by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Since I started this, if I’m being blunt, holiday masquerading as journalism of some description, I’ve felt noticeably better about myself. I’ve mostly been happier, my anxiety has calmed down to arguably the lowest it has been in a long time, and I’ve had far more energy to write than I did throughout the entire 4 months leading up to this. It’s not been a struggle to get these articles pumped out every night, like it has been with anything else I have written over the Summer, and I actually send them off feeling good about what I have written rather than nervous or unsatisfied. I’ve been feeling more confident, less irritable, more focussed, like this trip has given me a purpose again (cheesy as that may sound for somebody who is doing nothing but watch 4 films a day for almost a fortnight).
Not coincidentally, I’ve also been in somewhat of a bubble since I started this thing. I check Twitter every now and again and have glimpsed more US Election troubles, more stories of our Tory government swinging further right, serious sexual assault allegations in the Film Critic Industry, but that’s all they are. Glimpses. Minor beams of reality piercing briefly into this bubble before dissipating again with little sustained impact. I’ve spent so much of my life, and particularly my uni life, remaining engaged in this socially and politically aware atmosphere, sort of fearful that my not doing so would be relapsing too far into my White Male privilege. Yet that’s pretty much what I’ve done since I came down to London, and I feel better than I have done in a long, long time. I know that I’m going to feel guilty about that soon after I go back home, for shutting myself off from the world and feeling happy as a result despite everything else going to Hell outside of my bubble, but for now I’m feeling great, waking up each morning with an enthusiasm and relative pep that doesn’t subside for the rest of the day. Feel free to judge.
Anyways, movies! There are only 2 further days of press screenings left after todays, so I’m trying to savour each of them before my schedule becomes a lot more open and less reliant on stupidly early mornings. That said, I don’t particularly mind stupidly early mornings when they involve catching films as riotous as Prevenge (Grade: B+), the directorial debut of Alice Lowe, who also wrote and stars as Ruth. Ruth, much like Lowe at the time of filming, is 7 months pregnant, going it alone after her husband dies whilst mountain climbing, and talks to her unborn daughter like most any mother-to-be. Unlike most mothers-to-be, though, Ruth’s unborn child talks back to her, and she’s getting quite insistent that her mum set about on a murderous revenge spree against all of those they both feel were responsible for her dad’s death.
It’s a bonkers premise but, much like with Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (which Lowe starred in and co-wrote), it’s a premise that utilises psychopathy as an outlet to explore more mundane and relatable fears – pregnancy (of course), that fear over wondering what’s “best for baby” and how condescending everyone who is not you can come off as when they try and give you advice, pre-partum depression and the anxiety over the potential hypocrisy of self-care, the need to find villains to focus your anger against in your grief over a tragedy, plus general sexism and Othering as both a woman and a heavily pregnant woman. It all sounds heavy on paper, but Prevenge filters all of that through some absolutely delicious dark comedy, flitting between gory violence, deadpan exchanges, and goofy slapstick on a dime with ease and producing frequent full-on belly laughs as a result.
Lowe’s direction is stylish and assured, switching between artfully shot murder sequences and a cold stifling mundanity for most everything else, the pacing never slipping, and helped along by a perfectly-pitched dark 80s B-movie score by TOYBOX. The performances are similarly great, with Lowe obviously carrying the vast majority of the film, but there’s also another standout performance from Jo Hartley as an excessively peppy midwife. Much like Sightseers, Prevenge does wrap up more than a little anticlimactically, although its actual ending is a great piece of tonal whiplash, but it doesn’t dilute the ride up to then in the slightest. This is a pitch-black yet incredibly well-handled directorial debut. It’s the kind of work I’d expect from somebody halfway through their career nearing the peak of their powers; for Lowe to knock this out on her first try – and, again just in case you missed it earlier, whilst SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT – is quite simply astonishing. Prevenge is already a future cult-classic, and I cannot wait for that cult to embrace it with open arms.
Bagging on 76 (Grade: D-), meanwhile, feels more than a tad mean and unfair, if I’m being honest. Nigerian cinema is obviously not Hollywood, and taking a film from there to task for not being up to snuff with the filmmaking quality of America or Britain or France can be undeserved and ignorant of what their limitations are. But bad filmmaking is bad filmmaking and bad storytelling is bad storytelling, and I cannot let a film as poorly made, ineptly told, and relentlessly boring as 76 slide through on technicalities. Inspired by true events, the film charts the lead up to the successful assassination of Nigerian Heads of State and its follow-up failed coup through the eyes of Officer Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) and his long-time partner Suzy (Rita Dominic) as the former uncovers the plot, fails to warn anybody in time due to seemingly everyone in the military being in on it, and then falsely jailed afterwards when he is wrongly linked to trying to carry out the whole mess.
There’s a good story here – filled as it is with espionage, corruption, general injustice, and the opportunity to take the pulse of a vital time in Nigerian history – and it’s told atrociously. The pacing is horrendous, the tension is non-existent, there’s too much dead weight cluttering down the film (particularly Dewa’s beef with Suzy’s similarly beef-prone family that is just utterly pointless), and so badly written that multiple scenes descend into nothing more than a bunch of flat and uninteresting characters all yelling indistinctly over one another about different things. The filmmaking is even worse with blatant ADR sessions all over the place, multiple continuity issues, ambient soundtracks that keep starting and stopping, and as for the score… You remember those “dynamic soundtracks” from old Medal of Honor games or Enter the Matrix, where in theory they were supposed to adapt to the action on screen, but in practice just randomly did their own thing and would suddenly fade out for minutes at a time for no reason? This has the movie version of that.
