B&B is a gay drama thriller that’s weirdly self-loathing about its homosexuality, dramatically inert, and lacking much in the way of thrills.
It may not fully work for everybody, but Neruda is an inventive and very entertaining approach to the mythmaking biopic. Read Callum Petch’s review below.
Intentionally quiet and slight arguably to a fault, Certain Women nonetheless is not without its charms.
I want to love Certain Women. I really and truly do. Even within the more independent filmmaking world, Certain Women represents a sort of breath of fresh air by its mere existence. In a sphere of film mostly dedicated to Sad White Men dealing with their Sad White Men problems in a low-key fashion, here is a film all about depicting the mundane lives of three women. And when I say “mundane,” I really do mean “mundane;” these are lives that are profoundly uneventful even when they are, by comparative metric, eventful. Writer-Director Kelly Reichardt, who has made her name with measured and uneventful interpretations of stories that are usually fodder for more traditionally thrilling fare, here adapts a few short stories by Maile Meloy and consequently works with set-ups that are devoid of basically any kind of dramatic conflict whatsoever. One story never acknowledges an earlier potential conflict generator in its own story, another simmers on words unsaid but never truly boils over, and the third intentionally deflates itself at the first opportunity in the driest possible way.
In effect, what you end up watching is less of a series of short narratives with clear beginnings, climaxes, conflicts, etc. and more a collection of snapshots of ordinary if lonely women living their lives. These kinds of lives just don’t get told in Film that often, not in this kind of frank and empathetic way, and especially not for women. Women in the rural-American Mid-West, no less! Dealing with loneliness and isolation in a world that often attempts to forget they even exist. So, I do want to love Certain Women.
I just can’t quite get there, though. That same intentional quietness and deliberate pacing that provides the film’s selling point is also its major weakness for me. All three stories touch on the same themes, have the same pacing, and are so intentionally slight that my mind couldn’t help but wander from time to time. There may be a tangible empathy here, particularly in the stunning final segment, but there’s also just a bit too much of a sedate distance to proceedings, where the film is purposefully avoiding anything eventful and instead filling up that time with very long takes where not very much happens at all. When the film is clicking on all cylinders, where its stories ache with a noticeable pain and quiet suffering, it’s not an issue. But when it’s anything less than that, either by not sketching that story’s protagonist deeply enough or holding an interminably long conversation that’s going nowhere in no particular hurry, then it starts to poke holes in the enterprise.
That, I guess, is my way of saying that not all of the stories are created equal. The first involves a lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern), dealing with a long-disgruntled client (Jared Harris). The second has a married couple, Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James le Gros), trying to convince a somewhat-crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) to sell them some sandstone that they can use to build their house in the wilds. The third, and best by a country mile, follows a lonely Ranch Hand (newcomer Lily Gladstone) as she finds herself drawn to a night school class and forges a connection with the teacher, amateur lawyer and out-of-towner Beth (Kristen Stewart). The second is the millstone, somewhat fittingly, that drags down the rest of the enterprise, being so slow and so uneventful that I found myself checking my watch frequently and wondering if there was a point being made at all with it. There is, it’s just that said point is made almost immediately and the segment fails to find any further spins on it for the rest of its run time.
It’s also the most dialogue-heavy of the three segments, or at least feels like it, and the most static. Strangely, dialogue often turns out to be a crutch for Certain Women as a whole. It’s not that any of it is bad, sometimes it even manages to provide some dryly humorous levity to proceedings, it’s more that the film’s most powerful moments come from a lack of. From words unsaid, from connections unrealised, from an honesty that can’t quite be reached. Gina goes off on runs that are more excuses to sneak a cigarette without Ryan knowing, whilst Ryan is revealed in the first story to be having an affair with Laura but her story never allows him the chance to finish his attempt at ending the thing, whilst the moment that the third story gets as close to an honest admission of feelings as its protagonists can, the resultant pause communicates more hurt than a thousand words ever could.
