Our second dispatch from the 2019 BFI London Film Festival is heavy on likely awards season contenders — Jojo Rabbit, Ford v Ferrari, and The Two Popes — while also offering takes on a trio of international festival regulars this year: Hlynur Pálmason’s A White, White Day, Helina Reijn’s Instinct, and Levin Akin’s And Then We Danced. And, of course, thoughts on Nicolas Cage’s latest actorly explosion in Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space. Early next week will bring our final dispatch from London, but in the meantime make sure to visit our recent Toronto Film Festival and New York Film Festival coverage for takes on the many LFF films we’ve already covered, and plenty more fall festival thoughts.
Concerned as much with fantasy as it is with fascism, Taika Waititi‘s eccentric Jojo Rabbit will almost certainly divide critics with its unabashed insistence upon turning the Second World War into a kids’ carnival. The party is underway when ten year-old enthusiastic Nazi Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is booted out of Hitler Youth camp, leading him to find other ways to further Germany’s cause, with the help of his imaginary friend, an incarnation of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). While Waititi’s bold version of the führer strays violently into caricature and feels tired fairly quickly, the character’s decreasing screentime, and thus his waning importance (and that of the Nazi cause), does prove necessarily reflective of Jojo’s evolving state of mind. Still, there is little in the way of complicating discourse in this satire of fascism, and one wonders if the endgame is essentially an extended exercise in the choir being preached to? It certainly does seem that way in the first twenty minutes, in which the Nazis are constantly mocked in very broad terms, the incessant use of slapstick comedy largely falling flat. In the end, the unusual tone of Jojo Rabbit becomes its prime asset, although even this will not be to everyone’s taste. Manipulative in terms of plot but largely saved by idiosyncrasies that are difficult to anticipate, the film confronts deadly serious issues and then makes light of them as if performing tricks in a magic show. A scene in which Jojo has a blazing row with his mother (livened by a lovely Scarlett Johansson) only for her to then smear soot on her chin and imitate Jojo’s absent father is unexpectedly moving, while his testy relationship with Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) offers a baldly honest emotional thread. Jojo Rabbit does not say an awful lot, but it does cinematically reconstitute a painful and shocking period of history in a way that emerges as a rather disarming surprise, comedically enchanting, even as it mercilessly switches from sincerely-delivered antisemitic insults to outlandish humour with whiplash rhythm. While there is a certain respectable method to its madness, there ultimately remains a palpable feeling that seventy-five years may not represent enough remove from this war’s horrors for people to fully embrace Jojo Rabbit’s commitment to silliness. Calum Reed
Ford v Ferrari
As with a lap around a racing track, you can almost set your watch to James Mangold‘s Ford v Ferrari, a biographical sports drama that is as formulaic as they come. While Ron Howard’s Rush (2014) explored the motosport by detailing the rivalry between two vastly different personalities, this film shifts focus to two famous constructors, who vie to see which of them can win the 24-hour Le Mans race of 1966. With Ferrari in dominant form, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a rebellious part-mechanic, part-racing driver, is enlisted by car salesman Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to make Ford’s transition into the world of motor racing a success. There are hiccups along the way. While the characters in Rush were essentially archetypes, Miles and Shelby have a little more to them, even if the emphasis here is mostly on a key industry period, than either man’s persona. Still, Bale reaches deeper than most would to hint at a troubled history for successful family man Miles, oscillating between the pensive and hot tempered with admirable ease. It’s a perfect performance for the film, although one wishes that the script didn’t insist on Miles being right all of the time, often at the expense of makeshift Ford villain Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Featuring some bracing action sequences and hardly outstaying its welcome at a chunky two-and-a-half hours, Ford v Ferrari is difficult to fault on the level of pure entertainment. It also boasts some surprising anti-corporate criticisms (particularly of Ford), which stand up as relevant today, given that constructors currently hold considerably more power than drivers. In light of the decision that is forced upon Miles in the Le Mans race itself, this moment in history genuinely feels like a precursor of things to come for the sport, even if Ford v Ferrari itself lacks the ambition to be much more than an exhilarating snapshot of a bygone era. Calum Reed
The Two Popes