And it’s all just so boring. Once the initial rush of watching a film this poorly put together wears off, it quickly dawns that this is a 2 hour movie, it’s going nowhere fast, and you’ve got to sit through every last remaining second, bored out of your mind watching an unengaging and shoddily told story with constant amateur filmmaking errors that quickly get on your nerves once the realisation that they aren’t going away sets in. Again, it feels unfair to bag on 76, but this is just bad filmmaking that I really disliked sitting through, and I have to call em like I see em. 76 is just not good enough.
Despite not having any rush tickets or official press tickets, I still managed to get lucky and acquire myself a comp ticket to get into Kate Plays Christine (Grade: A-), another one of my most anticipated films of the festival which, much like the last time I got a comp ticket to one of my most anticipated films of the festival, is also based around the on-air suicide of journalist Christine Chubbuck back in 1974. But whereas Christine (which you can get my thoughts on here) was a heavily-fictionalised biopic, Kate Plays Christine is a documentary (OR IS IT) following actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray the role of Christine in a biopic. Researching her, trying to find footage of her, seeing lots of herself in Christine, and trying desperately to find the emotional truth in her portrayal whilst the lines separating documentary and dramatic fiction blur as Kate ponders whether she’ll be capable of pulling the trigger when it comes time to stage the suicide.
My thoughts on Kate Plays Christine cannot be contained to the space allotted in these articles, particularly since, although they are both trying different things with different themes from different angles and arrive at wholly different conclusions, this and Christine make very interesting yet unintentional companion pieces and comparisons with each other – things I shall expand upon in a separate article either next week or the week after. For now, Kate Plays Christine is a film trying to do a heck of a lot, particularly as it further blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. It’s about the acting method, of course, how actors find and leave pieces of themselves in their characters, having to go to some tough places that they can never fully come back from in order to find that elusive emotional truth in their performance. The film constantly juxtaposes Kate’s raw, uncertain, surprised empathy to Christine in her interviews with the phonier, campier, more put-on performance she’s giving; Kate Plays Christine constantly exposing the artifice of its film-within-a-film, which is explained to be in the style of 70s soap-operas to further demonstrate the artificiality of acting as a whole.
But Kate herself is aware at every stage of her performance not being good enough, of not understanding the point of certain scenes or why Christine would act, react, or think the way she did. Kate wants to understand, but her research is getting her nowhere, and she’s failing to find any meaning in the suicide that Christine is remembered for. This is what Kate Plays Christine eventually pivots towards: trying to find meaning in what, to everybody other than Christine, was a senseless, selfish, and meaningless act. Why did she decide to kill herself, and why did she choose to do so live on air? Was it some kind of moral stand? Was it a desire to be seen for once in her life? Was it revenge aimed at those closest to her whom she believed had slighted her in some way over the years? Kate doesn’t know and this fact just eats away at her, both because her process requires that understanding and because she sees so much of herself in Christine and it is heavily implied that this fact terrifies her.
And then there’s this simple question that cuts through the heart of everyone who hears it: why do we care about Christine Chubbuck? By all accounts, she was a depressed, painfully lonely woman with a boring, completely uneventful and un-special life, like so many other women before her and since that nobody makes giant films about. She is only remembered today, and even then barely, because of how she chose to die rather than as a person in her own right. Thus, her death carries the risk of being romanticised in any portrayal, even ones that don’t want to do that and instead try to reframe her as a person whom the audience can understand. Isn’t there something fundamentally hypocritical and uncomfortable about that? How, no matter where the journey between goes, her story starts and ends with that on-air suicide? That we still desire to see or recreate the act? Is that merely a darkly ironic rebuke to one of the potential reasons for her suicide, or is it sadism dressed up in less-objectionable clothes?
Far less confrontational and complex was the day’s final film, Tickling Giants (Grade: B), a crowdpleasing documentary about Dr. Bassem Youssef. Once a heart surgeon working in Egypt, what he really wanted to do was be a comedian like his idol Jon Stewart, and ended up being inspired by The Arab Spring of 2011 to finally do just that, launching Al-Bernameg (The Show). Taking aim at political comedy and openly criticising politicians and the Egyptian media, both big no-no’s in the Egyptian dictatorship, his show blossomed from a YouTube smash to a television sensation, with a weekly audience of over 20 million viewers, only for the constant shifting of Egypt’s political landscape, and the various regimes’ sensitivity to criticism of any kind, to eventually force the show to shut down and for Youssef to have to go into exile.
The film purposefully keeps its tone somewhat light throughout, though, even when the threats against Youssef, The Show, and his staff and family start to become more and more pronounced, vehement, and serious as the years change. That feeds into Giants’ overall point about the importance of political satire, the requirement for freedom of speech, and how liberals and political activists can never give up hope that things will get better even after they appear to have been defeated. It charts The Show’s rise when it focusses all of its energies on making fun of the near-universally hated President Mohamed Morsi, and its slow enforced decline once it changed tack and started making fun of the far-worse but mostly-popular Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as if there’s some kind of double-standard response to certain figures being subjected to satire or something. Tickling Giants is kept from greatness by awkward pacing that oftentimes feels like its near-2 hour runtime, particularly since its more stylish touches disappear by the hour mark, but it is still a very entertaining watch and a strong reminder that political satire is a vital and powerful aspect of society and culture that the world needs more of today than ever.
Also, it reminded me of just how much I miss Jon Stewart. I’m talking an actual aching pain, here, caused by his absence.
Day 9: 5 Centimetres Per Second’s Makoto Shinkai brings the Japanese smash-hit, and the first animated feature to ever play in Official Competition at the London Film Festival, Your Name to British shores.