These are women who feel isolated from society around them, lacking in any real meaningful connections or any connections at all. Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, which is low-key gorgeous for the record, goes to great lengths to frame each of these women as separate from the rest of the world around them, for that kind of isolation and enforced distance to become quietly wearying on the viewer like it is for the women themselves. How society renders them all-but-invisible in subtle ways that are only picked up on by those on the receiving end – Laura’s client only accepts the exact same judgement that Laura’s been telling him for the past 8 months once it comes out of a man’s mouth, the old man that Gina is trying to buy the sandstone from often straight up ignores her and talks solely to Ryan instead, whilst the Ranch Hand deliberately secludes herself at the back of the class lesson after lesson and is ignored wholesale by the rest of the class members, despite one student’s claim that “we all know each other.”
Rather than dance around the point any further, I’ll just come right out and say it: the reason that you need to watch Certain Women, even if the whole doesn’t quite rise like it should and its second story is just kind of dull, is for that third story. That’s where everything comes together – the writing, the measured pacing, the commitment to depicting the crushing mundanity of a lonely life, the empathy for all those involved, and the quiet pain of longing constantly flowing under the surface – to deliver a phenomenal half hour that builds to a closing oner which devastates ever more the longer that it runs. It also stands head and shoulders above the rest of the stories due to the performances and unique chemistry of Stewart and Gladstone, both awkwardly dancing around the central question of their connection with a tangible caution clearly born out of a desire to not hurt or get hurt that only serves to make those unsaid words cut that much deeper. Gladstone, especially, is a full-on revelation, particularly when that final shot comes around.
I kinda wish, in all honesty, that Certain Women were just that story, since then I’d be able to properly love it. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad film, not in any respect, even that second segment isn’t bad so much as I just found it wholly unengaging. For me, though, just under 110 minutes of this much deliberate slowness and intentionally minor storytelling was ultimately a little too tiring for me to be able to properly love. I’m honestly fine with that, however, and not just because I know that there are certain people who will absolutely adore Certain Women. When the film clicks like it does many times during the final story, the resultant cinema is enrapturing. And even when it’s not, there really is something to be said for its commitment to realising and empathising with the sort of uneventful (often) middle-aged female life that it squarely focusses on. We can’t all have dramatic lives. Sometimes, all we can ask for is to be acknowledged by anybody at all.
Certain Women is playing in UK cinemas from March 3rd.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
When you’re at a film festival, tough choices have to be made. Do I choose to spring for the more expensive full meal that I know my body would love but would drain the bank account too much, or do I choose to subside purely on McDonalds value meals for two full weeks consequently saving vital cash but going to bed every night feeling super hungry? Do I risk being able to have a proper toilet stop, or do I order my sphincter to stay clenched throughout the fortnight because every second is busy being used up by other far more important activities? But the most important choices are always schedule related: do I go and see this film, or do I try this film that’s on at the same time instead? One will always fall by the wayside, oftentimes a film that you’re really excited or interested in, and you’ll spend much of the rest of your time wondering, “What if?” particularly if the film you saw instead of it is a heaping helping of garbage.
Thursday morning had a lot of that. Do I get up super early for the press screening of Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest despite utterly despising her previous feature, The Riot Club – a film I named the worst of 2014 and was almost 10 seconds away from walking out of? Do I take a risk and see Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, finally getting a UK release over a year after it was dropped onto American shores, or Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, purely so I can finally understand what one of my film critic friends is on about when they constantly extol the virtues of Dolan? Or do I do none of the above, as that would mean missing out on the press screening of Makoto Shinaki’s Your Name (Grade: B), which had already totally sold out all three of its public screenings. If you actually paid attention to the teaser at the bottom of Day 8’s article, you’ll know that this choice was a very easy one for me.
Your Name follows Mitsuha (Mone Kamishriaishi), a Japanese high-school girl living in the rural town of Itomori, and she’s not happy with the state of her life. The town is so isolated that it lacks any excitement or even so much as a single café, and those total lack of prospects or friends or any particular reason for remaining there beyond carrying on a village tradition whose meaning has been lost to the winds of time is starting to get to her. After one particularly bad day, Mitsuha yells out her wish to be reincarnated in the next life as a handsome Tokyo boy, only to wake up the next morning to find her wish granted. Mitsuha has swapped into the body of Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a hyper-masculine high-school boy in Tokyo, and vice-versa, and this appears to happen randomly between the two several days a week. Much body-swap hilarity ensues, with Mitsuha both taking full advantage of and trying to improve Taki’s life, whilst Taki in Mitsuha’s body mostly obsesses over having boobs, until the two souls go trying to physically find each other. Then the laughter very quickly stops.
