Monday 22 October 2018

LFF 2018: The Favourite &
Stan & Ollie

The Favourite
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland / UK / USA, 2018
Yorgos Lanthimos is back back back, and he's brought the triple threat of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone with him for this sumptuous and irreverent telling of the true rivalry between Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Stone) for the affections of Queen Anne (Colman). The often-troublingly idiosyncratic director clearly enjoys throwing together a relatively straightforward comedy for a change (albeit in full Restoration costume), but anyone hoping for the pitch black absurdism of Lanthimos at his Lanthimost might leave disappointed.

There is much to love here: Colman's dotty, temperamental and ailing monarch, Weisz's ruthless confidante and lover, and Stone's Machiavellian usurper are all more than we deserve, and all three leads make the most of the offbeat humour in Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's script (Emma Stone in particular has a great line in falling over that endears her even more than ever). Working from someone else's screenplay for the first time since his debut, Lanthimos turns out an uncharacteristically warm film full of human beings with relatable emotions - love, fear, jealousy, ambition - which is slightly at odds with his Kubrickian shooting style (fish-eye lenses and long, deliberate tracking shots are still the order of the day). And there are some proper belters waiting to leap off the page: I don't know if this is the first use of the word "cuntstruck", but it's certainly the best so far.

If the chilling lack of humanity Lanthimos usually favours has turned you off him in the past, then this may be the film that finally lets you just enjoy yourself without that gnawing sensation of futility and discomfort that The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer had in spades. Personally though, I miss not feeling like I've spent a hundred minutes trapped in a room with a psychopath. If anyone else had made The Favourite I feel like I'd be celebrating it a little more; as it is, I'm just hoping that Lanthimos' impressive work rate means we'll be seeing something original and faintly bonkers from him again very soon.

Stan & Ollie
dir. Jon S Baird, UK, 2018
The TV series Feud, about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's epically antagonistic relationship, set a high standard for dramatisations of the truth behind Hollywood's thin veneer of glamour. It showed what you can do with a terrific double act, a pair of talented actors and a small amount of dramatic licence, although it did absolutely no harm that there was plenty of juicy drama to work with in the first place. Stan & Ollie, another biopic about an iconic couple from cinema's heady heyday, also has a terrific double act, a pair of talented actors and a small amount of dramatic licence, but crucially it has a total absence of juicy drama to work with. Laurel & Hardy neither hated each other's guts nor unquestionably loved each other, they were just two colleagues who had the odd disagreement here and there. This film, then, is an excellent portrait of two colleagues who had the odd disagreement here and there; it's just that... well, that's just not very interesting, is it?

To be fair, Stan & Ollie is a much sweeter, gentler proposition than Feud, and was never going to be an exercise in muck-raking as much as a fond look at a world-famous cultural phenomenon that fizzled out in its later years, as pretty much all world-famous cultural phenomena do. Steve Coogan is great as Stan, nailing that elastic brow and weird America-via-Lancashire accent (although you can see him trying a little hard with the stooping gait), but he's eclipsed - literally and figuratively - by John C Reilly's Ollie, transformed under layers of prosthetics into a wholly convincing Hardy. A last-ditch attempt to rekindle the old magic nearly two decades after their popularity peak sees them touring the music halls of the UK: Coogan's involvement invites you to think of it as The Trip To Britain, but there's far less entertainment value in these two hours than in a single episode of his razor-sharp verbal jousts with Rob Brydon.

The lack of any real drama isn't helped by the bland supporting cast: a handful of cutout characters given nothing much of interest to do (except for Nina Arianda as Mrs Laurel, who effortlessly steals every scene from under her co-stars' noses). But in their place are a selection of delightful moments, usually involving one or both of the duo performing a mini routine for an audience of one, as if they just couldn't help themselves. Director Jon S Baird makes more of Jeff Pope's script than it probably deserves, lending real pathos to the general mood of melancholia and reluctant acceptance of mortality, and allowing his leads the time and space to truly assume the physicality of their parts. Inoffensive and undemanding, this is pleasant but forgettable stuff.

