Monday, 16 October 2017

Next year's best films: London Film Festival 2017 round-up − Part 1

If you see this man, do not approach him or he will bore you about films.

Well, you asked for it. Or at least partially dictated the format. So here's all 20 movies I saw at this year's London Film Festival, from worst to best.

Part 1 includes films by the likes of Todd Haynes, Dee Rees and Martin McDonagh, as well as a Chilean documentary on the world's worst aunt, a pulsating French drama about AIDS activists, and Aubrey Plaza being amazing (again). Plus at least two crushing disappointments.

It seems a little odd to make you read an article about the 10 worst films I saw at a festival, but not as odd as publishing a 6,000-word blog, which is why I've split this in two. Also, films #11-14 are really worth s

eeing, and hopefully the reviews of the others are more entertaining than the movies themselves, which isn't the highest bar. Now join me in saying the official catchphrase of the festival, spoken at least four times during every Q&A by a festival programmer: "Congratulations on what I think is an extraordinary movie."


20. Wonderstruck

"Make her look a bit cross-eyed with warty eyelids. There we go: old. Done."

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Damian Young
Country: USA
Rating: 1.5/4
UK release date: mid-November 2017

How is a Todd Haynes film with a character based on Lillian Gish this bad? And why is this his follow-up to Carol?!

This YA mystery – adapted by its author – has an intriguing dual-time structure, a nice Carter Burwell score and some neat nods to silents, but it's also cloying, not very mysterious, and incredibly longwinded: not trusting its audience to understand anything, and struggling with some laborious translation problems reminiscent of Le mèpris, in which a lot of the dialogue has to be written down and held up. It doesn't help that the central kid seems to have wandered in from a school play. Or that it ends up looking like an extended advertorial for some museums.

It's sort of like Hugo, if everything that Scorsese's film had done had gone a bit wrong.

(The Gish films being homaged, incidentally, are primarily The Wind (the poster of the film-within-a-film starring 'Lillian Mayhew' is based directly on a publicity image for this 1928 masterpiece) and Orphans of the Storm, though she played mothers in few of her starring vehicles and Wonderstruck diverts considerably from her real life.)


19. Zama

Director: Lucrecia Martel
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano
Country: Numerous
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 2/4

"Think of the film as a whiskey... Sometimes you might get drunk and fall asleep. For me that's a good thing. There are some films I love that I've seen five times, and I fell asleep five times." – writer-director Lucrecia Martel

Yeah, I don't feel the same, though that does explain why your film is quite boring.

Zama is about a colonial magistrate who just wants to go home, but forever finds one more obstacle in his way. There's some glorious imagery, and the odd interesting scene – with Lola Dueñas great as a prostitute elevated to society life, and a neat mini-twist near the end – but the characters aren't for the most part well-drawn, and the film's lack of context and air of aloof pretentiousness got on my wick. With a half hour to go, I just couldn't wait for it to end.

The Q&A, as you can tell, managed to be even more annoying than the film (yeah, I shouldn't have stayed). At one point she said that hens have greater attention to detail than humans.


... and the award for The Biggest Disappointment of LFF 2017 goes to...

18. The Florida Project

Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera
Country: USA
UK release date: 10 November 2017
Rating: 2/4

An Our Gang movie set among the 'hidden homeless' in run-down motels around Disneyworld sounds brilliant, but this tone-deaf film is too horrible and muddled to be anything but a trial.

As it moves from a film about resourceful, anarchic children to one about the world they're forced to inhabit, it forgets that in order to root for a character, they have to not be just the most appalling dickhead. Because of my background, I tend to feel a great affinity towards damaged working-class characters, and subscribe to the lefty notion that there are few bad people, we're shaped more than we might ever like to admit by our privileges and opportunities, rather than by innate attributes. I'm sure, too, that the mum here loves her daughter, as that sweet scene in the rain attests. But she's still a selfish, ungrateful arsehole.

You don't have to love a film's characters to love a film, but from the way Sean Baker has set up this movie, and used it to try to open up a debate about homelessness, you're clearly supposed to feel something, if only pity. For a masterclass, see the Dardennes' The Kid with the Bike, which gave us a self-centred, troublesome protagonist incinerating his second chances and made us want to save his life. Here you see characters like Willem Dafoe's motel manager exhibiting a gentle human kindness towards Bria Vinaite's character, and her treating them repeatedly like shit.

Nor does the kid stuff come off much better. All the child actors are good, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, but most of the jokes grow simply from kids behaving inappropriately like adults: a situation used solely for cheap (but undeniable) laughs, without ever really addressing its essential tragedy. I'm as much of a fan as the next person of a kid not really knowing how to swear and just shouting: "You are shit!" at a neighbour, but there's an inmate tragedy there that the film never approaches in its reluctance to acknowledge that while Moonee is slowly waking to a nightmare caused by the callous lie that is capitalism, her mum is also a dick.

