LFF17 Cult, Dare & First Feature reviews: “Brawl in Cell Block 99”, “Columbus”, “Ava”, “Jeune femme”, “Casting” and 11 others…

Films reviewed: “Amant Double”, “Apostasy”, “Ava”, “Brawl in Cell Block 99”, “Beach Rats”, “The Cakemaker”, “Casting”, “Columbus”, “The Endless”, “Have a Nice Day”, “Jeune femme”, “Thelma”, “Tiger Girl”, “Veronica”, “Western”, and “Winter Brothers” (pictured above).

London Film Festival 2017 was split into strands including Debate, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love, Official Competition and Thrill. Here are the Cult, Dare and First Feature Competition reviews. Follow @halfacanyon for more.


Amant Double
– 7/10

Director: François Ozon
Writers: François Ozon, Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
Starring: Marine Vacth, Jérémie Renier, Jacqueline Bisset
Strand: Dare Gala
UK release: Early 2018
US release: TBC
“Isn’t your therapy based on exploring my repressed desire?”

A total kinky blast that mixes Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven and Ozon’s earlier, more mischievous movies. I have more words on this that you’ll be able to read somewhere else, in an actual legitimate publication, next year, if my evil twin brother doesn’t get there first…


Apostasy
– 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Daniel Kokotajlo
Starring: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright
Strand: First Feature Competition
UK/US release: TBC

It was, to my shame, only during the audience Q&A when I realised the impact Kokotajlo’s assured debut, Apostasy, will have upon its theatrical release. The taut drama concerns a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses: the mother (Finneran, absolutely brilliant) struggles to keep it together as her pregnant elder daughter (Parkinson) is expelled and her youngest (Wright) seeks, against the Church’s wishes, a blood transfusion to heal her anaemia.

That in itself makes for rich drama. Moreover, the “action” unfolds in dull Manchester buildings which are shot with stark, cold precision, turning the beige surroundings (and lots of white men who look like clones of each other) into a sort of mask for their sinister activities. But it was the post-screening section that opened my eyes further: nearly everyone who picked up the microphone was so moved to see themselves onscreen, and Kokotajlo himself revealed how much of the film is drawn from personal experiences. I look forward to seeing it again.


Ava
– 5/10

Director/Writer: Léa Mysius
Starring: Noée Abita, Laure Calamy, Juan Cano
Strand: First Feature Competition
UK/US release: TBC

It begins promisingly enough. 13-year-old Ava snoozes on a sweltering beach while a dog ominously jogs (do dogs “jog”?) through the crowd. The unsettling music suggests something like Paws, but the creature is just hungry. Shot in 35mm, it’s a fine scene, suggesting Mysius has a natural gift when it comes to visuals and establishing a mood.

The French writer-director, whose other credit is for co-writing Desplechin’s new movie, also seems to have a grasp on a compelling coming-of-age narrative. Upon learning she’s losing her eyesight, Ava is furious at the doctor for “ruining” her summer. Her mother may be in denial, but Ava wants to live. Maybe she’d run across the beach and stare into the camera if someone hadn’t got there first.

But Ava is more Godard than Truffaut, and the highly promising start gives way for a meandering story about runaway teens and tonal misfires. The film, like its character, seems to lose sight of what it’s aiming for as time passes, and a crime-related subplot should certainly have been left on the cutting room floor.


Beach Rats
– 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge
Strand: Dare
UK release: 24 November 2017
US release: Out now
“Two girls can make out and it’s hot. When two guys make out, it’s gay.”

My interview with Eliza Hittman will be online at some point soon.


Brawl in Cell Block 99
– 8/10

Director/Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson
Strand: Cult
UK/US release: Out now

In order to enjoy Zahler’s brutal crowdpleaser (by which I mean the audience will go “ooh!” and “oh no!” at the same time and have a thoroughly fantastic time), you have to get past a few things. Look, Zahler’s first film, Bone Tomahawk, was boring at best and, at worst, incredibly offensive. Vaughn hasn’t been in anything decent since Swingers, which was pretty mediocre anyway. Plus, Vaughn has terribly political opinions, and Zahler – his next film will star Mel Gibson and Vaughn – is probably on a similar wavelength.

But if you can get over that, then there’s plenty of fun to be had with Brawl. As soon as I noticed that Zahler wanted to sit with the audience for the screening, I realised this is the kind of film where you want to hear the room’s reactions. Interestingly, there isn’t that much violence if you pin it down to actual screen time – Vaughn doesn’t end up in prison until just before the midpoint – and it’s certainly a slow-burn thriller.

Yet Zahler, a bit of an icon for wannabe screenwriters who know how to use Google, paces everything perfectly, with every punch and skull-crush executed with genuine purpose. It even has a wry sense of humour with one-liners tossed out in between the yelps. The best grindhouse film I’ve seen in forever. I can’t wait to see the 98 films that preceded this.


The Cakemaker
– 5/10

Director/Writer: Ofir Raul Graizer
Starring: Tim Kalkhof, Sarah Adler, Roy Miller
Strand: First Feature Competition
UK/US release: TBC
“Two tofu noodles, one mango juice, one apple juice…”

An entirely pleasant but forgetful drama about grief, food and dull conversations that skirt around any drama. Thomas (Kalkhof) is heartbroken when Oren, his secret male lover, dies in a road accident. So Thomas does what any character in an implausibly movie does: he flies from Berlin to Jerusalem where he visits Oren’s wife’s kosher restaurant and immediately snags a job washing her dishes – without mentioning their connection, of course.

Everything you think will happen, does happen, except it takes a long time to get there, and no amount of faux sensitivity can really disguise how little is going on beneath the sugar coating. A wasted opportunity.