Thursday 18 October 2018

LFF 2018: In Fabric & Suspiria

In Fabric
dir. Peter Strickland, UK, 2018
Ground floor, perfumery, homicidal evening gowns, mannequins with pubic hair, masturbating boss. Going up! Peter Strickland's own brand of movie Marmite hits new heights of oddballery with his fourth and maddest feature, a freaky mash-up of Are You Being Served? and Tales Of The Unexpected, as directed by Mike Leigh after fourteen straight days without sleep. Personally I'm on board for every second of it, but I wasn't the least bit surprised to see a couple of walkouts at the press screening. Essentially a film about a killer dress that curses everyone who wears it, Strickland's film touches on the evils of consumerism and wonders what would happen if clothes treated us the way we treat clothes, to be discarded or recycled once tastes change. However, this is the sultan of modern British surrealism we're talking about, so the literal fashion victims of this phantom thread are the last things we're expected to care about.

Instead, In Fabric is all about its avant-garde form, whose influences stretch as far and wide as the light-hearted social realism of Leigh, the dark side of Roald Dahl and the Claret-splashing nonsense of giallo, all stuffed into a dangerously faulty washing machine and put through a spin cycle. The result is entirely unique, though, and it's a pleasure to be around while Peter Strickland's Loopy Laundry is open for business. Yes, much of it is absolutely bananas, but it makes perfect sense within the (admittedly blurred) boundaries of the film, and that's what counts. Challenging, surprisingly funny and never for a second predictable, this is where you come to see what cinema can really be.

dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy, 2018
Luca Guadagnino's remake of Dario Argento's giallo standard is set in Berlin in 1977, so the first thing you expect to see is David Bowie sitting in the Dschungel, on Nürnberger Strasse, composing Heroes in his head. Sadly that doesn't come to pass, but we do get Tilda Swinton dressed as a man, which is pretty much the same thing. Swinton's not-quite-surprise turn as an octogenarian male makes sense in a film where about 98% of the actors are women, and the uncanny nature of his/her appearance - you can just about sense that something's not quite right - sets the tone for the weirdness to come.

Inserting subtext into the shallow schlock of the original, Suspiria '18 is a necessarily richer affair, taking in global power struggles and gender politics to bolster its undeniably daft core of witches seeking a sexy young Dakota Johnson type to assume the spirit of their chief crone. And while that's all very well, it does stretch out the first two hours to such an extent that when the inevitable last-act grand guignol sloshes in, it feels like a tonal shift too far. There's a terrific early scene of gruesome horror (if you ever thought Strictly was torture via the medium of dance, you ain't seen nothing yet) which suggests a new and genuinely creepy experience, but any tension is dissipated by the pacing, and that finale never horrifies as much as it should.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

LFF 2018: Roma & The Green Fog

dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, 2018
Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical love letter to the women he grew up with in Mexico in the early 1970s will hit your TV screens, courtesy of Netflix, very soon. I feel it's only fair to warn you that if you watch it on your telly, unless your telly is sixty feet wide and there isn't a single thing in the room to distract you, then I will come round there and slap you with a cold chimichanga. Get thee to a cinema to see this while you can, because it is one of the most beautiful things created by mankind since the chord of A minor and deserves better than you watching it with the lights on and looking at Twitter every six seconds.

Shot by Cuarón himself in luscious, pin-sharp monochrome, Roma tells the story of Chloe, a maid and all-round skivvy to a slowly-disintegrating middle class family in Mexico City. It's slow and without much in the way of incident until the incredible final act, but it's packed with beautifully observed tiny details that leave you in no doubt about how deep Cuarón has reached into his memories. His camera moves at the same unhurried pace no matter how prosaic or extraordinary the onscreen events, as if he's going over them in his mind in a comfortable armchair with a glass of port and a cigar, and the effect is hypnotic.

A story of strong women beaten down by weak, flawed men, but rising up to answer a natural instinct to protect and nurture, Roma could so easily have been a mawkish, melodramatic, button-pushing weepie in lesser hands. But Cuarón is a master storyteller, as he's repeatedly proven - most recently in Gravity, which gets an unexpected but fun nod here. And while the quietly gritty urban reality of Roma couldn't be further from the noise and spectacle of Gravity, it's infinitely more fulfilling, finding poetic symmetry in the sluicing of a driveway and the cleansing power of the sea, and suggesting unattainable relief from a thankless existence in the distant passing of an overhead aeroplane. So treat it with the respect it deserves, and buy yourself a 60-foot-wide telly.

