Hey there, Nathan here! I’m fresh back from my first experience of London Film Festival, an annual celebration of all things film that gives us UK cinephiles our very first look at award season releases and beyond; with everything from beloved filmmakers and the hottest new talent featured across the 11-day festival, there’s something here for everyone and I’ll do my very best to help you find it!
I’ll be covering the festival for Perks of Being Nath, Film Inquiry and, of course, Movie Corner, meaning that there is a plethora of content on the horizon and we hope to keep you with us every step of the way! We’ve decided to break it down, so I shall be compiling mini-reviews for each of the festival films I’m lucky enough to see, with a fuller discussion of a handful perhaps coming closer to the film’s general release date. Without further ado, these are the films I had the pleasure of seeing across Thursday 11th, Friday 12th and Saturday 13th October:
Widows (dir. Steve McQueen)
“Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.”
Breathlessly compelling and nerve-shreddingly intense, Steve McQueen’s Widows is a shatteringly great heist-thriller bound to enrapture audiences along for the mission. In arguably his most accessible, mainstream film to date, McQueen keeps us perched on the edge of our seats for the entire duration – but that doesn’t mean he relaxes in the way he so deftly infuses subtext and agency into his work.
With a towering ensemble at his disposal, and Gillian Flynn’s – my favourite female writer working today – thunderous writing in tow, McQueen crafts a heist-thriller very much rooted in the here and now. Although you may be required to suspend your disbelief throughout the narrative’s relentless twists and turns, almost every development is sharply palpable, best experience in a crowded performance venue. It’s a little more formulaic than you may be expecting but McQueen brings his filmmaking sensibilities to fold, enriching the story with a real sense of place and female empowerment which will help set it apart within the crowded genre.
Viola Davis is as powerful as ever in her ferociously enthralling lead performance, bringing complexity and depth to the role, while Elizabeth Debicki is another of the film’s standouts, fantastically straddling a dramatic intensity with a sprinkling of humour that she so consistently nails. Daniel Kaluuya is terrifying as a henchman but would benefit from more screen time in order to clearly define and separate his character from the wider archetypes. Cynthia Ervio is a bolt of energy who profits from being introduced later in the tale, while Michelle Rodriguez proves that she’s more than the Furious franchise that shot her to stardom. This starry ensemble may very well be the year’s strongest.
Widows manages to feel like old-school filmmaking but it is fantastically contemporary in its themes and refreshing female angle. The 130-minute runtime flashes by in a brilliantly-suspenseful blast of adrenaline that will take some beating amongst the genre’s further endeavours. Steve McQueen’s breakout in the multiplex serves him well without dulling his artistic sensibilities; this barn-burning release puts him and his tremendous cast front and centre – and given the pedigree cast and talents on display, it may be The Academy’s mainstream pick moving into award season.
Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland)
“Colette is pushed by her husband to write novels under his name. Upon their success, she fights to make her talents known, challenging gender norms.”
Colette has been a film 17 years in the making but it couldn’t have arrived at a more suitable time. The film’s extensive production process may have actually worked in the film’s best interest; released in the spotlight of #MeToo and Time’s Up, Wash Westmoreland’s period biopic based upon the life of French novelist Colette is enriched with a timeliness and relevance that may not have been so pronounced had it seen the light of day when the script was first drafted in 2001.
Bolstered by a charming performance that matches the boldness of the novelist herself, Keira Knightley shines particularly when Colette snarks and bites with an acidic tongue typically uncommon woman of the 19th Century. Of course, some marvellous frocks and production design help enhance the period but the vigour of Knightley’s performance is never lost in the film’s aesthetical flair, perfectly balanced to showcase the strength of Colette as well as a nailed-down humour that is so well-handled. Similarly, Dominic West goes to town, crafting a purposely theatrical performance that seeks to emphasise the script’s discussion of gender, with a screenplay that makes no qualms for its sensuality.
However, and quite crushingly, Colette is structurally scattered and tonally uncertain at times, dragging its heels on more than a few occasions; the transition from the second act into the third is particularly troublesome and unnecessarily padded out with a familiar sense of melodrama that underwrites the bolder, more pertinent elements of the script. For such a beautifully complex and powerful woman, Colette The Film’s execution becomes disappointingly tedious and you find yourself slipping from its grasp the more it ticks on.
