#LFF2016 - Our London Film Festival Reviews Are HERE!

#LFF2016 – Our London Film Festival Reviews Are HERE!

The 60th BFI London Film Festival ran 5-16 October 2016 – and we spent the best part of two weeks reviewing a suitably quirky selection of films for your delectation, from award-destined gala screenings to offbeat gems….

So, read on for our 2016 London Film Festival reviews!

A Monster Calls

★★★★★ A Monster Calls | 6, 7 & 11 October

A jaw-droppingly beautiful adaptation of Patrick Ness’s melancholic yet ultimately uplifting coming-of-age story – a future classic.

Director JA Bayona, best know for his debut film The Orphanage and soon to take the helm of the next Jurassic Park film, turns out to be an inspired choice for this adaptation of Patrick Ness’s inspirational YA novel. Rather than a Spielberg-esque candy floss flick, Bayona draws on his horror film experience – and an impressive grasp of how to employ CGI – in creating a 12A certificate film that will at once frighten and thrill its target audience.

A Monster Calls is the story of 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, whose single mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from an unspecified but clearly serious illness. Bullied at school, and struggling to accept the possibilities of the worst case scenario for his mum, Conor is haunted by nightmares. Woken by one such bad dream at 12:07am one night, Conor (played to perfection by Lewis MacDougall) is visited by a monster who threatens to visit him four times… to tell him stories. The fourth story, the monster promises, will be Conor’s nightmare.

So far, so BFG meets A Christmas Carol. But Bayona’s commitment to the scary elements the story, along with a reluctance to allow things to take a turn for the saccharine, is the making of A Monster Calls. Ness, who has adapted his own book, keeps the dialogue tight and gifts MacDougall and Liam Neeson (voicing the monster) some fantastic lines, while Felicity Jones makes the most of what screen time she has, powerfully conveying the emotional turmoil of being a loving mother increasingly unable to care for her son.

For 12-14 year olds, this film could be a revelation. A Monster Calls tackles mature themes that children do unfortunately face – and tackles them without resorting to condescension, or without obscuring harsh realities. There are elements of Conor’s life that many – if not all – will recognise, boy or girl: a bossy grandparent, separated parents, school bullies, pent-up frustration and fear of the unknown. Given such themes, it would have been easy for A Monster Calls to be mishandled, but Bayona – working with members of the award-winning creative team that worked on Pan’s Labyrinth – instead brings the story to life with an imaginative flourish.

The use of CGI is faultless, and the animated sequences – illustrating the monster’s stories – are beautiful (think the Deathly Hallows sequence in the seventh Harry Potter film, but better). Even more impressive, the pacing is spot on: the film is no shorter or longer than it needs to be, never sags, and pulls off its final act without descending into mawkishness.

There are quibbles: the pre-titles sequence, and indeed the opening titles, add little, and Sigourney Weaver – playing Conor’s overbearing but well-meaning grandmother – has a wavering accent. But to dwell on such trivialities would be to do a disservice to the truly excellent film – a melancholic yet ultimately inspirational and uplifting coming of age tale which should capture the imagination of young and old and deserves to be a massive hit.

La La Land

★★★★★ La La Land | 7, 8 & 16 October

As near to cinematic perfection as you’re likely to find this year – a love-letter to the golden days of Hollywood that might as well be given the Oscar right now.

Hollywood has never been shy about putting itself right at the heart of the story, and some of cinema’s greatest filmmakers have brought the back lots on to the big screen – think Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Robert Altman’s The Player, David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and the Cohen Brothers’ Barton Fink to name but a few.

La La Land is a different breed however, as director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) eschews the cynicism that usually pervades such films, instead presenting a love letter to Hollywood that only the most cold-hearted miser will be able to resist. From a barnstorming opening song and dance number improbably – yet fantastically – played out on a gridlocked freeway, the tone is set. La La Land is determined to win over even the most hardened cynic, and if the infectious musical moments don’t do it for you, then the winning performances of Emma Stone – utterly mesmerising – and Ryan Gosling certainly will.

Told over the space of one year, La La Land follows aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) as their lives intertwine across four seasonal episodes (and a final emotional rollercoaster of a coda). It is a testament to Chazelle’s writing and directing, and the two central performances, that the song and dance set pieces which seamlessly weave in and out of the narrative feel less like intrusions than organic, genuine moments. Both stars sing and dance like old pro’s, and Los Angeles itself – arguably the third star – is a beguiling, magical background.

