toatali @ LFF 2021

For the first time in 22 years living in London, I have been able to attend the BFI London Film Festival. Waking up at 6am everyday so that I can queue up for hours to pack into press screenings of new films is a tiring privilege, but completely worth it – even just to say I saw the new Edgar Wright a few weeks before everyone else.

I don’t want to write too much waffle about the festival itself, so instead I’ll get on with what people are here for – the reviews. I’ll be updating this post with new reviews until the end of the festival on the 17th October, so keep refreshing this page. The order is decided by the order in which I saw these films.

All My Friends Hate Me

All My Friends Hate Me is a British cringe comedy in the vein of Peep Show or Fleabag, with those shows’ dark comedic sensibilities stretched out into a 90-minute feature. The film focuses on Pete, whose friends from university are hosting him a reunion/birthday party at a huge stately home. However, an unexpected guest throws Pete off and makes him paranoid that his friends no longer like him.

The premise and its eventual payoff do bring to mind an extended episode of Jesse Armstrong’s Peep Show in how it revolves around slightly unlikeable central characters who flounder through social situations and make it all the worse for themselves, but the specific skewering of the British upper classes give it an added layer of class commentary. The problem is that All My Friends Hate Me often feels more like an audition tape for a show on BBC3 rather than a fully-fledged feature. Although it’s short, it fails to stick the landing on a satisfying ending, and the laughs start dropping off around the midway point as well.

The film smartly tries to incorporate elements of a thriller in order to make for something more cinematic. Hints that Harry, the guest who Pete’s friends found at the local pub, is up to something sinister and may have connections to Pete’s past, are a wise move for a film that knows that it can’t sustain itself on comedy alone, but director Andrew Gaynord doesn’t quite have the skills to take that horror to the point where it makes enough of an impact.

Still, All My Friends Hate Me is the kind of surprisingly well-made and funny film that will shine when released onto streaming, because it’s easy enough to enjoy while having just enough under the surface to leave it lingering in the mind a little beyond the sitcoms it sometimes tries to ape. All in all, it’s an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoys those quintessentially “British” sitcoms that rely on cringe value, but it’s not something to rush out to see either.

The Souvenir Part 2

It’s difficult to write about The Souvenir Part 2, the sequel to director Joanna Hogg’s 2019 semi-autobiographical portrait of a film student suffering through a difficult relationship without spoiling that first part, but I’ll try and navigate through that. For those who would prefer to know nothing, I would just recommend they watch The Souvenir, which will give them reason enough to rush out and watch the excellent sequel as soon as it releases.

Part 2 finds Julie, having suffered a heartbreaking loss at the end of the first film, still dealing with that grief and attempting to channel it into her art, making a cinematic memorial as her film school graduation project. Part 2 gains a cinematic looseness from focusing more solely on Julie. While the first film was naturalistic almost to a fault, Hogg here is able to dip her toes into the surreal in a way that gifts the film moments of transcendence that feel emotionally earned by the work put in previously.

Independent films often shy away from sequels, but Part 2 is the kind of film that makes me wish more were able to expand on their ideas and elevate what already worked. In fact, criticisms of the first film that I’ve heard are fully addressed and tackled here, as Hogg’s new film gracefully turns into a kind of meta commentary on autobiographical filmmaking.

On a technical level, this film is a joy to behold and shows just what masters of framing Hogg and her DP David Raedeker are. The Souvenir’s compositions aren’t simply beautiful to look at, they’re also carefully considered to get as much meaning as possible out of the placement of characters and objects. In a semi-dream sequence later on into the film this framing couples with paired back but intense set design to deliver something profoundly emotional.

Both parts of The Souvenir carry their own charms, but with Part 2 Hogg seems to have elevated both into the level of a masterwork that effortless and naturally tackles both personal trauma and the ways in which we deal with it and channel it through art.

The Hand of God

Like The Souvenir, The Hand of God is another self-reflective autobiographical portrait of the director as a young man and how tragedy shapes the art he makes. In this case, the director is the Italian born Paolo Sorrentino. The film takes place in 1980s Naples and its title refers to the football player Diego Maradona, who plays a vital background role in the setting of the film. The focus, however, is on a young teenager and his extended family. Lush wide shots of Naples make the film a visual treat and the natural banter between the family members mean it’s a film with more than a few laughs.

The problem with the film comes down almost solely to its pacing. Hand of God doesn’t have any scenes that I particularly had a problem with, or that I thought were wholly unnecessary, because the film abandons traditional narrative from the beginning, instead trying to create a tapestry like picture of a life in Naples. However, towards the conclusion it seems to meander a bit too much, ending about five times too many before finally… ending.

