#LFF2017 - Our London Film Festival Reviews Are HERE!

#LFF2017 – Our London Film Festival Reviews Are HERE!

The BFI London Film Festival runs 4-15 October 2017 – and we’ll be putting in the strenuous work of reviewing a suitably quirky selection of films for your delectation, from award-destined gala screenings to offbeat gems….

So, read on for our 2017 London Film Festival reviews!

★★★ The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) | 6, 7 & 12 October

Adam Sandler turns in one of his rare great performances in director Noah Baumbach’s return to sublime form.

The list of great Adam Sandler movies is not a long one, although his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love hinted towards previously unfathomable dramatic depths. In the 15 years since, a mind-numbing sequence of unfunny films has almost obliterated that performance from the memory – prepare, therefore, to be astonished afresh.

The Meyerowitz Stories is a great Adam Sandler film.

Or rather, The Meyerowitz Stories is a great film in which Adam Sandler gives a great performance. This is not an Adam Sandler vehicle, although his character Danny appears in the majority of scenes. What marks this performance out, above anything else, is that Sandler gives the type of contained, understated performance which worked so successfully for Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There, that’s probably not a comparison you were expecting.

Danny, along with his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), endured a less than ideal upbringing, essentially left to bring themselves up by their sculptor father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and a series of wives. Harold is an artist convinced of the greatness of his own work despite a lack of recognition from the critics – he is a melange of vanity, stubbornness, pride, frustration, pretentiousness and self-pity. His current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) is a barely functioning alcoholic (and terrible cook), and his favourite child is Matthew (Ben Stiller), Danny & Jean’s step-brother by yet another wife.

A period in the life of this dysfunctional family is told through a series of chapters, as we are introduced to each character and offered glimpses into the chaotic journeys they have taken to this point in their lives. Danny is recently separated, Matthew has started a new business, Jean – well, no-one seems to know what’s going on with Jean. But Harold is mostly concerned with wondering why none of his children followed him into the world of art, despite showing signs of talent as children.

For my money, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is one of the best films of the last 20 years, a short and bittersweet study of family dysfunction. That theme returns here, but whereas the earlier film focused on the middle-aged parents of teenage children, The Meyerowitz Stories shifts the timeframe on about 30 years. Now the kids are middle-aged, but still trying to escape the gravitational pull of their elderly father while worrying about doing to their own kids what their parents did to them. Much as The Squid and the Whale felt like a very timely film for 2005, The Meyerowitz Stories feels like a film for 2017. Whilst generating plenty of laughs and lampooning the middle classes, this film also has something very important to say about how to deal with growing up in a world sculpted by previous generations, and finding a way to do your own thing in your own way – to make your own mistakes.

The Meyerowitz Stories is a triumph of insightful (and hilarious) writing and directing, but also a masterclass in ensemble performance. No-one puts a foot wrong – Hoffman is as good as he’s been in at least 20 years, Emma Thompson is having the time of her life, Stiller and Marvel are spot-on. But it’s Sandler that steals the show, because he’s the one you least expect to pull it off – and then he does so with the assuredness of a seasoned character actor.

★★★ The Shape of Water | 10, 11 & 13 October

Guillermo del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth is a glorious homage to the 1950s sci-fi B-movies – exhilarating, seductive, charming and captivating in equal measure.

After the relative disappointments of 2013’s Pacific Rim and 2015’s Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro must have been feeling the pressure to pull something out of the bag. As someone who isn’t into Hellboy, I was starting to think that the genius of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth had either been a fleeting gift, or swallowed up by the ravenous Hollywood machine.

I was wrong.

Del Toro has hit the reset button, jettisoning the out-of-control auteur chic of Crimson Peak in favour of something much more, well, fun. Set at the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water centres on the relationship between Sally Hawkins’ mute lab cleaner and the strange, otherworldly creature being examined by scientists looking for any edge over those nefarious Russians.

Hawkins is mesmerising as Elisa Esposito, as good here with no words to speak as she was in Happy Go Lucky speaking incessantly. Her facial expressions alone are Oscar-worthy, and this masterclass of physical acting is a joy to behold. Her opposite man – or should that be fish? – is a strangely beautiful aquatic creature unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, expertly played beneath the makeup by regular Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones. The scenes between the two, strange though they may at first appear, are delicately played and heartbreakingly tender.

