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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.

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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.

Disney / Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team and more animated shorts at the BFI London Film Festival for kids

Some of the most bargainous tickets you'll get at LFF

Some of the most bargainous tickets you’ll get at LFF

When I decided to go for it with the London Film Festival this year, I couldn’t possibly leave out my little future film fan. Ramona actually came quite late to cinema going (she’s spooked by sudden bangs and loud noises sometimes, so it can be a bit overwhelming) though she loves it now; tempting her in through the doors by explaining that it was ‘like watching a bunch of trailers’ meant that we got to experience something a little different from the usual family films – not that there’s anything wrong with those, but opening up horizons is never a bad thing.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

While the BFI has really developed its family offering in recent years, Ramona’s age group often leaves her out of proceedings; animation workshops etc are really only going to become of interest in a few years’ time, as she’s only five. However, on the final day of the festival was the ‘Animated Shorts for Younger Audiences’ collection; at a total price of £29 for the three of us it seemed really reasonable for a central London cinema trip during an event for which I’d already dropped a phenomenal amount to attend gala screenings (still paying that off; still worth it).

The first of many step and repeat boards, I'm sure.

The first of many step and repeat boards, I’m sure.

What was actually going to be in the programme was a bit of a mystery; it turned out to be 14 international animated shorts including a UK advance screening of the new Disney / Pixar short, Sanjay’s Super Team which is due to appear before The Good Dinosaur when that’s released next month. The collection was brilliantly varied, in terms of content, technique and storytelling, from a brilliant one-minute one-man whiteboard animation from a second year student to an intricate Latvian stop motion morality tale about littering.

It's not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful 'cartoonish' dress was in line with my other 'dressing by theme' attempts...

It’s not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful ‘cartoonish’ dress was in line with my other ‘dressing by theme‘ looks…

My personal favourites included a superbly funny Swedish animation about a pair of dice and a couple of ladybirds on an adventure (hereafter, all ladybirds shall be known as ‘Bengt’ to me). I also loved a rather bleak but beautiful Canadian take on environmentalism positioned ironically around the lyrics of Que Sera Sera (pretty sure that whisked straight over Ramona’s head but she liked the cars). She particularly enjoyed a sweet film about a bird that takes a break from its migration pattern to dance with a tortoise on a beach; I thought it was beautiful yet overlong, but it was lovely to compare notes and find we really loved different things for different reasons. I found a charming French tale of a cuddly toy soothing a baby delightful; Ramona thought the battered toy (“that grey thing”) was really scary.

We were all a bit blown away by Sanjay’s Super Team,  which really made me want to see it as a full-length film, combining the visual punch of The Incredibles with  a wide-eyed, Nemo-esque sweetness. The only issue was its positioning in the programme which felt a bit odd; dropping a famous animation heavyweight in near the end but not at the end meant that quite a lot of the kids seemed to check out after that. In fact, my beloved ladybird Bengt was on last, which was another odd choice as it was one of the longest pieces and also the only on to require subtitles. Not generally  a problem for my little reader, but she wasn’t the youngest child there by a long shot and putting the one that requires the most concentration at the end seemed to be a bit of a scheduling no-no (and in fact she wriggled and jiggled and wiggled and finally expressed boredom, which earned her some steely glances and sharp words from her mother).

There were evidently some pains taken to make it feel more like a festival; the films were introduced, there was some Q&A at the beginning, and after each set of two or three we were actually introduced to some of the filmmakers for little interviews. Unfortunately this was mostly lost on the audience; the younger children figeted and checked out and their parents couldn’t listen while trying to keep a lid on things – and I did see some leave before the end.

So do I recommend it? Yes, definitely, though I wouldn’t take the ‘younger audiences’ label to mean – as many of us obviously did – youngest audiences. Ramona loved the setting, wanting to “send a message to those BFI people to tell them how BEAUTIFUL it is in here” and really enjoyed some of the films, and she’s insistent she wants to come back to watch movies at BFI Southbank. However, she’s wavering much more over the shorts programme, because the stop-start nature meant she couldn’t properly engage with what she was seeing.  My personal recommendation would either be to play straight through, allowing time for various Q&As at the end for those families with older kids, or to have more of a quiz type format to the breaks (as she really liked it when asked questions).

Roll on next year!

Matchy matchy: vintage BFI London Film Festival looks

As I might have mentioned at the end of each of my BFI London Film Festival posts this past week: I’m an enormous nerd.

That means I have really nerdy ideas. Like, say, thematically matching what I was wearing to each of the three galas I was lucky enough to snag tickets to. But since I know I’m talking to a similarly nerdy audience – at the point at which my photos of frocks overtook my admittedly grainy photo of the actual Tom Hiddleston on Instagram I knew it wasn’t just me that thinks this shiz is important – I thought I’d share the looks together here, too.

