by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
You would think that I would have gotten up bright and early on Saturday morning in order to catch the press screening for DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, given that I am still (to my knowledge) the film critic who is the world’s leading expert on the works of DreamWorks Animation thanks to The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective. I chose to skip Trolls, however. I wanted to have a minor lay-in, for one, but primarily it was due to the film dropping in UK cinemas in just over 2 weeks, so seeing it with such a small gap between festival and theatrical screenings felt like wasting precious festival time – hence why I also skipped Thursday’s screening of American Honey. I am at a film festival, as a credited member of the press, able to see a whole gaggle of films that either won’t be out for several months or won’t make it to Hull at all, so I should take full advantage of that fact! Indeed, I was going to instead see the other animated feature being screened that morning, Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children (Grade: D+)!
This was a choice that I would come to regret. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by co-director Alberto Vásquez, Psychonauts – and, no, it has no relation to the beloved videogame, in order to get the obvious jokes and ignorance out of the way immediately – is set on an island of animal-people hybrids ravaged by some kind of industrial disaster that has split the island into two halves. The titular Forgotten Children live in the trash-filled Industrial Zone, spending their days searching for copper they can sell for money to buy food which they in turn sell for more copper, caught hopelessly in this cycle of poverty. The slightly more civilised parts of the island, meanwhile, are all desperate to escape and make their way to The Big City across the sea, in the meantime succumbing to drug addictions that appear to manifest themselves as literal malicious demons, and persecuting the mute Birdboy, an addict whose father sold drugs to children and whom the island’s police force wrongly believe is following in his father’s footsteps.
Hopefully you already see the main problems here. Psychonauts is far too messy and barely coherent, featuring too many characters – including Birdboy, the Forgotten Children, a group of teenagers trying to get off the island, a fisherman caring for his heroin-addicted mother, and far too many others – each with their own plots, many crossing paths several times, and all utilising different metaphors that complicate any potential message. Addicts and those suffering from mental illnesses have literal demons that appear to overtake the host’s entire being and can cause harm separate from the host themselves, for example. The Forgotten Children get barely any screen time and the film never asks the viewer to properly sympathise with them, either, lest its big violent 3rd act setpiece become too offputtingly disturbing for the viewer. Hell, the film doesn’t even manage to establish a coherent geography of the island itself; I spent much of the film thinking the Industrial wastelands were a framework for a story being told in-medias-res rather than a going concern.
The film is too quirky for its own good, throwing every possible trippy image at the wall and hoping that something sticks – in this world, even otherwise inanimate objects have conscience thought and coherent speech, for some utterly bizarre reason. Admittedly, the animation is visually striking, which is what saves the film from being a total waste, but it’s also, design-wise, nothing you haven’t seen in the notebook of an emo high-school kid from back in the mid-2000s. Plus, like with Ari Folman’s visually-trippy but thematically-muddled and narratively-empty The Congress, all the visual trippiness in the world can’t make up for a lack of story and a hopelessly muddled thematic core.
On the subject of film choices I came to regret before the credits rolled, Una (Grade: D), or “What if a paedophile were actually a really honourable and upstanding man aside from the whole ‘grooming and molesting an underage child’ thing?” Una wants to tackle our preconceptions of consent and rape, kind of similarly to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (which I saw and discussed in yesterday’s piece), by demonstrating that the case isn’t always as clear-cut for either party as it may appear on paper, that there are long-term ramifications for both parties, especially if one of them sincerely believes that they are in love with the other. There is a way to tell a story like this, where we come to understand both characters and their headspaces, see them as complex people with wants and desires that aren’t as simple as society would have us believe, and how that can be more disturbing than pat simplicity, or at the very least can be told in a way that isn’t a horrifying mess…
…this ain’t it. Instead, Una proceeds to spend much of its 94 minutes providing sympathy and understanding and explanations for the rapist, and basically nothing for the title character (Rooney Mara). Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) gets to plead his side of things repeatedly, cycling through all of the stock bulls**t excuses, complaining about how the 3 month “mistake” ruined his life, and how he had to fight with all of his might to turn things around and claw together the pretty nice life he has now, with a new name, a decent job, and a wife oblivious to his past. Una, initially, gets to give as good as Ray’s got, tearing down his “woe-is-me” arguments and angrily retorting with how she never got the chance to get her life back thanks to him. But eventually, she starts to give up, as does he, and the two start to work towards the admission that maybe there was something sincere there between them once, and that may still be there now, 15 years on. That is interesting, if handled well, and Una proceeds to squander it massively by shifting in its final third to making Ray ultimately a “nice guy” and Una the crazy woman who can’t let the past go.