Never feeling anything like as long as it’s two-hour running time, La La Land is a film that you never want to end – except, perhaps, to give your face a rest from involuntary smiling. Which is not to say that La La Land is one-note – no true film about Hollywood could be anything other than bittersweet, but Chazelle masterfully conjures a perfect ending which should sate true romantics and jaded realists alike. The prefect date film, break-up film, cheer up film and inspirational kick-up-the-ass film all in one – prepare to meet your new favourite film.

Manchester By The Sea

★★★★★ Manchester By The Sea | 8, 9 & 11 October

Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow-up to Margaret is a masterclass in melancholy – a low-key study of bereavement and responsibility which lasts long in the memory.   

In only his third film as director, Kenneth Lonergan proves once again that he is a master in portraying human emotional struggle, delicately exploring themes of grief and redemption without melodrama or histrionics. Casey Affleck gives a career-defining central performance as Lee, a quiet, withdrawn Boston janitor who returns to his family home following the sudden death of his brother. An un-showy portrayal, rich in subtlety and nuance, Affleck’s Lee is clearly troubled by some past tragedy – the nature of which, when revealed, is truly heartbreaking.

With so much of a focus on grief, Manchester By The Sea could, in other hands, have become a maudlin and overly sentimental mush. Lonergan has other plans, however, instead painting a trace of hope and retribution through the piece – not least in the relationship between Lee and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, excellent). Lonergan does not paint by numbers – Lee is racked with guilt and sadness, but is not defined by his grief. He works, he eats and sleeps, he is trying to find a way through. Similarly, Patrick is not a tantrum-throwing teenager, nor a reckless tearaway, but a young adult coming to terms with life’s responsibilities.

Manchester By The Sea isn’t interested in providing easy answers, nor in wallowing in pity. Instead, it is a study in film-making restraint, a beautifully shot yet realistically told story of humanity, a heartfelt and honest meditation on what it means to lose everything, yet still be. Quietly brilliant stuff.

Nocturnal Animals

★★★★★ Nocturnal Animals | 14-16 October

The stand-out film of LFF2016, Tom Ford’s second directorial effort is a modern masterpiece artfully combining a tricksy narrative with powerhouse performances and style to spare.   

From the opening shot of a twisted Bond-esque titles sequence, Nocturnal Animals declares itself as a film that will be taken notice of. Tom Ford, whose previous – and first – film, 2010’s A Single Man, felt very much the (very good) film of a fashion designer, instantly establishes himself here as more than just a one trick pony.

Amy Adams – already a strong awards contender for Arrival, but even better here – is Susan, a clearly successful but frustrated art gallery director whose husband (Armie Hammer in his third LFF appearance) is clearly a partner of convenience rather than love. The arrival of a manuscript from Susan’s first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the catalyst for an intricately interwoven story-within-a-story, as Edward’s fictional narrative is played out on screen with Gyllenhaal playing the lead character, Tony.

What could be confusing is deftly handled by Ford (who also adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan), who plays with the levels of reality and subtly plays one story off against the other. The film within the film is a hardboiled Texas-set revenge thriller, as Tony’s family is terrorised by a group of malevolent rednecks on an overnight road trip through the desert. As Tony’s world falls apart, and then as he pursues revenge with the assistance of Michael Shannon’s hard-edged but well-meaning sheriff, we break away to witness Susan’s reactions as she is reading the manuscript, and see, through flashback, how Susan and Edward met and ultimately separated.

Where some directors might have laid on the analogies between the two stories with a heavy brushstroke, Ford leaves it to the viewer to join whatever dots there are. Along the way, both Gyllenhaal and Adams give some of their strongest screen performances – Gyllenhaal in particular carries the story-within-a-story, investing Tony with a delicate balance of fear and determination Perhaps most tellingly, he holds his own against Michael Shannon, who gives yet another intense but well-rounded character performance which deserves all the plaudits it gets. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is excellent as a slime ball criminal who turns the stomach with every sneer and sarcastic taunt. A shout out, too, for Laura Linney, who only has a few minutes of screen time as Susan’s conservative mother, but owns every one of those minutes.