The Green Fog
dir. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, USA, 2017
Every year by law, the London Film Festival must show an Alfred Hitchcock-referencing curio of some kind, and 2018 is no exception. This time it's Guy Maddin's quite bonkers collage movie The Green Fog, which is both a loose remake of Vertigo and an ode to San Francisco's long and varied history on film. Using only existing footage, Maddin and co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson stitch together clips from dozens of movies and TV shows set in Frisco to retell the story of an acrophobic detective and the lols he has forcing a woman to look like another woman who is in fact the same woman but not the woman he thought she was.

As Maddin hops between films, actors and characters chop and change identities (look closely, you can see what he's done there) while the story unfolds with all the structural discombobulation of a cheese-fuelled dream. There's very little dialogue; in fact most scenes literally cut out all the dialogue, leaving a staccato series of facial expressions that tell the story visually, as Hitchcock himself did so often and so well. It's all very weird, for sure, but not without a sense of humour: Scottie and Madeleine's day trip to Muir Woods is represented by NSYNC's similarly-set video for This I Promise You, while a clip from The Streets Of San Francisco sees Michael Douglas commenting on his own buttocks in a scene from Basic Instinct.

Maddin could've taken the easy route and built his film entirely from clips of Brian De Palma films (he does allow himself a couple of shots from High Anxiety, which is surely cheating), but perhaps he's saving that for another time. For now this is a loving, original and - at 63 minutes - blissfully short tribute to Hitchcock. And like any curated selection of film clips it's fun to spot the ones you recognise (drink a shot every time you see A View To A Kill pop up), but it's just as enjoyable to lose yourself in The Green Fog's brand of oddness, which is derived straight from the source material's own uniquely unsettling atmosphere.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

LFF 2018: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
& The Old Man & The Gun

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA, 2018
For the first twenty minutes or so of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs - the Coen brothers' anthology film of six tales of the American frontier (with colour plates) - I was in absolute heaven. Tim Blake Nelson's titular cowboy, as adept at singin' as he is at gunslingin', rattles off the kind of classic Coens dialogue that makes your ears melt, while providing some of the most violence-derived lols I've had in a cinema since I don't know when. But this is just the first story: an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite for a tasting menu of considerably darker shaggy dog stories. For me, nothing else matched up to that opening blast of blood-spattered fun, but there's still plenty of beautifully grim western wonder here to wrap your undeserving eyes around.

Largely fixated on the wavering value of human life in the formative era of the United States (and therefore inextricably linked to the current era of the United States), The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs also takes in such themes as art vs commerce, the natural beauty of the untouched land (and its destruction for the sake of financial gain) and the good old futility of humanity against unpredictable cosmic machinations that drives some of the Coens' best work. Some of it is, I'm afraid, quite dull, but there's always the stunning cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel to admire, not to mention the shock and awe you may experience if, like me, you had no idea that that one character was played by Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter until you looked it up later when you were in Sainsbury's and nearly passed out from disbelief. Anyway I gave each story a star rating out of five and divided the total by six, and the result was 3.66 recurring, so make of that what you will.

The Old Man & The Gun
dir. David Lowery, USA, 2018
Set in 1981, and perhaps the only modern film to genuinely look like it was made and released in 1981, The Old Man & The Gun sees a twinkly-eyed Robert Redford calling time on his acting career by politely robbing a few banks and sweeping Sissy Spacek off her feet with his improbably-coloured thick mop of hair. It's a warm, cosy film without much incident - Casey Affleck's determined cop is a cliché, but is never allowed enough screen time to bother either Redford or the audience - and Daniel Hart's smooth, smoky jazz score carries it along on a wave of easygoing cool.

As Redford's career criminal looks back on a life spent doing jobs for no other reason than he simply enjoyed doing them - it just so happens they also brought him buckets of cash - the parallels with the actor's own life are unavoidable. But director David Lowery never lets his script get too clever-clever or his star too knowing, and the result is a low-key but fitting epilogue for Redford that would make a good double bill with Widows as another, albeit gentler, twist on the crime-caper-heist-movie.

