Tag Archives: lff16

BFI London Film Festival 2016: Their Finest (review)

I have never read the source material on which Their Finest is based, Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. However, I’m going to make a leap and blame the disappointing third act of this adaptation on the fact that it is an adaptation. A cataclysmic event that one cannot reveal for fear of spoilers could be a devastating twist leading to a richly emotional coda on paper; on screen it happens at precisely the wrong moment, melodramatic rather than moving, and a it’s a crying shame because until that moment there was a great deal of promise.

For a start this is a staunchly feminist offering by design, not just because it’s a heavily female-led production. The Second World War offered opportunities to women to step into male-dominated industries in the absence of their menfolk; we think of these largely as mechanical, physical: factories and food production, Rosie doing her riveting. But in 1940 the propaganda machine was also in full flow, and this tale focuses on Catrin Cole, whose facility with the written word leads her into the world of patriotic film production – first on awkward shorts and later on an ambitious, big budget production to win the hearts and minds of the general public and keep them behind the war effort. It’s a film about films, often wry and funny, using a talented and treasured cast to round out the thinner aspects of the characterisation.

Gemma Arterton brings gutsy warmth to Catrin, an approachably genuine mix of hesitance and growing independence. Rachael Stirling’s acerbic and openly lesbian producer and Helen McCrory’s canny agent manage to sidestep excessive stereotyping and steal the show from the sidelines, and it is female characters and female stories that largely drive the action. Sam Claflin is perhaps a little wasted in the mildly unconvincing arc of initially churlish screenwriter Tom Buckley, who spots Catrin’s potential and – occasionally grudgingly – supports her efforts while becoming a complicated potential romantic interest. His curtness is balanced by Bill Nighy’s deliciously hammy declining star with a Norma Desmond ego – a more genteel rehashing  of Love, Actually‘s Billy Mack, but no less watchable for it – who is given an unnecessary but moving subplot involving an ancient bromance with a dog-obsessed struggling agent.

Their Finest has more than that small whiff of Richard Curtis about it; a wartime setting offers ample opportunities for gallows humour alongside genuine tragedy. Director Lone Scherfig (Riot Club) keeps it light as often as possible, and were it not for the sadly uneven final act, this could be added to the list of rousing British romcoms – something I think we do almost excessively well. The development of the potential love triangle should be the emotional core of the film, and given the full space it needed to breathe it could have been a rollicking one. Sadly as things stand, the big bang rather forces the film to go out on a whimper.

Luckily there are still reasons to watch –  the insights into film production of the time, some light relief around a hopelessly wooden war hero pressganged into a patriotic performance to woo American audiences. It’s galling but also satisfying to hear small references to feminist struggles still being overcome (“of course we can’t pay you as much as the chaps…”). And speaking of chaps, the supporting cast is a small galaxy of national treasures – Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Henry Goodman and even an amusing cameo from Jeremy Irons quoting Henry V; it’s almost distracting in its embarrassment of riches.

Uneven pace and flaws aside, I’m glad Their Finest was made; thematically it’s a story worth telling. I would have liked to love it, but I’ve filed it away for Sunday afternoon TV viewing with one of those cups of tea every other character kept mentioning. I can’t mend its problems, but I can certainly make do.

Disclosure: privately bought ticket for the London Film Festival as a BFI Member. No PR / freebies involved.

BFI London Film Festival 2016: Paterson (review…ish)

How do you make a film compelling

Without conflict, drama or action“?

When a man goes to work every day

And loves his girlfriend

And she loves him?

When a notebook full of gentle poems

Stashed in a pocket as he drives the bus

Is all that he needs to be

Himself?

When the surroundings are suburban

Washed out, simple

Just about real?

When cereal is eaten from a water glass

(No plums in the icebox)

And every morning starts the same

More or less?

When simple symbols repeat themselves

Regularly for two hours

(Circles, twins, circles, twins)?

When he sees things in black and white

(Him and the world, together but separate)

And she makes everything black and white

But sees everything as grey

As possible

(Cupcake queen, country singer)?

When an event of enormous personal significance

Is a broken bus

A toy

A chance conversation

Some paper?

You cast Adam Driver

On whose face the tiniest twitch

The most subtle reaction

Is everything you need to know

And who is capable of being blank

Without being empty.

