Tuesday, 17 October 2017

LFF 2017: Thelma / Downsizing /
You Were Never Really Here

The 2017 London Film Festival may have finished two days ago, but the film-reviewing fun never stops here at The Incredible Suit! Oh god please make it stop

dir. Joachim Trier, Norway / France / Denmark / Sweden, 2017
Essentially an arthouse Carrie, Joachim Trier's Thelma is a story of one girl's sexual awakening and the inconvenient psychokinetic side effects it has on her, her classmates and her puritanical parents. There's little more to the plot than that (other than the welcome update that Thelma is simultaneously discovering she's gay), but Trier is less interested in incident than emotion, and in that he delivers in spades. Shot with icy cold beauty, and paced as leisurely as Brian De Palma's 1976 progenitor was frenzied, Thelma is a sensitive and thoughtful coming-of-age tale shot through with unsettling supernatural elements and enormous charm - not least thanks to lead actresses Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins. There's perhaps one dream sequence too many, and it ends just as it gets really interesting, but there's a lot to love here, particularly Trier's eye for indelible imagery and mischievous visual signposting.

dir. Alexander Payne, USA, 2017
Of the three entirely different films fighting for supremacy in Alexander Payne's catastrophically confused Downsizing, the one that takes up the first forty minutes or so is by far the best. That's the high-concept bit you've probably heard about, in which mankind wakes up to the fact that overpopulation is fucking the planet right up, and attempts to fix things by literally shrinking people and housing them in microcommunities where they don't suck up so many resources. There are some terrific gags in this section, and bucketloads of potential for some biting socio-political satire, but then the film suffers a massive identity crisis and inexplicably becomes the tedious tale of a man hanging with his neighbours, falling for a cleaner and feeling sorry for the poor. The fact that everyone involved is five inches tall is bafflingly forgotten, and you begin to wonder if maybe there's been a mix-up in the projection booth.

But no, it appears you're still watching Downsizing, and just as you're getting used to this new direction it shifts gears again, becoming an environmental borefest in which the end of the world is nigh and mankind faces an ultimatum: hide underground for thousands of years or stick around with your pals, die happy and leave no legacy whatsoever. Matt Damon is wasted in a role with almost zero characterisation, Kristen Wiig is wasted by being dumped before the halfway mark and Christoph Waltz, probably having more fun than anyone, just looks wasted. It's quite possible Alexander Payne has something to say about self-improvement, unquenchable dissatisfaction, the rape of the planet or prejudice against dwarfs, but his film is so colossally unfocused that it's hard to grab hold of any kind of meaning. Leave the movie at the same time Kristen Wiig does and you can go home knowing you've seen half a great film. Oh yeah also Jason Sudeikis is in it.

You Were Never Really Here
dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK / USA / France, 2017
A scuzzed-up Get Carter for the scuzzed-up America of 2017, Lynne Ramsay's gruelling follow-up to We Need To Talk About Kevin is equally as shattering as that film, but in ways that are almost impossible to describe. Joaquin Phoenix is a terrifying force of nature, less a man than an idea, bulldozing his way through a New York so poisoned by venality that Travis Bickle might think twice before stepping out of his cab. The inevitable Taxi Driver comparisons don't stop there: Phoenix's hollowed-out Joe (possibly a deliberate contraction of John Doe, given his anonymous, dead-man-walking character), a Gulf War veteran now employed as muscle for a private investigator, sets out to rescue the victim of a vice ring only to find himself up to his beard in blood and bother.

Stripped bare in terms of dialogue and plot, You Were Never Really Here moves like a shark through its revenge thriller tropes, delving into each one deeply enough to make you feel the horror, but also briefly enough to stop you suffocating in it. Just. At under ninety minutes, the whole thing is over so quickly that you're not quite sure what just hit you, and a repeat viewing is almost certainly necessary once you've had a shower and a couple of stiff drinks. Ramsay's mission statement - to tell the story in elliptically-edited vignettes with the bare minimum of information required to follow the story - demands enormous audience investment, and in dragging you down into Joe's world she deliberately disorientates you. Whether that's entirely successful or not is up to you: personally I have no idea whether or not I liked this film, but Jesus I felt it. Dark as hell with the lights off and just as unpleasant, this is fearsome filmmaking from a fearless director.