For its first half, Your Name was on the verge of being one of the very best films I had seen all festival. It’s both funny and affecting, utilising the body-swap mechanic to explore teenage dissatisfaction, gradual maturity, elements of gender dysphoria and especially gender performance to the rest of the world, and awakening sexuality, particularly when Mitsuha gets bummed about not being able to be in Taki’s body the day of the date she had arranged for him with his crush, Miki (Masami Nagasawa). The comedy is broad but impeccably timed, and its heart is always on its sleeve with a sincere earnestness to proceedings that’s infectious to watch. The animation really helps in this regard, adhering to your standard Shōjo designs but utilising a gorgeous colour palette and raw artistry to create a film that’s beautiful to look at even before it starts busting out money shots in its second half.
BUT, and there is a but… there’s a whopping great big twist here as to what exactly’s going on, one that shifts the entire film completely for its second half. Not just in tone, but in theme, switching to examining missed connections, relationships out of time, and our relationship with history. In a way, it changes the dynamic of the film more to something more in line with, coincidentally of all things, Denis Villenueve’s Arrival and especially Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and, like with Marnie for me at least, it slowly begins to lose steam once its cards have finally been laid on the table and we see what game the film has been playing. I don’t mean that it suddenly goes down the toilet, it’s still genuinely affecting and its big scenes still hit their beats with precision. I mean that, like with Marnie’s eventual reveal, it turns the story into something more traditional and heteronormative than it appeared to be leading up to, and than I personally would have liked. For all of that fun body-swap build-up and fun cross-body bickering between Mitsuha and Taki to be revealed as needlessly complex groundwork for a star-crossed lovers romance – both literally and figuratively – with an ending stolen straight from The Butterfly Effect… it’s personally disappointing, especially since a romantic connection doesn’t gel with the prior set-up. Your Name is still a great watch, but it self-sabotages to avoid becoming an essential watch from the halfway point on.
You know what I haven’t experienced enough of during this festival? Divisive films. Not that I’ve done much talking to people, due to the crippling anxiety and social awkwardness and all, but those that I have talked to or overheard talking throughout the festival seem to mostly be in total agreement over what was good and what’s been crap. Even Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a film practically scientifically-designed to divide and piss off as many people as is humanly possible, appears to have reached a consensus “that was actually really good and surprisingly tasteful” amongst the critical community. Nocturama (Grade: A (the joys of a rating system other than /10, I can feel more confident in giving outstanding films with minor flaws the highest possible score if they affect me that much)) was here to change all that, and about damn time too. I overheard, as I exited the film, everything from “that was 2 hours of my life that I’ll never get back” to “I really enjoyed it up until the ending” to “I didn’t get it” to “I have no idea what to think of it.” This one split the capacity screening I was in, and not unintentionally either. This is a harsh, angry, deliberately provocative film that could not give a f**k what you want it to be or do. It is often nasty, it is deliberately static, and it gives off the constant false impression that there is nothing going on here.
And I absolutely f**king loved it.
Nocturama, in both the most straightforward and accurate terms that I have managed to come up with, is Spring Breakers but for terrorism. Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, the film follows a group of young French radicals as they plan and then execute multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks throughout city of Paris. Why? We don’t know and, more to the point, it seems that our cast don’t quite know why they are compelled to do so either. Some of them talk about starting a war, but they never seem to figure who they’re fighting a war against. They assassinate a banker, blow up two abandoned floors of a skyscraper office, set off four car bombs in a row in a random street, blow up part of a government building, and spontaneously combust a statue, but there’s a randomness and remove to their targets. If it’s a war against the status quo, then what exactly is the status quo they’re warring against? Why do they never talk about why they did what they did?
