and Thrill. Follow @halfacanyon for more. Here are the reviews…
Anchor and Hope – 6/10
Director: Carlos Marques-Marcet
Writers: Carlos Marques-Marcet, Jules Nurrish
Starring: Oona Chaplin, Natalia Tena, David Verdaguer
UK/US release: TBC
A few years ago at London Film Festival, I saw Carlos Marques-Marcet’s 10,000km, a devastating romantic drama that plays out entirely on Skype, and left wondering how the Spanish director’s insight into crumbling relationships could play out off-screen (you know what I mean).
Well, unlike the long-distance relationship of 10,000 km, Anchor and Hope’s central duo of Eva (Chaplin) and Kat (Tena) live in each other’s pockets on a tiny, intimate barge. It’s actually quite idyllic, with Marques-Marcet favouring a naturalistic, comic tone. The tension arrives in the form of Roger (Vergaduer), a buddy of Kat’s, who agrees to donate sperm so that the two women can raise a child. The hiccup? The eureka moment arose from a drunken conversation and Eva awakens to an especially painful hangover.
That Eva complains it was just the booze talking speaks to the plot’s many contrivances, and it’s too easy to tell which scenes are strictly obeying the film’s outline (a meal with a relative, for instance, feels too much like a first take). I say this because the film is delightful when it’s just three friends chatting shit (sometimes about shit). But ultimately, there’s enough of the trio’s warm chemistry to keep the ambling drama afloat.
The Boy Downstairs – 5/10
Director/Writer: Sophie Brooks
Starring: Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear, Deirdre O’Connell
UK/US release: TBC
The takeaway here, from Sophie Brooks’ watchable but unadventurous romcom, is that Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna from Girls) and Matthew Shear (the not-boyfriend from Mistress America) may be hilarious in an ensemble, but they’re not compelling enough to lead a film on their own.
Brigsby Bear – 5.5/10
Director: Dave McCary
Writers: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkibs, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams
UK release: 8 December 2017
US release: Out now
What if Room was a comedy written, directed by and starring Saturday Night Live players? In Brigsby Bear, Kyle Mooney plays James, a manchild who was abducted as a kid and kept hidden in a bunker. His kidnappers (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) invented some mumbo jumbo about toxic fumes to keep him imprisoned, and further brainwashed him with a kid’s TV show called Brigsby Bear. When he’s discovered and rescued by the FBI, he’s shocked that the rest of the world doesn’t share his love for this tacky, manipulative programme.
To the film’s credit, the script feels exceedingly thought-through, perhaps to a fault in how neatly everything works out, and the TV show’s internal universe feels worryingly real. The actors, too, are universally terrific, particularly Matt Walsh with by far the most dramatic performance I’ve ever seen from him. But there’s something a bit hollow in the film’s positivity. Not just how the show becomes an unironic viral sensation, but the ease at which everyone is forgiven, and even the abductors (Hamill, anyway – Adams is apparently not famous enough to appear in more than one scene) receive an “aw, everyone makes mistakes” payoff.
Maybe Brigsby Bear, the film, serves the same purpose as the show-within-the-film: a calculating piece of art designed to make the audience feel happy and safer in a horrible, horrible world.
Funny Cow – 2.5/10
Director: Adrian Shergold
Writer: Tony Pitts
Starring: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Alun Armstrong
UK/US release: TBC
Maxine Peake, like the title character, does the best she can with unfathomably weak material in Adrian Shergold’s woeful 70s/80s-set period drama. Peake has played Blanche DuBois, Ophelia and Hamlet in the theatre world. So you wonder whether she was just desperate for a movie role when Tony Pitts’ script popped up in her inbox.
We first meet Funny Cow (her real name isn’t revealed) as a small, bullied girl who mouths off at her enemies – foreshadowing her relationship with hecklers. Soon enough, Funny Cow grows from a calf into a suffering adult in an abusive marriage; her only escape is on a sexist stand-up circuit dominated by unfunny white men who trot out racist, misogynist material.