Monday, 16 October 2017

LFF 2017: 78/52

dir. Alexandre O Philippe, USA, 2017
I strongly suspect that I may have seen more Alfred Hitchcock documentaries and featurettes than actual Alfred Hitchcock films, and I say that as someone who's seen every Alfred Hitchcock film (did I mention that I watched every Alfred Hitchcock film? Oh sorry, how tedious of me, LOOK AT THIS). Laurent Bouzereau's DVD extras are the gold standard for entry-level Hitchcockery, but those filmmakers who attempt a deeper dive never quite seem to make a splash - last year's Hitchcock/Truffaut being a typically underwhelming example.

It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to declare that Alexandre O Philippe (please tell me the 'O' stands for nothing) has achieved the apparently quite tricky with 78/52, a doc that narrows its gaze right down to a single scene in Hitchcock's entire canon: the shower scene from Psycho. This isn't a film for Hitch virgins - if anything the frequent fawning of the contributors might put you off Hitchcock altogether - but it is for anyone familiar with Psycho, and it's especially for smartarses like me who thought they knew every piece of trivia about it.
For example, the "chocolate syrup" served up by the on-set caterers
was actually Janet Leigh's blood

In all honesty 78/52 begins terribly, with a bespoke recreation of scenes from Psycho so amateur-looking that you're waiting for a punchline that never comes. Once that's out of the way though, the path is clear for ninety minutes of (mostly) genuinely engrossing insight into the social and cultural context of both the film and the shower scene, followed by an exhaustive deconstruction of Marion Crane's final wash from a ragtag assortment of talking heads.

Among the yakkers are well-respected Hitch boffins like Stephen Rebello (whose book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho you'll need to read if we're ever going to be friends), Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Bogdanovich, who is contractually obliged to do his amusing Hitch impression in every interview. We could all have done without his utterly classless comment about feeling "raped" by Psycho though; why Philippe chose to keep that in is a mystery. Also judged to be experts are a handful of directors who've made shitty horror films without an ounce of Psycho's wit or technique (oh hello Eli Roth), although it turns out that Scott Spiegel (of DTV non-smash hit From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Blood Money "fame") is surprisingly erudite and insightful. And then there's Elijah Wood, who I can only assume is either a close friend of Philippe's or just happened to be passing.
The Man Who Spoke Too Much

Among the revelations (for me, anyway) are cheeky composition gags that I'd never noticed despite watching Psycho roughly eighteen thousand times; a quick but fascinating detour about the painting of Susanna And The Elders which Norman Bates uses to cover up his peephole-slash-movie-camera-metaphor; the exact type of melon stabbed to death by the foley team (Casaba, cucurbitaceae fans), and the deafeningly-obvious-once-you-hear-it point that Bernard Herrmann's score during the shower scene is effectively Marion's heartbeat.

It's the shot-by-shot analysis of that scene that truly satisfies though, with legends like Walter Murch and Gary Rydstrom exhaustively picking it to pieces until there's nothing left, and Janet Leigh's body double Marli Renfro offering a little-known viewpoint on those three minutes of era-defining, game-changing cinema. Imagine a film school class where the subject matter is genuinely fascinating and Elijah Wood keeps making unhelpful comments, and you're close to the experience of 78/52.

If the contributor sections are a tad bland-looking (they're all filmed in a recreation of a Bates Motel room, which doesn't help distinguish them from each other once the headcount hits double figures, and as usual almost everyone is white and male), then at least Philippe has assembled and nimbly edited a dazzling array of source footage. Like all the best film documentaries, it's this that makes you want to run home and watch the films it mentions immediately. And given Hitchcock's output, that's a lot of watching. But I did that already, did I mention that?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

LFF 2017: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, UK / Ireland, 2017
Like Stanley Kubrick with a better sense of humour, Yorgos Lanthimos has sliced another clinically staged, deeply macabre piece of own-brand quirkery and served it up with a dollop of the blackest comedy you're likely to find this side of Michael Haneke. If you're not chuckling at a late scene in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer that portrays the kind of horrifically upsetting situation you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, then the Greek wizard of weird is probably not your glass of ouzo. For the rest of us twisted maniacs, though, it's heaven.

