Thursday 12 October 2017

London Film Festival Despatch #1: Brigsby Bear, Mudbound, and How To Talk To Girls At Parties

Bear necessities: Brigsby is a warm, sensitive and very funny tale of obsession

Ratings guide:  WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

You regularly hear of professional critics sitting through five films in a single day and, god knows, I admire their stamina. In my first three days at the 61st London Film Festival I managed 11 movies and have been a gibbering husk of humanity ever since, my dreams colonised by talking bears, punk rockers and aliens, all set to a punishing musical score, courtesy of Goblin.

As I write, I'm yet to see any new movie which has truly blown my socks off in the same way Elle or Personal Shopper did last year, but a couple have certainly come close. One of those is director Dee Rees' Mudbound WWWW, a boldly ambitious and beautifully told tale of two American families – one white, one black – in the years before, during and after the Second World War. Yes, it's a period piece, but the film's meditations on white privilege and racism make it very timely.

Mudbound contains a multitude of noteworthy scenes, characters and moments but is perhaps most satisfying in its final third, when black army sergeant Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell) and white airman Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, from Unbroken) return from the conflict changed men. Dissatisfied with the lives they're expected to just pick up on the Mississippi farm where the film is mostly set, the pair bond over booze and war stories, and become friends. Of course, this is the 1940s, in the deep south, and interracial friendships are not just discouraged but violently suppressed. 

They are both fascinating, complex characters. Jamie is clearly suffering from PTSD and buries the painful memories of combat with alcohol, while Ronsel pines for the white German woman he had to leave at the end of the war, and rails against the violent prejudice he still faces on his return to the US. Mudbound is an evocative title – every character is stuck, quite literally, in the thick brown sludge of the farm both families share, but also by bad choices or poor fortune, as well as the consequences of race, gender and prejudice.

In a little over two hours, Rees covers an astonishing amount of ground and yet most of the principal characters – including those essayed by Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige – are afforded generous screen time and their own sub-plots. Despite its large cast and multiple narrators, Mudbound – based on Hillary Jordan's novel of the same name – never feels overstuffed or uneven. In fact, it is perfectly paced, with the climactic melodrama and its fallout providing scenes both memorable and horrifying.

Moreover, i
ts performances are uniformly superb (Mitchell, especially) and it would be remiss of me not to mention Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks, as hate-spewing patriarch Pappy. If there's a more chilling evocation of pure undiluted racism in modern cinema, I've yet to see it.

There will be Mud: Dee Rees serves up a powerful period drama

If cloying earnestness won you Oscars, then Wonderstruck would surely sweep the board. Todd Haynes' overlong, over-sentimental tale of two deaf children alone in New York – one in 1927, the other in 1977 – tries to say something profound about the magic of life, nature and the senses, but comes across as gloopy gong bait of the worst kind. Mercifully, the film has two saving graces. One is Millicent Simmonds, as Rose, who doesn't utter a single word but says more with a wide-eyed gaze or hurt look than the rest of Wonderstruck manages in two hours and change. The other is Haynes' penchant for period detail. The austere black and white of the scenes set in the 1920s provide a startling visual contrast with the warm, technicolour palette of the '70s, although HBO TV show The Deuce's grubbier version of that particular era feels more authentic. Haynes has given us many treasurable films over the years – not least 2014's sumptuous Carol – but Wonderstruck feels uneven and laboured. It's a rare misstep.

Little wonder: Todd Haynes' latest is a disappointment

Brigsby Bear WWW is a sort of Dogtooth for nerds, which begins with Kyle Mooney's James being freed from the couple who had kidnapped him as a baby 25 years before. James' "parents" – Mark Hamill and Jane Adams – kept him completely isolated from other people for all that time and fed him a warped version of reality to control, educate and distract him, including a fictional TV show called Brigsby Bear Adventures, with which he is completely obsessed. Finally free, he struggles to come to terms with his new family and life, especially as it means a future without his beloved Brigsby. Produced by The Lonely Island crew – including Andy Samberg – and directed by Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live), Brigsby is an unexpected joy from beginning to end. A charming, funny celebration of obsession, and one of the year's most unusual coming-of-age tales, it also tackles notions of "putting aside childish things", and the fear of change, with great sensitivity and warmth. The incredible care and invention that has clearly gone into creating Brigsby's fictional universe is perhaps most impressive of all though.

