Wednesday, 19 October 2016

LFF 2016:
Manchester By The Sea / The Ghoul /
Mascots / My Life As A Courgette

Well that's that for another year. The 60th London Film Festival is over, and so is my all-encompassing coverage of 4.9% of all the films it had to offer. Join me again next year when we hope to break the magic 5% barrier!

Manchester By The Sea
Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited follow-up to the epic Margaret lacks that film's scope and scale, hewing closer to his excellent debut You Can Count On Me by virtue of teasing more sibling-related drama out of everyday life. Casey Affleck is terrifically ordinary as "The Lee Chandler", a janitor with a tragic history that hangs over him throughout the story; permanently shuffling around Massachusetts with his hands in his pockets, unwillingly trying to take care of his horny nephew after a family bereavement, Lee's life is a series of obstacles recognisable to anyone who's ever been related to anybody.

Lonergan's skill is in making the everyday dramatic without ever tipping into melodrama, eschewing formalities like distinct acts or character arcs that might lead you to believe you're watching a movie movie. His knack for writing, directing and editing scenes of superficial tedium which are never less than compelling is uncanny, and he's aided enormously by Affleck and Michelle Williams, who - despite essentially replaying her Blue Valentine character here - is literally incapable of being unwatchable. Kyle Chandler, too, threatens to typecast himself as the go-to big brother seen in two series of Bloodline, but he's forgiven because he's exactly the big brother you'd want. On a personal note, if you're going to double-bill Manchester By The Sea with La La Land like I inadvertently did, watch this one first. The other way round is like eating dessert before the main course.

The Ghoul
Written and directed with quiet intensity by Gareth Tunley, The Ghoul is an unsettling depiction of a troubled soul, and dares to tackle a subject all too rarely examined in mainstream cinema. What begins as a modern-day Holmesian detective yarn swiftly mutates into something else entirely: a weird, woozy headscratcher that probes the darkest corners of its protagonist's psyche and presents its findings with appropriately disorientating perplexity. While it suffers from the odd casting decision that can only have helped it get made in the first place, Tunley's film is a layered, metaphor-laden, smartly-constructed puzzle which loops around on itself like the Möbius strip motif at its core. If you can, once the credits roll, watch the beginning again and see if you can spot where the story ends. Good luck.

Christopher Guest has made his film again: a gentle mockumentary focusing on a handful of social misfits whose entire life is devoted to one activity so pathetically pointless that the only obvious way to approach it is through a mirthless sneer. The target this time is "sports mascottery" and the grand final of the "Fluffies", a global competition to find the world's greatest Person Who Dresses Up In An Oversized Suit And Does A Funny Routine. That's Guest's first mistake: whereas his previous targets have been familiar to the average audience (am-dram actors, musicians, dog lovers), few of us are as au fait with the deadly serious nature of being a sports mascot, and it's tricky to laugh at lampoonery if you know nothing about what's being lampooned.

For a high-profile proponent of the mockumentary style, Guest just can't seem to be arsed with it this time. A smattering of faux-interviews are about as mocku- as it gets, the rest of the film shot in the style of any other bland and unspectacular comedy. The only thing that's consistent is that blandness, which characterises every joke in the script: attempts to skewer political correctness are weak; a British entrant in the competition is a poor man's David Brent; Guest briefly reprises his role as Waiting For Guffman's Corky St Clair, an appalling gay stereotype who, in one shot, is seen doing needlepoint AND THAT'S THE JOKE. Every film I've seen at this year's London Film Festival has been funnier than Mascots, and that includes the one about the dying parent and the one about the suicidal newscaster.

My Life As A Courgette
A deeply lovable stop-motion animation featuring ludicrously bobble-headed kids, whose various unfortunate circumstances have landed them in Mme Papineau's Home For Peculiar Children. Icare, who goes by the name of Courgette for reasons never fully explained, is our unlikely guide to the joy of companionship and friendship via misery, bullying and loneliness. With eyes bigger than Emma Stone's, each character seems to be locked in a perpetual state of uncertainty, surprise or downright terror, yet director Claude Barras keeps them sympathetic and identifiable via believable dialogue and nuanced animation. Sweet but slight (at just over an hour there's barely time to get comfy), this is a grown-up tale for kids which balances its horrors with some hilarious nonsense about exploding willies.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

LFF 2016: Prevenge

Shift over Marge Gunderson, budge up Juno MacGuff: the small world of films with lead characters whose ovens are home to a sizeable bun just got even less roomy. In fact Prevenge straddles two subgenres like a mighty, tender-breasted colossus, and both the pregnancy comedy and the vengeance thriller are about to get a new champion in Alice Lowe's homicidal, hormonally imbalanced heroine Ruth.

