BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 1 by Helen M Jerome

Like many other movie-makers, David Fincher (Se7en) has moved over to flexing his muscles on episodic TV. Mindhunter is the compelling result, seen at the festival in a two-chunk hit, but you can binge on the entire 10-part first season if you have Netflix. Our hero is based on a real, ground-breaking profiler played by Jonathan Groff (who first caught the eye in the original Broadway production of Hamilton). Spookily, Groff is the spitting image of France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, which provides an extra jolt to the viewer. The series is beautifully filmed and acted, the plot slowly evolving under Fincher’s unflinching, watchful eye. There’s a constant, queasy ambiguity between the good cops, who are trigger-happy, and the pure-evil ‘sequence killers’ (later renamed serial killers) who they must befriend to gain insight to help solve existing crimes and prevent some future ones. And we can even give ourselves a pat on our British backs, as the whole enterprise was developed by playwright, Joe Penhall (Blue/Orange).

Aaron Katz’s knowing, millennial thriller Gemini initially seems to opt for style over substance, with its flashy interiors, gleaming vehicles and glossy characters reminiscent of old school music videos. However, as this quirky-core, or ‘mumble-noir’, mystery develops across Los Angeles, it becomes more beguiling. There’s a stalker, everyone seems suspicious, the Korea-town karaoke scenes hark back to classic ‘live by night’ noir, and Zoe Kravitz is fab as The Big Star with no privacy. And there are Big Twists… so give it a chance.

Directed by Esholm Nelms and Ian Nelms, Small Town Crime stars John Hawkes (also in Three Billboards) as a drunk ex-cop who finds a body on the side of the road and decides to investigate. The tone veers from tongue-in-cheek high comedy to awfully dark drama, and is given greater depth by co-star Octavia Spencer (who also exec-produces). Basically, it’s Bogie with a drink problem.

Columbus, directed by Kogonada, is not so much a culture clash as a culture convergence movie – the cultures being American and Korean. Set in Columbus, Indiana itself, it unfolds at a leisurely pace, presenting lots of vignettes of ordinary and privileged lives, as each of the characters, including those played by Parker Posey, Michelle Forbes (brilliant as the meth-addict mom) and John Cho, seem to be searching for something.

A couple of films that promise so much more than they manage to deliver are Person To Person and The Meyerowitz Stories. When you look at their respective casts, you might sit back and prepare for a treat. Dustin Guy-Defa’s Person to Person stars the likes of Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson, but as it satirises verbose, Woody Allen-style, Brooklynite characters and we overhear snatches of interconnected conversations, you wonder whether they could have stretched to look further than such easy targets as millennials in one zipcode. Is this kind of navel-gazing, post-slacker mumblecore movie almost beyond satire now?

Noah Baumbach’s Meyerowitz stars – deep breath – Dustin Hoffman as a grouchy sculptor, with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel as his variously troubled offspring, and Emma Thompson (criminally underused in a Mia Farrow-type role) as his arty fourth wife. Again, it feels like so much navel-gazing as the family members negotiate 21st Century existential crises, and argue furiously among themselves, almost as a recreational activity. Did not float my boat on any level.

There was, however, one English language drama that was even worse on every level, called 1%, and telling a familiar story of rivalry, this time between motorcycle gang members in Australia. The over-the-top acting goes all the way up to eleven, and stays there, with female roles so clichéd it’s embarrassing. Avoid.

A couple of pitch-black, British comedy dramas that really do work are The Party and Funny Cow. Sally Potter’s The Party is filmed completely in black and white, set in North London, and took only a dozen days to shoot. The premise is an ambitious New Labour MP, Kristin Scott Thomas celebrating her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet by throwing a party at home for herself, her old school socialist husband Timothy Spall, and their closest friends: warring couple Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz, high-functioning addict Cillian Murphy, and a further couple, Emily Mortimer and the marvellous Cherry Jones. All the action is confined to the front room, kitchen, bathroom and courtyard – with crucial opening and closing scenes at the front door – so the claustrophobia is heightened, and the beautiful unflinching monochrome filming accentuates the noir feel, as enmities, twists and revelations pile up in real time. We know cuckolded Murphy is equipped with plenty of coke and a pistol, we see that the splendidly sharp-tongued Clarkson is really the one in charge, everyone else putty in her hands. Potter is satirising everyone, their ascent of the greasy pole, their middle class paranoia and mindset, their hypocrisy… and there’s a corker of an ending.

Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow had me from minute one, as it stars the peerless Maxine Peake, who is at her, er, peak as a stand-up comedian with a foul mouth, ready wit, and skyrocketing career on the working men’s club circuit. We start, though, by glimpsing her dreadful childhood, her use of humour to beat the bullies, and the lack of maternal support. There’s quality through the cast, as her co-stars are Stephen Graham as a serial abuser, Kevin Eldon as her agent, Alun Armstrong as a depressive comic, and Paddy Considine as her love interest, plus there are tiny cameos from the likes of Vic Reeves, Richard Hawley, John Bishop, and even Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners). Recommended.