Colin Farrell reteams with Lanthimos after 2015's majestic The Lobster, playing a cardiologist with a murky past and a peculiar friendship with a gormless-looking teenager (Barry Keoghan, fresh off the beaches of Dunkirk). The relationship between these two characters becomes clearer and more disturbing as the film progresses, driving the plot remorselessly towards that aforementioned distressing - and distressingly hilarious - climax. To say much more would spoil the fun, but what transpires is, in essence, a home invasion / revenge thriller set at ninety degrees to reality; the kind of film that, if made by Hollywood, would have had Harrison Ford growling "my family" at regular intervals.
As with The Lobster, Lanthimos has his cast deliver their dialogue with the same deliberate, detached stiffness that openly signposts that what you're watching isn't real. Yet it draws so much attention to itself that you're forced to consider why it's there, which in turn has you examining everything else you see and hear in forensic detail. This technique worked wonders in the rich, satirical alternate universe of The Lobster, but there's not quite as much going on in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and as a result it stretches itself out perhaps a little longer than necessary.

If the film has a theme, it's less easy to extract than The Lobster's was - perhaps it's about the internal self-repulsion of having a favourite child; maybe it's more to do with the horror of losing one in circumstances beyond your control. Or maybe it's highlighting the inherent absurdity of the eye-for-an-eye retribution that has fuelled so much human misery since the dawn of time. That's Lanthimos' gift: to tell such obscure stories that you're forced to examine the entire breadth of the human condition to find meaning. He doesn't seem to mind where you land with that, but in the knowledge that your findings will probably be deeply unpleasant, he at least lets you laugh at the crushing ridiculousness of it all.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

LFF 2017: Journeyman

dir. Paddy Considine, UK, 2017
Hopes were high for Paddy Considine's long-awaited follow-up to his devastating directorial debut Tyrannosaur, from which I still haven't quite recovered six years on. The story of a boxing champion floored by a brain injury has lesser hacks than I furiously clicking open their folder of Sports Movie Pullquotes, but it pains me to say that Journeyman does not deliver a knockout blow, nor does it have the competition on the ropes, nor will you be out for the count. In fact it frustratingly pulls its punches, and it might have completely thrown in the towel were it not saved by the bell of Considine's own performance.

As world middleweight number one Matty Burton, Paddy Considine doesn't quite go the full de Niro in terms of method acting, although when we do see him fight it's bruising enough to elicit the odd wince every time a punch is landed. Outside the ring, we see that he really is the anti-Jake La Motta: a genuinely decent bloke who loves his family and doesn't even particularly want to get up in his opponent's grill at the pre-match press conference. Considine is effortlessly charming here, but as the film's writer there's a sense that he may have written himself into a too-comfortable corner; what could possibly happen to this wealthy, successful sportsman that might have the audience in anything approaching sympathy? Fortunately his boxing nemesis repeatedly informs him that their next bout will be "a life-changer", leaving us in little doubt where all this is going.
Sure enough, Burton is horrifically incapacitated after suffering one blow to the noggin too many, and this is when the problems begin for him, his family and the audience. Considine is a magnetic actor treading a fine line here, and he's to be applauded for what is clearly a well-researched, sensitive performance; similarly Jodie Whittaker, as his put-upon wife, is equally convincing. However the major misstep is in making Burton a world champion with no apparent cause for alarm as far as money is concerned. His very status makes most of what follows impossible to swallow: not only does everyone but his wife inexplicably abandon him in his time of need, but the level of care he receives is laughably underwhelming for a top-flight millionaire sporting hero.

I don't profess to be anything approaching a screenwriter, but at some point during Journeyman I couldn't help but wonder why Considine hadn't written Burton as an amateur boxer with no pre-existing support network or massive wealth. The immediately obvious drama that could have unfolded in those circumstances would have evoked infinitely more sympathy and identification, and the chance to throw in some stark social commentary could have resulted in a worthy subplot. All we get instead is the unfulfilled promise of an insight into macho male relationship dynamics and a saddening dearth of Jodie Whittaker, whose character has no real arc and is required to behave quite inexplicably towards the film's climax.

Fortunately Considine the director and actor keeps things moving, and knows which buttons to press to draw out a tear or two from even the hardest-hearted audience (hello). But he's let down here by Considine the writer, and given the cruel magic he performed with Tyrannosaur, that's a major disappointment.

Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF 2017: Brawl In Cell Block 99

dir. S Craig Zahler, USA, 2017
Those of us who have felt increasingly let down by Vince Vaughn over the years have great cause to rejoice with the advent of Bone Tomahawk brutalist S Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99. Channelling a ‘90s Bruce Willis in a role that even that celebrated “Hollywood hard man” might have found a smidge too murdery, Vaughn helps to shape Brawl into a slab of pulp fiction with the emphasis heavily on the pulp, not least in terms of what happens to quite a few bad guys’ faces.

Vaughn is terrific in a measured, smouldering role that sees his decent blue-collar Joe falling on hard times and turning to his former drug-running career to support his family. Predictably, a delicate deal goes south, and Vaughn finds himself heading for the titular incarceration facility where prisoners’ rights are an alien concept and survival depends on keeping your head down or taking other people's off.

The slow-burning mood is established in a tremendous early scene where a furious Vaughn carefully and methodically BEATS UP A CAR with his bare fists, savagely ripping off the bonnet before incongruously and thoughtfully removing one of the lamps from the headlight as if extracting a stone from an olive. This considered destruction sets the tone for a film that takes its sweet time getting where it’s going, which works both for and against it: the surprising intensity of the inevitable jail-based fisticuffs undoubtedly benefits from the languorous nature of the build-up, but on the other hand the first act goes on for about 70 minutes, which may be taking things a bit far.
One of the two things in this image is considerably harder than the other

As is evident by the finale though, “taking things a bit far” is absolutely the order of the day as far as Zahler is concerned. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is not really suitable for the squeamish in much the same way that a lorry load of broken glass is not really suitable for filling a sandpit: Vaughn rearranges so many body parts and faces on his voyage to the depths of humanity that the supporting cast begin to resemble some of Picasso’s more bizarrely-proportioned portraits.

It’s this head-smooshing carnage for which the film will be remembered, but that would be to neglect Vaughn’s remarkable work. He’s funny without being comedic, charming while being barbaric and his force-of-nature protagonist is a refreshing addition to the tough guy canon: at one point he takes his shirt off to reveal that not only is he not stacked like a Marvel superhero, he’s actually a bit podgy, which lends his character the kind of vulnerability and identification you don’t get with most of the generic beefcake you see onscreen.

Given its lean and mean nature, it’s surprising that there are a couple of plot developments that don’t quite add up – in fact if you think about it for long enough, the entire plot makes no sense – but that’s almost certainly not what you’ll be talking about on your way out of the cinema, if indeed you still retain the capacity for speech at all. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is jaw-dropping in more than one sense, and when you pick yours up off the floor as you leave, spare a thought for those you’ve just seen who can’t.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

LFF 2017: The Shape Of Water

dir. Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017
For some reason I wandered into Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water thinking it was a fairy tale film for kids – a supposition borne out by the dreamy, opening shots of an underwater fantasy and Alexandre Desplat’s tinkly score. But then the first scene showed me much more of Sally Hawkins than I’d expected to see, and when she started furiously scratching a very private itch in the bath I began to suspect that perhaps this was, in fact, a fairy tale for grown-ups after all.

Despite all the itch-scratching (OK, fine, she was having a massive wank), the choice language and the Scenes Of An Adult Nature, The Shape Of Water still seems a little confused in terms of its audience. A good old-fashioned ‘80s-tinged tale of a monster who isn’t monstrous, a heartless military intent on chopping the monster into little pieces and a plucky bunch of unlikely allies determined to save it, The Shape Of Water shamelessly taps into the apparently endless current wave of nostalgia on which popular fluff like Super 8, Stranger Things, It and - to some extent – the Guardians Of The Galaxy films have successfully surfed. It’s essentially E.T., if Elliott was a lonely thirty-something woman and E.T. had a hidden pop-up cock.

If that sounds like your can of Quatro, then the good news is that del Toro does all of it in beautifully-rendered gorge-o-vision. Making good use of his Amelie filter, cinematographer Dan Laustsen paints Hawkins’ environment in deep reds, greens and browns, while the mysterious underground government facility at which she works as a cleaner is all sterile greys, its employees sporting the white short sleeved shirts and thin black ties required by the early 1960s setting.
In keeping with the nostalgic vibe, The Shape Of Water’s unnamed monster isn’t made from soulless CG (well, not entirely) but is played by del Toro stalwart Doug Jones in a rubber suit, and he deserves kudos for sidestepping unintentional ridiculous hilarity to imbue his creation with something approaching a soul. That said, he - and in fact everyone else - is trumped by Sally Hawkins for sheer emotional overwhelmitude: her sad, mute heroine Elisa is an award-worthy turn in which The Hawk uses the absence of her voice to dazzling effect, and she makes for a refreshingly original protagonist. In support are Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as similar misfits – respectively a gay man unwelcome in “family establishments” and a black woman only too used to being referred to as “you people” by white men at work.