This massive lapse in judgement ends up occurring as a result of the multitude of smaller, easily avoidable mistakes that litter the film up to that point – first-time film director Benedict Andrews filming almost all of the flashbacks in romantic soft-focus like this were any normal love story, the script not giving Una the depth or comebacks that Ray ends up getting, and awkwardly shoe-horned in subplots only serve the purpose of trying to make Ray likeable all being particular offenders. Then on just a film level, away from those problematic undertones, it’s just far too blandly shot, uninvolving, and stagey (the film is an adaptation of writer David Harrower’s own play Blackbird and it really shows by the halfway point) to be worth anyone’s time. Ben Mendelsohn is putting in excellent work playing the character as written, but it’s ultimately wasted on, well, the character as written. Una is utterly abhorrent, and the worst part is that I don’t even think it knows just how far off-base it ends up going. Christ, Election did this far better and it wasn’t even a main part of that film!
Continuing a day of disappointments all round, although this one is much milder and subjective than the others, I must confess to not quite “getting” Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Grade: B-). Taking place across 3 mostly unconnected segments, the film essentially dramatises a day or two in the life of a group of women whose lives are uneventful even when they are, by some metric, eventful. The first follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) as she deals with a difficult client (Jared Harris), the second follows a working mother (Michelle Williams) with her husband (James le Gros) as she tries to buy sandstone from a crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) in order to build her house, and the third follows a lonely Native American rancher (Lily Gladstone) who tries to strike up a relationship with an overworked lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class on School Law. Each of these segments run about 30 minutes a piece, start unassumingly, end suddenly, move very glacially, and nothing much happens in any of them.
This is very much by design, mind you. Reichardt takes great pleasure in subjecting the viewer to the same boring suffocating loneliness that most of the film’s characters experience, and the overall point, if there even is one since I found very little to connect the three segments beyond them all taking place in and representing a forgotten rural American town, appears to be depicting life. Monotonous, day-to-day, glacial life. I can respect that intent, though I do still side with anybody who ends up watching the film and, by the 7th minute of Gina and Ryan’s interminable conversation with Albert or the 14th scene of the rancher riding around the snow on her ATV chased by her adorable dog, yelling, “OK, YES, WE GET THE POINT, ALREADY! DO SOMETHING, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!” It can be too slow and dry for its own good, at times, particularly because it’s not aiming to make any grand statements or even perform much of a character study of any of its protagonists.
Certain Women could have been paced better, basically, particularly since it follows up its worst segment (which just goes on for ages and fails to accomplish anything) with by far and away its best. That final segment is quietly devastating, particularly thanks to the chemistry of Kristen Stewart (inarguably one of the finest actresses working today) and Lily Gladstone (who is one hell of a find and needs a fast-tracked career right the hell now), building up to a phenomenal oner that just broke my heart even deeper the longer it ran on for. Outside of that segment, though, I was more just appreciative of what the film’s trying to do rather than enthralled or touched by it in any significant way. It is, in reductive terms, Slow Cinema – cinema that’s paced deliberately for the sake of being paced deliberately – and whilst I can respect it doing exactly what it set out to do and doing it well, I have to admit that it’s not really for me.
I closed out the day by finally getting an approved press ticket ahead of time for a public screening, that for Jewel’s Catch One (Grade: C), a documentary about the titular nightclub, one of the first openly Black and LGBT discos to open in the USA, and its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams. It’s an interesting story, examining the club’s societal and cultural significance, its turbulent history, and the life and activism of Jewel herself, a Black working-class lesbian who poured her heart and soul into the club and eventually returning to college to learn various skills that she could apply to her non-profit Village Health Population. The film is also clearly a labour-of-love, having been worked on for about 6 years, and aims to crowdplease, which it definitely succeeds at judging by the frequent and raucous rounds of applause that occurred during my screening.
Sadly, though, the film is also much too messy and unfocussed to recommend outside of its inevitable home as a Netflix curio. Part of this is by design, since the subject in question is very locally specific, so archival footage is limited. Mostly, the film tries to split its chips between the club and Jewel herself. Either would make a great documentary on its own, but trying to do both at once leads to lots of rushed history, glossed-over sections that should be important (like the founding of the club), and a lack of trying to explain its cultural relevance for those not already up to speed. There’s a whole extended segment on The AIDS Crisis and I somehow sat there not being particularly moved, which should not be something that happens in a documentary about an LGBT nightclub. Near the end, the film, on the final night of the club, opts to show a montage of former patrons relating their experiences with and connection to the club, and I could briefly see a glimpse of a far better film than the one we have. As it stands, Jewel’s Catch One is an interesting story that’s not done enough justice by the documentary telling it.
Day 5: Terence Davies tells the story of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Adam Driver plays an introspective poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and two women get an uninvited dinner guest in Chameleon.