LFF 2017 Review Round-Up #1

Ava

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The first of 12 days of LFF began this Wednesday with the UK premiere of Andy Serkis’ Breathe. I didn’t see it.

That kind of film can wait: a bio-pic being released in less than a month. LFF, for me, is an exhilaratingly intense opportunity to get head of the awards season hype, and also to start buzz for some films which won’t be seeing a release until well into next year. Every two days I’ll report back on the films I’ve seen, attempting to hide the effects of my increasing rates of exhaustion ― to varying rates of success.

RUSH TO SEE…

Ava

Ava is one of the best films playing at LFF. Léa Mysius’ debut charts one summer in the life of Ava (Noée Abita), a thirteen year old who is about to become blind. Mysius explores teenage sexuality in a daring, provocative manner, capturing Ava’s summer in rich colour with bracing 35mm photography. Abita’s performance is all rough edges and youthful impulsiveness; she gives a stunningly authentic turn that matches the work of any recent child actor. You won’t find many films with more cinematic verve and self-assurance on this year’s programme.

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TRY TO SEE…

Beach Rats

Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats is not an enjoyable film. Its outlook is unrelentingly bleak ― arguably too bleak ― but the people and pressures she depicts are undeniably real. Harris Dickinson is brilliant as Brooklyn teen Frankie, who meets older men online for sex while hiding his sexuality from his hyper-masculine group of friends. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart captures Frankie’s daily life in beautiful, grainy neon. The film is repetitive, bleak and removed, despite the camera’s close proximity to Dickinson’s face. It’s a difficult watch, but an impressive one.

UK RELEASE DATE: 24th November

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Bobbi Jene

Documentarian Elvira Lind followed contemporary dancer Bobbi Jene Smith over several years as she moved from Israel back to the USA. Smith’s big move was prompted by a desire to break away from the troupe she had danced in for almost a decade and go solo, but the process challenges her romantic and personal relationships. Being an artist, Smith is as open a subject as you’ll find ― with both her body and her personal life. Lind captures her dance with beautiful simplicity, and she observes Smith with a compassionate gaze. The sense of exploitation felt in other documentaries is never present, as Smith’s own personal and revealing dances compliment the revealing nature of Lind’s documentary.

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Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete is one of Andrew Haigh’s lesser works ― but that’s no slight. With only four features under his belt, the British director has already solidified himself as a master ― Weekend being his crowning jewel. Lean on Pete is a step in a new direction. It’s his first time tackling the US, and he paints on a wider canvas than he ever has before ― both in terms of the amount of land covered by protagonist Charley (Charlie Plummer), and the size of the sweeping landscape shots that Charley traverses with his stolen racehorse Lean on Pete. A tale of homelessness that depicts tragedy after tragedy, Lean on Pete is tough-going and emotionally taxing: but that’s just as much due to the story’s hope as it is its sadness. Haigh finds less treasure in small, spontaneous moments than he has done previously, but his observations and eye for emotion within a frame are spot-on.

UK RELEASE DATE: 16th February 2018

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Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete

Mudbound

After the intimacy of Pariah, Dee Rees’ latest, most ambitious effort, Mudbound, still finds ways to get inside its characters’ heads. Six different characters narrate the film at different points. Living in post-WWII Mississippi, they are people who might otherwise stoically keep their thoughts to themselves, so Rees allows them to speak directly to us rather than to each other. The film is heavy, episodic and messy by design. Some of the more interesting characters are forgotten too often ― particularly Mary J. Blige, who is excellent but underserved. However, Rees’ eye does wonders for what could have been a standard story. She brings the film home with a powerful pay-off that finds a glimmer of hope amid despair.


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UK RELEASE DATE: 17th November

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Wonderstruck

Todd Haynes has taken a step down with Wonderstruck. Still, that’s not saying much ― when your last film was Carol there’s nowhere to go but down. However, there’s one key thing Carol had that Wonderstruck lacks: understatement. Wonderstruck writes its message on the wall from the very start and makes sure to repeat and repeat until it’s been drilled into your head: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Haynes’ craft is still very much intact, and the effect of it is swoon-worthy in the half that is styled as a black and white silent film. That section is  set in 1920s New York and centres on striking newcomer Millicent Simmonds as a young deaf girl searching for her famous actress mother (Julianne Moore). If the whole film had been about Simmonds I may have fallen for it. Unfortunately, every cut away from her to the 1970s-set half ― the half that is given the most screen time ― undermines the wordless beauty of Haynes’ silent filmmaking.

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AVOID…

Racer and the Jailbird

The dubious quality of director Michaël R. Roskam’s previous film The Drop should have been enough for me to doubt the quality of Racer and the Jailbird, but I was hooked in anyway. The dual star power of Adèle Exarchopoulos and Matthias Schoenaerts is quite a draw, but neither can do enough ― separately or together ― to save this dismal film. It’s quite a feat for a filmmaker to stamp out any heat between two such attractive and talented people, but Roskam simply does not know where to look. Overlong and dull, Racer and the Jailbird does not work as an action film, a romance, a drama, or any of the many other genres it attempts to cover in its bizarre, fluctuating narrative.

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Racer and the Jailbird

Racer and the Jailbird

Spoor

I’m tempted to recommend Agniezka Holland’s Spoor despite the fact that I did not enjoy it at all. It’s a good film on many counts, only not where it matters. Holland’s script (brilliantly performed by lead actress Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) is best when it’s being darkly funny. The film attempts to act as an environmental parable, but the narrative is too scattered to add up to anything more than simply: people are terrible, and they should try not to be. It takes long enough to get to even get there.

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Spoor

Spoor

Stronger

Stronger is good at one thing: it palpably captures the connections within communities of people, and the way that they speak to each other. The film is set in Boston, in the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombing, and vitally it captures a strong sense of place. Other than that, its depiction of bombing victim Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is stale and occasionally morally dubious. Bauman is often (understandably) irate as he adjusts to his new way of living after having his legs removed. However, in one scene when he (for the hundredth time) acts terribly to his dedicated girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany), the film cuts to footage of Jeff having his legs blown off in an attempt to absolve him. These tactics are cheap and tiresome, and negate the film’s attempts to deliver a nuanced exploration of his situation and the situation of those around him in the aftermath of a trauma.

UK RELEASE DATE: 8th December

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Stronger

Stronger

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