In truth, there doesn’t seem to be a reason, ideological or otherwise, to their actions or why they united together, and if there is, Nocturama says, that’s not the real point. More than anything, their actions appear to the result of youthful anger and arrogance, a deluded belief that “setting the city on fire” will somehow spark a giant revolution, mass panic in the streets, or at least something more than the government working together to bring a swift resolution to the crisis and general public indifference. Terrorism is practically a daily occurrence now, one that we experience vicariously when we turn on the news or have accepted the risk of happening to us when we choose to live in a populated area today. To believe that some kind of societal war can begin from one (notably diverse) group of disaffected young people pulling off one set of attacks, that one small group of radicals can somehow represent and spark a fire in those who would never dream of committing terrorism, is youthful naivety at best and massive egocentrism at worst.
The attacks are some of the tensest cinema I’ve seen all year, which is saying a lot because this has been a fantastic year for the mid-budget thriller, and they take up pretty much the whole first hour of the film. The timeline constantly cycles back and cuts between each of its cast as the specifics of their plan start coming together and, more importantly, each commits a tiny but ultimately significant mistake – forgetting to sign the back of a credit card despite repeated reminders to do so, accidental witnesses, becoming hit-and-run victims, exiting the scene of a crime with their gun still drawn when they go back into public. They may have been able to put their plan together and execute it, but they’re not infallible and, far more importantly than that, they’re all amateur mistakes that draw attention to how these are impulsive, reckless, and self-centred kids with no noble cause or grand reason for committing these acts.
From there, those that are left regroup and hole up in a high-end shopping mall for the night, planning to split up and get away the following morning once the heat dies down. Except that this plan failed to account for one thing: these are, for all intents and purposes, immature kids. They are given very simple strict instructions at the beginning of the night – don’t go outside, don’t go near the lighting aisle as that’s the only one with the security system still on, ditch all of your phones, and stay away from all windows – and every last one of them proceeds to break those rules almost immediately. Some experience severe crises of conscience, some succumb to paranoia, others are undone by their cigarette addictions, others still are too bored to care about their own safety, whilst the rest spend their time indulging in the rampant materialism that comes with the store. Sound systems blast out thumping hip-hop, everybody upgrades their clothes to something high-end and classy, one guy does laps of one floor with a go-kart and takes a bath made with buckets of tap water, and another serenades the group with a lip-synced performance of “My Way.”
It’s an absolutely scathing indictment of youthful egocentrism, where their every action acts as them bringing about their own downfall, potentially as a pathological act of self-sabotage – despite storing spare Semtex in case they get found out, nobody bothered to bring the charges or detonators required to use them. But unlike even Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which found an occasional sympathy or understanding in its various cast members, Bonello has absolutely no sympathy or patience for his cast – I hesitate to call them characters, as the film deliberately leaves all of its players thinly sketched, which will only further divide viewers. He directs at a remove, even when they’re constantly indulging themselves at the Mall; Blondie’s “Call Me” has never sounded more like a funeral march.
His ultimate judgement of his cast is ruthless and clinical, much like the Special Forces that eventually storm the Mall, and even that ending carries no catharsis or pleasure. There’s no sympathy for what happens to these people, but there’s no joy in seeing them get their comeuppance, either. Watching them be hunted like rats, powerless, terrified, out of plans and options as if they had any to begin with, as they are each taken down with horrifying precision, one bullet a time. It’s the biggest “f**k you” and most blatantly confrontational stance one can take with its audience, and it’s absolutely befitting Nocturama. I haven’t been this in love with a film that despises its audience and its entire cast this much since Only God Forgives. This is relentlessly tense and gripping viewing that grabs you by the scruff of your neck and refuses to release that hold until the credits have finished rolling. Aside from some clunky and unnecessary flashbacks during the attacks to the planning of said, this is an absolute masterpiece. More than any other film I’ve covered this festival, I cannot guarantee that you will react to Nocturama the same way I did, but I can guarantee you that it will provoke you, and that’s something that more cinema needs to try doing.