Nocturnal Animals is not a thriller, as such, but is thrilling; is not a romantic drama, but has romance; and, perhaps surprisingly, whilst not a comedy there are startling moments of humour which punctuate what might otherwise have been an overwhelmingly sombre story.

For me, Nocturnal Animals was the stand out film of the 2016 London Film Festival – perhaps not as likeable as La La Land or Arrival, but no worse off for it. Dark, disturbing and thought provoking, this is serious cinema at its very best.

Arrival

★★★★½ Arrival | 10,11 & 13 October

An unapologetically cerebral sci-fi entry from on-form director Denis Villeneuve, Arrival has as much to say about humanity as little green men.   

On something of a roll after the success of 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario, Québécois director Denis Villeneuve gets himself in the mood for the much-hyped Blade Runner 2049 with this thought-provoking first-contact movie much more in the vein of Close Encounters than Independence Day.

As Robert Zemeckis did with the underrated Contact, Villeneuve builds his film around a female protagonist – in this case, Amy Adams’s Dr Louise Banks, a Professor of Linguistics called upon by the US military to act as interpreter who an alien spacecraft appears in Montana. Eleven other ships have landed around the globe, and early international co-operation soon gives way to rivalry and brinksmanship.

Adams plays the central role to perfection – at times wide eyed, in wonder at the unbelievable events unfolding; at other times steely and determined in the face o the politics and small-mindedness that threatens to derail a fragile process of learning to communicate with the alien species.

She is ably supported by an ensemble cast that includes Jeremy Renner as a theoretical physicist also on the team, and Forest Whitaker as the US military colonel who recruits them. But this is really Adams’s film – she carries the thrust of the narrative on her shoulders, and indeed this is one of those rare films where the central female character is not defined primarily by her relationship with other characters. She is a mother, and there is some romantic interest, but Dr Louise Banks is first and foremost an expert linguist – it makes for a refreshing change after the gung-ho machismo of most recent sci-fi blockbusters.

Visually, Villeneuve keeps things simple, relying as little as possible on showy CGI, but making sure that it works when called for – the aliens themselves are at once truly alien yet believable. The plot, too, is fairly straightforward: a race to understand an alien species, to fathom the visitor’s intentions. Although, that said, there is a clever narrative twist which turns your comprehension of the film’s timeline on its head.

This is not, however, your common or garden Sunday afternoon sci-fi flick – the dialogue is thick with philosophy, mathematics and complex linguistics (at least, more complex than you’ll find in most Hollywood films), and then finale, whilst pulled off with a flourish, may leave a few scratching their heads, either with bewilderment, disbelief, or both.

Lion

★★★★½ Lion | 12, 13, 15 & 16 October

Evidence that a good story well told is really all an audience really needs, Lion is a disarmingly heartwarming tale which favours substance over style and wins big.   

Boasting stand-out performances from Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman which, frankly, are far better than they really needed to be, this real-life story of Saroo Brierley’s Google Earth search for his family – which received international media coverage in 2012 –  is a beautiful, well-paced and life-affirming piece of cinema which keeps things simple and is all the better for it.

A relatively straightforward tale of a man separated by chance from his mother and siblings at the age of five, Lion plays it straight with the narrative and avoids any stylistic tricks which might otherwise have detracted from the story. Director Garth Davis leaves everything in the ‘right’ order, relying on an effective adaptation of Brierley’s own book ‘A Long Way Home’ by Luke Davies and award-worth performances from Patel (as Brierley) and Kidman (as his adopted mother).

For anyone familiar with the story, and even for anyone who can sense a feel good ending in the works, there are few surprises, but none are needed. Patel sensitively conveys the sense of frustration, confusion and loss felt by someone separated from their family with no warning, while Kidman’s portrayal of a parent dealing with two sons (both adopted from India) struggling, in their own ways, to throw off the baggage of their early years. Kidman’s performance could be a real career-rejuvenating turn, a nuanced, multi-layered portrayal which owns every minute of screen time without overpowering the story.

Knocking off half a star from the perfect five might seem a little mean, but there’s just something missing – some indescribable missing ingredient that would have rounded things off nicely. Perhaps it’s the lack of anything approaching cinematic innovation, or the sense that maybe it’s all a little safe. Perhaps, on another day, the fifth full star would be dusted off and proudly placed next to this review. Today is not that day – ask me again tomorrow.

into-the-forest

★★★★ Into The Forest | 5-6 October

Dark and unsettling, Into The Forest is a study in creeping tension as a father’s inner demon stalks an ill-fated camping trip.

