Film discussion

London Film Festival: Screeners round up

At this year’s iteration of the London Film Festival, I managed to view a total of 37 films within the space of 12 days, and despite that objectively being way too many goddamn films to watch within that span of time, it still wasn’t anywhere near as many as I was hoping to witness.

Largely, that’s down to the issue of schedule clashes, where certain films that I wanted to view ended up screening at the same time as other films I wanted to see just a little bit more, and sacrifices resultantly had to be made. Prior to the Festival, in both years that I’ve done it, I have even created a detailed spreadsheet of each of the screening blocks, the films featured that I was at least semi-curious about seeing, and resultant clashes and potential back-ups should I get shut out of my primary choice for whatever reason!  It’s all very organised and shit!

Fortunately, though, us Press & Industry folks get a bonus little perk that enables us a second (or third if we also couldn’t make the public screenings) chance to catch a film that we had to skip: the Digital Press Library.  This is basically exactly what it sounds like on the tin, an online hub, only accessible to accredited Press & Industry delegates, where we can watch digitally-uploaded screeners of films playing at the Festival.

The selection is primarily composed of the lower-deck in terms of name recognition, and they’re gated off for different members – hence why I can’t lord a second viewing of Brawl in Cell Block 99 over Owen’s jealous head – but they are a lifesaver for those of us with ravenous appetites for films on the Festival menu. So, in this article, we’re going to have a look at just a few of the more noteworthy ones that I managed to view over the past fortnight.

One of the more confounding parts of the Festival this year was just how many of the films being featured in the line-up had UK release dates rather close to their Festival showings.  11 of the films I saw at the Festival get UK releases this year, and several received actual cinema releases whilst the Festival was still going on!  That last part was the most bizarre to me, especially since there are still films that I saw at the Festival last year without UK release dates!  Still, that at least meant I could hold off on Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (1/5) until I got home, instead putting that screening block entry to better use.

That is both a statement of fact – why waste a screening block on a film that I’m going to be able to see before the year is out and aren’t fanatically excited about – and a nice stealth burn, because The Meyerowitz Stories is yet another maddeningly awful Baumbach film.  I liked it more than his pair of 2015 features, the “Millennials are THE WORST” midlife crisis-screed of While We’re Young and “The Teeth-Nashing Exploits of The Worst People in New York City” more commonly known as Mistress America, but Meyerowitz is still like nails on a fucking chalkboard to me.

My problem with Baumbach’s films is that they aren’t so much critiques of the horrible, self-involved, upper-middle class twat-baskets that they’re centred around so much as embodiments of them.  It’s like how I despise The Breakfast Club, a film that turns out to be Judd Nelson’s Bender: this smug, self-satisfied, slut-shaming, homophobic, performatively-macho, insincere assault on my nerves. It’s too in love with the personality at its centre to do or say or critique anything. That’s what I find Baumbach’s films to be and it’s followed through to Meyerowitz like the demon from It Follows.

Our central cast is yet another dysfunctional, borderline-toxic upper-middle class family living in New York City, gravitating around mediocre former-artist and shitty father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and how he’s been playing off his children.  There’s eldest son Danny (Adam Sandler), a failed musician with a bad limp going through a divorce and with a devoted daughter (Grace van Patten) going off to Film School, Matthew (Ben Stiller), the only successful one of the clan who’s taken up a career in business rather than the arts, and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who, just like every other woman in especially bad Baumbach movies, is kind of just there.  For almost 2 hours, we get to watch these people be awful to one another, random strangers, and themselves whilst moaning about shit of no consequence.  Yay.

I’m being glib, I realise, but that’s only because this is territory – that of toxic families who manipulate each other into believing that all members need to live down in the muck with the rest of them and can never be left alone, of upper-middle class sociopathy and self-involvement, and of failed artists worrying about their non-existent legacies – that has been mined by literally thousands of writers, directors, and writer-directors over the years, most far better than this.

Hell, Baumbach himself has done so better before, in lone career highlight Frances Ha, and Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, which I saw at the Festival, is pretty much the not-crap version of The Meyerowitz Stories!  Perry at least remembers to take his awful cast down a peg or twelve instead of becoming weirdly rhapsodic about them and expecting the audience to feel the same way about a bunch of gaslighting, emotionally abusive twits incapable of holding a conversation about anything other than themselves – literally in the case of Harold, especially after he meets Sigourney Weaver at an exhibition for 20 seconds and cannot stop bringing this non-story up.