I turned up for my third, final, and press-ticket-approved film for the day, Two Lovers and a Bear (Grade: C), purely due to it starring Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany. They also ended up being the only great parts of the film, disappointingly, although that goes a lot further than most redeeming factors in overlooking larger flaws. DeHaan and Maslany play Roman and Lucy, two lovers living in a remote frozen town, and both running from dark pasts involving their fathers that have left them damaged people. Lucy ends up getting accepted to study Biology down South, which would separate her from Roman, and after Roman has a suicidal sulk brought upon by said baggage and his rampant alcoholism – that’s not being facetious, either, Roman really does go through his entire character arc before the main plot kicks in – the pair decide to use their snowmobiles to drive down South together across the frozen and inhospitable wasteland that separates them from their destination.
Two Lovers and a Bear is weird, needlessly so. Ostensibly a drama, the film also has elements of comedy, philosophy, magical realism, and one long detour into attempted horror near the end once the pair stumbles upon an abandoned military outpost, and the tone is all over the place as a result. Lucy’s past trauma is personified by an actual ghost following her around everywhere, and it’s really serious and dark, but then it can be followed up by a scene where Roman talks to a bear heavily implied to be a God of some kind as it tries to drink his vodka, and the whole screen burst out laughing. In particular, whilst Lucy’s ghost at least makes a sort of sense, Roman’s ability to talk to bears doesn’t have much of a bearing on the film as a whole beyond adding needless quirk, with even what I think was supposed to be a poignant exchange at the conclusion still causing laughter because it’s so off-beat, even with a film that switches gears into being a horror for 5 minutes for absolutely no reason. Off-beat does not automatically equal good or even worthwhile, and writer-director Kim Nguyen fails to understand that.
Maslany and DeHaan go a very long way towards why Two Lovers and a Bear is at least watchable, if nothing else. Whilst they never manage to find the characters they’re supposed to be playing, too hobbled by a script uninterested in properly psychologically examining its two leads despite the set-up, they do get by through sheer blunt force of charisma and a sweet chemistry once Roman stops acting like a massive dick. For Maslany, it’s ultimately minor work given the continued existence of Orphan Black, but for DeHaan it’s work that’s long overdue given his constant unfortunate roles post-Chronicle. It’s just a shame that the film surrounding them isn’t focussed enough to back them up, particularly with an ending that’s supposed to be tragic but ends up having no impact due to arriving suddenly as a result of a montage and being proceeded by another bear conversation. Again, off-beat does not automatically equal good.
Day 10: Tom Ford finally returns to the world of filmmaking with Nocturnal Animals.
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.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
By the time I had reached the Picturehouse Central at about 8:35 in the morning, the lines were out the door for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. I was not here to see that, though. Despite it satisfying much of the criteria I had with regards to my screening picks (that I outlined yesterday), I am choosing to withhold watching The Birth of a Nation until it is no longer possible to avoid doing so. See, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but Nate Parker is a piece of sh*t. Although he was acquitted of his rape charges, his co-story writer on the film, Jean Celestin, was not, and Parker was alleged to have led an organised harassment campaign on university campus against the rape victim (the university settled), actions for which he has showed no particular remorse for throughout the press tour for his film. You can see why I am very hesitant to support in any particular fashion a film that he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in.
No, instead, I was there to see The Stopover (Grade: A-), the new film from The Coulin Sisters, Muriel and Delphine. Set over 3 days at a five-star hotel resort in Cyprus, the film follows a French army regiment stuck there on their way back from Afghanistan to decompress from their time at war, primarily seen through the eyes of childhood friends Marine (Soko) and Aurore (Ariane Labed). What is meant to help them unwind and work through one particularly horrific flashpoint that has left the group coming apart at the seams, instead turns into a slow-building pressure-cooker of poorly-handled PTSD, toxic masculinity, and rampant unchecked misogyny as the boy’s club atmosphere of the army becomes exacerbated by woefully inadequate therapy that’s only making things worse.
It’s an environment where any weakness is pounced upon, mocked, and stamped out as quickly as possible, where your emotions must remained bottled up for fear of being labelled “a crazy” and risking not being able to go home again, and where the default insult is gendered despite some of their fellow comrades being women. It’s not healthy, and oftentimes horrifying, and Marine and Aurore provide the perfect P.O.V.s to experience this disintegration via. They’re not as boorish and disgustingly hateful as their male counterparts, but they’re also trying to conform to that masculine culture of keeping their emotions and trauma bottled up rather than trying to work through them, because they have to. It’s bad enough that their comrades all think that women are useless fighters and “bad luck,” what would happen if they were to crack? Soko and Labed put in excellent performances, cultivating a lived-in relationship between one another and communicating that balance of depicting restrained on-the-edge emotion and letting the viewer in so that they can witness what the rest of the characters cannot with grace.