Suffragette

Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette

Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette. I don’t know why I look worried and I hate that my hair was wet.

Well, I don’t have any turn of the last century dresses, and if I did I’d probably be too terrified to wear them (and frankly too tall and broad around the waist). But I know my women’s movement colours, and I really like green. This Collectif checked dress – a couple of seasons old, but a version is still available – offered a bit of a bluestocking twist. Together with a white scarf and a hint of purple eyeshadow, the only thing I regret was missing the opportunity to throw in some pin curls.

Trumbo

All

All “model’s” own, including the comedy pose.

This was a bit of a struggle. Until the last minute I had my Tomorrowland black 1940s sheer dress lined up, but it didn’t feel quite right. For one, the film is late enough into the 1940s that a 1950s look felt more appropriate; for another I just wanted an excuse to wear a different dress. The day before this gorgeous shirtwaister arrived from Cheshire Vintage, and I knew its moment had come. What’s not clear from the photo are the gorgeous gold threads running through the red (not actually intended as a reference to Communism at the time, but hey…).

High-Rise

Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

I don’t really do 70s. But I will do glam. This 1960s lurex dress felt exactly right, particularly as the fabric actually has starbursts and swirls in it on close examination. Topped off with a blocky statement necklace but tamed with thick tights and a cardi, it turned out to be pretty well-judged as a summary of the film: a brash, violent message tempered by nuanced, sometimes muted performances.

I feel rather delighted to have gone three for three and seen films that were vastly different but all thoroughly enjoyable. I only have one festival experience left, right at the other end – a selection of short films for young viewers with which I’ll introduce our daughter to the festival. This year was actually my first ever attendance because I always thought of it as something I’d never get a chance to do – but with patience, a glacially slow website and a BFI membership as a Christmas present, diving in was one of the best decisions I ever made. I intend to take Ramona every year and make her every bit the nerd I am; I only look forward to the day when she might be persuaded to dress up with me.

Film review: High-Rise – Empire Gala and UK Premiere, BFI London Film Festival

Not even quite all of the massive ensemble cast of High-Rise.

Not even quite all of the massive ensemble cast of High-Rise.

“I went in with no expectations, and came out with no clue.”

My fellow attendee’s bafflement was in some ways at complete odds with my own experience – I went in with fearful expectations came out inspired and relieved – but at the same time I could relate. High-Rise is a beautifully bewildering experience, as well any combination of Ballard and Wheatley might be.

Confession: I’ve never read any Ballard (I shall, I shall, hold the nagging). I’ve also never seen any of Wheatley’s previous films. I’ve read about them, lingeringly, fascinatedly – and then backed off wondering if I have the stomach for them. My colleague Suni, when he heard what I was going to see, gleefully told me about how far out of his comfort zone Kill List  had taken him. Yet this one seemed like the one to take the plunge with. The lure of the star was there, of course, but more than that what I knew of the book seemed to suggest now was the perfect time for it to come to life on screen.

Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss field questions after the screening.

Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss field questions after the screening.

Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the 25th floor of a beguiling and beautiful new high-rise block, quickly discovering the hierarchy within via the bewitching Charlotte (Sienna Miller) – herself only on the 26th floor but still apparently a door to the architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), safely cushioned in the rarefied air of the 40th. Along with his neighbour Wilder (Luke Evans) – a mass of neurotic, barely concealed rage complete with perma-pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) – Laing is swept up in the social climbing until the lights literally start to go out, and the social infrastructure disintegrates as rapidly and catastrophically as the physical.

Following the canny yet childishly naive everyman through the nightmare landscape where everyone else seems to hold the puzzle pieces without ever revealing the whole picture is always an unsettling experience; with the 1970s setting, the drugs, debauchery and dog-eating, it would be easy for High-Rise to just be an exhausting mass of colours, of noise. Wheatley, however, is far, far too skilled to fall into the trap of directing an extended music video. Far from being a technicolour descent into madness, it’s the shades of grey – metaphorical and literal – in High-Rise that make it so compelling.

More Q&A - Hiddleston possibly answering questions about preparing for the role with a pathologist visit.

More Q&A – Hiddleston possibly answering questions about preparing for the role with a pathologist visit.

Hiddleston provides the almost perfectly calm centre around which the madness swirls; his rare moments of violent animation are almost immediately countered – withdrawn by an apology or an outstretched hand. Jarring against this is a spectacularly eerie performance from Evans who paints a figure both shambolically laughable and terrifyingly unhinged. In between Miller dances on the edge of disaster, switching roles as easily as she changes outfits: doting mother, louche party girl, mysterious stranger.