The result means that coming out of the cinema I felt a bit annoyed by Hand of God, but the truth is that this is mainly due to poor editing choices. Perhaps it’s because the film is so personal that Sorrentino was reluctant to cut more than he absolutely needed to, but it’s a decision that works against the final product. However, this film will make its home on Netflix, which might be the right choice for it. I normally (really) hesitate to say this, but perhaps watching Hand of God in two parts would enhance the experience rather than diminish it.

Spencer

I think my view on Spencer will be the most unpopular one I have during this film festival, so first let me praise director Pablo Lorrain’s Princess Diana biopic on what I liked about it. Focusing on one Christmas weekend just before Diana and Charles’ divorce, Spencer is a beautiful film, shot on film in a way that makes it look gauzy and dreamlike. This is enhanced by Jonny Greenwood’s score, which at times comes close to rivalling his work on Phantom Thread, itself one of the best film scores ever written. During one sequence, Lorrain stages an almost music video like dance sequence to Greenwood’s score, a moment that has already become one of my favourite scenes in cinema this year.

It’s a shame, then, that I found the rest of it a real disappointment. The main problem with Spencer is its script, which abandons all pretence of subtlety in favour of a portrait of Diana that is overwrought with clunky dialogue and metaphors that are spelled out to the point of tedium.

Diana in this film feels trapped by the royal family. To let you know this, the script compares her to a pheasant, an untamed horse and Anne Boleyn. None of the comparisons are bad in theory, but the way in which they’re repetitively hammered by the dialogue makes the whole thing seem childishly simple. Add to that the repetitive visual motifs of a cold house and curtains that are sewn shut and there’s little room for the film to make much of Diana beyond a series of cliches. I almost expected a birdcage to show up at one point.

Still, Diana is the only part of the film that does feel fleshed out, anchored by Kirsten Stewart’s performance. The rest of the cast and characters are so thinly sketched they seem to only exist to drop in and deliver lines so perfect that no human would ever say. This at first seems a noble attempt to focus the film on Diana solely, but because she seems to exist in a world of cartoon characters it becomes even more difficult to believe in her plight.

I think, in the end, the reason why the dance sequence works so well isn’t just because of the beautiful music and fluid camera movements – it’s also the fact that it manages to communicate the desire for freedom without the pitfalls of the film’s otherwise rocky script.

Last Night in Soho

Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver director Edgar Wright returns to England in his latest film, Last Night in Soho – a horror film where a fashion school student living in London starts being haunted by visions of a dancer who used to live in her room back in the 60s. Wright’s latest starts out on a strong foot. The protagonist Eloise’s first step into 1960s Soho is magical – Wright’s use of mirrors resembles films like Paprika or Black Swan but he takes the concepts and visual trickery far further than either of those. One extended shot of the 1960s dancer Sandy and her seedy manager Jack dancing is one of the first shots in a while that made me wonder how they even achieved it.

However, as the film continues Wright’s proclivities as a director start to get in the way of the plot. Last Night in Soho ends up tackling some pretty dark subjects, a necessity for its themes of the dangers of nostalgia. However, Wright, who has exclusively directed comedies in the past, is too focused on delivering a good time to be able to give these topics the dramatic heft they deserve. Basically, the film gets simpler at around the time it should be getting more complex. A prime example of this is Matt Smith’s character Jack. In the first few scenes in which he appears, he’s the perfect blend of charming and creepy. As the film reaches its climax, he seems only to show up for the odd jump scare and to deliver the same two lines of dialogue like a video game boss.

The same goes for the horror. Wright’s comedy is fast-paced and marked by its speedy editing. For a horror of the type Wright wants to make here, where a sense of paranoia needs to be built up, that fast pace means the film never even has the time to get scary, and the only real thrills or chills come from the occasional lazy jump scare.

Still, Wright is a clever director, which means the end result is at least joy to watch. Enough shots and sequences jump out that it’s never boring, but it’s doubtful if the film holds up to much scrutiny in the long run.

Titane

What is there to say about Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to Raw, one of my favourite films of all time, that won’t spoil everything? Pretty much nothing, except that this film – one of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve ever had, is something you should see as soon as you can.

Titane is out in UK cinemas on 31st December and is out in America now. Go see it if you can.

