#LFF2018 - Our London Film Festival Reviews Are HERE!

#LFF2018 – Our London Film Festival Reviews Are HERE!

The BFI London Film Festival ran 10-21 October 2018 – and we put 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 2018 London Film Festival reviews!

★★★★★ Roma | 13, 14 & 15 October | General Release: 14 December 2018

Alfonso Cuarón follows up Gravity with this much more earth-bound, semi-autobiographical visit to 1970s Mexico City – a labour of love which translates into a near-perfect cinematic experience.

Alfonso Cuarón is in no rush to make films. Roma is his eighth, and only his fourth since 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También brought him critical acclaim. Sure, Gravity needed the seven years after 2006’s (still underrated) Children of Men for technology to catch up with the visionary, but what can explain the five year lead-time for this seemingly straightforward film set in 1970’s Mexico?

The answer, of course, is that nothing hurried could ever be this good. Roma clearly comes from Cuarón’s heart, a bittersweet love-letter to his childhood and a paean of heartfelt appreciation for the women who brought him up and set him on the path to becoming one of our greatest living directors.

Something so heartfelt must take the time it takes. So, having written, directed, shot and edited Roma, Cuarón is now ready to set his black & white masterpiece free for all to admire.

Roma tells story of maid Cleo, keeping house and caring – alongside fellow maid Adela – for the young children of Sofia and Antonio. The marriage is on the rocks, and soon founders – Antonio takes leave, and Sofia placates the children by telling them that their father is on a long research trip to Quebec. Meanwhile, Cleo becomes pregnant after dating a young, impressionable martial arts enthusiast who flees (a recurring theme for the men in this story) when she breaks the news.

What follows, as Cleo’s pregnancy progresses, Sofia’s self-confidence grows and tensions mount amongst Mexico protesters, all at once somehow feels both inconsequential and of absolute importance. A New Years Eve celebration at a hacienda culminates in a community effort to stop a forest fire; soon after, a seemingly peaceful student protest turns deadly and Cleo unexpectedly goes into labour.

Cuarón is a master at shifting gears effortlessly – within five minutes, he takes us from comfort to despair, from shock to suspense and back to shock again. There are two sequences, each of perhaps no more than two to three minutes at most, that are respectively as affecting and as tense as any you are likely to see, and neither of which feel in the slightest way manipulative. This is a maestro’s touch, to avoid melodrama and to know what – and what not – to show, and when.

There are a few of Cuarón’s now-trademark long takes, which almost pass by without notice until you realise that you haven’t taken a breath or dared to blink for so long. But Roma is no flashy showcase for filmmaking trickery – Cuarón lets the camera look at what the viewer wants to see, he pans around to give a sense of being right there in Roma with Cleo and Sophia and the kids, and he immerses himself and the audience in this honest, passionate memorial to the women who shaped his life. Five years well spent.

★★★ Widows | 10, 11 & 12 October | General Release: 6 November

Viola Davies leads a top-form ensemble in this grown-up heist-revenge thriller worlds away from the throwaway frivolity of Ocean’s 8.

Though comparisons are often lazy, let’s get this out of the way: Ocean’s 8 this is not! Which is not to say that Ocean’s 8 – the female-fronted reboot of the already rebooted (and very much male-fronted) Ocean’s 11-thru-13 franchise, has no merit. It’s just that where it swapped men for women, hard cash for necklaces, and casino’s for a glorified fashion show, Widows is much less interested in simply reinforcing the masculine-feminine binary. Widows puts women front and centre, but these aren’t women emulating men or ‘feminising’ crime – these are women doing what they need to do to survive, full stop.

Elsewhere, too, Widows is a very different beast – not only from the Ocean’s films but from most mainstream thrillers. Here, crime is dirty, punches hurt (and bullets more so), the line between good and bad is murky at best and partners in crime aren’t always peas in a pod. Director Steve McQueen – unsurprisingly, given his excellent body of previous work –  brings a distinct air of realism to what might otherwise have been played as wish-fulfilment escapism.

