Beaver

The Beaver at the BFI: LFF 2021

By Syed Zaid Ali Syed Mudzhar

7 films. 7 reviews. Syed gives the alternative mega review of this year’s London Film Festival at the BFI

  1. Red Rocket – 3.5/5
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Sean Baker has definitely built up quite the reputation these past few years with films such as Tangerine and The Florida Project. This year, he returns with his latest: a comedy-drama starring Simon Rex as Mikey, a washed-up ex-pornstar who returns to his Texas hometown. He first shows up at his wife Lexi’s (Bree Elrod) house begging for a place to stay. He then meets up with old friends and neighbours, but everything changes for him when he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old girl with whom he forms a sexual relationship – which, as Mikey helpfully tells us, is legal in Texas.

In the first half, the film follows a conventional homecoming for Mikey; family and friends show some scorn for his departure in the past, which naturally makes us more sympathetic to him as the protagonist. However, as we begin to learn more about him, we realise just how awful he is as a person; and so do the people around him, leading to the consequences of his actions slowly catching up to him. The comedy that follows is now at his expense. In other words, we go from laughing with him to laughing at him. The entire time, he goes off on countless hilarious rapid-fire monologues detailing his past exploits and successes, which Simon Rex performs with panache. By all accounts, this film is a real romp and a ride.

  1. Costa Brava, Lebanon – 3/5
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Securing the Audience Award at the festival, this film is the first feature by Mounia Akl, who proves to be a filmmaker to look out for. Constructing a tale of a country in decline set in and around the home of a family living off the grid, she manages to instill a sense of urgency as trash begins to pile up outside Walid (Saleh Bakri) and Soraya’s (Nadine Labaki) house, which also leads to the family falling apart. The family – including two children and their grandmother – left Beirut for reasons not made explicit, but which aren’t difficult to gather from the political and environmental background of the film made clear through the news broadcasts in the background.

This is a film about decay: be it with regards to familial bonds, integrity in politics, old age, or the literal garbage strewn around the house. Costa Brava, Lebanon was written a few years ago, and is set in the near future, but is eerily prescient – recent developments in Lebanon could have us all convinced that it’s set today. “It’s like we’ve caught up with the future,” Akl declares at the screening. The film is not all doom and gloom, however; the young Rim represents the hope and optimism of the Lebanese in spite of all of that. But it’s difficult to deny that in these past few years, the world of the film has only become more and more familiar not just for Lebanon, but also for the rest of the world.

  1. C’mon C’mon – 4.5/5
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I’ve got to admit: I wasn’t at all familiar with Mike Mills’ work. Sure, I caught wind of 20th Century Women when it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. I even started watching it but had to switch off, and never got around to finishing it, so I never learned much about his style or anything. But this film has got to be my favourite from the ones here. And it’s not even on the official programme because it’s screened as the surprise film! Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a reporter who travels around the US, interviewing children about what they think the future holds. Along the way, he finds out that his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) is struggling to both help her husband who suffers from bipolar disorder, and take care of her nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman). He helps her out, and eventually gets to take the kid around with him all across the country. 

Where do I even begin with this film? The witty, whip-smart writing. The dream-like quality of the editing that immerses us in the characters’ memories, which is also enhanced by Johnny’s voiceovers, justified by his use of a recording device. The performances, too; the adults in the film are great, of course. I was pleasantly surprised to see Scoot McNairy playing Viv’s husband, Paul. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t show love to Woody Norman; Jesse’s interactions with Johnny are so carefully written with heart and humour, and all performed brilliantly. Between the character he plays, and the thoughtful responses Johnny receives from every child he interviews, the film serves as a gorgeous celebration of our future generation. Hopeful, ethereal, universal; if nothing else, C’mon C’mon makes me hope to be at least half as good an uncle as Johnny.

  1. Boiling Point – 4/5
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This film follows a particularly busy restaurant service one night leading up to Christmas, centred around its head chef, Andy (Stephen Graham) whose life is slowly coming apart at the seams as he battles addiction. Including your whole host of kitchen nightmares, the chefs struggle to keep up with the orders that come in; and the front-of-house staff don’t have it any easier, having to deal with self-important patrons pushes them to the edge. 

The most striking aspect of this film is, without a doubt, the continuous shot which lasts practically its entire runtime. With any film this feat would be impressive, but what sets Boiling Point apart is the fact that it takes place almost entirely within the walls of its cramped restaurant. One can only imagine the scene behind the camera, which must not be dissimilar to the chaos that ensues on screen. Hats off to the crew, but the cast are no slouches either. Graham is stellar in the lead, but is consistently matched by Vinette Robinson, who plays his sous-chef; an explosive scene between the two towards the end is certainly a highlight. Ultimately, much of the success of this film simmers down to brilliant direction by Philip Barantini. Definitely keep an eye out for this one.