Of course, Funny Cow breaks through, but the writing is so clunky and lacking in nuance that no one – not even Funny Cow herself – feels like a real person. (Paddy Considine’s supporting role is particularly miscast and jarring.) There’s little engagement with the stand-up world or why she would be enamoured with appearing onstage – just some brutal sequences involving a violent husband, played by Pitts himself. But a few instances of graphic domestic abuse do not count as dramatic complexity.
The only ambition on display is in the inadvisable storytelling format whereby Funny Cow narrates her life in a dull, dreary monologue – as if Peake is simply reading aloud the original script treatment. Later on, when Funny Cow picks up the mic, her eventual zinger-filled climax is forced, clumsy and overwritten. Meanwhile, Alun Armstrong flirts with suicide in the club’s bathroom and times his actions with Funny Cow’s stage material – it’s one of the most excruciatingly executed scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.
By the time Funny Cow has won over the crowd, it’s with the kind of racist material that the comedy world has since outgrown. It’s obviously a comment on a backwards period, but it’s a sour note to end on what’s ostensibly an uplifting finish – especially when the film is otherwise happy for fantastical flights of fancy and out-of-character one-liners that tear down the house. By the end, I felt like I’d died a thousand deaths.
Golden Exits – 6/10
Director/Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Adam Horowitz, Emily Browning
UK/US release: TBC
Could really have used with some of the humour of Listen Up Philip (hugely underrated).
How to Talk to Girls at Parties – 7/10
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writers: John Cameron Mitchell, Philippa Goslett, Neil Gaiman (novel)
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alex Sharp, Nicole Kidman
UK release: 11 May 2018
US release: TBC
“Your penis is small and folded, like the bud of a flower. Oh, it’s losing its structure…”
Loads of fun. I’ll have more words on this next year when my interview with John Cameron Mitchell goes online.
Ingrid Goes West – 7/10
Director: Matt Spicer
Writers: Matt Spicer, David Branson Smith
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
UK release: 17 November 2017
US release: Out now
“I thought you were my Catwoman, but it turned out I was with Two-Face.”
At last, something productive has come from Instagram. Spicer’s delicious black comedy takes an obvious target – the emptiness of social media celebrities – but mines some unexpected pathos from an absurd comic scenario. More or less, it involves Ingrid Thornburn (Aubrey Plaza) stalking, via Instagram, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen doing her best Taylor Swift), and they somehow become best friends. (The unconvincing way this is executed is the film’s biggest weakness, but it’s funny enough that you go with it.)
Of course, good things don’t last. Your Instagram goes viral one day, and the next it only gets appreciation from spambots because you included #TBT in the description. Ingrid Goes West doesn’t exactly have anything new to say about how technology has infiltrated the world, but there is genuine sadness in every character’s desperation to be seen – let alone the notion of being loved. You could even call it Single “Like” Female. (I know Instagram uses heart symbols, not “Like” buttons, but Social Media White Female was already taken.)
King of Peking – 5.5/10
Original title: Jing Cheng Zhi Wang
Director/Writer: Sam Voutas
Starring: Zhao Jun, Wang Naixun, Han Qing
UK/US release: TBC
“It wasn’t all fake. There just wasn’t a lot of truth in it.”
Piracy is no laughing matter – except when it’s the subject of a China-set comedy. Big Wong and Little Wong are a father/son duo who make a business out of videotaping movies at a cinema, and then selling bootleg DVDs on the street. It’s funny enough, I guess, but there isn’t that much to it, and the emotional stakes (the kid wants to build a papier-mâché volcano) are too contrived to be invested in.
As far as I’m aware, Voutas grew up in Australia but spent much of his youth in China, and some of that affection and nostalgia comes through. But the best moments are when the film’s enthusiasm mirrors the DIY thrills of the illegal business. For instance, a certain montage that’s done in a single shot, or the “Sweded” movies made by Big Wong. The rest just feels like a knockoff.