The film is unflinching, particularly as it speeds towards its surprisingly tense final third when Marine and Aurore realise that they can’t outrun their problems and that volatile pressure-cooker even if they escape to the rest of the island. The gradual disillusionment of its various protagonists and antagonists plays against a gorgeously shot backdrop of sun, sand, and hotel pools in a way that can occasionally tip into ironic dark comedy – one particularly charged group “debrief” is immediately followed by bundling all of these miserable, irritable people onto a boat in order to go for a swim out to sea. In a way, The Stopover ends up being just like a real holiday, and what’s worse for a group of heightened people who hate each other than a holiday? It’s a brilliant little movie and one of my favourites of the festival so far.
I was heavily tempted to cash in on my pre-bought matinee ticket and see Arrival again (which was covered in Day 6), but I figured that you lot would prefer to hear new words about new movies rather than even more words about something I’ve already covered. So, after handing off the ticket to a friend of mine who lives in London, I headed back into the Picturehouse and caught one of the films I wanted to see but would otherwise have missed due to general scheduling issues: The Pass (Grade: C-). Taking place over the course of 3 scenes and 10 years, The Pass follows professional footballers and best friends Jason (Russell Tovey) and Ade (Arinzé Kene). In 2006, they’re both second-string players partying by themselves in their hotel room the night before a pivotal Champions League match. Excessively macho talk about a desire to sex up all the women, playful wrestling matches, and blackface-whiteface jokes eventually turns bitter when the issue of their professional rivalry gets brought up, then occasionally tender, personal and intimate as the night goes on. Then, Jason leans in to kiss Ade.
The following two acts deal with the fallout, and it’s a very interesting premise – utilising the blatant homosexuality and competitive masculinity of the world of professional football in order to examine the emotional toll a closeted homosexual would have coming to terms with his identity in a sport, and accompanying mainstream media, that still looks down on such things as nothing more than scandalous behaviour. The film even succeeds where Una completely failed in depicting a stage play (which this was) in cinematic terms without coming off as overly so, by not blowing the staging up to big screen levels whilst still preserving the intimate nature of the story and dialogue. It’s a tightly-wound, intimate film that commits wholly to its premise and, aside from the time jumps, never pushes itself into falsely becoming something bigger than itself.
That said, it’s really all for naught because – in addition to its second act being just generally poorly written and ultimately pointless to the story – it’s all in service of depicting one of the most vehemently unpleasant lead characters I’ve witnessed in recent memory. Russell Tovey plays Jason incredibly well, don’t get me wrong, but the character is just a massively unlikeable drain to be around, particularly the further on the film gets. It’s not the fact that he’s struggling with that self-loathing and internalised homophobia despite being gay himself, it’s that he’s just so relentlessly cruel and hateful for so much of the film’s runtime. He has this anger and this conflict, but he lacks even cursory moments in the film’s late stages of vulnerability or redemptive qualities. At the risk of sounding callous, because I know that there are a lot of people who struggle in the sorts of ways that Jason does in reality, I just found him to be a tiring and unpleasant drain to watch, which may be the point but meant that I ultimately stopped caring by about midway through the third act.
Continuing the weird coincidence of 3s popping up in today’s screenings was Porto (Grade: D), a film that I have basically nothing to say about because there’s basically nothing to the film in the first place. Porto is effectively a short filmmaking exercise stretched out very painfully and very noticeably to just about feature-length. Its end credits music is a full minute longer than the end credits themselves, and I know this because the song keeps going even after all the credits have wrapped, that’s how much it’s stretching to get to feature-length. I feel like offering a plot synopsis is a spoiler because my doing so would be to genuinely recap the entire 75 minute film within one sentence. Jake (Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) have a passionate one night stand in Porto that Jake mistakes for something more, things end as quickly as they start, and then, about 10 years later, they reminisce independently of one another about said fling.
