Review - London Film Festival 2020 Part 2 (Never Gonna Snow Again, Supernova and Limbo)

Welcome back to my second post covering the 2020 London Film Festival! It's honestly been a completely exhausting festival and while my sleep schedule and academic courses are glad it's over, I do already find myself missing that beautiful chaos. It'll be the same kind of thing this time, with me reviewing three more films I loved from the eclectic selection on offer. No particular order, they're roughly organised by the order I saw them, but I recommend them all strongly.

I've also been doing some coverage for Exepose, Exeter University's student paper. So far, they've published my reviews on Relic and Undine, with two more on the way for One Man and His Shoes and Possessor. If you want smaller, more immediate thoughts on these films, you can find them on my Letterboxd, where I've also ranked all the films I saw at this years festival. With those things said, onto the films!


Never Gonna Snow Again

Cards on the table here, Never Gonna Snow Again was the best thing I saw at London Film Festival this year. As such, I want to preserve the surprise that made it so joyous for me. I knew nothing going in apart from the fact that it was a comedy and starred Alexei from season three of Stranger Things. Then again, I think I will tell you the basic plot, because you'll still have no idea what it is. Zhenia is a masseuse from Ukraine, who is forced to seek work in Poland due to a lack of work in his home country (our first shot sees him literally emerge from the darkness of the woods). He finds a gated, middle class community and works his way around them, massaging them and acting as a sort of spiritual guide. The residents of this community become somewhat obsessed with him, craving his touch and the magic that they believe he carries. You see, Zhenia was born in Chernobyl, which many people believe has given him powers. Does he actually contain a magic in his fingertips or do his massages work because people believe in him so much? To say anything else would spoil the fun, but needless to say the reality doesn't matter, because it becomes a teriffic vehicle for showcasing what bored suburban housewives are willing to believe.

As I said, I recognised only one actor in this film and that is Alec Utgoff. He's had all sorts of work in the UK and America, usually playing stereotypical Russian bad guys, fitting the stereotype so well that I forgot that I had seen him in stuff other than Stranger Things. Anyway, this is the first time I've seen him performing in a foreign film and he is totally brilliant. He has to carry an ambiguity around whether he has any secret powers, as well as a wealth of backstory that is implied primarily through his stoic performance. There are moments of fun too though, such as a segway chase with a security guard, where another facet of Zhenia is revealed. We never truly know the character, but that's a clear filmmaking choice, Utgoff clues us in as much as he can. As for the other performances, none explicitly stand out to me, but the rest of the cast do a great job in their roles. That's always a much easier thing to say when you've never seen any of them before, but sue me, it's true. I'll throw some of their names out here, as my way of saying good job to the whole cast: Maja Ostaszewska, Lukasz Simlat and Weronika Rosati, may your names stand in for all the top tier work from the entire cast.

I told you at the start of this review that Never Gonna Snow Again is a comedy, and I stand by that statement; it's just one that may need clarification. If you're expecting a gross-out comedy in the vein of your average Adam Sandler film, you'll be disappointed. This is comedy, dry as an espresso martini and just as energising. That's because most of the laughs come from the critique of this strange and homogenous band of suburbanites, living life in a gated community full of empty and identical houses. They're the butt of the joke in a similar way that the wealthy have been the butt of the joke in Parasite, or far less subtly in Ready or Not, meaning that the jokes rarely feel cruel because they're punching up. Whether they're confessing their adoration for Zhenia or asking him to massage their dog, we're laughing because it is laid clear how truly ridiculous they are.

There is another side to Never Gonna Snow Again though and that is a mystical side. Zhenia may or may not have powers, but the possibility that he might is given serious credence by the way the film is presented. Often, the film descends into bizarre dream sequences that explicitly evoke the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, or sometimes during massages the clients will be transported to snowy woods, in which they shiver in the snow that now falls around them. It lends a totally intangible air to the film, where as soon as you think you might be getting a hand on it, the tone changes again. Not even the surreal elements of the film are reliable though, as often things that are very much real can descend into the surreal. At one stage, Zhenia visits a strip club and while nothing out of the ordinary happens there, the bizarre music played adds this totally bonkers feel to the scene. Suddenly, what could be sad or sensual is made side-splitting. Never for one moment should you feel comfortable with the direction this film is heading, which is something I wish we could say about more films from the last few years.

I have no idea when Never Gonna Snow Again will get a UK release date, but I can't wait for when it does. Its surreal tone and presentation created some of the biggest laughs I've had all festival and I can't wait to return and explore the film further. It is a surreal, strange and superbly silly joy that I recommend to all fans of the weird, and will very happily give it a 


Supernova

Supernova is a far easier film to describe than Never Gonna Snow Again, though no less brilliant because of that. It's about Sam and Tusker, an ageing couple who decide to take a trip to the Lake District in their campervan. Tusker is a novelist, trying to work on his next book, whereas Sam is a pianist who is preparing to play his first show in years at the end of the trip. This should be a lovely holiday away for the two of them, but it of course isn't that simple. It turns out, revealed early on, that Tusker has dementia and that he seems to be considering this trip his final big excursion. You can likely guess the destination the film is heading towards, but it is to the immense credit of Supernova that its predictability is never a hindrance. The journey is worth taking knowing that the destination will be painful, because the quality of the journey is so high.