At times channeling The Shining or even The Blair Witch Project, Dans La Forêt is compelling and uncomfortable in equal measure – a literal journey into the forest, but also figuratively, into the troubled mind of a father struggling to keep his inner demons at bay.

Director Gilles Marchand shows a masterful touch for racking up the tension right from the get go. Tom and Benjamin are off to Stockholm to spend time with their estranged father, who decides to take them on a trip into the forest. In the very first scene Tom – the younger brother – tells of premonitions that the trip will not end well, and it is through that ominous prism that we view the relationship between the two boys and their father. A father who, we learn, suffers from acute insomnia and is prone to bursts of otherwise hidden rage.

During a visit to their father’s workplace, Tom encounters a demonic figure who subsequently follows the family as they hike towards a cabin in the woods. The identity of this character, and its true intentions towards Tom, are unclear until an intense climax which answers some – but not all – of the mysteries.

Into The Forest is a genre-defying study in artfully restrained storytelling. Part family drama, part thriller, and part horror, there is something distinctly Guillermo Del Toro-esque about proceedings, but at the same time Marchand’s film is very much its own beast – an imaginative and challenging story about the monsters within and without.

A United Kingdom

★★★½ A United Kingdom | 5, 6 & 11 October

Beautifully shot and compellingly acted, Amma Asante’s festival opener tells a true story that still feels relevant, but somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The true post-war love story of Seretse Khama – King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) – and London office worker Ruth Williams is winningly brought to the big screen by Belle director Amma Assante, who has assembled a stellar cast led by Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo. All involved have, in recent years, risen to the top of the British filmmaking community: Assante has established herself as one of the UK’s most talented filmmakers, whilst Pike – Oscar nominated for her icy performance in Gone Girl – and Oyelowo – Golden Globe nominated for his captivating breakthrough performance in Selma – have become sought after leading players.

Somehow though, this dream team fails to take A United Kingdom to quite the heights one might expect. The checklist is pretty much completed: strong performances, particularly from Oyelowo as the compassionate Khama; a compelling story of interracial love which defied not only societal prejudice but also political might; and gorgeous cinematography. The ingredients are there for a true classic, a love story to define love stories. Unfortunately, the constraints of a two hour film hold A United Kingdom back from true greatness.

By necessity, Khama and Williams meet, fall in love and get married within the first half hour – a process which, in most love stories, would occupy the entire running time. Whilst unavoidable – the romance sets the scene for the conflict to follow – this deprives the audience of a true emotional connection with the protagonists. Stirring though the climax is, one can’t help but feel that the impact would have been felt more keenly had the story been told over the space of several episodes, mini-series style.

None of which should take away from the talent of those involved, nor from the importance of a story which – like most of Britain’s colonial indiscretions – is entirely absent from any school history syllabus. Whilst there is much to be proud of throughout British history, there is much to be shocked by and to be learned from – not least this episode in which Britain’s imperialist meddling in the affairs of a foreign land was ultimately repelled through sheer force of will, and the power of love.

king-cobra

★★★½ King Cobra | 6-7 October

An easy-on-the-eye and darkly funny take on a notorious chapter in the history of gay pornography, which stops short of tackling the major issues head on.

Disclaimer: Having seen a few of Brent Corrigan’s ‘films, watching King Cobra – the story of his rise to fame as star of a series of highly successful gay porn films, and his connection to the murder of Cobra Video founder Bryan Kocis – is an odd experience. Few consumers of pornography will ever have considered that, one day, a film might be made about the performers that they are watching! That said, the porn industry has form as fodder for the silver screen: Boogie Nights, Zack And Miri Make A Porno and The People Vs Larry Flynt among the more successful.

Few, however, have had such incendiary material to work with. Corrigan – real name Sean Paul Lockhart – was, it turned out, under 18 when he first appeared on film for Cobra Video. And, scandal upon scandal, Kocis was murdered by rival porn producers Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes, who hoped to release Corrigan from a watertight exclusivity contract.