Grieving and growing at an exponential rate, seven-months-pregnant Ruth is a bereaved mum-to-be on a mission. The catalyst for her waddling rampage of revenge and the connection between her victims are only gradually revealed throughout Lowe's self-directed script, lending the early sequences a shocking, jet-black streak of darkness matched only by the equally grim humour. Comparisons with Lowe's work on Sightseers are unavoidable (emotionally vulnerable woman is coerced into an incongruously funny killing spree by a malevolent accomplice), but Prevenge is a leaner, meaner experience, rougher around the edges but with added layers of insight from a fairly unique point of view in cinema: that of a woman undergoing the turbulent, life-changing effects of pregnancy.

Conceived, written and shot while Lowe was herself in the process of baby-bearing (that's her actual bump on display throughout the film), Prevenge is a remarkable achievement considering its brief gestation period, and a breath of fresh air from a specifically female perspective that still shouldn't freak out the #NotAllMen brigade. There's a touching motif about life, death and the umbilical connection between the two which marks the film out as a more thoughtful slasher movie than it initially appears, and the lasting impression is a fond hope that its mother starts work on a little brother or sister sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

LFF 2016: Free Fire

I realise I'm in the minority here, but I'm afraid I still don't get Ben Wheatley. I look forward to each of his films, and every one - on paper, at least - seems like it's going to be The One that grabs me and shows me that the emperor is, indeed, fully clothed. But to me, all six of his admirably original features have felt like promising debuts; calling cards that give notice of a developing talent about to burst into bloom in a massive way. The latest of those, Free Fire, takes this notion so far that it strongly resembles the first film of another independent director who really did grab cinema by the balls and tug hard: set in a disused warehouse populated by a handful of amateur crooks trading gunshots and wisecracks, Wheatley's sixth film screams Tarantino, which is the last thing you'd expect from such a distinctive, unconventional voice.

Things begin well, as a roster of immediately well-drawn characters converge on the warehouse to carry out a weapons deal: Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are IRA heavies buying guns from Sharlto Copley's unpredictable Vernon and Armie Hammer's smooth, cautious Ord; Justine (Brie Larson) is the go-between; Sam Riley, Enzo Cilenti, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor play the grunts whose only job is to drive the guns and money into and out of the warehouse. Wheatley is now at a stage where he can command a terrific cast like this, and it's that cast that saves Free Fire from monotony at several stages throughout its brief running time. Smiley and Hammer send sparks flying with every antagonistic exchange, Larson is amusingly weary as the woman adrift in a sea of testosterone, and Copley is predictably hilarious - for the first half at least, until his schtick begins to wear a little thin.
When the deal inevitably goes south and the bullets start to zip and zing, Wheatley sets up an hour of real-time carnage punctuated by crackling dialogue and the occasional trademark moment of hilariously sickening ultraviolence: in just ninety minutes Free Fire leaps from Reservoir Dogs to a mercifully-distilled The Hateful Eight, but without the freshness of the former or the canny subtext of the latter. Wheatley deliberately portrays the shootout as scrappy - as, presumably, it would be - but in doing so loses all sense of geography inside his single location, making the experience a frustrating one to follow. And while there's a ticklish sense of fantasy that allows so many people to get shot so many times without being killed (maybe they're Death Proof?), you do begin to wonder if the apparently inexhaustible supply of ammunition will ever run out.

Undeniably stylish (the costumes are to die for) and entertainingly performed, Free Fire is a noisy blast of fun whose echo fades out even before the credits roll. The smell of cordite and the feel of polyester are stronger sensations than anything provided by the story, and in the context of Ben Wheatley's undeniably remarkable career, that seems a shame. He's absolutely still a director to watch, but at this year's London Film Festival two other, less glorified films over which he's had a clear influence - Prevenge and The Ghoul - have burned far brighter than Free Fire.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

LFF 2016: Have You Seen My Movie?

If there's one thing the movies love, it's the movies. Movie maker Paul Anton Smith loves the movies' love of the movies, so he's made a movie about it from bits of movies set at the movies, and it's a real movies movie. Raiding hundreds of films from An Affair To Remember to Zodiac for their cinema-based scenes, Smith has constructed an almost-narrative built entirely from breathtakingly edited clips, and it's the perfect film to be showing at a film festival.

The whole experience of going to the flicks, as seen on screen, is represented here: there's Alvy Singer waiting in line trying not to have a stroke; there's Tyler Durden splicing frames of cocks into kids' films; there's Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey watching a trailer for Flames Of Passion. Once the main feature starts, people make out, people watch people making out, people break up and Mickey Rourke sticks his dick through the bottom of a popcorn carton. Meanwhile horror and comedy rub shoulders as Max Cady laughs too loud and Danny Zuko cops a feel of Sandy's norks.

