The penultimate day of the LFF started out with a scarily bad horror, then picked back up with a brutally maximalist hitman thriller, then my inaugural viewing of the annual Surprise Film.
As my festival experience started to wind down with just five films left over the two days, I was anticipating nearly unanimously great things from my scheduled selections. Unfortunately, the first of these turned out to be the second-worst feature of the entire festival: a shopworn horror that made few attempts to remain fresh amongst an overabundance of the trashy subgenre of supernatural ouija board ghost stories. Gladly, the second film reinvigorated the day like a visceral shot of espresso, and the festival served up the perfect antidote with a regularly funny crowdpleaser as its yearly surprise film.
I can remember very vividly the moment that Paco Plaza’s [Rec] went from chilling to revitalising horror. After the frightening build-up with Manuela Velasco’s Ángela following emergency workers into a dark apartment complex, and reassuring the residents – terrified of what’s going on in their apartments above after they’re forced into lock-down – a body falls from up high, shattering to the floor. It’s a masterstroke in panicked pacing and how the technique of found footage withholds the image of the man falling, so it’s a truly sudden, absolutely horrific surprise. [Rec] was released 10 years ago, and has remained in my mind as one of the only worthy successor to The Blair Witch Project’s reign. Paco Plaza returns this year with Verónica (D+), and I’ll be damned if I remember anything about it next week, let alone in 10 years times.
Highly derivative of almost every movie of its ilk, this Ouija board horror starts with an interesting enough opening: the police arriving at a residential block while the audio of the phone call from the house interrupts the sound of heavy rain and police sirens. When the detectives on the case enter the house, all we see is a startled look of horror, followed by a cut to black. Three days earlier we’re introduced to the Verónica of the title: a high school student, who takes primary caring duties for her twin sisters and younger brother as her single mother runs a bodega. For some inexplicable reason, Verónica decides to skip a solar eclipse happening on a school day to hang out in the school’s basement to play with a Ouija board that she bought in a magazine. It’s established during a very silly lecture that the Mayans practiced human sacrifice during solar eclipses, but it’s barely said that this will be a particularly excellent time to summon the dead (Verónica’s father, or her friends dead boyfriend). These odd motives aren’t particularly the problem, but it definitely muddies the horror: it’s a poor concept that doesn’t do itself any favours by then throwing in a shipment of clichés: from the blind soothsayer who can see the dead, the children who can see the dead, and, well, those who can’t see the dead telling those that can that they’ve gone crazy. It’s a tonal shambles, with every attempt at constructing tension leading to a clattering surprise, or one of the kids cracking a puzzling miscalculated joke, falling flat every time. It’s a shame that Verónica is such an irritatingly derivative horror, one that relies on audience stupidity (repeated scenes of flashbacks to what occurs minutes before is aggravating), and this is made all worse by the promise shown in the spooky opening. If there was a single scene as effective as the aforementioned one in [Rec], this could’ve had some positives, but in the end, it’s just a horribly feeble, plagiarised piece of nonsense.
For a true assault on the senses, today’s second film was a major improvement. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (B+) is a ruthless, condensed Taxi Driver with Rolling Thunder’s sense righteous fury that’s both brutal in its simplicity and sheer viciousness of violence and audio. The real trick here was to shun true viscera by committing the majority of the unspeakable acts of violence offscreen. Had every hammer pummel, bullet hole and throat cut been visible, it would’ve felt as though it was praising Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) methods, even if his intentions were true. At least 90% of these actions are implied or obscured by Ramsey and cinematographer Thomas Townend’s choices, which makes them even more unpleasant with this absence of graphic aggression. That’s not to say it’s not frighteningly brutal, but it’s removable of complications in these attacks are to its profit. Additionally, Ramsey’s choice to collaborate with one of the finest composers of today – Johnny Greenwood – increases the sheer terror, even when it’s simply a shot of Joe walking a subway platform or surveilling a doorway. Greenwood’s swelling orchestras and digital tones bring a shrieking, cacophonous racket to the film that made it near-unbearable at times.
Joe is a taciturn, complex character; at times formidable, and other times delicate, his path of destruction is infused with grief over a shocking event that took place during his time as a marine. His life is radicalised by the things he has witnessed, constantly fantasising about taking his own life, and Ramsey’s screenplay finds humanity in this unmistakable killer and pairs him with his saviour, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) who serves as the embodiment of innocence that’s absent in Joe. You Were Never Really Here is that rare beast: a hugely experimental, maximalist exploitation film that manages genuine heart and emotion amongst its grisly conduct. It’s scorching cinema that’s every-so-often a little too obtuse, but that simply secures it as a film that will demand a – much welcomed – rewatch.
Living in London for 5 years, and attending the London Film Festival twice, I still never managed or had the courage to hand over the money to see BFI’s intriguing, yearly Surprise Film. As with every year, there were a great deal of guesses and suspicions of what it could be (The Disaster Artist and Suburbicon being two prevalent predictions). As the light’s went down, and Universal and A24’s trademarks came up, it was clear it was Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird (B). Saoirse Ronan is the titular character – seldom known by her given name, Christine – a teenager finding her place amongst the self appointed boredom she finds herself in at the religious school she attends. Lady Bird is an unflinchingly honest adolescent, applying for east-coast colleges that she’s certain she has no hope of attending; verbally combating her mother (the flawlessly cast Laurie Metcalf); and navigating transient relationships and friendships with a well-attuned resonance. Lady Bird’s connections to those she knows aren’t immediately supportive of her feelings, and this is captured brilliantly by Gerwig’s script as Lady Bird feels the confusion and disorientation in her life over the course of the year. Everyone is flawed but profoundly likeable, from her classmates Julie (Beanie Feldstein, with excellent comic timing), fleeting romance Danny (Lucas Hedges, once again terrific and heartbreaking) and both parents (Metcalf and Tracy Letts), so its replete with characters whose misfortunes are dispiriting. They’re all dysfunctional, but good-natured.
Lady Bird is perhaps a little too quirky sometimes, and some of the running jokes just didn’t stick for me, becoming bothersome when they reoccured, but there’s a lot to like here. Gerwig has quite the career behind her already, but as a solo directorial debut, this highlights how much she has ahead of her. The same can be said of Ronan, who continues to prove she’s one of the best young actresses today. It felt a little bit middling at times, but for the most of it, Lady Bird – both the character and the film – was an utter delight, and a great Surprise Film to wind down with after the intensity of You Were Never Really Here.
Day Ten was a much better day than it started out being, helped immeasurably by the fact that the last two films were polar opposite of each other: one a tremendously crunchy revenge thriller, the other a sympathetic coming of age tale, and both with incredible lead performances from actors at the top of their game.