"Do you have any dreams...?"
What a massive treat this is: one of the world's greatest film festivals on our doorstep, glowing amidst the gloom of this lousy year, and bringing the likes of Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling and Isabelle Huppert to the capital. It's the first time I've got properly involved since moving to London in 2014, and it's been a magical experience. I'm seeing 18 films across the two weeks, from a Finnish boxing drama to a documentary about Syria's answer to Jon Stewart. Here are the first four.
Film 1: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, 2016) at Vue West End – A completely charming, disarming Finnish film, based on a true story, about a boxer who falls in love whilst preparing for a world championship fight. Shot in grainy monochrome, it reminds me a little of Truffaut in its grace notes (lovely, self-contained sequences of children) and also of Half Nelson – with its eye for an arresting, unexpected image or sentiment – though its sensibility, and its sense of humour, are all its own.
Whatever their quality, boxing movies tend to be bruising noirs about proud patsies (Body and Soul, The Set-Up, Champion), shameless stories about underdogs (Rocky) or cynical, bruising portraits of disconnected losers (Raging Bull). Olli Maki, with its humble hero, quiet humanity and knockout ending, could scarcely be more different.
Occasionally it seems unfocused or long-winded, but the performances from stage star Jarkko Lahti (as Olli), newcomer Oona Airola (as his ordinarily beautiful new girlfriend) and Eero Milonoff (playing his ex-champ of a manager) are really fresh, credible and well-judged, the bits of off-kilter humour mesh nicely with the affecting central storyline, and the film’s blending of realism, sweetness and surprise makes it a richly enjoyable experience.
A cracking start to the festival from debuting feature director Juho Kuosmanen – who won ‘Un certain regard’ at Cannes for this one. (3)
Guest: Juho Kuosmanen (post-film Q&A)
Film 2: Christine (Antonio Campos, 2016) at Vue West End – A stunning character study of a woman whose name is notorious if indeed it’s known at all: Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a news reporter in early ‘70s Florida who’s indelibly associated with her final act: shooting herself on live TV.
This richly empathetic film goes beyond the sensationalist headlines to explore her psyche, her environment and her motivations (if something as irrational as suicide can have motivations at all), and though the script’s shorthand and inventions can seem too pat and glib, Hall is just staggeringly good, and the film feels just right.
First, though the script: its mixture of the tough and the tender is right, but at times it’s simply crude and rudimentary: allusions to Chubbuck’s breakdown in Boston are sledgehammer-subtle, the invention of a crush on network anchor Michael C. Hall is simply misleading, and the way the film sometimes presents depression as a series of bad responses to triggers seems simplistic. That kind of paraphrasing or superficiality feels OK in a movie like, for example, Dmytryk’s The Sniper, which also strips away its character’s safety net by episodes, but a real story deserves better than that.
The story does, however, get the performance it deserves: in actuality, one of the best performances in years. As Christine, Rebecca Hall is simply astonishing. Tightly-wound, highly-strung and unable to connect, she has moments of eye-popping neurosis, but there’s nothing here that’s false or overdone. She lashes out in moments of black comedy, embraces the awkward by overstepping the mark quite egregiously with her boss, and then acquires a fittingly unearthly calm once her mind is made: I’ve been with someone about to kill themselves, and I didn’t see it coming either.
The film’s artistry and humanity grows organically from her performance, which places its roots far below the script and nourishes everything else. Michael C. Hall is fine and Tracy Letts is good as her boss, but it’s Rebecca Hall who makes everything work: in moments of disintegration that risk seeming synthetic and smack of screenwriting-by-numbers, her conviction is complete and utterly overpowering.
She’s by no means the only thing about the film I admired. When I say that it ‘feels right’, I don’t just mean that its portrayal of mental illness is extremely realistic and nuanced (sadly I have more experience in this area than I would wish on anyone) in a way that no movie aside from von Trier’s Melancholia has approached, but also that the film replicates the textures of ‘70s Florida in both its look and its sound: its succession of apposite West Coast soft rock classics is some of the best use of music I can remember. And nor is the script a write-off: the final scene seems tacked-on and false, but its opening gambit is amusing, its ability to sometimes give us a good time while putting us through the wringer isn’t to be underestimated, and the shards of black comedy embedded in the tragedy twinkle darkly amidst the heartbreak.