Perry also understands how to extract humour and legitimate wit from dialogue, which Baumbach proves himself to be utterly clueless about here. Instead, much like in Sally Potter’s excretable The Party (which also played at the Festival), he equates “sheer verbiage” with “caustic wit” and the results are absolutely insufferable; akin to being trapped in an especially slow-moving elevator with a snobby try-hard artiste who fills all of the remaining space with his directionless ramblings and just will not shut the fuck up.

Meyerowitz is ghastly overwritten, words just dribbling voraciously out of this incredibly stacked cast’s mouths with absolutely no rhyme or reason, so much so that even when something approximating a joke does finally arrive – I chuckled exactly 3 times during this 112 minute ordeal, and I savoured each one like a man trapped in a never-ending desert does the water from an oasis – its impact is dulled due to the ineptitude of its construction.  Sure, it’s befitting the characters we’re having to spend time in the company of, but “it’s supposed to be bad/annoying, that’s the point!” doesn’t magically absolve a work of its sins because, surprise, you’ve still made something bad/annoying!  It’s not commentary because you’re just reflecting the point you’re making back onto yourself!

Look, I want to like Noah Baumbach. I really do!  Even if I found myself yelling at the TV for the film to just end al-goddamn-ready in the last 20 minutes, there are still bright spots in The Meyerowitz Stories; namely those 3 chuckles and the performances, which are all objectively very strong even if they’re being spent on characters scientifically-engineered to get on my tits.  But all of his films (that I’ve seen) bar Frances Ha have just left me angry, being so utterly charmless and exasperating, in thrall to the most insufferable human beings to ever exist.

This also only makes me even more curious as to why Frances Ha is the exception for me, particularly since this isn’t a “it’s his best, comparatively speaking” case because I genuinely love Frances Ha.  My main takeaway from The Meyerowitz Stories, besides being glad that I’ll never have to see it again, is that I need Lady Bird to come out in the UK a lot sooner than next February, so I can get an answer to this conundrum and find out whether Mistress America was just a rare bad-Gerwig-anomaly or not.

Whilst I sadly still was unable to get ahold of Beach Rats – a casualty of the scheduling pile-up that led to my viewing of Manifesto, because I make very smart life choices – I was able to catch another one of the films that fell to the lure of 12 Cate Blanchett’s, and, unlike Tonsler Park and Manifesto, this one was actually good!

Tiger Girl (4/5), the latest from Jakob Lass of Love Steaks fame, is a riotous little movie that surprisingly acts as a lower-class German counterpart to one of my favourite films of the Festival, Cory Finlay’s Thoroughbreds, albeit more conventional than Finlay’s off-kilter brilliance.  In it we follow Maggie (Maria-Victoria Dragus), a passive and meek-as-hell young woman introduced hilariously failing her police academy entrance exam, and being forced to spend the next 6 months going through security academy until she can try again.  Maggie is a perpetual victim, being railroaded into relationships with other guys, blankly taking jabs and insults from so-called friends, and, in that ultimately display of a doormat relationship with the universe, even being cut off from a parking space by a woman in a giant SUV who insists on taking up two spaces instead of one.

Maggie, however, soon starts being saved from these situations by Tiger (Ella Rumpf, looking and acting like the off-spring of Kristen Stewart and Kate McKinnon), a guardian angel of sorts who keeps showing up at the exact moment Maggie needs help before disappearing off into the night.  Despite how that may sound, though, Tiger is a very real person and Maggie finds herself drawn ever more to her as time marches on.  Tiger is everything that Maggie is not: cool, rebellious, uninhibited, assertive, and delightfully anti-authoritarian.  She seems to fancy herself a vigilante, karate-kicking her way through would-be rapists and hypocritical jerks that “have it coming,” and which she soon drags Maggie along to, particularly after Maggie’s training provides her with a pair of official-looking security jackets that allow the pair to carry an air of authority to their directionless lashings out at society and quests for trouble.

It’s a tale of a good girl gone bad, going from uptight to mayhem whilst her would-be mentor starts to question the state of her own life, the acquaintances that are crossing lines that stop her life from being fun, and the protégé that relishes way too much in beatings both doled out and taken.  This means that Tiger Girl’s inevitable turn towards drama in the last half-hour doesn’t end up working anywhere near as much as the bad-taste fun of the prior 60 minutes – partially because it’s just too disappointingly pat and done-to-death, partially because the film is surprisingly uncertain as to whether we’re supposed to be judging Maggie (now rechristened Vanilla the Killer by Tiger after she pathetically throws a baseball bat at an attacker’s head that nonetheless knocks him out cold) for going off the deep-end or not (since the object of her rampage honestly did have it coming), and partially because the film is decidedly uninterested in making anything resembling a point at all.

