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.

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