Let the Sunshine In – 7.5/10
Original title: Un beau soleil intérieur
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Christine Angot, Claire Denis
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine
UK release: 20 April 2018
US release: TBC
Here’s some very beau travail (pardon my French) from Claire Denis. By partnering up with Juliette Binoche, she’s somewhat gone against expectations by crafting a sensuous romantic comedy about the perils of middle age and chasing lacklustre love affairs. Achingly moving and sporadically funny, it also taps into a specific female POV rarely seen onscreen, with Binoche – as an artist called Isabelle, presumably an in-joke – fleshing out a nuanced role with small gestures and bursts of frustration.
The highlight, though, is a closing sequence involving a hilarious cameo from Gerard Depardieu (an avowed non-fan of Binoche, which adds further tension to the encounter). Apparently Denis refused to edit it down – hence the credits appear during their conversation – and for 14 minutes, these two icons of French cinema discuss life, love and the future. Pure magic.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Emma Thompson
Strand: Laugh Gala
UK/US release: Out now
“It’s hard to have a relationship and a child.”
Here’s my interview with Noah Baumbach.
On Chesil Beach – 6/10
Director: Dominic Cooke
Writer: Ian McEwan
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Strand: Love Gala
UK/US release: 15 Jun 2018
In what seems to be an attempt to recreate the magic of 2015’s surprisingly great Brooklyn, Ian McEwan’s adaptation of his own book stars Saoirse Ronan as a young woman who marries a fellow virgin, played by Billy Howle. McEwan’s novel – more of a novella, really – is itself barely a story, padded out with prose, which is fine on the page, but the film struggles to flesh out its account of a disastrous attempt to consummate a marriage.
Thus flashbacks are deployed to fill in the gaps of how these two unlikely souls fell in love. It’s not really enough, though, with repetition, clichés and a perhaps unwise subplot about mental illness subtracting from the fine acting work. Dominic Cooke, primarily a theatre director, does a decent job at presenting the romance in widescreen – sometimes by using the size of the frame to visualise the gulf between the couple. But someone should have stepped in to prevent the cataclysmic epilogue: old-age make-up and crying are an unwise combination when attempting to execute a sincere dramatic climax.
Princess Cyd – 7/10
Director/Writer: Stephen Cone
Starring: Rebecca Spence, Jessie Pinnick, Malic White
UK release: TBC
US release: Out now
“You’ll have to look that up online.”
If you liked Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech at the end of Call Me By Your Name, then you’ll be similarly enthralled by the standout moment in Princess Cyd. I won’t spoil it for you – because I’ve spoilt it in a separate article going online at a proper publication soon.
Quality Time – 7/10
Director/Writer: Dean Bakker
Starring: Noël Keulen, Giulio D’Anna, Thomas Aske Berg
UK/US release: TBC
Split into five distinct tales, Bakker’s inventive meditation on masculinity is provocative, hilarious and occasionally too meandering. Nevertheless, the format and willingness to experiment allows for an otherwise engaging hit/miss affair – for inquisitive viewers, anyway.
The first section is probably the highlight: a round animated dot, called Koen, complains about the pressure of consuming ham and milk at family gatherings. In other words, it’s the kind of film that’s impossible to explain on a page. Similarly, the second chapter deploys its own experimental narrative technique that ends before the gimmick wears off. (I’m being vague for a reason – it’s best to go in cold.)
Funnily enough, Bakker revealed after the screening that a programmer at HBO admired the movie but advised him to cut the first two chapters and start with the third. That Bakker didn’t take the advice is admirable, and in fact the third section is the weakest due to its relatively conventional humour. Still, the oddball comedy is, overall, like little I’ve seen before, and its lack of commercial appeal means I caught it in one of the few times it’ll probably ever screen in the UK. It’s what the festival is for, I guess.