It's only when the film slips into an improvisatory mode, allowing its kids to be kids, and a gentle, insular almost surreal silliness to intrude, that it manages to truly evoke childhood, and so achieve the juxtaposition essential to making its premise work. The ending calls to mind Les 400 Coups, surely not accidentally, and it's beautifully done, but it's hardly enough.

The hilarious Q&A with the kids was way better than this unpleasant, inexplicably lauded film.


17. Mudbound

Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell
Country: USA
Rating: 2/4
UK release date: 17 November 2017 (Netflix and simultaneous theatrical release)

Ronsel quick-drying mud stain: it does exactly what it says on the tin – attempts to create a weighty, socially-conscious art movie from Hillary Jordan's plotty, slightly trashy but well-meaning page-turner.

Dee Rees's film spends more time in battle, fleshes out the Ronsel-Jamie relationship, and dwells on the minutiae of African-American life in the Deep South, but in a choppily uninvolving way, and at the expense of Laura's intriguing story of love, repression, sexual and racial guilt.

Critically, it never summons the book's sense of inexorable, fatalistic dread, nor knows what to do as it reaches its climax, which is first silly, then rushed and finally pointlessly and unconvincingly rose-tinted.

Mudbound has a few painterly images, good performances from Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan (who has one fantastic scene largely disconnected from the narrative and the worst pregnancy prop in decades) and an unvarnished understanding of the unglamorous, subservient pragmatism needed to survive as a black man in '40s Mississippi, but it isn't very compelling or convincing.

I say this as a middle-class white bloke, but... what promised to be a timely exploration of the African-American experience from an urgent and valuable contemporary voice is instead just a standard book adaptation: a mediocre melodrama that deals with big themes in a handsome but hackneyed way. Plus lots of Mary J. Blige staring out of windows.


16. Downsizing

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård
Country: USA
UK release date: 19 January 2018
Rating: 2.5/4

Payne's latest is a funny, sometimes affecting but also confused and rambling satire about everyman Matt Damon joining the growing number of humans 'downsizing' to about 0.035% of their previous body mass, in order to save the environment (and get a better house).

Many of the familiar Payne themes and tropes are here – the search for meaning, economics becoming personal, a climactic moment of supposed quiet catharsis – but the film is all over the shop, mixing neat sight gags, piercing one-liners and heavyhanded comment with variable effects, disastrous diversions and Christoph Waltz being pretty funny but in a different film to everyone else.

Between a broad beginning and an earnest, incoherent end – and seriously, after this, Only Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant), Wanderlust (Wain), keep good American directors away from hippy communes – it does find a sweet spot and a real rhythm for what must be 45 minutes, with Hong Chau absolutely terrific as a bossy Vietnamese dissident (I await the terrible thinkpieces about whether her character is racist). And I loved the fact, perhaps minor to many, that it preached tolerance but took faith seriously: a balance that remains unusual, since evangelical America has rightly revolted anyone with a sense of decency.

But where Election was compact and deadly, and The Descendants elegantly elongated and profound, this feels like about five films cobbled together – and the last couple aren't really any good.


15. The Venerable W.

Director: Barbet Schroeder
Country: France/Switzerland
UK release date: TBC
Rating: 2.5/4
A pretty good documentary from Barbet Schroeder − a former Éric Rohmer collaborator who now makes factual films about awful people − dealing with Ashin Wirathu, the world's naughtiest baby. Oh, OK, he's a Buddhist hate preacher. Who's eaten quite enough alms, by the looks of him. It's more a potted history of the path to genocide − with a bit of access and some intelligently-compiled raw footage shot by others − than an in-depth portrait of its subject, though it's an important story and a timely primer on an urgent humanitarian crisis.

As a film, it might be more effective if it had taken the route of its trailer, which makes the Errol Morris-like decision to unveil The Venerable W's toxic Islamophobia at the midway point, rather than leading with it. In the screening, a woman behind me tutted at everything from fascist rhetoric to burning bodies, as if otherwise we'd think that she was endorsing the behaviour in the film.


... and the award for The Most Objectionable Audience of LFF 2017 goes to...

14. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Are McDonagh's films increasingly just an arsehole magnet? Discuss.)

Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage
Country: UK/USA
UK release date: 12 January 2018
Rating: 3/4

Martin McDonagh's third film may lack the effortless grace of his stunning debut, In Bruges, but it’s more coherent and confident than his follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, getting its humanistic points across covered by the usual maelstrom of swearing, violence and taboo-punching.

Frances McDormand plays a plain-talking cracker mom who hires three defunct billboards in a bid to attract the attention of a police force that has spent seven months failing to find the man who raped and killed her daughter.

Those cops are led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a family man dying of pancreatic cancer, and the slow-witted, hair-triggered Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, brilliant again), one of the most intelligently, interestingly developed characters I’ve seen in a while.