On the one hand it's a chance to watch a seamlessly dovetailed sequence of film clips, but on the other Have You Seen My Movie? shows us that all human life is here, gathered in the darkness beneath a flickering beam of magic for a couple of hours at a time. It's a celebration of the act of moviegoing, a prompt to recall some of your own memories (that trip to the Shrewsbury Empire for a Star Wars / The Empire Strikes Back double bill in 1982 has a lot to answer for) and a surprising indicator of just how often the movies go to the movies. Its premise wears a little thin before its 139 minutes are up, but you can't deny the power of a film that teaches you to never, ever accept popcorn from Mickey Rourke.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

LFF 2016: Christine

Rebecca Hall anchors Antonio Campos' refreshingly objective biopic of troubled '70s newscaster Christine Chubbuck with such understated grace and control that if this film doesn't put her on the A List, nothing will. Front and centre throughout, Hall is mesmerising as the committed, idealist newshound constantly up against the powers that be at her ratings-chasing local news station.

Campos and writer Craig Shilowich set themselves the unenviable task of believably depicting Christine's descent towards her own story's tragic climax, opting for a non-judgemental, detached approach which deliberately answers few of the questions it raises. Nevertheless, Christine's battle for her own soul is a captivating watch, and the supporting characters are richly drawn, real people, quietly fighting their own battles in the background.

"People are listening to me," Christine says, "so I need to make sure that I'm really saying something." She definitely achieved that goal; whether the film of her story does too is open to debate. But Rebecca Hall is shouting from the rooftops right now, so you'd better start listening.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

LFF 2016: La La Land

Watching Damien Chazelle's La La Land in 2016 - a year which, both inside and outside the cinema, has been caked in some of the most feculent matter to spurt from the world's rancid arsehole - is like being slapped in the face with a bright yellow cartoon hand that bursts into stars on impact with your chops, showering you with music and joy and laughter and love and all the things that have so singularly failed to represent this year. It's no wonder that it isn't released in the UK until next January; 2016 simply doesn't deserve it.

Thanks to the London Film Festival though, a handful of jammy bastards (hello) got to experience it early, and an experience is exactly what it is. La La Land is not so much a film as a celebration: a vital and jubilant reminder that beautiful, colourful, widescreen magic still exists, and a declaration from its ambitious, talented and irritatingly young director that he absolutely did not come to dick about. This is the full package, the real deal; oozing with talent and crammed to the edge of every frame with heart-bursting wonderment.

So first things first: La La Land is a musical. If you don't like musicals, you probably won't like La La Land (also, the fuck is wrong with you?). It's a nostalgic, traditional, delightful musical in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two charming dream-chasers who sing upbeat songs about love and togetherness. But it's also a forward-looking, modern, achingly sad musical in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two occasionally shitty people who sing wistful songs about failure and regret. It's both comfortably predictable and refreshingly unexpected; like the city it's named for, La La Land's dazzling sunshine casts pitch black shadows.

Announcing itself with a stupendous opening number that fizzes with primary colours and fluid camera moves (like all the songs, it's filmed in one long, unimaginably complex shot), La La Land earned its first round of applause at my screening before the title even appeared. Just one display of Chazelle's balls-out confidence occurs towards the end of that number, when someone skateboards off the bonnet of a car: why would anyone in their right mind put something so likely to go wrong at the climax of such a complicated shot? You soon realise, though, that the whole film is full of risks like that. Chazelle's chutzpah is fully justified, and there are two very good reasons why: Stone and Gosling.

With this, the third film in which they have not only starred together but also played lovers, Ry & Em have truly reached peak adorable. These two could play Donald Trump and Theresa May in a romantic comedy right now and the world would fall in love with them. Stone, already a proven comedic performer, employs every muscle in her face - not least those around her enormous, irresistible eyes - to render us submissive to her naturally devastating humour, while Gosling, who somehow rarely gets the chance to unleash his obvious streak of innate comedy, lets rip here. A scene in which his vaguely pretentious jazz pianist is forced to play keytar in an '80s tribute band (complete with outfit that qualifies as a fire hazard) is already inherently funny, but Gosling's humiliated expression lifts the gag into orbit.

For a cynical noughties audience, it takes actors of this calibre to sell something as potentially disastrous as a song-and-dance routine. But sell it they do: they're no Fred and Ginger (Gosling in particular is occasionally less than light on his feet), but they throw themselves into each number with spirit, Chazelle's inventive direction and Linus Sandgren's sensational cinematography helping to conceal any missteps. And in celebrating the movies (Stone's aspiring actress / writer works as a barista on the Warner Bros lot), the set-pieces recall the likes of Top Hat, Singin' In The Rain and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg with just the right amount of deference.