In many ways, High-Rise could best be described as a full-length McGuffin. As much as it doesn’t shy away from the grotesque or graphic, you’re left with the lingering suspicion that almost everything of note has happened where you – and Laing – can’t see it. Notes are written and screwed up without the contents being revealed. People are carried away and reappear some time later changed – but exactly what’s happened in the interim is unclear. When it comes to some of the most vile acts, including a particularly violent rape, almost nothing is seen – but a central suicide is lingered over in almost unbearable detail. The film’s priorities are Laing’s selfish, confused, insecure priorities – ours, in other words. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about the messages here, but – odd as it is to say in a film that includes a dream sequence with dancing cabin crew and a bludgeoning fist fight over a can of paint – there are layers of nuance in the delivery, and there can be a delicacy and beauty in the brutality.

I thought that at best I might emerge from High-Rise not traumatised. Instead I was oddly energised. In the Q&A afterwards, all the cast agreed that if they moved into the building they’d all have been out and in a hotel after the first night. But I think they might be lying to themselves just a little bit. After all, as they looked out onto the avid faces of the audience eagerly hanging onto their every word, they must have known that to us mere mortals they do, to some extent, represent the 40th floor. And the top is always the last bit to come toppling down.

No disclosure: I attended in my own capacity as a BFI Member. And because I’m an enormous nerd, I wore a vintage 1960s gold lurex dress. See thoughts on Suffragette here; Trumbo here.

See the program and get tickets for further #LFF events here.

Film Review: Trumbo – Accenture Gala & European Premiere, BFI London Film Festival

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, John Goodman, Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston introduce the film

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, John Goodman, Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston introduce the film

Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. That’s the only explanation for the baffling accolades heaped on Birdman (a two hour overtelling of what could have been a tremendous short film). But in Trumbo, Hollywood might have also found a film that is worthy of the self-adulation, coming as it does with a hefty dose of occasionally blistering home truths.

Between 1947 and 1970, Dalton Trumbo was at the heart of a famously dark period in America’s politics. A rich and successful screenwriter, he might have been initially untouched by the Communist phobia and witch-hunting that began to sweep the nation, but eventually it came to Hollywood – and did its damndest to bring Trumbo and hosts of other individuals, prominent and not, in the industry to their knees.

It helps that he was a considerable character – in introducing the film, star Bryan Cranston said that to play such a flamboyant figure he told director Jay Roach he would “go out on a limb, and if you hear it start to crack, please pull me back”. But actually what’s remarkable about Cranston’s performance is how restrained it is; he leaves ample room for humour and complexity, for dark moods and wry asides, for self-importance and self-consciousness. If you’re going to write about a Hollywood screenwriting legend, you need a script that sparkles and thankfully John McNamara delivers in spades, managing to tell a very serious story with a generous dollop of wry humour – even a little slapstick for good measure.

While the luminous Diane Lane is sadly underused, Helen Mirren’s sequence of brief appearances as Hedda Hopper – each more dripping with devious malice than the last – are stand-outs. She made reference to her glorious array of hats, and indeed in a film with an overall stunning design there could be costume honours dished out just for her, but she commands the screen with a beautifully balanced performance, a glint of the unhinged in her eye and a seductive drawl in the delivery maintained even throughout some of her most shockingly vicious lines. Bolstering the female cast, Elle Fanning provides a sharp, sweet note of personal conscience and youthful idealism that balances the many scenes of bickering men wreathed in cigarette smoke. Meanwhile the ever-reliable John Goodman blasts through in bursts of heightened comic relief and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje jeeringly reveals Trumbo’s previously unexamined prejudices in a brief but memorable performance.

Trumbo naturally mythologises the man at its centre, as all watchable biopics do, but it is careful to provide balance and reality, to show flaws and misfired rage. The tropes are all there – self-aggrandisement, quirky working habits, troubled relationships – but the tone is continually, self-consciously light. The seriousness of the message is never lost precisely because it’s generally not laid on too thick; the moments of pure emotional punch deliver because they’re well-padded with sparkle. This is Hollywood at its finest – entertainment on a knife edge.

Dalton Trumbo only lived to see one of his two Oscars finally listed in his name. I suspect Bryan Cranston might be polishing one of his own before too long.

Another opening, another show...

Another opening, another show… Trumbo is on general release in the UK in January 2016.

No disclosure: I attended in my own capacity as a BFI Member. And because I’m an enormous nerd, I wore a true vintage 1950s shirtwaister. See thoughts on Suffragette here; High-Rise here.

See the program and get tickets for further #LFF events here.