LFF 2018 – Roma, Beautiful Boy, The Hummingbird Project

I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. Today’s films saw a number of attempts to tug at the heartstrings…

Alfonso Cuarón returns to smaller scale filmmaking with Roma
Alfonso Cuarón returns to smaller scale filmmaking with Roma

Roma

After winning his first Best Director Oscar for Gravity, there were plenty of eyes on what Alfonso Cuarón would do next. The answer, as it turns out, is a monochrome drama set in 1970s Mexico City, starring predominantly non-professional actors. It’s an intensely personal movie from Cuarón, who has described it as a tribute to the woman who shaped his life, and his love and affection comes through in every lovingly crafted frame.

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a housemaid for a middle-class family, with loveable children and a father who has disappeared on a business trip of indeterminate length. At the same time, she falls pregnant to slum-dwelling local man Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) – an oddly passionate martial arts obsessive who is introduced via a cinema date that gives way to a display of naked stick-twirling – stop sniggering at the back – in his bedroom. While all of this is taking place, a working class uprising is brewing, with violent consequences.

The overriding feeling running through Roma is that of passion and reverence. Cuarón is clearly dealing with a milieu familiar to him and his elegantly roving camera captures the beauty of every inch, whether it’s the waves crashing against an idyllic beach or a mop bucket full of soapy water clearing dog shit off a driveway. Every shot is stacked with story, as Cuarón uses every inch of the screen to fill his world with life. It’s a crying shame that the Netflix distribution deal means few people will see this movie on the big screen.

Aparicio’s performance is heartfelt and believable, as a woman trapped between the middle class of her employers and the poverty of those who live in filthy slums rather than her relatively comfortable quarters. There are numerous references to her as a woman without a definite place in the world, with an angry Fermin dubbing her a “fucking servant” and her lack of medical insurance pointedly left to hang in the air by Cuarón in the midst of a crucial situation.

When Cuarón dials up his tension for a series of nail-biting set pieces, the slow build of the movie’s first half creates genuinely heart-stopping suspense. The aforementioned medical emergency left me refusing to take a breath for what felt like minutes and scenes of children in peril are fraught with patiently crafted terror. It’s not the director’s best movie, and its relatively freewheeling narrative won’t be for everyone, but it is a passionate and deeply personal tale that evokes its setting to perfection.

(Dir: Alfonso Cuarón, 135 mins, UK Release: December 14)

Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet play father and son in Beautiful Boy
Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet play father and son in Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy

Earlier this year, there was a lot of Timothée Chalamet around. He played key roles in two Best Picture nominees, leading Call Me By Your Name and standing out as a pretentious pretty boy in Lady Bird. A year later, he’s likely to be in the awards season conversation again for Beautiful Boy, in which he portrays a teenager ravaged by an addiction to crystal meth that proves impossible to shake. Steve Carell, who has migrated from comedy stalwart to awards perennial, portrays his writer father, desperate to help his son rebuild his life at all costs.

Everything about Beautiful Boy suggests that it should be an emotionally devastating experience, destined to leave audiences blubbering in their seats as the credits roll. However, there’s something strangely flaccid about director Felix van Groeningen‘s storytelling and the overriding feeling is one of ill-disciplined tedium, failing to escape the same relapse cycle as that of Chalamet’s character.

Chalamet himself delivers a typically strong performance and Carell is solid, but there’s an ersatz sheen to their relationship, perhaps as a result of the fact it’s a construction born from the separate autobiographies of each of the characters. The lengthy time frame depicted means there’s also a clunky over-reliance on montages, soundtracked with maudlin cheese by the grandiose, tell-don’t-show score. The potentially compelling women of the story are forced to one side in favour of the ropey father-son dynamic and, although it’s not unengaging, the movie fails to land its killer emotional blow.

(Dir: Felix van Groeningen, 112 mins, UK Release: January 18, 2019)

Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård in bizarre thriller The Hummingbird Project
Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård in bizarre thriller The Hummingbird Project

The Hummingbird Project

I have spent years defending Jesse Eisenberg, with The Social Network standing firm as one of my favourite movies of all time. His latest film, however, is a thriller so strange and unsure of its own identity that it’s impossible to find too many positive things to say. Eisenberg plays another of his fast-talking, arrogant tech types as Wall Street drone Vincent, who splits away from his tyrannical boss (an enjoyably campy Salma Hayek) along with cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård, unrecognisable as a balding nerd). Their plan is to build an expensive fibre-optic tunnel direct from Kansas to Wall Street in order to shave a crucial millisecond off stock transactions.

This is by far the most tonally confused movie of LFF to date. Kim Nguyen‘s film has the sheen and style of a true story – and only a true story feels as if it could be this tedious – but it’s actually entirely fictional and entirely stupid. It’s an overlong film and one that has no idea whether it wants to be a nail-biting tech thriller or a drama about the relationship between Eisenberg and Skarsgård. Both performances are solid, with Skarsgård’s against-type loser providing an impressive contrast to Eisenberg’s trademark smart-arse bravado.

There are flashes of fun throughout the film, but they’re spread too thinly over the very lengthy running time. Nguyen’s hand on the tiller is very uncertain and lacks the characters’ willingness to improvise in the face of unforeseen problems. In the wake of a strong run of LFF movies, this one looks distinctly subpar. For a movie all about dealing in milliseconds, this one surprisingly lacks precision and confidence.

(Dir: Kim Nguyen, 111 mins, UK Release: n/a)

BFI London Film Festival 2018
BFI London Film Festival 2018

Are you excited to see these movies? 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.

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