Those themes of otherness, prejudice and tolerance, so frequently used to unite monsters and minorities against the establishment, are subtly deployed here – almost disappointingly so. While some kind of triumph of the underdog is inevitable once you know where the story’s going, the film could still benefit from a little more sticking it to the man to be a true crowd-pleaser; it’s no exaggeration to say that The Shape Of Water isn’t quite as socially complex a film as last year’s cartoon-rabbit-and-fox-led Zootropolis.

There’s plenty of charm to go around though, Michael Shannon’s pantomime villain is great value and del Toro’s world-building is spectacularly imaginative even in this, the least outlandish of his recent films. Award noms for production and sound design and cinematography are assured, and with any luck Sally Hawkins will walk away with a trophy or two as well. In which case she would be quite justified in going home and having a massive celebratory scratch.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

LFF 2017:
Happy End / Call Me By Your Name

Here's an LFF 2017 Euro-friendly special, featuring contributions from Austrian and Italian directors. Make the most of it because once we leave the EU, Michael Haneke films will be banned and we'll have to smuggle them in up our arseholes.

Happy End
dir. Michael Haneke, France / Austria / Germany, 2017
I don't know about you, but I like my Haneke to be like a trip to the dentist: uncomfortable to the point of torture, but ultimately good for you. The likes of Funny Games and Hidden throw bourgeois complacency into such sharp relief that Haneke's natural audience should feel like they're the ones being punished as much as their on-screen avatars are, and I find that delicious. Sadly, I left Happy End feeling disappointingly guilt-free and mentally unmolested, and that's no way to walk out of a Haneke.

Formally, this is - thankfully - the same old Michael Haneke: long, static shots that force you to examine every square inch of the frame; elliptical storytelling that wilfully skips over massive plot points and expects you to keep up; the total absence of a score; Isabelle Huppert. Even thematically, all the hits are present and correct - an innocent animal suffers an unpleasant fate, familial bonds are tested to breaking point and the whole affair is colder than an Austrian winter.

But there just isn't that much to chew on. The wealthy, intellectual family unit is in place, and its constituent parts are ripe for some kind of catastrophic, perception-altering event, but it never comes. Haneke's script makes gentle forays into notions of class inequality and racial tension, but he doesn't employ them with the surgical efficiency he has in the past. Maybe he's just chilling out; he's 75, after all, and may well be tired of being so mean to the middle classes. But in turning out such a lesser work, he's denied us the exquisite horror we've come to expect, and that might be the meanest trick of all.

Call Me By Your Name
dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy / France, 2017
I'll be honest, if Armie Hammer came round to my house for six weeks and spent most of that time lounging around in tiny shorts and dripping wet, I'd probably want to fuck him too. So identification with Call Me By Your Name's sexually uncertain 17-year-old protagonist Elio (Timothée Chalamet, the kid from Interstellar who grew up to be Casey Affleck) is easily achieved. And 132 minutes in Lombardy through Luca Guadagnino's lens is such a relaxing experience that you could easily save hundreds of pounds just watching this film instead of actually going on holiday to Italy.

Hammer and Chalamet perform a delightful verbal and physical dance around each other for much of the first act, while a hugely unsubtle, metaphorical apricot tree slowly ripens in the garden of Elio's family villa. Eventually an affair begins and, inevitably, ends, and it's tenderly portrayed by Guadagnino and his actors - not least the supporting cast, who circle the leads gently as if protecting and encouraging them from a distance.

Something about Call Me By Your Name doesn't quite click for me though: the relationship feels real enough - Guadagnino packs his film with detail, while Chalamet is effortlessly convincing - but the drama is small-scale, if such a thing can be said about a coming-of-age tale. Armie Hammer makes a man out of a boy, but he does it so delicately and incrementally that I found myself yearning for a little more turmoil. It's never dull, but given the comfortably-off intellectual but somewhat self-absorbed family at the story's centre, an appalling part of me did begin to wonder if Michael Haneke's Call Me By Your Name might have been a better movie.