And to make doubly sure

That everyone is paying attention

You add a bulldog with just enough personality

(Personality goes a long way)

And a wobbly postbox.

paterson.jpg

BFI London Film Festival 2016: La La Land (review)

La_La_Land_(film).pngYou could be forgiven for assuming that Damien Chazelle has a particular focus on making films about music. In fact, what his blistering debut Whiplash and La La Land actually have more closely in common is that they’re both about commitment and conviction. Which is mildly ironic, as there’s not a lot of that in evidence in the latter.

Is La La Land a musical or an homage to musicals with occasional musical numbers? Is it about following your dream, or about how dreams change? Is it a love story, or about two individuals making their own way? I’ve never felt more divided in opinion about a film before, and I trace this back to the divided soul of the film itself, and perhaps moreover down to the divided nature of its auteur: I love the work of Damien Chazelle the director, but when he takes his turn as a writer I struggle.

In fact, I had a similar problem with Whiplash, wherein I could only accept its polished, perfectly timed brilliance once I’d parked my opinion of its premise (that abuse is food for genius). In La La Land, jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a mildly more palatable talent, as he struggles to fulfil his dream of opening a club dedicated to what he believes is a dying form of music. On his journey, he blasts into the life of aspiring actress and writer Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), and their parallel dreams are at the heart of the rest of the story – as is the question of their ability to fulfil them.

At one point, it looks like Seb might be taking the story in an interesting direction; Chazelle circles back again to a previous theme in unpicking whether relationships are bad for creativity, and vice versa, when he introduces Keith (John Legend), who tempts Seb off the path and pays lip service to the idea that media don’t die so much as evolve. Mia attempts to steer things back on course, but at this point it’s hard to know whether that is or isn’t the right thing to do – the evolution of Seb’s dream seems to bring him more pleasure than the original plan ever did – although when Mia also suffers a setback to her plans Seb resolutely bullies her back into action. Is changing a dream an admission of defeat? Is it ‘growing up’? Is that maturity or losing one’s childlike joy? It’s impossible to tell in a tale that doesn’t so much leave things open-ended as, at times, directly contradict itself.

It’s also impossible not to raise one of La La Land‘s other great contradictions. Set in LA – intended, quite clearly, as a love letter to the city of stars – it boasts a massively, realistically diverse supporting cast, and some attention has clearly been paid to recognising the distinctly black roots of jazz as a musical movement. And yet the next step – to make one or both of the protagonists people of colour – wasn’t taken. Only Keith stands out as a memorable supporting character, and yet he still has the whiff of plot device.

I also felt a mild queasy twinge at the differences in character between Seb – brash, rude, insistently bullying Mia into liking jazz by insisting on ‘educating’ her – and Mia – two quicksteps away from ‘feisty’ but saved by Emma Stone’s beautifully judged performance rather than the words on the page. Gosling tries his best to breathe life into a charming mansplainer (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and mostly succeeds in at least keeping him just attractive enough a prospect to Mia – even if his singing is shaky. Stone, whose breathy soprano is considerably sweeter, evokes a beguiling combination of fragility and determination, with a warmth that reflects that hers is the character who forms better interpersonal relationships. Despite the fact that Seb has a sister and fellow musicians nearby whereas she only has scatty housemates and dour coffee shop colleagues, he deliberately isolates himself and it is only meeting Mia that seems to draw out reluctant flashes of his humanity. I occasionally got the uncomfortable feeling that Mia’s warmth was characterised as a weakness – that it might be what gets in the way of her goals. Later, female professional success is also represented in terms of family stability; in an overly lengthy coda that fantasises about multiple outcomes, there are none that don’t include two becoming three.

But I said before that, just as the film lacks the conviction to nail its message, its characters and even its format down, I also couldn’t say with determination that I didn’t like it. The full-on wide angle approach is beautiful and used consistently and well. Every visual detail down to costume design is lovingly, colourfully rendered. I’m damned if I’m not still humming one of the songs days later. As a vision, La La Land is stunning, and it is this I think that makes me still excited to see what its director does next. If I could immerse myself in an exhibition like this, I’d fail to emerge for days; on film, it’s just the story that gets in the way.

Disclosure: privately bought ticket for the London Film Festival as a BFI Member. No PR / freebies involved.