Paddy Considine also stars in Journeyman, which is the second feature he’s directed, after the incredible Tyrannosaur. This is raw and brutal in a different way, with Considine as a champion middleweight boxer who’s seen better days – kind of an Ageing Bull, and who is up against a trash-talking young pretender. But this ain’t Rocky, and a head injury sustained by Considine during his victorious bout floors him after the fight, and his capacity, his support team and his life start to ebb away from him. Considine made the superb decision to cast Jodie Whittaker (in one of her final pre-Doctor Who roles) as his resourceful, loyal wife, and they stand toe to toe throughout. There are flickers of violence and internal rage amidst the remnants of recovery, but what Considine also manages to do, unsentimentally, is draw attention to the genuine issue of head injuries across sport in general and boxing in particular.

In Dominic Cooke’s faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella, On Chesil Beach, we again see Saoirse Ronan boss the screen, this time with a cut-glass English accent, and built-in repression, as Florence, the highly-strung violinist who puts all her passion into her music. She falls in love quickly and hopelessly with Billy Howle’s Edward, who yearns for something better as he witnesses the chasm between his class and hers, emphasised by their varying family backgrounds (Emily Watson and Anne-Marie Duff as their respective mothers are both terrific). So marriage seems a welcome and inevitable escape for both. But it’s only when they reach their wedding night that the ill-prepared couple finally explore their love physically, and try to overcome their awkwardness. Beautifully shot and acted, this is perhaps an overdue balance to all the movies that make young love look like a walk in the park.

Dark River is Clio Barnard’s highly-anticipated follow-up to The Selfish Giant and much-praised The Arbor. But it ploughs another furrow, set in the dark satanic hills around a neglected Yorkshire farm, to which the troubled Ruth Wilson must return now that her abusive father (Sean Bean) has finally died. Wilson is terrific, the landscape looks staggeringly beautiful, and she is haunted by her past, and her alcoholic brother, Joe (Mark Stanley) isn’t helping in any sense. There’s an almost Thomas Hardy-esque feel of bucolic nature being deceptively red in tooth and claw as she tries to tame the sheepdog and Joe, and save the family farm.

The most ambitious labour of love in the entire festival was Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobleta’s Loving Vincent, which manages to bring Van Gogh’s paintings to life through meticulous frame-by-frame animation of his brushstrokes and characters. Apparently this is the first fully-painted feature film, with an incredible 65,000 hand-painted frames, and it all came from an idea suggested by Welchman’s wife, who’d trained as a painter. And they worked with the Van Gogh museum for four years to bring this to fruition. The narrative explores a mystery, but it’s the execution of the film that’s the real story. After sifting through 5,000 applications from across the world, the filmmakers selected 100 painters to train in the specific technique, and keep doing the same oil paintings over and over, to produce the 12-frames-per-second needed. Yellow-jacketed Douglas Booth is the lynchpin of the story, linking all the characters as he tries to deliver a letter from the late Van Gogh to his brother, Theo. Naturally, Saoirse Ronan is here again, along with Jerome Flynn, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd and Poldark duo Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner, plus a host of other names, lending their voices and live-action so that their characters could then be painted. Interestingly, as an additional payment, the actors and others involved in the production were each allowed to choose a couple of the oil paintings to take home. What a souvenir!

If you saw Dogtooth or The Lobster, you won’t be fazed by Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest feature, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. But if you didn’t catch his previous work you should know that you’re in for a deliberately uncomfortable and boundary-crossing ride. After The Lobster, Colin Farrell is back for second helpings (channelling Father Dougal in his voice and Joaquin Phoenix in his beard), with Nicole Kidman as his wife in a screwed up relationship where their two perfect kids are coolly treated until all their highly-controlled lives veer off-track. The catalyst is the brilliantly creepy Barry Keoghan as a young man who befriends Farrell, then insinuates himself into the family. To call this dark is a huge understatement.

The real Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t just star in You Were Never Really Here. He inhabits the role of Joe, totally, almost dangerously, partly due to director Lynne Ramsay’s apocalyptic vision for his disturbed ex-vet character turned hired killer. He lives on the fringes of the fringes, tracking down child-sex-rings, coping with a disabled mother, and barely suppressing his own terrible childhood memories. The soundtrack is immense, pulsing and pushing the action through dark corridors and blood-soaked encounters in the absence of much dialogue. Restlessly seeking vengeance as the film careers towards the climax, this would crumble in the hands of lesser director-actor combos, but Ramsay and Phoenix rise to the challenge. You’ll probably need a drink afterwards.

COMING NEXT: Part Two of our London Film Festival 2017 round-up looks at the very best foreign-language movies from all across the globe… including some absolute corkers.


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