Movie Corner at London Film Festival 2018 (Part 2)

Another 48 hours at the London Film Festival and I’m all movie-d out! Following on from part one, I’ve got another batch of capsule reviews ready for the five films I saw at LFF (as well as one for The Hate U Give which I caught at a preview screening at home but was screened as part of the festival line-up). Again, these are short and sweet insights into the upcoming releases, with more extensive thoughts coming closer to the film’s general release date.

No hanging around this time: let’s go! These are the films I saw across Thursday 18th, Friday 19th and Saturday 20th October.

Assassination Nation (dir. Sam Levinson)

After a malicious data hack exposes the secrets of the perpetually American town of Salem, chaos descends and four girls must fight to survive while coping with the hack themselves.”

As subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull but probably more bloody, Assassination Nation does nothing by halves. It is an extremely violent, overtly stylised and punchy piece of filmmaking that sets the tone early on, notably with the longest list of triggers warnings you have ever seen. Subtle does not enter into its vocabulary and – for better or worse – it ensures that you don’t forget it in a hurry.

The Salem Witch Trials are repositioned for the 21st century and with endless musings on the social media age that places style over substance, it’s ironic that Sam Levinson’s concoction suffers from that very sentiment. His script has fingers in every pie, exploring a barrage of current socio-political concerns plaguing our world; it so ambitiously tackles the likes of toxic masculinity, hot LGBT+ issues and the sexualisation of (female) nudity without giving any of them the full scope to breathe or develop. His direction is bold and merciless, landing every punch and hit with force, enhanced by some popping visuals and iconography that pushes the heavily satirical elements of the movie to the absolute max.

With a handful of ferocious performances bolstering the chaos – particularly during that third act where it begins to fly too far off the rails – Hari Neg and Odessa Young (in particular) shine as two of the young women caught up in the metaphorical hangings. They each represent a different thematic facet; they are symbols of the digital age but individuals in their own right, easy to root for despite their blemishes. In that sense, they’re well-sketched, flawed female characters all too recognisable despite the heightened screen depiction.

Frequently hilarious and relentlessly bold in its visuals, Assassination Nation pushes the knife and gleefully twists as the minutes pass by, placing every social issue under the sun in its sights. While no doubt sloppy and frequently overwhelming to a fault, Assassination Nation has a lot on its mind and I would rather a film try and struggle than simply not try at all. It brazenly shakes you, sometimes through sheer force of will, and is desperate for your full attention; during a time as fraught as these, sometimes engaging is the most important thing we can do.

If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)

A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.”

With such ravishing visuals, mostly terrific performances and luscious direction, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film worth speaking about. Writer-director Barry Jenkins follows up the Oscar-winning Moonlight with a similarly tender, powerful and measured piece of filmmaking, adapting James Baldwin’s novel of the same name for the screen.

Like a finely-tuned orchestra, Beale Street is a richly-textured and superbly-crafted film that operates as a beautiful harmony across the film. Understated and considered, with the most stirring sense of poignancy, it immerses you in an era – nay, a feeling – that is so dashingly compelling and fulfilling that you cannot help but be enraptured with the experience. Alongside an utterly stunning score from Nicholas Britell and extraordinary cinematography from James Laxton, pouring such captivating detail and enhancing emotion from every single frame, Beale Street is quite the cinematic treasure.

Stephan James and Regina King are mightily impressive, rendering a great deal of anguish and frustration into their characters; they each intensify the script’s themes effectively, exploring the segregation and judgement of the era with complexity and dynamism, driving the film’s messages. It takes a while to warm to KiKi Layne’s lead performance in all honesty – even exiting the theatre, I remained unsure on how to take to her purposely restrained turn – but you come to appreciate the rawness of her work, subtleties, nuance and all. She forms a chemistry that crackles with James and the pair are utterly convincing as lovers in a harsh time.