Stronger – 6.5/10
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: John Pollono
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson
UK release: 8 December 2017
US release: Out now
In what may as well be called Stronger Than The Clichéd Mess You’re Expected, David Gordon Green’s version of an Oscars-friendly movie is a surprisingly effective, occasionally risky, drama about Jeff Bauman, the local who lost his legs during the Boston Marathon Bombing. Jake Gyllenhaal, as Bauman, is as terrific as you’d anticipate, but the film’s peaks are when it explores trickier emotional territory – largely involving Erin (Maslany), his on/off girlfriend, who rearranges her life to look after him and, at one point, literally clean up his shit. They were split up when he attended the marathon to support her. Is she returning to him out of guilt?
For Stronger doesn’t paint Bauman as angel. Though an actor like Gyllenhaal will always be likeable to some expect, and there is a certain amount of cheeky everyman quality to his performance, the film depicts someone whose trauma leads him to lash out at those closest to him. He and his buddies go drunk driving, with Bauman at the wheel (think about this for a moment), and there’s a certain recklessness to his behaviour. A more cowardly filmmaker would surely have taken a different avenue.
At the same time, Green’s direction – and the anguish on Gyllenhaal’s face – tell the story of someone unwittingly thrust into the spotlight. Strangers want selfies (he can’t refuse), Oprah requests an interview (his mother can’t refuse), and much of his perceived heroism is in connection to a wider public reaction towards terrorism. This is where Stronger avoids the pitfalls we expect. We see Bauman have new legs fitted, for instance, and the first time he awakens following the incident. These scenes are done with minimal dialogue and just let the situation speak for itself. There isn’t what you usually find with biopics (hint: Philomena) where there’s a close-up of someone crying and you know they’re already half-writing their awards speech. Instead, you see someone struggling to come to terms with how his life changed just from standing in the wrong spot. (That said, there is one moment – it involves crawling on the floor – which is a bit too much, even if it did really happen. And the uplifting ending comes a bit out of nowhere.)
As a major Green fan, I was somewhat dispirited when he became attached to Stronger, but it’s actually closer to his earlier work than, say, Manglehorn and Joe. I mean, it’s not George Washington or All the Real Girls, but the latter was about raw emotion and had Paul Schneider punching the ground. In Stronger, Maslany and Gyllenhaal imbue this couple’s story with genuine passion and frustration, and the messiness of Bauman’s dysfunctional family (including Miranda Richardson as his constantly drunk mother) is brought to the fore. Gyllenhaal may be known for his physical performances, but here he shows just how complete an actor he really is.
Three Peaks – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Jan Zabeil
Starring: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery
Aaron (Fehling) is trapped between a rock and a hard place. Isolated in the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, he’s with his partner, Lea (Bejo), and her eight-year-old boy, Tristan (Montgomery). The elephant who’s regularly in the room via phone calls is Tristan’s biological father. Can Tristan ever accept Aaron, even in a frosty climate designed for tight bonding?
The taut drama really picks up in the second half when it transforms into a survival thriller. On a big screen, the icy landscape is gorgeous and, more importantly, terrifying. People in the audience were gasping and audibly saying, “Oh my God!” Then, even better, it turned out afterwards, from talking to other cinemagoers, everyone has a different perspective on the characters – primarily whether the kid is evil, annoying, or sweet for how much he loves his father.
If you see it, make sure it’s in a theatre. Thank me later.
Word of God – 2/10
Original title: Gud taler ud
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
Writers: Bo hr Hansen, Henrik Ruben Genz
Starring: Søren Malling, Lisa Nilsson, Marcus Sebastian Gert
UK/US release: Hopefully never
Before the screening, the producer told the audience that, for the Q&A, he’d welcome statements, not just questions. That was an early warning sign. The film itself is an incredibly unfunny, messy tale of a dysfunctional family – the father, who calls himself God, pens an autobiography called Mein Kampf, and the eldest child masturbates into a clock because he’s attempting to break a world record. It’s tedious, torturous and, when it attempts to be meaningful, just flat-out embarrassing.
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