A great 90-minute feature exists here – it’s just a shame the film is in no rush to hurry along. At its strongest when it’s playfully teasing and indulgently camp, Colette’s powerful musings on gender, sensuality and sexuality are weakened by such sluggish pacing and melodrama that undercuts the strength of the screenplay’s thematic power and potency.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
“Follows the story of two trail bosses on the Oregon Trail and a woman on the wagon train who needs the help of one of them and who might be a marriage prospect for the other.”
Conceived as a Netflix series but turned into a film anthology along the way, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Western-inspired The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of short stories which suffers the same problems as almost every other example of its form; it’s terribly uneven. When it works, it’s excellent, a rip-roaringly enjoyable collection that is enlivened by the Coen Brothers’ visually splendid and ambitious direction. But when the weaker patches rear their disappoint head, it weighs the entire piece down, formulating an unbalanced experience held back by its own pacing.
Opening with the titular chapter, Ballad delivers a barn-storming, crowd-pleasing piece packed with music and laughs that plays like a pure gangbuster, a sheer masterclass in caustic wit that so excellently riffs on and off the wider genre. With the written jokes as sharp and effective as the visual gags, it packs in a laugh-a-minute and nails the quirky tone and identity within the first seconds. Showcasing the Coens at their utter best, and with an exceptionally hilarious performance from Tim Blake Nelson, you find yourself wanting to spend the entire runtime in this faction of the story, marinating in the joy of Buster Scruggs’ sharp-shooting songster. While not quite at the same level, the next instalment, “Near Algodones“, continues the momentum and maintains the tone, with a satisfying instalment so very effectively edited and performed by James Franco.
Unfortunately, though, it all appears to be a misdirection in hindsight; from this point forward, nothing else achieves the same delirious joy of this opening third, made all the more troubling by piecing them together in the post-production stage. “Meal Ticket” spends far too long saying far too little, wasting the talents of Liam Neeson and Harry Melling with a wearisome chapter that never springs to life. Similarly, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” overstays its welcome despite the best efforts of its cast, ending on a powerful note the proceeding thirty minutes fail to earn.
“All Gold Canyon” succeeds where “Meal Ticket” fails, finding something thematic depth amongst the darker, more reflective material, bolstered by a sturdy performance from Tom Waits. It seems puzzling to end on “The Mortal Remains”, an atmospheric, gothic slice that seems almost too claustrophobic to wring the most out of its set-up, despite an assembly to eclectic characters and performances to do the heavy lifting.
So it’s a decidedly mixed bag, and although the positioning of those first two tales in quick succession is troubling, there’s enough here to be entertained by. Two great, two good and two underwhelming chapters is.. a pretty good ratio in all honesty. Coen’s anthology piece for Netflix is a bumpy ride but with creators as strong as this, there’s enough to appreciate even when you’re being yanked through the duller parts.
Sorry To Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
“In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed”
Boots Riley’s directorial debut won over the US audiences over the summer but the rapper-turned-director openly struggled to secure international distribution rights; Focus Features swept in to let foreign markets in on the surprise. I honestly wish they hadn’t bothered.
Riley’s Sorry script has been kicking around since 2012 and it would appear that in those six years, ideas have been stacked up and been thrown in the mix. While an attempt has probably been made, watching the final product makes it seem otherwise; it is perhaps the messiest, and most frustrating screenplay of the year. Disparate narrative threads hang loosely and thematic concepts are completely overbearing in their execution but undercooked in their development; Riley starts so many sentences but actually finishes few (if any), deeply exasperating in its incoherence.
Even as early as its second act, it’s losing the once-refreshing humour, scathing socio-political focus and infectious quirkiness the film promised. As more overt absurdity creeps in, it begins to signal the ‘make or break’ point: it’s where you’re either fully on board, invested in the bizarre concoction, or entirely repelled from it; unfortunately, it was about the mid-point where we fell out. Lakeith Stanfield commits and Tessa Thomspon is as solid as she can be with a poorly-defined character; ‘radical feminist’ doesn’t make a character and the film needed to explore her drive and agency beyond that associated with Cassius for us to fully understand and appreciate her as an individual – as it stands, she’s just an emblem of different opinions. Armie Hammer is a scene-stealer and briefly enlivens a third act that lost me as the seconds ticked on.
Less is very often more and while it’s admirable that Riley seeks to make such an indelible mark in his debut outing as writer-director, that’s where my compliments cease. With Sorry To Bother You, he’s trying to build a complex house of cards on quicksand; the more he throws on to the pile, the more it swallows his entire film up, resulting in a sloppily scattershot first outing that suffers for the director’s inability to restrain himself and his ideas.
