Reviewed today: Poor Things, The Black Pirate, The Book Of Solutions.
10.30am: Poor Things [trailer]
By the time you read this, I’ll be back at my day job. Once again, I’ll have to explain to my colleagues that returning to work is going to be a bit more relaxing than the seven days of annual leave I’ve just taken. And they’ll laugh. But it’s true: look at me here, at 10.30 on a Sunday morning, having already written and published three film reviews, travelled into central London, eaten a full English at BrewDog Waterloo, and about to start watching a two and a half hour film. It’d better be bloody good, that’s all I’m saying.
Young medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) has been taken on by the brilliant but wonky doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) to help with an experiment. Baxter has a patient staying in his house, a young woman called Bella (Emma Stone), and McCandles is to observe her recovery from a recent brain injury. The relationship between the three of them changes dramatically when McCandles learns of the nature of that injury: while Bella will learn an awful lot more about herself when she goes on a grand tour of Europe.
Reuniting several people who worked on The Favourite – director Yorgos Lanthimos, writer Tony McNamara (adapting a novel by Alasdair Gray), cinematographer Robbie Ryan and star Emma Stone – this is even more of a wild ride than its predecessor. Visually, the elaborate settings, crazily distorting lenses and fast moving camera remind you of a Terry Gilliam film, if Terry Gilliam could tell a story and didn’t think shouting was funny. There's still enough space to let the profane wit of McNamara’s script come through: there are dozens of brilliantly rude lines crammed in here, not to mention quite a bit of sex and a dance sequence as exquisitely daft as the one in The Favourite.
But in the end, for all the showiness of Lanthimos' direction, everyone’s going to be talking about this as Emma Stone’s film. Her character goes on a huge journey over the course of the story – in more ways than one – and no matter how crazy things get, she takes us with her all the way. It’s a huge technical achievement, but it’s not done at the expense of the emotions of the character. It’s not very often that I get to see my favourite film of the festival on the final day, but I think that might have just happened.
2.05pm: The Black Pirate [trailer]
I’ll tell you something I miss at the LFF these days: big archive gala screenings of silent films, with a group of musicians accompanying them. It feels like we lost that around the time of the pandemic and haven’t got it back yet. Still, we do have Sunday afternoon silent movies with Neil Brand improvising a score on the piano, and that’s much better than nothing.
This year we have a Douglas Fairbanks classic from 1926, directed by Albert Parker. We’re in the age of pirates – ‘not real ones, the romantic ones’ says Briony Dixon apologetically in her intro. Well, she says romantic, but the band of pirates we see here aren’t above disemboweling a man to retrieve some jewellery he’s just swallowed, or blowing up a ship once they’ve finished ransacking it. The sole survivor of one of these raids (Fairbanks) vows to get his revenge: he kills the leader of the pirate crew, takes them over for himself under the pseudonym The Black Pirate, and assembles a plan to destroy them from within.
The big thing to note is that The Black Pirate is a very early example of a Technicolor feature film, as briefly mentioned in a lecture on the subject I saw nine years ago today. It looks amazing on the big screen, which is astonishing given the story of its restoration we hear beforehand: it’s been assembled from a battered A negative, a less battered B negative made out of alternative takes and angles, and several reels of outtakes. Given all these sources, you wouldn’t expect it to look like a single piece of work, but it does.
As such, after a short while you stop thinking about the restoration and start just enjoying it as a film. The colour is vivid throughout, lacking that artificial look that some early colour films have, and with some surprising splashes of red when the situation calls for it. There’s a huge supporting cast of pirates, and they all seem to be in shot for most of the film – frequently there are several dozen bodies in the frame, all doing their own bits of scene-stealing business. No such theft is taking place while Fairbanks is on screen, of course: his big stunts and uncalled-for acrobatic displays are what people have come to see, and Neil Brand gives them all the dramatic piano glissandi they deserve. Possibly a little too much attempted rape for a Sunday afternoon, but that’s pirates for you.
6.30pm: The Book Of Solutions [trailer]
‘The Kitchen overflow’ sounds like a problem for the plumber, but actually it’s the late screening at the Curzon Soho tonight. In previous years, this has been a useful dodge for those of us not wanting to pay forty quid to see the Closing Gala at the Royal Festival Hall: there’s usually a secondary screening an hour or two later in another cinema for around half the price. Unfortunately, other people have cottoned on to this ruse now, and it sold out even quicker than the main screening. (This is despite - or maybe because of - not a single bit of Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares' The Kitchen currently being on YouTube, which is why you're not getting a link to see what it looks like.)
Anyway, this means that our final film for LFF 2023 is therefore not that one, but the one before it in the same cinema. And look, we’re finishing off with yet another film set in the movie business. Marc (Pierre Niney) has just shown his producers the first cut of his latest movie, and they’re not happy with it. Before they can take it out of his hands, he steals all of the footage, editing equipment, and a couple of assistants out of his office, and hides out in his auntie’s house to fix it in the edit. Over a period of several weeks, he’ll find all sorts of other things to do instead of fixing his film, including writing a kind of self-help guide called The Book Of Solutions.
Presumably it’s no coincidence that director Michel Gondry hasn’t had a film out in eight years. So it’s hard to say how much of this is an accurate depiction of director’s block, and how much is purely out of his own head. Given his reputation, you’d be looking forward to the bits that came out of his head, but apart from a couple of nicely surreal bursts this film is lacking in Gondry’s usual visual flair: it’s much more of a conventional view of one man’s mid-career crisis. Still, at least it gets a few decent jokes out of the situation along the way, with Niney proving to be a surprisingly watchable lead considering his character’s such a dick. But really, anyone could have directed this, and I was hoping for something a bit more.
And that’s the 2023 London Film Festival all done and dusted. Come back soon to find out what we liked most and least in The Wrap Party.