If there’s one element that weakens Beale Street though, then it is the adapted screenplay itself; reminiscent of 2016’s Fences, this is clearly a piece of art that once belonged to another form. From the lovely but sometimes overly poetic and flowery dialogue to the elongated pauses punctuated throughout conversations, there is something stilted in the line delivery, the language diluting its effectiveness. Its urgent, potent subject matter and thematic material never quite aligns with the subtler, muted approach to the sometimes oversimplified story which, layered with voiceovers, can feel strained at times. It is perhaps a feature that will be rewarded with a second viewing but it is something that held me back from falling completely under Beale Street’s spell nevertheless.

But even despite these minor setbacks, Jenkins proves that Moonlight wasn’t a one-off and his rich, compelling cinematic voice turns Beale Street into a worthy follow-up and something we should continue to marvel at. Perhaps he’s a strong director than he is a writer here but in only his second feature to date, he asserts himself as one of the most talented, accomplished artists of his generation.

The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.”

Extraordinary performances from the trifecta of women at its heart. A director still permitted to flex his distinct eccentricities in a decidedly more accessible feature. A true-life story, no doubt heightened, but twisty and compelling in its original makeup. It’s The Favourite, a wickedly delightful and purely delectable slice of royal farce.

With a sharp and witty screenplay playing it period but rooted in timely themes and subtext, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay has director Yorgos Lanthimos‘ eclectic, humorous flourishes transmitting through its very veins. It constructs complex characters with an alluring dynamic that is simply so fascinating to watch unfold; their relationships are completely riveting, remarkably absurd but oh so convincing.

Manipulation, deceit and skullduggery are all afoot and Lanthimos ensures we relish in the drama. His direction is similarly impressive, reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s for Phantom Thread, with an immaculate score from an array of classic and modern composers to boot and intensify. With gorgeous wide shots lusting over every inch of the exquisite locations and sets, it is packed with astonishing detail; the costumes are magnificent, the lighting is naturally stunning and the cinematography is striking, edited to perfection. It is superlative work from every single department.

But perhaps no more than those in front of the camera. Seriously, can we create an extra category at the Academy so Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz all get the celebratory coronation they deserve? All sensational, as capable in landing the dramatic punches as they are in erupting with humour and piercing with devilish stares, Colman, Stone and Weisz are extraordinary in this power play of epic proportions and to single anyone out would be unjust. Is this the best trio of women to grace our screen? Very probably! It’s a true ensemble effort and the three women are generous with their performances, all given their moment to shine while magnifying the other’s work when they take a step back.

The Favourite is a completely captivating, engrossing play from Lanthimos who, thankfully, never loses his signature brilliance in the drive to play it somewhat more mainstream. Colman, Stone and Weisz are deserving of the highest of plaudits for their work here. It is a defining, crowning glory.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller)

“When Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception. An adaptation of the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of best-selling celebrity biographer Lee Israel”

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a deep, deft and melancholy exploration of loneliness, identity and art, with a scorching caustic wit and sense of warmth beneath the often dark, sorrowful surface. A genuinely touching yet aching piece of times, Marielle Heller’s second feature excels in making the audience feel sympathetic towards an otherwise unlikeable character: an extraordinary feat that few filmmakers could achieve, nevermind accomplish so confidently, so early on into a director’s career.

Melissa McCarthy, as you’ve never seen her before, gives arguably her best dramatic performance; she’s ferocious, vulnerable and, of course, funny. She’s sensitively constructed, brilliantly textured and with a performer as magnetic as McCarthy at the helm, you feel Lee’s every setback, rise and defeat. To imbue such heartfelt compassion into such a complex, difficult woman takes expert precision and emotion, something McCarthy achieves almost instantly. It’s an utterly compelling turn from McCarthy and – for my money – worthy of that Best Actress accolade next year. Richard E. Grant is ravishing too in a supporting capacity, brilliantly playful but able to convince in those heavier moments; Forgive Me’s closing moments are the most touching moment in a film this year, perfect in its execution.

Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay adapted from the memoirs of the late Lee Israel is oozing with feeling. Not only is Israel one of the most intriguing characters to be seen on our screens in quite some time, beautifully rendered as a complex and challenging individual, but the film’s examination of loneliness and detachment is some of the most accomplished musings of such thematics in a while. Enriched by such characterful direction from Heller, who captures the idiosyncrasies of an autumnal New York in the mid-1990s so achingly, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a piece that succeeds on every single level: a profoundly affecting cinematic experience.