Essentially, The Shape of Water is an offbeat love story – but Del Toro immerses the central characters in a world populated by fantastically realised supporting players. Octavia Spencer is predictably great as Hawkins’ fellow lab cleaner, as is Richard Jenkins as the endearingly sweet-natured artist neighbour. Both are reluctant co-conspirators when Elisa catches wind of an unsurprisingly dastardly plot to cause harm to the misunderstood ‘Asset’ (as the fishy creature is known).

And so, The Shape of Water is one of those science-fiction romantic heist thrillers that are ten-a-penny these days..! Michael Shannon channels his scowling face and grumpy demeanour into a mean, heartless bad-guy first torturing, and then hunting down, Elisa’s new best friend. The visuals are as you would expect from a Guillermo Del Toro film – intricately detailed, easy on the eye, sombre Cold War greys and greens and browns and flashes of otherworldly colour.

The real magic though is the emotional connection between the characters, not least Elisa and The Asset. Spielberg-like, GDT knows how to make us invest ourselves emotionally into characters however strange or different – although he probably goes further than Spielberg would dare with at least one off-screen bathroom scene. This is a suitably grown-up fairy tale, thrilling, inspiring, strange and beautiful. Brilliant stuff.

★★★½ Mudbound | 5, 6 & 7 October

Dee Rees’ slow-burn tale of two families in 1940s Mississippi is a riveting yet melancholic glimpse into the not-so-distant past.

At least five female directors are in contention for nominations this awards season, with Dee Rees’ Mudbound joined by Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes (with husband Jonathan Dayton), Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. It will be a disgrace if none of these are nominated for an Academy Award on January 23rd, and Mudbound could well be the best of the bunch.

Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his family to rural Mississippi to pursue his dream of running his own farm. His wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) looks after the children and keeps home, while Henry works the land. An uneasy truce exists between the white landowners and the black sharecroppers who lease a plot on the McAllans’ land: Florence and Hap Jackson (Mary J Blige and Rob Morgan) and their children.

The tension is raised when Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) return to their respective families at the end of WWII. For these two young war heroes, it’s a long way from the battlefields of Europe to the muddy fields of Mississippi – geographically, but also socially and culturally. Ronsel is used to being treated as an equal; Jamie is haunted by death and destruction. Each realises that only the other can really understand what they have been through. Unfortunately, 1940s Mississippi is not quite ready for an interracial friendship, and Rees slowly ratchets up the tension towards an unavoidably tragic climax.

It may seem curmudgeonly, but the half star dropped can be blamed solely on the unnecessary use of voiceovers – unnecessary not because they don’t say anything meaningful – indeed they are often beautiful passages – but because they ultimately add nothing to the narrative and distract from the stunning visuals. Harsh, then, but for this reviewer a rare misstep by a director otherwise hitting all the right notes.

★★★★ Gemini | 8, 9 & 11 October

Lola Kirke is captivating in this cool and cleverly crafted LA-based neo-Noir.

Mumblenoir is the silly name attached to writer and director Aaron Katz’s niche brand of modern thrillers (the other being 2010s Cold Weather, although the rest of Katz’s filmography is not so easily pigeonholed), but don’t let that distract you. Gemini is a well-executed entry into the genre, derivative only to a point and worthy of comparison with other contemporary neo-Noir films such as Rian Johnson’s excellent Brick.

There’s a murder mystery at the heart of Gemini, but Katz artfully crafts a film which is equal parts whodunnit, whydunnit, what exactly got done and should we even care? Lola Kirke is perfect in the central role as Jill, friend and put-upon assistant to movie star Heather (Zoë Kravitz). Before long, someone is dead and Lola is a prime suspect – but can she identify the killer before the police can pin it on her?

There are some tonally awkward moments, where Gemini feels unsure if it is a thriller or a satire, but mostly it pulls off a satisfying combination of the two. The culture of celebrity, the nature of responsibility, sexuality, power and influence are all in the crosshairs, but Gemini succeeds by never letting go of its central raison d’être. The final act features a fairly satisfying twist – some may see this coming from a distance, but somehow it doesn’t matter. There’s enough emotional punch to carry this off.