Religious resentment dominates the order of service in Fernando Meirelles‘ The Two Popes, an adaptation of acclaimed screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s play about the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Commencing with the death of John Paul II and the election of his successor Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) over progressive rival Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the film then travels forward seven years to when a weary Bergoglio travels to see Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) so that he can grant his request for retirement, reviving old wounds. As a two-handed face-off between the old and new guards of the Catholic church, The Two Popes has a certain cultural and historical appeal, the early debate between the clergymen addressing the crux of the church’s reluctance to move forward. Unwisely, there are many flashbacks to Bergoglio’s past as a young priest in Argentina, which provide some context for his beliefs, but are awkwardly inserted, at times appearing as wispish snippets and, in other sections, threatening to take over the film entirely. As a South American, Meirelles clearly seems keen to couch this story of succession within the larger context of Argentinian politics, and in doing so, injecting something more cinematic into this stagey encounter of two old men effectively wandering around the Vatican having a chat. McCarten, penning the script based on his own work, never really interrogates why Benedict begins to waver from his own orthodox course so readily, while elsewhere the many gags which concern either the inability of the men to process 21st century culture or their unwitting embrace of it, lead to some pretty cheap laughs. Pryce brings a great deal of warmth to his hearty depiction of Bergoglio, embodying many of the qualities – compassion, understanding, patience – you would hope to see in a priest, while there is also a move to address the erosion of public trust for the clergy in the wake of the church’s child sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict himself admitting some blame in this. Unfortunately, Meirelles censors his confessional scene in a way that suggests he is concerned for its palatability, a hedging move which sadly typifies the failure of The Two Popes to break free of its safe, cuddly treatise on Catholicism. Calum Reed
Color Out of Space
A response to the sci-fi-horror hybrid genre’s fixation on specificity, with regard to the catalysts of fear and the need to define them in detail, H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space” sought to strip explicability from its pages, understanding it as innately comforting, even when couched in terror. Said comfort remains relative, of course, but in subverting readers’ expectations, Lovecraft rejected the familiar imagery of horror in favor of a distillation of its psychology, seeking to explore not just the unknowable but the unnamable. The titular colour is introduced in the form of an otherworldly meteor, and in representing it as a shade previously unexperienced on Earth and thus undefinable by all who witness it, Lovecraft mines fear from language itself – in losing the ability to name a thing, our mastery over object or experience becomes subsumed by an almost existential dread, a catastrophic disruption of our intellectual capacity for control. This particular upsetting of genre convention also anticipates the specifically ‘80s fixation on shapeless horror creations — The Blob remake, The Fog, Stephen King’s The Mist. The difference is that, in Lovecraft’s story, there’s a resistance to even the most basic instinct for explanation.
Fitting, then, that Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space adheres to those most recognizable ‘80s horror tropes: a gnarled, aged house is the fulcrum for sinister happenings; a checklist of familiar characters populate the periphery, including — obviously — the local, small town sheriff; and at center is an affable nuclear family whose children operate as loose archetypes. The eldest child, Benny (Brendan Meyer), is a genial stoner, while the middle child, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), is an angsty, black-clad wiccan, and the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard), is a delicate eccentric like so many five-year-old horror film youngsters. Add to that a pair of pre-granola parents (played by Joely Richardson, deadly serious here, and Nicolas Cage, who charts a course from restrained oddness to expected outré wackadoo) and a healthy dose of throwback body horror, including some obliterated alpacas looking straight out of House of Wax and a monster dog doing his best serious Frankenweenie impression. Take all of this together and Color Out of Space feels more authentically like ‘1980s cinema’ than it does merely inspired by the era’s touchstones. The indescribable, alien color, an obvious challenge to realize on screen, is cleverly manifested: a swirl of pasteled pink and violet hues fog the air, while the meteor itself, and all that it infects, radiates a sinister neon mauve.
