BFI London Film Festival 2017: four-minute film reviews (The Meyerowitz Stories; Battle of the Sexes; Call Me By Your Name; The Shape of Water)

I’m taking a different approach to my festival filmgoing this year – a round-up rather than a post for each. I’m sure SEO experts will be shaking their heads and I’m certainly not winning on frequency or volume of content, but I’m hoping this will mean a distillation of quality – more useful stuff, delivered more efficiently, with less waffling.

She says, waffling.

Anyway. This is what I saw, and these are my thoughts – written in four minutes or fewer.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Writer / director Noah Baumbach turns his lens on notions of success and failure in life and art, with the help of a gorgeously restrained performance from Dustin Hoffman bookended by smart takes from Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller – who are given specific set-pieces to channel their usual energetic performances into so they don’t overwhelm the all-important quiet. Strikingly edited and deftly constructed, it’s warm, witty and truthful – and Baumbach nails quirks so much more invitingly and incisively than his sometime collaborator Wes Anderson. Its weakness is in its women; less well-developed than the men around them – and at times almost uncomfortably drawn as the maiden, the would-be mother and the crone – there is a strong whiff of missed opportunity as Emma Thompson feels miscast and Elizabeth Marvel underused. That said, it’s unquestionably a lingerer with some beautifully written and cannily observed family conversations that make it well worth a shot – and it’s on Netflix any day now, so there’s no excuse not to.

Battle of the Sexes

Oh, how terrible this could have been – but blissfully isn’t. Filled with energy and an assured lightness of touch from Simon Beaufoy’s sparkling script, the story of young and ambitious Billie Jean King taking on the ageing but still potent self-styled chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, could have been beset by stumbling blocks: a living subject, a known outcome and a watered-down message. They’re all neatly brushed aside in a funny, smart and even-handed take which allows both Billie’s and Bobby’s stories to breathe before building to the climactic match with genuine tension. There could have been a little more explanation of Larry King (who in every particular resembles Fred from Scooby Doo) and Alan Cumming’s well-meaning ‘flamboyant fashion designer’ seems to be the voice of LGBTQ+ politics with a direct line to the future, but it’s all ultimately forgivable in a message film that avoids queasy moralising in favour of simply pointing out how right it so obviously is. Emma Stone blends steely and breezy apparently effortlessly, Steve Carrell deftly sidesteps any mawkishness to make Bobby occasionally even sympathetic – while Sarah Silverman steps in to steal the odd scene with maybe the best 70s hair ever seen on screen. A feel-good winner for sure.

Call Me By Your Name

The pinnacle of the festival for me, this dreamy take on André Aciman’s book from Luca Guadagnino is suffused with Italian summer sunlight and is every inch a James Ivory adaptation. If it has a flaw it is this tendency to cast everything in soft focus – a queer love story for straight people like me – but it stays so resolutely on-the-nose about first love and burgeoning sexuality that it’s hard to hold that against it for too long (that’s what he said, etc). Timothée Chalamet is outrageously good and Armie Hammer outrageously charismatic; while there’s little room for anyone else to command the screen, Michael Stuhlbarg gleams in the supporting role of the benignly yearning outsider. I could watch the end credits for hours.

The Shape of Water

A gloriously evocative mood piece that ultimately favours style over substance. Intended as a fairy tale period piece with a very modern sting in the messaging – absolutely a commentary on our current crises – it sings most powerfully when the wildly captivating Sally Hawkins leads us deftly through the pattern of her mundane days and then the incredible positive disruption that the arrival of an intriguing underwater specimen causes. When it centres on Michael Shannon – commanding but inexplicable – it loses some of its subtlety and depth, and yet again it is Michael Stuhlbarg to the rescue as the voice of the outsider in a moving subplot that I wanted more of. Sadly, Octavia Spencer is wasted on a character that skirts around the edges of stereotype as she gossips endlessly about her husband while occasionally Del Toro gives in to his ghoulish side to deliver some gratuitously grim thrills; one particular stunt with a cat feels like a cheap trick. Still, for all of this – and despite granular plot points that don’t stand up to close examination – the naming of the mysterious facility housing the ‘creature’, Occam, reminds us that we might as well have faith. And what The Shape of Water lacks in depth, it delivers in both faith and heart, making it a flawed but still compelling offering.

 

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