Casting
– 7.5/10

Director: Nicolas Wackerbarth
Writers: Nicolas Wackerbarth, Hannes Held
Starring: Andreas Lust, Judith Engel, Ursina Lardi
Strand: Dare
UK/US release: TBC
“My boyfriend finds me very hetero.”

The premise, in a sentence, is that a female filmmaker hold disastrous auditions for a TV reboot of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. So obviously it’s hilarious – especially when she’s testing out a scene between two male leads – but it’s clearly not for everyone, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the Fassbinder film.


Columbus
– 8/10

Director/Writer: Kogonada
Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin
Strand: First Feature Competition
UK release: TBC
US release: Out now
“We’re both bookish. So when we’re talking about attention, we’re biased towards reading.”

There’s a phrase, often attributed to Frank Zappa, that writing about Columbus is like writing about the origins of “dancing about architecture” in the pop culture zeitgeist. In video-essayist Kogonada’s debut feature, the glorious buildings are a supporting character: they possess, we are told, a healing power, and in each diligently composed frame they challenge the excellent actors for your attention.

Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is an architecture geek who feels chained to Columbus. She could, and should, move somewhere else, but her mother could use with someone to look after her. Meanwhile, in a slightly contrived move, Jin (John Cho – playing a proper adult for once) temporarily moves back when his father, a lecturer, is hospitalised.

It’s too simplistic to compare Columbus with Before Sunrise, particularly as Jin and Casey’s relationship is chaste and less impulsive. Moreover, Kogonada’s poised frames and camera moves are positively Ozu, but in a modern western setting. Sometimes these patient rhythms rob the film of its spontaneity, but it’s a damn pleasure watching Casey and Jin interact with each other.

That only these two appreciate the architecture around them makes it feel like a special language they share. “I’m just like everyone else around here,” Jin tells Casey. “You grow up around something and it feels like nothing.” But the beautiful, poignant way he observes the buildings says otherwise.


The Endless
– 5/10

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer: Justin Benson
Starring: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Tate Ellington
Strand: Cult
US/UK release: TBC

There’s some feverish excitement to be had in Benson and Moorhead’s time-travel mindfuck – but the filmmaking duo are, sadly, not convincing actors.


Have a Nice Day
– 6/10

Original title: Hao Ji Le
Director/Writer: Liu Jian
Starring: Zhu Changlong, Cao Kai, Liu Jian
Strand: Dare
UK/US release: TBC

There’s plenty of Fargo and Pulp Fiction in Liu Jian’s animated black comedy – topical enough to include a gag about Brexit – about Chinese criminals chasing a briefcase of money. Sharp wit and dark humour are on display, even if it doesn’t add up to much when the film ends, but a highlight is a simple moment towards the end – you’ll know it when you see it – that hint towards the director’s background as a painter.


Jeune Femme
– 7/10

Director/Writer: Léonor Serraille
Starring: Laetitia Dosch, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Grégoire Monsaingeon
Strand: First Feature Competition
UK release: 18 May 2018
US release: TBC

It should be said, do not expect a comedy like Cédric Klapisch’s When the Cat’s Away, even if the plots sound remarkably similar. On the contrary, Serraille’s feature debut is a bold, stark character portrait about survival and hidden homelessness. (Bonus fact revealed at the Q&A: the cat has appeared in several gay calendars.)


Thelma
– 7/10

Director: Joachim Trier
Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Starring: Eili Harboe, Okay Kaya, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen
Strand: Cult Gala
UK release: 3 November 2017
US release: 10 November 2017

Trier’s slow-burn horror spins several plates at once. It’s a De Palma-ish supernatural thriller, a sensitive lesbian coming-of-ager, and a visually arresting sci-fi mystery – all linked, incredibly, to the emotional turmoil of being a teenage girl. The back-and-forth timeframe is similar to last year’s hugely underrated Louder than Bombs, with a dash of the downbeat drama of Oslo, August 31. While it can’t match my personal pick of his filmography, Reprise, there’s enough to reaffirm that Trier can nail whatever genre he wishes to pursue.


Tiger Girl
– 5/10

Director: Jakob Lass
Writers: Jakob Lass, Ines Schiller, Hannah Schopf, Nico Woche, Eva-Maria Reimer
Starring: Ella Rumpf, Maria Dragus
Strand: Dare
UK/US release: TBC

A high-octane mess that’s fun for a while – until the leads are split and you’re just waiting for it to end.


Veronica
– 5/10

Director: Paco Plaza
Writers: Fernando Navarro, Paco Plaza
Starring: Sandra Escacena, Bruna González, Claudia Placer
Strand: Cult
UK/US release: TBC

Probably should’ve just made a fourth REC film.


Western
– 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Valeska Grisebach
Starring: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov
Strand: Dare
UK/US release: TBC

It was only in the credits when I realised that Western is co-produced by Maren Ade, which makes sense: the film is like an extension of the worst bit of Toni Erdmann, when Ines and Winfried visit the oil workforce two-thirds through, and the latter ends up borrowing the bathroom of someone who speaks a different language. But Toni Erdmann is the best film of the year so far, and Western has its positives, too.


Winter Brothers
– 7.5/10

Original title: Vinterbrodre
Director/Writer: Hlynur Pálmason
Starring: Elliott Crosset Hove, Simon Sears, Lars Mikkelsen
Strand: First Feature Competition
UK/US release: TBC

Pálmason is the real deal. His frosty debut, a deadpan comedy shot on 16mm, is a tale of sibling rivalry that unfolds in an Icelandic mining community. There are too many highlights to pick, so I will just single out the pulsating electronic score which is used sparingly but with maximum impact. A filmmaker, and a film, to look out for – if it ever gets a proper theatrical release.


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

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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. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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