★★★½ Battle Of The Sexes | 7, 9 & 14 October

A thoroughly likeable yet ultimately underwhelming retelling of Billie Jean King’s famous tennis match against Bobby Riggs.

It’s probably fair to say that I wanted to like this film more. A lot. The ingredients are all there: a great cast, relevant politics, pedigree behind the camera. Somehow, though, it’s hard to be surprised when a sports film fails to live up to expectations – they so rarely do.

And so, perhaps, Battle of the Sexes was always facing an uphill battle. On the whole, it just about wins – certainly, Emma Stone is on the money as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell finds just the right balance of chauvinism and likability in his portrayal of Riggs. But it’s hard to get away from the fact that the whole film just feels like the preamble to the main event – the Battle of the Sexes tennis match itself.

Perhaps an audience that doesn’t already know the outcome of that match will have a different experience. For me, the lead up to the big match felt all at once too rushed and too slow. I wanted to know more about what really makes King tick, or else I wanted to know more about the wider societal context, or else I just wanted to watch the match and cheer Billie Jean on. Instead, we effectively get an hour-long montage which accelerates us through the fight for equal prize money, the establishment of the Women’s Tennis Association, the search for sponsorship, the pushback from the old white men of tennis etc.. Similarly, we are dropped in to King’s career without any explanation or context, ditto her marriage to Larry (not that one), and her rivalry with Margaret Court. At this stage in her career, King had won 10 of her 12 Grand Slam singles titles, including three in 1972 alone. Anyone who doesn’t already know the outcome of the King-Riggs match may quite conceivably have little comprehension of King’s standing in the game, and the film doesn’t do much to make up for that.

All of this adds up to an uneven film – but it would be wrong to say that it’s not enjoyable. Aside from the entertaining leads, Sarah Silverman has lots of fun as the founder of World Tennis magazine Gladys Heldman, and Andrea Riseborough does well with what she’s given as King’s hairdresser love interest. When the match comes around, there’s no denying that the filmmakers up their game – the action is well shot, engaging, and whether you know the outcome or not you’ll be rooting for King all the way. You’ll almost certainly leave the cinema with a smile on your face – not to be sniffed at – but, as time passes, you may well find that Battle of the Sexes hasn’t left much of a lasting impression. For that, you might be better off buying the DVD of the similarly titled 2013 documentary, The Battle of the Sexes.

★★★½ Stronger | 5, 6 & 8 October

Standout performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Miranda Richardson can’t shake off a sense of unease.

Maybe it’s a little harsh to leave the cinema after such a well told, well performed and intensely personal film feeling uneasy. Uneasy, because while Stronger tells a vitally important and ultimately inspirational real life story, there is a feeling of voyeurism – specifically with regard to the supporting characters – which leaves one feeling more than a little conflicted.

First things first: Gyllenhaal is excellent. It’s a cliche to suggest that such roles are awards-bait, but for this performance as a survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Gyllenhaal deserves all the plaudits heading his way. Equally good – indeed, outstanding – is Miranda Richardson as his mother, giving what will surely turn out to be one of the very best supporting performances of the year.

Here lies my problem, however. Stronger is based on a memoir of the same name written by Gyllenhaal’s character, so one assumes that the depictions of the various real-life characters are fairly accurate. As happens with adaptations, characters have possibly been altered slightly, or merged, or dropped altogether to aid in the storytelling process. All well and good, and established film-making practice. However, in Stronger we meet characters very much living in the present. The events of the Boston Marathon bombing are just four years in the past, and it is safe to assume most of the characters represented in the film are still living and breathing in Boston or elsewhere. Furthermore, the characters are not celebrities, or politicians, or anyone for whom it might reasonably be argued that the right to a certain degree of privacy is forfeit. So for me, there is something intensely discomfiting about watching these hitherto private lives portrayed on screen. I enjoyed Richardson’s performance as Patty Bauman, but I’m not sure how I would feel about it if I was Patty, or if I knew Patty, or if I occasionally saw Patty in the local supermarket. The same goes for other supporting characters – not characters, but real living people.

Maybe this is just my problem – but it’s something that I just couldn’t shake off.


Reviews by Stuart Wilson.
Stuart Wilson

About 

I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like: nice pubs, film marathons, not doing real marathons, bad comedy, plays/musicals with shorter second halves, and the Oxford comma.