Monday 15 October 2018

LFF 2018: Sorry To Bother You
& Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

Sorry To Bother You
dir. Boots Riley, USA, 2018
Sorry To Bother You is rapper Boots Riley's first film, and you have to wonder if he thought it might also be his last, because it feels like he's lobbed every idea he ever had at the screen in case he never gets the chance to use any of them again. It's a wild ride, and much of the madness lands, but it really needs to calm down a bit and decide what it is. Lakeith Stanfield stars as a call centre drone desperate to improve his lot, but when he's offered a promotion he finds himself torn between solo success and sticking up for his downtrodden cold-calling comrades. That synopsis, however, is like describing Donald Trump as the President of the United States: the actual thing is a thousand times less predictable than that suggests, and considerably more insane.

It seems safe to describe Sorry To Bother You as a freewheeling satirical comedy about capitalism and solidarity, but Riley's voice feels too unique to spend all that time and effort on a message as banal as "capitalism is bad". Entwined within that are a wealth of observations about the modern black experience too, and I can't speak to how successful that is, but it doesn't have anything like the laser-guided effect on this painfully white dude that another Stanfield-starring film, Get Out, did. Riley's approach, however, is admirable, in that there isn't really anything else to compare it to (the closest I can think of is Gregg Araki's brand of casual weirdness), and God knows we need more loud voices like that to yell us out of our cultural torpor.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
dir. Ben Wheatley, UK, 2018
I approach Ben Wheatley's films with an increasing sense of trepidation these days, having come to the conclusion that the emperor's clothes might just be, if not totally non-existent, considerably threadbare at the least. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that, although this one goes to the same place that most of his films do - i.e. nowhere - the journey was a lot more fun than usual.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is set entirely at a New Year's Eve party where a single, extended family and a handful of friends gather to annoy the absolute tits off each other, as families are wont to do. And that's really about it, except that Wheatley and his cast nail the simmering tension of enforced family festivities with an uncomfortable accuracy. The power politics of familial hierarchies on display are almost Shakespearean, which makes perfect sense when you know that the film's original title was Colin, You Anus, because it's loosely based on old bardy chops' Coriolanus.

If Wheatley's film has a USP, it's the incredible cross-cutting that he and his editor (one Ben Wheatley) use to hop impatiently between no fewer than eighteen characters of more-or-less equal importance, lending a hugely cinematic rhythm to an almost comically prosaic story. The success of that nimble-footed dancing between a diverse cast and their intertwining narrative threads means that Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is basically the Avengers: Infinity War of 21st century British social realism, only with the added bonus of Charles Dance in a twinset and pleated skirt.

Friday 12 October 2018

LFF 2018:
Widows: A matter of wife and death

dir. Steve McQueen, UK / USA, 2018
The very first shot of Widows sees Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in a moment so intimate that it's almost uncomfortably intrusive to watch. So it comes as some relief when director Steve McQueen cuts away, throwing us instead into the back of a getaway van being driven at high speed and shot at by persons unknown. It's a pulsating, stress-inducing, noisy, tense scene, but frankly anything's better than seeing quite so much of the Neeson tonguing technique.

It's a gloriously efficient opening, introducing us to Neeson (driving the getaway van) and his cronies, then swiftly dispatching them seconds later, allowing their widows to step into the frame and pull off both an improbable heist and the rest of the film like it ain't no thing. (It also introduces us to the long, unbroken shot technique that McQueen frequently deploys throughout the movie, which is both technically impressive and dramatically absorbing.)
McQueen, popping his thriller hat on for the first time, proves himself a master of the genre with almost comical ease. From cinematography, through editing, to an uncharacteristically restrained Hans Zimmer score, McQueen pushes all the right technical buttons at the right time and in the right order. But even that isn't enough: a century of male-dominated action cinema has rendered us sceptical that a bunch of women could do what this bunch of women do (even Ocean's Eight didn't help), so perhaps the trickiest part of getting Widows right is to make us believe in their motivation. And this is where McQueen's script - co-written with Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn - impresses on a more subtle level.