All is Vanity

All is Vanity, the debut film by independent filmmaker Marcus Mereles, is by far the worst film I’ve seen at the festival and might even be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Taking place in one location, a sparsely populated fashion shoot for a supposedly big brand, the film looks like it was made on a budget no bigger than what’s in my bank account at the moment. This isn’t a huge problem and can be subverted by good acting or a solid script. It’s a shame that this film has neither. I would try to summarise the plot, but that seems like I would be doing more work than the film itself, which never really bothers. At the start it feels like a standard enclosed location mystery film, but it gets bored of that and starts shifting between meta-commentary and time travel movie for the rest of its runtime. The problem is that each time it shifts genres it somehow gets even worse. There’s even a scene where the actors turn to the camera and exclaim what a bad film this is. I wasn’t sure if this was them trying to be clever or if the joke was just on me for deciding to see this at all.

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, is a Chadian film about religion, family, rape and abortion. In other words, it’s not an easy watch. The film focuses on a single mother who finds out her daughter has been expelled from school after becoming pregnant. The daughter wants an abortion, but the pressure of religious groups makes it an impossibility to find.

The importance of showcasing these kinds of stories on screen cannot be understated, but Lingui seems like it isn’t doing much more than just laying out an argument about how things need to change. The film is successful at eliciting sympathy because of the facts of the case it lays out, but I never really felt for any of the characters in the way the cinematic medium is capable of.

Part of this is due to the actors, who are weirdly restrained in their performances while also lacking the subtlety needed to pull that kind of performance off. But it’s also the fault of the camera, which remains pulled back from the action, like we’re only observing a scene from a distant land. What Lingui needed to work fully was a scene where the emotions were allowed to properly flow. As it is, what we have now is the cinematic equivalent of an interesting article about a deeply tragic subject.

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog, New Zealand based director Jane Campion’s first film in around 12 years, is a film that’s difficult to properly pin down. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as brothers who work as ranchers in the mid 1920s. When Plemons’ character brings back a woman (Kirsten Dunst) and her son to the ranch, it sets off huge changes in the relationship between the two brothers.

The first half of the film suffers from pacing issues that make it almost a slog to get through. Cumberbatch is delivering his role of a lifetime, but Campion’s camera is unusually occupied by the landscapes, which, though beautiful, bog the first half down for too long before the film can dig into the dynamics that fuel its story.

By the second half, all the dominos that were set up start to topple and the film becomes far more engaging. Campion juggles themes of the role of women in male dominated spaces and suppressed homosexuality, but because the film has taken so long to get there, it ends up feeling like nothing gets its due focus.

The Power of the Dog is based on a book, and while I can imagine its slow start working in that context, on screen there simply isn’t enough time for that approach to work. Cumberbatch is almost enough to make this film worth seeing, but I’m not sure the strength of that performance is enough to make it worthy of repeat viewing.

A Hero

A Hero, the latest film by A Seperation director Asghar Farhadi, is another morally complex portrait of a single event and the rippling ramifications of how its handled by various self-interested parties. In this case, the film revolves around a prisoner named Rahim who, while on leave, finds a bag full of gold coins and decides to return them, even though their contents could get him out of prison. Despite this seeming act of selflessness, Rahim is eventually turned into a social media celebrity against his will, and then basically milkshake ducked.

A Hero is a fascinating film about how even the simplest of deeds cannot go unexamined in the modern world, and Farhadi seems in his element here with dialogue that flows completely naturally and the kind of arguments that slowly drag you into picking sides, without ever letting you rest comfortably on one.

It’s difficult to call A Hero cinematic, in fact it often feels more like watching a highly engaging debate, but the strength of the characters shines through enough and despite the runtime, it remains engaging and thought-provoking as Farhadi peels back layer after layer of moral complexity. It never quite reaches the heights of A Separation, but for a filmmaker treading similar ground, his confidence is comforting and well-earned.

The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter is the directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, based on a novel by Italian author Elena Ferrante and starring Olivia Coleman. The pedigree, then, is strong, which makes it a bit of a shame that The Lost Daughter ends up feeling rather amateur, never quite reaching the sum of its impressive parts.

This isn’t to say that The Lost Daughter is a failure. In fact, its portrait of a woman alone on holiday ruminating on her relationship with her children is often successful, even if just on the strength of Coleman and Jessie Buckley’s (who plays the younger version of the same character) performances. The other actors aren’t quite as convincing when put up against those two, but then again – who could be? Gyllenhaal also clearly knows at least the way around a film set – its a more than competently made picture, although I think it struggles to ever capture the sense of place that might be expected from a film that lingers so much on shots of scenic Greek seasides.

However, the book itself seems reluctant to lend itself fully to adaptation. While the characterisation of the central character seems like it has been well translated to screen, the film lacks much forward momentum. In the end, despite all the great performances and competent direction, the film just seems to meander on at a pace that suggests activity but never really delivers.

Paris, 13th District

Paris, 13th District, is the new film by French director Jacques Audiard. Although based on a series of graphic novels by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, this film is about as French as you can imagine. Shot in black and white? Check. Lots of explicit sex scenes? Check. Great soundtrack? Check.