Despite all the joy-soaked fantasy on offer, La La Land - like Chazelle's Whiplash before it - smuggles a dark and unexpectedly realistic message about the true cost of success (albeit a far more relatable one than in Whiplash), and the film's final act skulks out from beneath the glossy veneer of its preceding ninety minutes with subversive intent, even as it unleashes a breathless, wordless and peerless finale. Chazelle makes some bold choices that might not go down well with everyone, but they breathe fresh air into what could have been a classily-executed but one-note ode to the golden age of musicals.

Of course if you're a terrible nitpicker you might find yourself lamenting the cursory appearance of a handful of first-act characters: Sebastian's sister pops up for a single expository scene and is summarily forgotten; Mia's housemates get one song before suffering a similar fate; JK Simmons is cruelly teased in a hilarious but all-too-brief cameo. But if those guys are sacrificed then it's on the altar of the film's incandescent leads, and given that they're probably the two people with whom most of us would want to be trapped on a desert island, the absence of a few minor characters is hardly felt. It's almost as if La La Land has nothing else wrong with it whatsoever.

Monday, 10 October 2016

LFF 2016: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve's second film to hover menacingly over cinema audiences in the space of twelve months is light years away from the grounded, nail-troubling thrills of 2015's Sicario, just as that film was nothing like his Enemy, or Prisoners, or Incendies before it. If Villeneuve - master of the one-word title - has spent his career thus far on an eclectic jaunt through a selection of genres, then Arrival might just signify his, uh, arrival at his natural home: intelligent, thematically grand sci-fi.

Plunging us into an apparent alien invasion, pausing briefly to introduce Amy Adams' introspective linguist Louise Banks, Villeneuve dangles potential, familiar threads which may or may not have red herrings attached. The mysterious appearance of a dozen extraterrestrial crafts around the globe suggests all-out Independence Day-style war might be on the horizon, while the recruitment of experts in their field (including a maths boffin called Ian) to assist with the kind of scientific breakthrough that only happens in the movies recalls Jurassic Park with tentacles. On the flipside, Banks' melancholy - and Villeneuve's deliberate, measured pacing - evokes Tarkovsky's Solaris. But Arrival is none of these things; sitting somewhere between arthouse and popcorn, it's refreshingly and joyously original, though it takes its sweet time explaining how.
"I speak aylien very wail, I lairn eet from ay boook"

Banks - one of the world's foremost experts in language - is tasked with establishing communication with the visitors, and it's not a quick or easy process. Her methods are complex and hampered by only sporadic contact with her subject, and her apparent lack of progress leads to nervousness around the world, especially high up in the Chinese and Russian military (it feels a little uncomfortable that Eric Heisserer's otherwise classy script has to fall back on racial stereotyping here, especially in a story about trying to understand a foreign culture, but the payoff warrants it). In all honesty, the pace may also incite restlessness in audience buttocks: as beautiful as Arrival's visuals are, and as terrifically weird as it sounds (it's often impossible to tell where Jóhann Jóhannsson's score ends and the sound effects begin), after ninety minutes you might find yourself itching to be amazed, rather than merely impressed. But then the last act drops, the rug you've been comfortably standing on is whipped away, and all is forgiven.

Arrival has so much to recommend it - Adams is restrained yet captivating; her character's story is as vital as the global crisis at the centre of which she finds herself; aliens are well cool - but its USP is the kind of narrative chicanery that blows away even the most deep-rooted cynicism of audiences who think they can't be surprised any more. It's reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's faux-Kubrickian efforts in Inception and Interstellar, but benefits from not being as wildly overambitious or unnecessarily complex. More than that, though, Villeneuve and Heisserer take a century of established cinematic storytelling and use it against you to create something so ballsy, it's almost as if you've been introduced to an entirely new language. Look very carefully and you can see what they've done there.
Probably worth mentioning that Jeremy Renner's in it too

A second viewing should be included with the sale of each cinema ticket, so that all of Arrival's sly genius can be appreciated in full. With hindsight, seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue take on new meaning, scenes that initially seemed irrelevant become crucial, and those red herrings can be fished out at an early stage. What's more, you can wallow in the respect afforded to you by a director who assumes you're smart enough to work with him in decoding the film's mysteries while simultaneously schooling you in linguistic theory and cinematic audacity.

Were it not for that somewhat protracted mid-section, Arrival would easily perch atop any sensible cinemagoer's (i.e. mine) top ten of the year so far. It's rescued by its dazzling finale, but there's still plenty to love about its freshness, its elegance and its refusal to cram in a car chase or ten. Almost certainly Denis Villeneuve's best film, the success of this sci-fi lullaby bodes extremely well for his next film: 2017's tantalising Harrison Ford / Ryan Gosling-starring Blade Runner sequel. Here's hoping to see more things you people wouldn't believe.