She is, though, the thing about the film that lifts it way out of the ordinary, turning it into an experience to be cherished, as it turns a headline into a portrait that acts too as a plea for empathy. A lot of people are hurting. Try to connect. (3.5)
Guest: Michael C. Hall (post-film Q&A)
Film 3: Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016) at Vue West End A moving, utterly gripping documentary about the University of Texas shooting in 1966, which doesn’t – as the festival literature suggests – use the tragedy to understand subsequent massacres, but instead tells the stories of the victims in mesmerising fashion.
It’s a film about the ways we react in extreme circumstances, and afterwards: the way that life-defining events have an aftermath and, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Deadeye Dick (another work that’s superficially about a shooting), the way the story may be over, but the life has to continue.
Director Keith Maitland took five years to make the film: conducting dozens of hours of interviews, then interspersing the footage of talking heads with archive film and new sequences of rotoscopic animation, which enabled him to restage much of that fateful, fatal day at the real locations, without having to get permission to film there.
It’s a striking approach that lends the film an artistic distinctiveness without undercutting its realism, and imbues it with a nauseating tension while keeping its real human stories centre-stage. And the stories are incredible, the characters unforgettable: the reflective, forgiving Claire, the tower itself – since the shooter is unseen, it seems to be picking off innocents at random, like the truck in Duel – and resourceful off-duty cop Martinez.
Best of all is Rita, whose selflessness dominates this story and makes it a portrait of humanity at its best, rather than at its worst. (3.5)
Guest: Keith Maitland (post-film Q&A)
Film 4: La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) at Odeon Leicester Square – I’ll be astonished if I see a better film than this at the London Film Festival: Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s homage to MGM musicals is like Blue Valentine starring Fred and Ginger, with a first half of unparalleled joy and a second that’s almost unbearably poignant.
It’s a movie about people out of time: actress Emma Stone should be in the ‘40s, jazz musician Ryan Gosling should be in the ‘30s and they shouldn’t both be on the cusp of realising their dreams if this relationship is going to work.
Timing is central to people getting together (a fact rarely acknowledged in movies) and La La Land acknowledges the fact that these characters may want to have their time over again (or have it in an idealised realm) in the most spectacular way imaginable: a climax that’s both exhilarating and replaces your entire throat with a lump.
The exuberant opening sequence sets the tone (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it) and from there on it’s great music, irresistible chemistry and a descent into heartbreaking Technicolor melodrama of which Jacques Demy would be proud.
From Stone’s hair lit like a neon sign (echoes of One From the Heart), to a Band Wagon-ish jaunt in a park, via nods to Gold Diggers (stylised montages! Chorus gals living together!), Broadway Melody of 1940 (challenge dancing!) and the climactic dream ballets of the ‘50s, it fits into the grand tradition without ever feeling like a novelty or a rip-off. And if I say that Mandy Moore’s choreography more than makes for A Walk to Remember, that is no small concession.
The problem with contemporary musicals is the undercurrent that says: “Isn’t this wacky, we’re doing a musical!” It was musicals’ everyday nature, their centrality to the national psyche that made them so magical. Somehow Chazelle has made that live again, and if his leads can’t dance quite like Fred and Ginger, they can sing comparably and act better. Gosling's comic timing is a thing of eternal beauty.
I expected to be charmed by this film, but I didn’t expect to be blown away like I was, or completely broken by the end. This is a wonderful, wonderful movie, and so far the undisputed highlight of a dizzyingly good festival. (4)
Guests: Pre-show Q&A with Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and two producers.
Thanks for reading. Part 2 includes Bing Crosby, Casey Affleck and a bizarre Isle of Man-set comedy from Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby of The Mighty Boosh.