Viola Davis gives yet another pitch-perfect performance as the bereaved wife of crime boss Liam Neeson, under pressure to repay a vast debt to the people her husband was stealing from when he died. Brian Tyree Henry is the crime boss with political ambitions to whom Davis owes the cash, and who is giving Colin Farrell (perfectly cast) a run for his money not only in the race to be alderman of Chicago’s 18th Ward, but also to be the most corrupt politician in (this part of) town.

Davis recruits fellow widows Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki – both making excellent use of less screen time – and sets in motion a plan to carry out her husband’s next planned heist, pay off the heavies, and start afresh. Simple, eh?

Soon, the titular widows are tangled up with the escalating political rivalry, corruption and greed that coalesces around the local election, as – of course, it could be no other way – the big heist takes place the night of the big televised debate. By this point, however, McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s excellent screenplay – adapted, of course, from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 TV series – has you exactly where they want you: with no idea how things are going to turn out.

Mercifully – and this shouldn’t be considered a spoiler – there’s none of the matryoshka doll-plotting, quadruple-bluff, “we know that they know that we know that they know” stuff here. That’s not to say there aren’t surprises, not least when within the first five minutes when Liam Neeson and his band of macho crims make a meal of their final job – but the twists here are of the “that makes perfect sense” variety, rather than the “wait, she’s what now?” stuff that collapses under scrutiny. That leaves the screenplay, the directing, and the acting to truly shine through.

Widows is that rare thing: an enjoyable film that is also brilliantly made, well acted, and never takes its audience for granted. It’s also very timely – a bankable thriller that is very much in tune with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It’s also, by the way, funny!

★★★★ Suspiria | 16, 17 & 19 October | General Release: 16 November 2018

Luca Guadagnino’s follow up to Call Me By Your Name summed up in four words: intense, atmospheric, provocative and BONKERS!

Remaking a classic film is a dangerous game – you’ll never get any credit for making improvements, and you’ll never be forgiven for not living up to the original. Some films are so revered as to be untouchable – Jumanji might have received the reboot treatment, but no-one dares take a pop at Citizen Kane or The Godfather (at least, not directly).

Cult films offer some opportunity, and in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), Guadagnino is on to a winner – horror, whilst somewhat a perennial, is enjoying something of a renaissance what with the recent cinema successes of Get Out, Hereditary and It, and the ongoing popularity of TV’s American Horror Story.

So it is that Guadagnino offers his reimagining of the story of an American ballet student arriving in Germany to study at a prestigious, yet mysterious, ballet school. As new girl Susie, Dakota Johnson is mesmeric – an oasis of relative calm as all about her goes from eerie to all-out bonkers! Whilst Susie impresses the teachers, including the excellent-as-always Tilda Swinton as company director Madame Blanc, the other students aren’t faring so well… Chloë Grace Moretz’s Patricia has gone off the rails before the opening scene, Elena Fokina’s Olga meets a grisly before long, and Mia Goth’s Sara only ever feels one scene from impending doom.

It is testament to the performances, and Guadagnino’s stylish direction, that things don’t get too crazy too quickly – there’s an admirable restraint across the first hour, as the tension is ratcheted up and the big reveal is kept tantalisingly out of reach. As such, moments of sudden gore and armrest-gripping violence have all the more impact. And then, at about the 90 minute mark (perhaps 15 or so minutes lates, truth be told), the craziness escalates super-fast! It’s a hell of a shift of tone, from moody, atmospheric lurking malevolence to full-on gore-orgy, reminiscent of the thrillingly mad final act of Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness (2016).

Some have compared the divisive nature of Suspiria with that of Mother!, and there is some truth in such a comparison – Suspiria is just as likely to leave half its audience trembling with awe whilst the other half leave bewildered and disappointed. But while Mother! set itself up for a fall with a misleading marketing campaign, Suspiria cannot be accused of portraying itself as anything other than a lesson is artistic filmmaking untrammelled. And never boring!