  1. Belfast – 3.5/5
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Describing this as his “most personal film”, Kenneth Branagh’s most recent feature follows young Buddy in late 1960s Belfast – around the beginning of the Troubles. Right from the start, we are confronted by the violence that pervaded Northern Ireland, the effects of which are still felt today. Buddy runs around in the streets with the neighbouring children, but their play is cut short – as the camera swings around Buddy, it slowly reveals a mob ahead of him seeking out Catholics in the neighbourhood. The violence mostly remains in the background for the rest of the film (but returns to the forefront near the end), but its effects are unmistakable. Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Catriona Balfe) for much of the film grapple with the decision to move, at one point even considering Australia. Despite all of this, the film is most importantly a love letter to life in Belfast, with its multitude of tender moments: Buddy finds himself trying to get the attention of a classmate he fancies; Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) dance together in the living room, reliving their golden days; but the one scene that stands out to me is when Buddy speaks to Pop in the hospital. When he reveals to Pop that his parents want them to move to London, Pop reassures him: “London’s a small step for man, but Belfast will still be here when you get back.” Even from a technical standpoint, the film captivates; shots of the family in their home are beautifully composed, with thoughtful blocking and framing, sometimes including characters in the background that remain in focus. Laden with sentiments that are near-universal, Belfast never fails to leave you all misty-eyed.

  1. Ali & Ava – 2.5/5
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As the name suggests, Ali & Ava follow the titular pair as they find love in each other amidst their loneliness. Refreshing in its portrayal of a middle-aged couple falling in love, the film presents a heartfelt story based on real people, set in Bradford. In the opening sequence, we see Ali (Adeel Akhtar) dancing atop a car in the middle of a foggy field while blaring club music plays; this is intercut with Ava (Claire Rushbrook) getting ready for the day, slowly putting on rings. They start the film off as total strangers, but have a chance encounter when a child of one of Ali’s tenants is sent to school by Ali – which happens to be the one Ava works at. As the rain begins to pour, Ava decides to hitch a ride with Ali, and the two begin to bond – and herein lies the central flaw of the film: their relationship seems to develop unnaturally quickly, which is a large issue as the success of most romantic tales necessarily hinge upon the central characters forming a connection with each other in a way that is believable to the audience. In their following scene together, Ali shows up at Ava’s home, and they sing and dance on couches like they’ve known each other for years. Not only that, but my experience of the film was less than ideal; it was likely an issue with the audio in the screening hall, but a good portion of the dialogue was inaudible to me, especially in the first half with children speaking. However, once you accept that the two are unreservedly enamoured with each other, Ali & Ava manages to detail a unique romance, thanks in large part to the efforts of writer-director Clio Barnard.

  1. The Tragedy of Macbeth – 4/5
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Screened as part of the closing night gala, The Tragedy of Macbeth marks Joel Coen’s first project without his long-time collaborator and brother Ethan. This screening was a real treat; Joel and most of the cast were there as it happened to be the European premiere, but the film itself is also quite the achievement. One of the presenters mentioned that the film borrows from all of film history, and it’s not difficult to see how, especially with its set design redolent of films from the first half of the 20th century, perhaps those of German expressionism (think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and its stylised sets) though with sparser furnishing, and more overtly through the choice of shooting in black-and-white. It also seems to be a recurring theme that film adaptations of Macbeth tend to make use of impressive cinematography, and Bruno Delbonnel’s work here proves just that. The lighting is dynamic, shifting dramatically in the middle of characters’ monologues to great effect, emphasising the text’s theatrical qualities. Similarly bold is the sound design which heightens the mundane sounds of knocks, flapping wings, and dripping water – placing us in the headspace of the paranoid king. With any adaptation of Shakespeare, noting how directors and writers tackle iconic scenes is always a treat; not to give much away, but how Macbeth’s final confrontation with Macduff ends in this one represents his fatal flaw quite cogently. The cast also deliver solid performances: Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the leads convincingly, especially as they descend into madness; but a mention should be made of Alex Hassell who shines as Ross, making his presence on screen palpable. All in all, this is a treat for both fans of Shakespeare and film alike.

This boy from Malaysia never thought he’d ever write for the School’s newspaper, but here he is now. Call me Syed. I mainly write about film and television, though I might throw in an article or two about the bands I’m listening to, or video games I find interesting. I’m also a fan of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and pieces by Chopin. You can find me on Instagram at @zaid.exe but feel free to send an email to s.z.bin-syed-mudzhar@lse.ac.uk if you’re feeling all formal.

Syed Zaid Ali Syed Mudzhar

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