There isn't a ton of characterisation going on here, but then this is a genre film with a lot of characters, so it hardly matters. What there is a lot of - although it's rarely in your face - is an underlying social commentary that teases out all the reasons why these people are what they are and do what they do. Financial, sexual and racial inequality, gentrification, domestic violence, parental failings, gun culture and - most pointedly - political corruption are all put forward as contributing factors towards a desperate situation that might seem far-fetched, but think of it as a metaphor for empowerment of minorities and it all falls into place.
Away from all that boring subtext, there are some truly great performances to relish here. Davis, obviously, is flawless, the stoic leader who emotionally seals herself up for most of the film but can't help but show more chinks in her armour the deeper she gets in. Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are more than able support, while Daniel Kaluuya proves he can be as terrifying as he can be charming, and Robert Duvall adds some impeccable old school class. Only Colin Farrell gets the short straw, finding little to do with the cardboard cutout character he's given.

The whole idea of Widows feels a little trivial for a director whose previous work has been dark, serious and verging on arthouse, but this is Steve McQueen stepping outside his comfort zone and proving he can probably turn his hand to anything, such is his natural talent. I'd say it would be fascinating to see what he does next, but that's been the case since he took up directing in the first place.

Thursday 11 October 2018

LFF 2018: Mandy & Border

You're not going to believe this but they've only gone and made another London Film Festival. In a world of never-ending franchises, Episode 62 of the BFI's tentpole event is the 2018est yet, although whether you'll get the most out of it without having seen the first 61 remains to be seen. Fear not though, dear reader, I'll be on hand to mutter inconsequentially about a tiny percentage of the fest's content, and the first of those inconsequential mutterings follows this undeniably introductory paragraph. Ready? Let's festivate!

dir. Panos Cosmatos, USA / Belgium, 2017
Even by Nicolas Cage's elevated standards of lunacy, Mandy is some weapons-grade mentalism. An arthouse revenge thriller that's also a terrifying study of grief via trippy lighting effects, unbridled carnage and Jóhann Jóhannsson's final (and possibly maddest) score, it's less a film than a voyage through Hell, with Cage as your unhinged, blood-spattered, rictus-grinning pilot. When a half-baked cult led by a failed rock star kidnap his wife (the disappointingly fridged Andrea Riseborough), Cage - he's a lumberjack, but he is not OK - embarks on a roaring rampage of revenge that takes in such highlights as a chainsaw duel, an astonishing scene in a bathroom that has him howling in his pants, and a mac 'n' cheese-spewing cheddar goblin.

It's a slow burner for the first hour, but the literal raging inferno of the back half makes up for it, throwing beautifully-lit gore and incongruous laughs at you with breakneck ferocity. To describe Mandy as all style and no substance would be accurate but also kind of missing the point: director Panos Cosmatos wants you to focus on Cage's character's pain and suffer with him, and makes sure you do so with a big box of visual and aural sorcery the likes of which you probably haven't seen since Dario Argento's ketchup-splashing heyday. If you saw Brawl In Cell Bock 99 at last year's LFF and enjoyed it but thought it would be better if it was on fire, then hoo boy it's Christmas for you, you fucking psycho.

dir. Ali Abbasi, Sweden, 2018
Themes of otherness and belonging are given a Nordic tweak in this mildly bonkers adaptation of Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist's short story. Tina is an unusual woman, pronounced of brow and with a supernatural sense of smell that's a massive help in her job as a customs officer. A born outsider, she begins to learn some surprising truths when the equally neanderthal-looking Vore rocks up with a surprise or two between his legs - and it turns out he's not the only one.

There's an uneasy air to this timely fable about fluid bodies and notions of identification, and while that enhances the surreal, folk-tale vibe, it might also prove problematic in its representation of diversity as monstrous. But Tina's unique situation gives her - and us - the advantage of seeing shades of grey where others only see black and white, and the drama is richer for it. The script (co-written by Lindqvist) gets a little exposition-heavy at times, which dulls the mystery and belies its short story origins on occasion, but there's a lot to love in its poignant portrayal of the pain and pleasure involved in not fitting in. And with its pair of unorthodox-looking protagonists struggling to make sense of their place in humanity, it also works as an ultra-dark, feature length, Scandinavian-flavoured Edward and Tubbs sketch.