It doesn’t always delve into its serious themes in enough depth – McDonagh’s recent stage hit, Hangmen, dealt with justice and bloodlust in a more intriguing yet incisive way – and the writer-director’s unfortunate predilection for midget gags continues, suggesting a comic imagination that’s as committed to cheap laughs on any terms as it is to shocking us out of apathy (I’ll let him off on the profusion of ‘retard’s, as it makes sense for that to be in these characters’ vernacular).

But his sarcastic, pedantic humour is still great fun to indulge, even when he has to file off the cultural specificity for a mass audience, and there are stunning scenes here: a one-take act of brutality, a breakdown, letters from beyond the grave, and a fiery callback to In Bruges’ Raglan Road set-piece.

I don’t think the movie quite manages to make you feel McDormand’s grief and sorrow, only really her helplessness and exasperation, but this typically outrageous, confrontational and well-acted film is full of surprises, appealingly nuanced characterisation and moments of quiet emotion, and if it feels too disjointed and too detached from the more urgent themes at which it hints, it does have a little to say about the abandoned in America, the seductive symmetry of eye-for-an-eye retribution, and the reasons why tub-thumping calls to arms from a literal moron might currently have the capital that they do.

I might try to see this again when I'm not so tired, as it was my 20th big-screen film in 11 days, and it started really late.

Incidentally, is Lucas Hedges the most morosely uninteresting actor working today?


13. 120 Beats per Minute

Director: Robin Campillo
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Félix Maritaud
Country: France
UK release date: 6 April 2018
Rating: 3/4

An intelligent yet visceral film about the gay community in '80s Paris, which starts brilliantly – focusing on the protests and meetings of Act Up, a group of guerrilla AIDS activists – before turning into a film about a man dying of the illness.

No matter how compassionately, credibly and intimately it does that, segueing from a film about ideas to one about the individual, contrasting the character's dynamism and beauty with his pain-ravaged impotence, and showing the body – not the city – as the battleground, it's ground we've covered countless times before, and (at the risk of sounding awful) it made the movie increasingly tedious.

At its best, this confrontational, unsentimental but humanistic film has unexpected echoes of Melville's Army in the Shadows, which looked at action, division and necessity within the French Resistance, and I understand why it included so many sequences of illness and fucking, but those elements don't seem as interesting as the story it started to tell. When it returns to it in those final moments, loaded with the suffering and sadness of what's gone before, the results are admittedly astounding.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is absolutely terrific as Sean, a founding member, Mesut Őzil-alike and all-round complex human being, first introduced to us justifying the fact that he and his mates have handcuffed a government official to a post during his team's PowerPoint presentation.


12. Adriana's Pact

Director: Lissette Orozco
Country: Chile
UK release date: TBC, but it's been picked up by Articial Eye
Rating: 3/4

A riveting documentary about a young Chilean filmmaker, Lissette Orozco, who discovers that her beloved aunt was a member of Pinochet's notorious secret police.

As a (debut) film, its balancing of the disparate elements is perhaps a little off – too much unrelated footage of other family members, too much of the director talking about her feelings – and it does become slightly repetitive towards the end, but its story and levels of access are incredible, and it's one of those few films deserving of that most overused of adjectives: brave.

Also Orozco has a lovely pretty face. Her next film, brilliantly, is about an uncle!


11. Ingrid Goes West

Director: Matt Spicer
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen
Country: USA
UK release date: 17 November 2017
Rating: 3/4

A genre-blurring indie starring Aubrey Plaza (I will watch anything starring Aubrey Plaza) as the lost, damaged and impressionable Ingrid, who gets out of the psychiatric hospital after one of the great opening scenes, takes the insurance money she got from her mum's death and hot-foots it to LA in the hope of befriending Insta superstar Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).

Matt Spicer's film isn't always as piercingly, exaltingly dark as it might be, but it treats Ingrid with just the right balance of interest, empathy and fear, and Plaza − who also produced − is absolutely superb in the lead, bringing a great depth, sadness and humanity to a character who can be the most appalling, manipulative monster, but somehow still isn't that big on Instagram.

There are elements that don't quite come off (Billy Magnussen's Nick is an interesting second act catalyst, but it's such a big performance that he unbalances the film; the love interest's Batman fixation is funny but pushed beyond the bounds of credibility), but it's a very interesting, enjoyable film that works as a black comedy, horror, psychological thriller, character study and satire on the skewed and unhealthy forced perspective of social media, in which everything is 'the best' and everything is put through a filter until it's perfect.

That's not perhaps the most profound observation, but the unexpected human fragility beneath Ingrid's monstrousness gives the film a real resonance, and makes it something slightly different to the razor-sharp, take-no-prisoners movie being sold to us.


At the screening: It was interesting to hear Plaza (above, with Spicer (second from left) and Magnussen (right) say that her own preference is for an ending with at least a little hope in it, a sentiment hinting at the warmth beneath the nihilistic bravado, which it's tempting to compare with that of April Ludgate, her character in all-time classic sitcom, Parks and Recreation. "In essence, we're all fucked," she said at another point during the Q&A, asked to pontificate on the future of the world.


Thanks for reading. Part 2 will be up shortly.

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