Magnificent obsession: James (Kyle Mooney) can't leave Brigsby behind

Josh and Benny Safdie follow up 2014's ferocious Heaven Knows What with Good Time WWW, a fast-paced, '70s-influenced heist flick with rather more going on under the bonnet than it first appears. Robert Pattinson is Connie, a reckless criminal who brow-beats his mentally-impaired brother Nick (Benny Safdie) into joining him in a bank robbery. As is the tradition, the clumsy hold-up goes wrong and Nick is quickly arrested and imprisoned. On the run and growing ever more desperate, Connie plots to break him out. There are ingenious thrills and spills aplenty, plus a twist halfway through that still makes me giggle every time I think of it, but the further we get into Good Time, the more it becomes a character study of the two brothers. Connie – despite his roguish charm – is a human black hole, who destroys or damages anyone foolish enough to stray into his gravitational field. His choices are always bad, his profound lack of judgement almost comical. In contrast, Nick just wants to be left alone and is sick of being told what to do. Choices are something his vulnerabilities deny him. Theirs is, at its core, an abusive relationship, with the most heinous crime perpetrated here being not the robbery nor various acts of violence, but the way in which Connie exploits his brother. 

Criminal minded: Robert Pattinson stars in Good Time

How To Talk To Girls At Parties WW is a "punk romance" set in 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee and The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks. Based on a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name, it features Elle Fanning as an alien learning how to be human, Nicole Kidman as an ageing punk queen, complete with erratic cockney accent, and three horny teenage punks (including To The Bone's Alex Sharp) desperate to get off with any poor unsuspecting girl/extra-terrestrial who looks their way. It's madcap, inventive and charming for the most part but loses focus somewhat during a frenetic conclusion. Fanning and Kidman – last seen together in Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled – are clearly having the time of their lives and it's that sense of anarchic, anything-goes fun that gets this over the line. Coming-of-age tales are ten-a-penny but John Cameron Mitchell's film succeeds in bringing something a little less predictable to the table.

Being human: Elle Fanning is literally out of this world 

Finally, we welcome the return of an old friend... a sick, deranged old friend. Suspiria WWWW is not only the reddest film ever made but also one of the most bizarre, and here it is as good as new in a lovingly assembled 4K restoration. Suzy (Jessica Harper), a young American ballerina, travels to study at an exclusive German dance academy in Dario Argento's giallo classic, only for one of her fellow students to be butchered shortly after. Suzy and her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) start to investigate the murder, leading to just the sort of dark revelations you'd suspect and fervently anticipate. The film's hysteria dial is turned up to 11 from the rain-swept beginning and barely drops below that during its 92-minute running time, Suspiria's lurid colour palette, Goblin's ear-pummelling score, and a series of grisly deaths making for a psychedelic horror experience like no other. The acting is stiff, the dialogue stilted and the weirdness of some scenes made audience members laugh out loud at the screening I attended. And yet, 40 years after its original release, Suspiria still casts a spell as it speeds towards a finale both sinister and unhinged. With all due respect to Luca Guadagnino, who is remaking the movie with Chloë Grace Moretz, Dakota Johnson, and Tilda Swinton, he's inviting a world of pain from fans and critics. The director might have better actors and better writers at his disposal than Argento ever did, but the chances of matching the manic intensity of this glorious original are surely remote.

A cut above: Suspiria gets a swanky restoration on its 40th anniversary

Next: Despatch #2 will include reviews of 120 Beats Per Minute, Blade Of The Immortal, and Ingrid Goes West...

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