So much of the brilliance of this film rests on the shoulders of the two leads Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, whose performances counter balance and inform each other in every single scene. In fact, both are also perfectly cast because of how well they play off of their pre-existing celebrity personas. Firth is Sam and spends most of the film very quiet and reserved. He clearly loves Tusker with all of his being, and is forced to reconcile the fact that he never wants to be apart from Tusker with the fact that the Tusker he knows is fading. It's a lot of quiet conversations with a barely veiled anger that Firth has to deliver and god damn, he does it so incredibly well. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Tucci is Tusker, someone who has been famed for most of his life for his energy and exuberance. Tucci has to portray Tusker as someone who wants to maintain this facade but knows that the human behind that performance is crumbling and while he gets many moments of explicit and incredibly dramatic pain, I loved what he did with the quiet. There's a way he looks at Sam during a dinner party that communicates everything about the character; pain, regret, even a little bit of fear, but mainly adoration. Everything in Supernova would crumble if we didn't feel how deep the love between our two leads runs and it is of immense credit to Tucci and Firth (as well as to their brilliant sweater collection) that it is a love I never once questioned.

If I asked you to describe the genre of Supernova now, with you having not seen it and only read three paragraphs of this review, I'm sure you're smart enough to correctly guess that it's a tearjerker of a drama. What you may not be prepared for is how it is going to absolutely wring you like a sponge. There are a lot of films that have a topic of a terminal illness, whose intent is purely to wring tears from you in incredibly melodramatic ways. At the great end of the spectrum is something like A Monster Calls, which uses illness as a way of addressing coming of age and the parts of our own conscience that we're too scared to face, all done with immaculate sensitivity. Head down towards the other end of the spectrum and you get something like Me Before You, which uses the disability of a central character as a way of eliciting emotion, instead of using it to complicate a relationship we've already invested in. Fortunately, Supernova is at the top of the best end of this spectrum. We believe in Sam and Tusker's relationship very quickly and so when dementia is introduced into the plot, it breaks our heart because that care is already established. By the end of the film, I was an absolute wreck, having to balance out one tissue for tears and one for snot because of how much havoc my crying was wreaking on me. Those tears felt completely earnt and while they somewhat destroyed my critical faculties, it's an undeniable sign that the film worked for me.

I can't lie to you and say Supernova is an easy watch, it's one that coloured my watching of every other film I had for the rest of the day. Importantly though, I don't think it's a film whose sadness is cheap. There's a delicacy to how everything is delivered to you that lets you know your heart is being broken for all the right reasons. I thought it was wonderful and give it an 


Limbo

My final review of the festival is for Limbo, another one of those films I knew pretty much nothing about going in. It is the story of a Syrian immigrant who, after requesting asylum in the UK, is placed on a remote Scottish island with a group of other immigrants, all of whom are in the same position. There's a certain kind of purity to this concept that allows it to be a really great place for characters to develop. Every day is the same and for them, the same feels nothing like anything they know. Anyone familiar with the plays of Samuel Beckett will feel at home with this concept, though I want to relax you early on and say that Limbo is nowhere near as punishing as something like Waiting for Godot, without sacrificing depth. Like Godot, the plot doesn't develop much, but you'll be so charmed by the characters that by the end, you'd happily stay on an island with them too.

I recognised almost none of the actors in this film so, like with Never Gonna Snow Again, it can be a little hard to tell where performance ends and person begins, but they were all characters I believed in totally regardless of that. As Omar, our focal character, is Amir El-Masry. El-Masry felt like a totally new face to me but on research I found out he was actually in both The Night Manager and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. As a supporting actor in those I guess he didn't stand out to me, which is why I feel great about being able to champion his performance here. Often, he is a quiet character who lets other characters talk, but he has an incredibly expressive face which is able to tell you a hundred things in just the one scene. It's that perfect kind of cinematic face which (not to sound rude) is atypical, yet totally watchable in its unconventionality. He has a face that deserves to be projected onto massive screens and studied at depth!

Another actor I would like to bring up is Vikash Bhai, who plays Omar's friend Farhad. Initially, he seems like quite a one-note character, but he slowly develops delightful eccentricities. The greatness of his performance is that these are not eccentricities for the sake of eccentricity, but rather windows into the soul of his character. I thought about many of his lines long after the film ended because of how confidently they were delivered. One final actor I wanted to mention before we move on it Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays one of the "educators" on the island, teaching the immigrants about western culture. I've been a big fan of her ever since the seductively strange The Duke of Burgundy and it felt good to have a familiar presence anchoring us to the story and playing an appropriately odd role in the new world our characters enter.

I have a slight confession. I've been hiding something from you throughout this review, something I don't think many of you will have guessed; Limbo is sort of a comedy. The absurdist concept leads to many moments of absurd comedy, in which Scottish residents come face to face with immigrants, neither of which group really wants to be there. The presentation of the film also plays into that, with a dry visual style similar to that of Wes Anderson. The aspect ratio is almost a square (I think the technical term is 16:9) and while on the one hand it creates a feeling of being trapped, it also heightens the strangeness of everything we see. 

More explicitly comedic moments are weaved throughout, primarily in the "teaching sessions", in which we see how deluded the teaching methods are for these poor men who already understand everything they're being told. That comedy feels like a shock when you first experience it, but it becomes truly impressive as the film goes on, navigating a tightrope between the comedy of a chicken named after Freddie Mercury and the tragedy of young men being taken away for lying about one small thing in their applications. It's the kind of masterful tonal navigation that you expect from a cinema veteran, not from a feature debut from the director and screenwriter! Simply put, I was floored.

There's this part of me that has a feeling that Limbo could be a hit when it releases wide. It has a humour that makes it totally accesible, an oddball style that is easy to appreciate, while crucially carrying a message about the cruelty of the British government to refugees. I have no idea when it will release, but I'll be championing it as soon as it does and will happily give Limbo an 


That marks the end of my London Film Festival coverage this year, thank you so much for reading it! I've had an amazing time and though I don't miss the sleep deprivation, I already miss the adrenaline of not knowing what's coming. We'll be back to normal in two weeks time and while I won't say exactly what it'll be, let me just tease you by saying that it could prove to be quite a controversial piece for fans of a certain beloved franchise!


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