I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. Yesterday was a day of very enjoyable surprises, with three very strong movies…
Sorry to Bother You
It has been a long road for Boots Riley‘s debut feature as writer-director to make it to these shores. After becoming a critical smash in the US, the movie struggled to find international distribution and, having seen it, it’s easy to see why suit-wearing studio folk may have wondered whether there would be an audience for a movie this unusual. As an exercise in madcap, left-leaning satire, though, it’s one of the most compelling films that has played at LFF so far.
Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius – his name is always shortened to Cash, getting the capitalism satire moving early on – as he starts a new job at a telemarketing firm that only pays commission. He quickly realises that he needs to put on a ‘white voice’, provided with brilliant incongruity by David Cross, in order to rake in the sales and quickly rises up the ranks. This comes at the same time as colleague Squeeze (a brilliantly likeable Steven Yeun) is attempting to unionise the workers – a cause Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) immediately gets behind. Soon, Cash is crossing picket lines in order to head upstairs in a distinctly Trumpian golden elevator to become a ‘power caller’.
It’s here that Riley lets the cat out of the bag with a series of dramatic and utterly unhinged plot twists that it would be a crime to spoil. However, the film has already achieved a great deal by this point, mostly in terms of anti-capitalist polemic through the union storyline and the presence of Armie Hammer‘s loathsome corporate totem, challenging Tony Montana for sheer quantity of coke-snorting. Away from its hardcore messaging, though, Riley proves to be an excellent visual comedian, packing every frame with several visual gags as well as some terrific verbal comedy from Stanfield in particular. The script is as silly as it is sharp, ensuring that the movie never feels like earnest homework.
And any pretence of seriousness is utterly defenestrated by the ludicrous madness of the third act. Sorry to Bother You throws everything at the wall and most of it sticks, though I occasionally longed for the single issue focus of Get Out. Sometimes a movie with one brilliant idea is better than a movie with five really good ones and Riley doesn’t always find narrative order amid the chaos. But he has produced an obviously relevant, razor-witted debut feature that deserves all of the attention in the world.
(Dir: Boots Riley, 111 mins, UK Release: December 7)
At LFF this year, feminist period drama is the order of the day. As much as it faltered in telling its story, Lizzie was an intriguing twist on the frills and frocks genre. That movie has, however, been blown out of the water like a plastic frigate by Colette, which features a barbed cruise missile of a performance from Keira Knightley. It’s something of a surprise to see Knightley putting on a corset again as it seemed her days of plummy platitudes were behind her, but it’s clear why she came back. Colette, based on the real life tale of writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, is something very different and very entertaining.
Knightley’s title character is born to a poor family in rural France. She meets and marries Henry (Dominic West), who runs a sort of publishing house he dubs ‘The Factory’, in which it’s his name on everything. Soon, Colette herself has picked up a pen and promptly turns out a literary phenomenon based on her own parochial upbringing, driving a wedge between her and the husband who is taking all of the credit for her genius. Their relationship soon becomes a rather more open one than most, with both participants sleeping with Southern belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Colette forming a romantic bond with the wealthy Missy (Denise Gough).
Given its period trappings and high-society environment, it’s refreshing how progressive Colette is with its sexual politics. The presence of a female screenwriter in the shape of Rebecca Lenkiewicz really helps and this is a movie that never looks down upon female desire and forefronts the sexual pleasure of women over that of men. When the movie first introduces the wildly entertaining West as a scenery-chewing slab of prime ham and an act of infidelity is dismissed with a “you have to understand this is what men do”, the outlook looks bleak. However, the portrayal of West as a useless imbecile and Knightley as a driven genius pursuing her own desires does a solid job of counteracting that.
This is a script that crackles and fizzes with energy. Like the recent Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, it’s a quotable and prickly tale that – much like the novels the characters write – has the perfect balance of literary smarts and salacious fun. It’s silly, sexy and entirely lacking in self-conscious awkwardness, trading that in for feminist fire – composer Thomas Adès even gives the title character her own dramatic orchestral theme for when she’s on the prowl, like a girl power Imperial March.
West and Knightley have dynamite chemistry, evidently having the time of their lives acting together. The constantly shifting gender power dynamic is reminiscent of last year’s underseen Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and there’s more than a touch of Vertigo in the way West begins to fall for the idea of Knightley’s literary analogue rather than her. It’s always ultimately Knightley who emerges strongest from this story though, delivering an inspiring hero who’s capable of trading witty barbs with Parisian society’s greatest intellects. This might be Keira Knightley in a corset again, but she’s having ten times as much fun as usual.
(Dir: Wash Westmoreland, 112 mins, UK Release: January 25, 2019)
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
Ben Wheatley‘s output has been getting bigger and bigger for the last few years. He followed his low-budget British efforts with the glossy Ballard adaptation High-Rise and the wild bullet ballet Free Fire. The sci-fi tale Freakshift is on his slate but, like Joss Whedon detoxing after Avengers with a black and white Shakespeare adaptation, Wheatley has turned the volume down and the tension up for his perfectly parochial family drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead – originally shot with the delightfully rude title Colin, You Anus.
The titular Colin is played by Wheatley regular Neil Maskell, who has the relatively simple ambition of uniting his extended family for a New Year’s Eve celebration at a hired mansion somewhere in Dorset. This is a family that’s dysfunctional enough to create a powder keg atmosphere, but dysfunctional in a way that always feels real and plausible, rather than driven by dramatic contrivance. Hayley Squires, who exploded into acting with her heart-breaking performance in I, Daniel Blake, is a no-nonsense family member who, in an effort to surprise her mother, has invited black sheep son David (Sam Riley, on loathsome douchebag form) along, after he has spent five years hiding abroad.
Much of this movie has Wheatley’s camera roving the cavernous halls of the building, which provides plenty of places to hide, but also a tonne of opportunities for people to awkwardly bump into each other. It’s edited beautifully in order to provide the audience with snippets of conversation, as if the full picture is always held tantalisingly out of reach. The audience is positioned as another guest, mingling in amongst these very entertaining characters, with Asim Chaudhry‘s perma-vaping tag-along the deadpan comic highlight. Every character is drawn just well enough for us to believe them, assisted by the semi-improvised form – there’s an “additional material by the cast” writing credit.
It’s a film that’s largely free of incident, but there’s a real joy to spending 90 minutes in the company of these lived-in, believable people. It always feels as if the movie is on the verge of transforming into Gaspar Noé‘s Climax, but this is Wheatley on more restrained form, trusting his actors to construct something that engages its audience without major dramatic incident. When the director himself turns up for a dancefloor cameo during the credits, it’s a clear depiction of what this movie is – filmmaking as a quasi-familial act of pure, joyous collaboration.
(Dir: Ben Wheatley, 95 mins, UK Release: Christmas 2018)
Are you excited to see any of these films? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you keep coming back for the next few weeks for reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.