I’ve fallen completely in love with Can You Ever Forgive Me?. My festival favourite, for sure.

A Private War (dir. Matthew Heineman)

“One of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, Marie Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontline of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless”

Marie Colvin’s rather extraordinary life is the latest to undergo the biopic treatment and the outcome is Matthew Heineman’s A Private War: a harrowing and powerful but sometimes awkward retelling elevated by a gutsy, ferociously compelling lead performance.

Rosamund Pike startles once more, fully embodying Colvin in this timely examination of her life; her spirit, mannerisms and voice are captured note perfectly and anguish pours from Pike’s performance to brilliantly illustrate the impacts that a life as a war correspondent on the front line has had on Colvin’s psyche and personal life. It’s a mightily impressive, textured turn from Pike who proves (to anyone foolish enough to still have reservations) that she is one of Britain’s very finest; may this signal te Rosamund Renaissance, because she really is that good.

It’s not difficult to imagine A Private War struggling without the immense dramatic palpitation of that lead performance. The script perhaps oversimplifies Colvin’s life, measured by major conflicts and milestones rather than giving us the life behind the reporter – but with a career as full as hers, it is understandable to focus on that element. It never fully escapes the inevitability of the story, undercutting some of the tension at times but Heineman illuminates the harsh, horrifying environment and events effectively, with his straightforward direction more than content with placing Colvin at the very heart of all it does.

At a time where journalism is needed more than ever, A Private War arrives at an important moment in history and Colvin’s life and career becomes an ode to the fight for truth. Heineman’s admiration towards his subject matter is felt across the film and despite a couple of missteps and rougher patches in the screenplay’s execution, it is a film that has stayed with me. It is powerful, poignant filmmaking.

The Hate U Give (dir. George Tillman, Jr)

“Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Now, facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and stand up for what’s right.”

It’s impossible to leave The Hate U Give without experiencing an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration; after all, we are dealing with perhaps the most urgent issue currently crippling America – and wider still, the world: the mistreatment of African Americans (and other minorities) by someone or something in a position of authority. It’s vital, scorching, unignorable stuff and the film operates as a powerful, rallying call to arms.

It also makes the film’s cheesiness a little perplexing. When it’s powerful, it lands its punches with force and intensity – but then sentimentality creeps in and dilutes the film’s empowering messages. It’s predictable, not only a horrendous sign of the time but an example of genre conventions and filmmaking formulas coming into play a little too wearily than a story like this deserves. Its screenplay stirs as potently as needed but whether the tonal balance is as secure is another question; it falls into the habit of delivering a raw and authentic scene – like the more intimate family sequences and a particularly powerful conversation between Starr and her uncle – followed by some of the more needlessly padded and monotonous sequences, namely the business with Starr’s white, blonde friend: sure, exploring the way the more privileged treat these issues is interesting but there’s a sense of fatigue throughout this particularly sluggish subplot. It’s almost shackled to its Young Adult sub-genre roots.

With performances as provoking as these though, The Hate U Give maintains its relevancy throughout. Amandla Stenberg is thunderous as our lead protagonist, quietly reflective and ferociously compelling in equal bursts; she’s often struggled to find film roles worthy of her talent but this cements her as a brilliant artist more deserving of the content she’s dabbled with since her star-making role as Rue in The Hunger Games. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby are similarly impressive and impactful in a supporting capacity, with their roles enhancing the family angle that remains so compelling and heartfelt throughout.

The Hate U Give is urgent, blistering filmmaking but bounding it to its YA roots as a means to be consumed by a mainstream audience hinders the execution of the story. Even still, it’s undeniably powerful and stirs a balance of anger and hope by the time the credits roll over two hours later, bolstered mainly by its terrific cast.

LFF 2018 is over and I’m pretty devastated. It’s been a completely wonderful opportunity and to be in such an inspiring environment, with (mainly) great movies and some excellent company has been a dream come true of sorts. I have so much to catch up on but so much to look forward to. Thanks so much to the Movie Corner team for allowing me to represent you at this year’s festival and I hope I haven’t destroyed the name too much!

Here’s to the next one, right?

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