At least I’ve found this year’s ‘everyone but Nathan loves this film’.
Green Book (dir. Peter Farrelly)
“A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.”
Screened at the Festival as this year’s Surprise Film, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is perhaps the most crowd-pleasing, heartwarming film to be found in this year’s line-up. A completely charming, loveable journey that superbly balances a breezy humour with more weighty theme work, it is the biggest surprise of this year’s festival thus far – and not just because we didn’t know what it was going in.
Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie co-write the script with Nick Vallelonga – the real-life son of one of the two protagonists – who help enrich the script by supplying the letters sent by his father, Tony Lip Vallelonga. It clearly adds authenticity to this true-life story and it helps craft a more genuine experience. In one breath laugh-out-loud hilarious and in the next emotionally poignant, Green Book handles the difficult subject matter with sensitivity, carrying so much heart through every minute of the (literal and metaphorical) journey. You will be hard pressed not to be swept up in this delightful tale.
With two stellar performances at its heart, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali form a complex and compelling dynamic that delves into perception and understanding with genuine empathy; it’s a case of two polar opposites coming to reconcile their difference – it’s far from the most inventive thing narratively but it is so superbly executed that you can easily overlook how closely it sticks to the wider formula. Every now and then, the tonal whiplash can become too jarring and its treatment of racism is disappointingly shallow, but – and in no way trying to excuse it for these flaws – it’s well-meaning. It seeks to emphasise the unbelievable hypocrisies of the era but seems reluctant to condemn Tony for a similar outlook not too earlier in the narrative.
Still, with Mortensen delivering a sharp, transformative turn and Ali bringing a real nuance and careful consideration to his performance as Don Shirley, their characters are more layered individuals with flaws, secrets and agency of their own. In spite of the minor flaws, Green Book is a rich, entertaining and frequently powerful piece bound to be embraced by audiences when its release comes. A real, unexpected triumph.
Beautiful Boy (dir. Felix van Groeningen)
“Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.”
Beautiful Boy is a film seemingly tailor-made for award season. Told through the eyes of David Sheff, who watches son Nic struggle with a meth addiction, it is based on the autobiographies of both and seeks to win the hearts (and wet the hankies) of audiences this Autumn.
A drug addict’s spiral into self-destruction is far from the easiest thing to adapt for the screen, given the seemingly endless cycle that plagues their lives; the often repetitive nature of such an addiction could result in a film that wanders along aimlessly but in thanks to the heartfelt emotion running through the very core of the piece, it’s a largely successful endeavour. It’s sincere and it’s thoughtful, documenting the impact such a disease can have, not only the individual but their loved ones too.
Timothee Chalamet follows up his previous Oscar-nominated effort in Call Me By Your Name with a likewise astonishing performance, embodying Nic Sheff with tremendous aplomb. He’s angry and frustrated, fragile and exhausted and that Chalamet balances these tones so effectively allows Beautiful Boy to shine with him as the focus. Steve Carrell is similarly impressive, showcasing a strong dramatic performance with his comedic edge interwove gently throughout; he guides the audience through the family’s pain and summons a great deal of emotion in response.
Beautiful Boy is in need of two things though, in order to become the better film you know it can be: a stronger directorial voice and style, and a tidier adapted screenplay. There’s little flair to the film visually and Felix van Groeningen’s struggles to make much of an impact personally in his first foray into the English-language; it’s rather plain, as a matter of fact, and while that may be in order to avoid potentially glamourizing the one thing it seeks to vilify, it means the film lacks a visual identity. And too, the screenplay features so many false starts, caused by the unsteady pacing that stems from the back-and-forth flashbacks, it’s not the smoothest experience.
For all its flaws though, the overwhelming tenderness and sentimentality within Beautiful Boy help to elevate a difficult-to-execute film into a truly sincere piece about an entire family suffering from the addiction one. It’s no doubt moving in nature and while the film’s more muted, subtle approach prevents it from fully registering maximum emotion, the two stellar performance interlace enough heartfelt tenderness into it that the film succeeds for the most part as a sincere father-and-son drama that will muster a few sniffles.
And those are the first few films on the agenda done and dusted. Widows and Green Book are my clear standouts thus far, and Sorry To Bother You is the only disappointment yet (I’m seriously devastated guys). With the likes of The Favourite, If Beale Street Could Talk and A Private War on the cards later this week, you can catch back up with me when my LFF journey ends this weekend.