★★★★ The Old Man And The Gun | 12, 13 & 20 October | General Release: 7 December 2018

Robert Redford’s goes out on a high in this gently philosophical rumination on the value of doing what you love.

In recent years, declaring one’s final film has become a bit of a thing – Daniel Day Lewis, Cameron Diaz and Steven Soderbergh have all thrown in the towel, though the latter couldn’t stay away for long – but Robert Redford’s decision to step away from acting on the big-screen really feels like a moment. There’s a Redford film for nearly every generation since his 1960 debut: 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1973’s The Sting, 1976’s All the President’s Men, 1980’s Brubaker, 1985’s Out of Africa, 1993’s Indecent Proposal, 1998’s The Horse Whisperer, 2001’s Spy Game and, most recently, 2013’s All Is Lost (to name just nine!).

To finish things off with David Lowery’s The Old Man And The Gun is, by luck or judgement, a masterstroke. In the character of Forrest Tucker – career criminal, serial escape artist and all-round charming gentleman – Redford grasps the opportunity to express just how much fun he’s been having all this time. For Tucker, robbing banks isn’t about the money, or the ingenious plotting, or even the camaraderie with his fellow cons – it’s the thrill of the chase, the heart-pounding, blood-pumping adrenaline rush that makes him feel truly alive. One senses that for Redford, all those roles have meant something similar to him: not just the chance to show off acting skills, earn big bucks or win awards, but to revel in doing the thing he loves.

As a 90 minute goodbye, The Old Man And The Gun didn’t need to be anywhere near as good, or to say anything as meaningful, as it manages. Redford, with a twinkle in his eye and a face that speaks a thousand words, is matched scene-for-scene by Sissy Spacek as the the woman who might just convince Tucker to take it easy on the banks. Elsewhere, Casey Affleck is suitably lowkey – he knows whose show this is – as the detective who can’t quite decide if he wants to catch Tucker or not.

It’s perhaps a little worrying to think that this film might encourage a wave of YOLO criminality in the name of ‘living a little’ – but of course, the message here is that once you taste the drug that gives you the biggest high, it’s a tough addiction to kick. One hopes that what robbing banks was for Tucker, acting was for Robert Redford – and, if we’re lucky, he might just fall off the wagon one more time.

★★★½ Beautiful Boy | 13, 14 & 16 October | General Release: 18 January 2019

A showcase for the considerable acting talents of Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet, which pushes predictable buttons.

Director Felix Van Groeningen’s English-language debut is an adaptation of journalist David Sheff’s best-selling memoir, which chronicles a father’s struggle to come to terms with his son’s ongoing addiction to methamphetamines.

As the father and son, Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet are very much in awards-bait territory here – the former as the doting father who spends every waking moment concerned for the welfare of his eldest child, the latter as the wayward teenager whose dabbling with soft drugs has spiralled into a debilitating and life-threatening dependence on crystal meth.

So far, so daytime TV movie. And, some colourful language and a couple of graphic drug-taking scenes aside, that’s pretty much the measure of this worthy and at times affecting film which nevertheless fails to fully emotionally engage.

Perhaps the problem here is that the audience isn’t given enough time to get to know and like the characters of David (Carrell) and Nic (Chalamet) before things take a turn for the worse; even flashbacks to happier times seem heavily imbued with a sense of inevitability, depriving us of the opportunity to fully appreciate the life that Nic is wasting.

As Nic’s mum and step-mum respectively, Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney have very little screen time to work with, though the latter makes the most of her later scenes to subtly convey a reluctant resentment of the amount of attention David must give to her step-son.

Carrell and Chalamet are excellent though, both further embellishing excellent CV’s seemingly without triggering the ‘I’M ACTING HERE’ alarm. Their final shared scene is a thing of beauty, simply shot and sparingly written – and had this story been given more space to breathe, say across a TV mini series, there likely wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the house.


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.