King Cobra, then, has a juicy story to tell – and tell that story it does, albeit in what could be considered a suitably superficial way. King Cobra is all about surface – neither the writer/director Justin Kelly, nor the talented cast (James Franco, Christian Slater, Garrett Clayton, Keegan Allen) seem interested in digging beneath the surface. That’s not to say that King Cobra isn’t entertaining – it is, undeniably, in the shallow, superficial way that pornography is erotic – but this is not a film with aspirations towards depth, uninterested with tackling head-on the serious questions raised.

Perhaps no-one wants a film about murder in the world of pornography to be moralistic or preachy, and to that end Kelly avoids playing the blame game – without exception, all of the characters are given sympathetic moments, and none – not even the killers – are unequivocally condemned. Fine, until, as the credits role, you realise that there isn’t really much to take away from King Cobra than that porn is made, people make money from it, and money and sex – separately and, even more so, combined – are potent motives for murder. But didn’t we already know that?

The Pass

★★★½ The Pass | 12 & 14 October

A timely on-screen exploration of sexuality in football, The Pass is a film of many great moments – and a strong performance from Russel Tovey – struggling to take the leap from stage to screen.

Ben Williams directs this screen adaptation of John Donnelly’s 2014 hit play, The Pass – the story of two room-sharing footballers who share more than just a room in a Romanian hotel, and the impact on their lives over the following decade.

The night before their first team debut, rival teammates Jason (Tovey) and Ade (Arinze Kene) know that success or failure the next day could determine their future in the game. From the tomfoolery and banter, a tender moment emerges, but with what effect?

The Pass is relevant, given the continued existence of homophobia in the game of football, and this film-adaptation of the Royal Court theatre production was almost inevitable – but, as with so many stage adaptations, the characters and story seem somehow constrained on the big screen. The story is told in three acts, each 5 years apart, each in a hotel room – advise which obviously lends itself well to the stage, but feels unnecessarily restrictive on film. Each act has its truly engrossing moments, and though Kene is great as Ade, Tovey really owns every moment of the film that those two characters share.

In the second and third acts, they are joined by Lisa McGrillis and Nico Mirallegro respectively, who bring fresh energy to what is otherwise effectively a two-hander. None of the four, however, are particularly likeable characters – harsh, perhaps, on Ade, who does little wrong. But given the relatively short running time (88 minutes) and the way we are dropped straight into the first bedroom scene, we learn little about him to make us truly care about how things turn out.

A difficult one, then – on the one hand, The Pass is well made, with a standout performance by Tovey and a subject matter which is ripe for exploration. On the other hand, perhaps this film adheres too closely to the original stage play – perhaps some additional material, fleshing out the characters or expand the view we have of their world, would have helped The Pass leap from stage to screen.

Their Finest

★★★ Their Finest | 13, 14 & 15 October

Heritage Brit-flick-by-numbers, Their Finest has its moments – just not enough to warrant two hours of fairly predictable screen time.

Since the excellent An Education, based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber, director Lone Scherfig seems to have lost her way – first with the passable adaptation of David Nicholls’s One Day, then the underwhelming screen version of Laura Wade’s play Posh (renamed The Riot Club), and now another so-so adaptation, this time of Lissa Evans’s Orange Prize-nominated novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. Where An Education fizzed with energy and benefitted from a sparkling script by Nick Hornby, latter Scherfig-helmed efforts have felt like they’re trying, ultimately without success, to reproduce the formula.

Here, a solid 90-minute TV movie is stretched to a near-two hour contribution to British heritage cinema, with an unsurprising cast (including Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy) and, for the most-part, an unsurprising story. There can be no denying that the basic story is interesting: that of a team of filmmakers trying to make a patriotic film about the Dunkirk evacuation to raise morale during The Blitz. But when you’re working with such a well-known and much-studied period, a purely fictional story struggles to establish itself as anything more than a flight of inconsequential fancy. If Their Finest was based on a true story, it might make for a great, illuminating film – but, beyond reminding audiences that British cinema was part of the propaganda game during the Second World War, there’s nothing really to take from this other than that the source novel is probably a better read than this is a good watch.

That’s not to say that Their Finest is terrible, or even bad – it just never strives to be more than good enough. The basic story is serviceable, there are some funny moments with Bill Nighy’s portrayal of an ageing old ham, and the few glimpses into 1940s filmmaking are fun while they last. But the love triangle at the heart of proceedings fails to engage emotionally, and one can only wonder about the uncountable true stories of WW2 heroism that remain untold whilst films such as Their Finest get made.


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.