But, like I said, Tiger Girl is a lot of bad-taste fun.  Tiger and Maggie are a really entertaining pair of characters who may not exactly be likeable in the traditional sense but are a lot of fun to be in the presence of, particularly since their friendship is palpably genuine, helped along by charismatic near-star-making performances from Rumpf and Dragus.  Lass, for his part, has put together a propulsive film that’s stripped out almost any downtime – almost literally, too, since there’s barely a dialogue exchange that isn’t jump-cut to hell and back – yet the effect works rather than causing the film to feel like a hyperactive slog.

It’s a stylish film existing in a deliberate hyper-reality that almost works as a feminist fantasy, particularly in the intentionally minimised and largely helpless roles given to the male characters that also double as gratuitous eye-candy whilst the women are largely fawned over as badasses by the camera and are the only ones capable of kicking ass, albeit one largely put together by a man’s idea of feminism.  There’s a disappointing nothing of an ending and the conventionality of the last half hour does suck some of the air out, but Tiger Girl is damn good fun and may even end up as somebodies’ new favourite film should they discover it.

At this year’s Festival, notorious Japanese director Takashi Miike celebrated 100 completed feature films across his storied career with his Blade of the Immortal receiving its UK premiere.  It’s a filmography as varied and inconsistent as it is utterly intimidating for any novice to dive into.  Whilst he still has a fair while to go before he reaches Miike’s insane prolific output, particularly since his first decade only equated to 7 completed features, South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is clearly trying his damndest to make up for lost time.

On the Beach at Night Alone (4/5) was the film that made it into the Festival selection, but it’s only the first of three features that he has directed this year, all starring Kim Min-hee (best known to Western audiences as Lady Hideko from Park Chan-wook’s maniacally brilliant The Handmaiden), and all having played at various festivals over the past year.  One of them also features Isabelle Huppert, which means that I need it in my eyeballs yesterday, but it also helps that I was quietly enthralled by On the Beach itself, it also being my first exposure to the works of Sang-soo.

Divided into two unequal parts, On the Beach centres around Young-hee (Min-hee), first seen in Hamburg lodging with a fellow South Korean-expat and their German hosts.  She’s longing for a man she knows will never come, and keeps talking herself into and out of getting over him whilst admiring the serenity of her current home.  Young-hee is a minor-level actress back in South Korea and the man she wants so badly to turn up, because he promised, but knows won’t is a famous Director who is also a married man.

Their affair made headlines across the nation and killed her career stone-dead, necessitating her flee to Hamburg.  Her heart is bruised, perhaps even broken, and her time in the country is only being spent picking away at it, like a scab too fresh to painlessly remove.  Eventually, after an unspecified time, she returns to South Korea to meet back up with her old friends, still directionless and fixated on what may have been but having curdled into something a tad more bitter.

On the Beach is deliberately aimless, sometimes too much for its own good.  It’s a mediation on heartbreak, the grieving process and the different ways that prospective support systems can help one attempt to move on, and the hypocrisy in how the media treats those involved in adultery scandals.  Young-hee’s career is effectively murdered, where she is damaged goods with a dirtied reputation that will be lucky to ever work in this town again, yet the nameless Director still has people flocking with enthusiastic glee to work on his next project, which is naturally an expy about the affair from his side, with the only damage to him being a frequently-invoked and suspiciously-bullshit-smelling claim of “stress” and great upset to his mental state.  Sang-soo shoots long, static, distant scenes that leave us at a remove from his cast whilst simultaneously causing us to feel like intruders on private thoughts that are meant to be unheard, his usage of zooms that slowly degrade in image quality in particular creating the impression of invasive eavesdropping.

But whilst On the Beach can too often feel like a collection of half-finished thoughts in need of further development, particularly in the infrequent appearances of an unacknowledged hooded man that sometimes lingers about and feels like he’s supposed to be a metaphor for something I can’t quite figure out, it’s always brought back by an absolutely phenomenal Kim Min-hee.  She is absolutely magnetic and painfully vulnerable, quiet and introspective much of the time but a constantly volatile powder-keg of unresolved emotional hurt once enough drink has been put into her.

Her words always sting, regardless, and Min-hee pours absolutely everything into Young-hee, especially in a raw climax that unspools just enough pent-up baggage to leave the situation unresolvedly ambiguous.  Is it a vitriolic kiss-off or an anguished plea?  The scene that follows it pointedly refuses to state for sure via the masterful usage of a cliché that typically cheapens dramatic stories.  So, sure, it may occasionally lose itself in its half-finished thoughts and ambiguity, but there’s something tangibly and uncomfortably real here, even before I found out that it’s largely based on Min-hee and Sang-soo’s own real-life affair.

Did you attend London Film Festival? What were your favourites? Let us know!

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