Other genre flourishes will remind of Alex Garland’s Annihilation (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, a studied acolyte of Lovecraft’s weird horror sensibilities), with temporal and geographic realities unsettled and a disturbed muddling of biological and psychological upset. Yet for all that, the challenge of actualizing such an intellectualized abstraction proves too difficult, and the film instead opts for the more lavish lane of gross-out extremity and a crescendo of mania. But what scans as gonzo on the page is rendered as largely inert retread when it comes to what should be a saturation of expressionist horror. There are moments where Stanley suggests he understands the world he’s operating in, at one point capturing the image of a witchy-garbed Lavinia nobly riding a steed across a lush green pasture, but expectation takes precedence and the idiosyncrasy unfortunately gives way to cheap, unsatisfying familiarity. For a certain audience, Color Out of Space will be prescribed an intentionality it only half earns – which is to say that this was conceived as a cult film, and that seems self-evident. But for those needing more substance than signaling, the film’s obviousness ultimately feels antithetical to the concept of indefinability that it’s ostensibly going for. Luke Gorham
A White, White Day
Iceland’s Oscar entry this year, A White, White Day is a somber bereavement drama in which police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), who is grieving the loss of his wife in a car accident, stumbles upon vague evidence among her possessions that she has been having an affair with a local neighbour. Despite the suggestion that her supposed indiscretion could provide a “case” for this inspector to solve, the film shirks any sort of mystery angle, instead psychologically probing the man’s mental state, as well as his relationship with his daughter and granddaughter. For a character study, A White, White Day is as frustratingly closed off as its subject, as after all that follows, it never feels as if Ingimundur has been excavated. Director Hlynur Pálmason has a habit of cutting from scenes just as exchanges start to build, or shifting conversation topics away from matters of substance – three scenes in which Ingimundur sees a therapist offer relatively little about his character, while there is an active refusal to unravel any of his issues in a way that could be conceived as convenient. Resultantly, A White, White Day possesses some merit as a measured, convincing adult drama, but its continual opaqueness is often maddening. While films about grief tend to aim for realization and acceptance for its characters, Pálmason’s approach to this template feels way too uneven to generate much pathos, led by two intensely violent exchanges in the last act designed to confront the reality of his wife’s infidelity, but which feel distractingly jarring. A White, White Day eventually makes clear its message about both the difficulty and necessity of moving on from tragedy, and his approach here keeps the proceedings from becoming hackneyed. The issue is that, by this final stretch, Pálmason may well have alienated anybody from caring. Calum Reed
In the aptly-titled Instinct, the one thing that Helina Reijn‘s heavy, but hugely rewarding film seems to have a clear view on is that you must, at least, trust your gut. That proves difficult for Carice Van Houten’s chilly psychologist Nicoline, who develops an attraction for her patient Idris (Marwan Kenzari), one of the violent sexual offenders at the rehabilitation centre she works at. Instinct offers the kind of story that will make cynics guffaw at the supposed clarity of its central character’s actions, when in fact Reijn resoundingly makes the case that human nature is hardly as simple as black and white. Instinct explores how we can so easily be dominated by impulse and sexual desire. Controversial by design, the film distorts the boundaries between fantasy and reality, thus exploring modes of consent, as well as sexual fantasies concerning domination. While Reijn’s script turns the tables on the viewer multiple times within individual scenes, the dialogue throughout the pair’s tumultuous power struggle is magnetic, murkily suggestive of what may have shaped Nicoline’s frequently dismissive behavior. Instinct avoids foisting any particular assertion on the audience, suggesting that her terrible errors in judgment could well derive from past relationships with men, the questionably intimate connection she has with her mother, or even an inherent lack of self-worth. Van Houten delivers monumental, career-best work, slowly surrendering the fragments of Nicoline’s porcelain exterior to reveal the terrified, excited woman underneath. It’s the crowning glory of a forcefully erotic picture that does not merely remind us of her gifts as an actress, but also of the increasing scarcity of risky, intelligent arthouse cinema. Calum Reed
And Then We Danced
A familiar tale rears its head in Levin Akin‘s And Then We Danced, this year’s submission from Sweden for the International Feature Film Oscar. By their nature, teenaged coming-out stories always provide room for empathy, yet it remains a challenge to make such stories feel novel. This film stands out by introducing us to the art of Georgian dance, as fledgling dancer Mareb (Levan Gelbakhiani) falls for Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), the new boy and arch rival in his troupe. As a window into this lesser-known art form, then, And Then We Danced has a certain unique flavor to it, despite its wholly predictable story beats, which stay close to the tried-and-tested depiction of guilt-edged attraction. Thankfully, things gets much less rote in its second half, as Mareb’s sexual awakening reaches full flow and his various relationships become charged with complexity. Young actor Gelbakhiani proves quite the discovery, exhibiting the sheer unadulterated joy of being in his first sexual relationship. Curiously, you are forced to wonder how Mareb’s homosexuality comes as such a revelation for many around him, given that his feminine traits as a dancer are obvious (and highlighted in the film by his instructor) from the outset. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to the lack of visibility of queerness in Georgia; the LGBT culture in Tbilisi, in particular, comes across as particularly endangered. Despite this being Sweden’s entry (the director and producers are of Swedish origin), And Then We Danced details a particularly Georgian experience that hinges on that nation’s overall intolerance towards minorities. The eventual, hard-hitting resolution for Mareb drives that fact home, bluntly reminding those part of more open communities how fortunate they really are. Calum Reed