If that feels cruel, it is – Paris, 13th District is generally enjoyable and well-made. The film has two main plotlines – one centring around a man called Camille and his on-again, off-again sexual relationship with flatmate Emilie, and another concerning Camille’s colleague Nora, and her discovery of a cam-girl who looks just like her.

The problem with the film is that Camille just isn’t all that interesting, but too much time is spent on him. The film could ostensibly claim to be about modern relationships; commentary on dating apps and the propensity of “fuck first, ask later” attitudes are interesting when applied to Emilie’s plotline, and Nora’s burgeoning affair with her online doppelgänger is the most immediately interesting of the bunch, but because so much screentime is eaten up by Camille, there just isn’t ever enough time to dive deep into the inner worlds of these women.

Basically, this means that although Paris, 13th District has its moments (and it does, to be fair, have lots of really great moments), it never quite reaches above a kind of fun, mellow relationship drama. It makes for enjoyable viewing, but you can’t help long for a shot of colour into these slightly monochromatic characters.

Drive My Car

Another film based on something literary (here a short story by famous Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami), Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a daunting three hour long naturalist piece of cinema – but don’t be put off, it’s an incredibly compelling watch.

Drive My Car focuses on a theatre actor/director, Yusuke Kafuku, who is staging a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, following a tragedy in his life. Kafuku travels to Hiroshima, where he is assigned a young driver who, despite being initially quiet, slowly starts to strike a bond with Kafuku. For a film with a three hour runtime, Hamaguchi’s Cannes winning screenplay seems initially uneventful, but Hamaguchi’s style makes every small interaction between characters seem unmissable.

There are a few moments where Hamaguchi seems to be beholden to the story he based his film on – Murakami’s surrealism doesn’t always fit with Hamaguchi’s naturalist style. But generally Hamaguchi manages to draw out the most interesting bits from Murakami’s original. In particular, the play of Uncle Vanya and Kafuku’s unusual production of it is brilliantly interwoven into the narrative, casting striking but not over-emphasised parallels with Kafuku’s emotional journey.

Most importantly, Drive My Car is the closest I came to tears during the festival’s screenings – its understated approach and incredible performances accelerate slowly until you find yourself hit by the full power of Chekov’s finest, staged by one of Japan’s best current filmmakers.

Petite Maman

Celine Sciamma’s follow up to her hugely acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems like a bit of a scale-back. Petite Maman is a… petite 72 minutes long. It feels like it too, more of a little snack of a film than a full meal. But I’ve always been a fan of cinematic brevity, and Petite Maman is a great example of why shorter runtimes can often lead to less diluted emotion.

Centring on a young girl Nelly who is taken by her parents to clean the house of her recently deceased grandmother. While there, she strikes up a friendship with another girl she meets in the forest by her grandmother’s house. Saying any more would spoil the often unexpected turns Sciamma’s film takes, but with its runtime and mellow mood, the film is incredibly easy to recommend.

Perhaps because of its light running time or because of its child eye view, the film lacks the big emotional punches of Portrait. But what it lacks in that, it makes up for in an almost Ghibli-esque interplay of light heartedness and grief (in fact, the plot ends up mirroring a certain Ghibli film). In short, it’s an impressive feat of pared back filmmaking that makes a strong case for being worth your time – especially when that isn’t long anyway.

Benedetta

My time at LFF closed with Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, based on the life of Benedetta Carlini, who lived in 1600s Italy. Best known for claiming to have received the stigmata and later for her sexual relationship with one of her nuns, this is a story that could have been played with some respect, examining the relationship between religion, power, gender and sexuality. However, this is none of that. Instead, Verhoeven’s film is a farcical, sexual mess of a film that buries its often interesting ideas and themes in layers of unfunny comedy and uninteresting sexuality.

There are things to commend about Benedetta. The title character herself is written in a slightly unexpected way, more egotistical and commanding than might be expected from a woman in her situation at the time. The film’s moments of commentary on the transactional nature of the Catholic Church are also often funny and insightful and give an honest look at the control that the Church had over people at the time.

The problem is with everything else. Verhoeven’s sex scenes, which actually take up less space in the film than advertised, are leery and detailed, but often without even being that erotic. It might then be a good thing that the film isn’t so explicitly focused on Bendetta’s sex life, but none of the other elements are good enough to replace it. Some elements, such as Benedetta’s visions of Jesus, are so bad they often veer unintentionally into comedy.

All in all, Benedetta was an uneven way to end the festival, but maybe that’s apt. After all, one of the joys of seeing all these films is not just admiring the very best, but learning from the very worst.

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