That’s it. That’s the whole movie. Porto lays out everything it has to say and do within its first 10 minutes, and then just sort of idles about for the remaining 65 having shot its entire load within those first 10 minutes. Split into 3 chapters for no discernible reason, the film’s timeline is fragmented even further via admittedly stylish filmmaking choices. It’s all shot on Film, but each section of the timeline is shot in a different type of film – the night of passion in warm 35mm, its ugly aftermath in colder 16mm, and the future where neither Jake nor Mati are particularly happy in more worn-out Super8 – and each of them have different noticeable elements of wear-and-tear to them. It is a pretty film to look at, but it only serves to highlight the total emptiness of what that film is being used to depict and so, after a while, even pretty cinematography ends up being a negative.
There’s just nothing going on here. It’s deeply unromantic in part thanks to that structure, which withholds the whole night until the end, long after we’ve seen Jake become a full-fledged abusive stalker and the film seems wholly incapable of recognising that. That back third becomes weighted down with endless sequences of Jake and Mati talking about love and passion that are neither sincere nor are they anywhere near profound enough to justify the amount and length of them, and constant sex scenes that do nothing to advance the movie after the first 2 instances. Porto very quickly starts ping-ponging back and forth between “boring” and “irritating” and doesn’t stop until the final piano note makes its faintly embarrassed exit from the whole enterprise. There is just nothing here, no story, no theme, no aspect that justifies its existence, beyond throwing away 75 minutes of my life that I am never going to get back.
Breaking the trend of 3s but fittingly bookending the day with another film by a French-Belgium writer-director family double-act, we have The Dardenne Brothers’ The Unknown Girl (Grade: C+). A murder-mystery procedural, the film follows Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), the resident-in-charge of a drop-in clinic who, one night, refuses to let in a woman who bangs on her door after closing time and is subsequently found dead in mysterious circumstances the following morning. Wracked with guilt over not admitting the woman, Jenny sets out to find out her identity so that the woman’s family can be alerted and she can maybe clear her conscience somewhat. Veterans of the Dardennes will likely be confused by the “murder-mystery procedural” tag a little while back, given that the Dardennes are more well known for their simple, quiet, contemplative, hyper-realist personal dramas rather than a complex murder-mystery, and therein lies the problem.
Let me quickly state, for the record, that The Unknown Girl is not, by any measure, a bad film. The Dardennes are too good a pair of filmmakers to turn in something less than watchable, and Haenel adds herself to the long list of strong central performances in Dardenne films with a tangibly heavy and world-weary yet compassionate performance that provides the believable centre integral to your typical Dardenne feature. Unfortunately, more attentive readers will already note the two qualifiers hidden in that previous sentence: “watchable” is beneath the Dardennes, with much of their work (and especially 2014’s exquisite Two Days, One Night) being closer to essential viewing, whilst The Unknown Girl is not “your typical Dardenne feature.” It’s a murder-mystery, and that’s just not something that fits the duo’s skillset. A good murder-mystery slowly ratchets up the intensity as time goes on, loses itself in the miasma of red herrings, shifty suspects, and withholding witnesses. A Dardenne film loses itself in small-scale personal drama where the stakes never rise above immediate relationships or perhaps continued employment.
The two don’t have much of a crossover dynamic, basically, especially since the Dardennes are not in the slightest bit interested in changing their filmmaking style to reflect the shift in genre and requirements. Consequently the film never manages to get out of second gear, and the typical beats of a murder-mystery procedural – such as the violent intimidation, the tearful confession, or a suspect shoving our protagonist into a hole in order to give them enough time to escape – come off awkwardly and jar with the world that the Dardennes have created. There’s even the opportunity for the film to make some commentary with how the White French police force don’t seem particularly motivated in investigating the potential murder of an identity-free Black woman, given how they disappear almost entirely from the film once they’ve arrived on Jenny’s doorstep, but it’s not interested in doing so.
The Unknown Girl is at its best when it focusses more on Jenny’s day-to-day life; her troubled relationship with her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), house-calls to lovely recurring patients, verbal abuse from those looking for unnecessary handouts. It even has a more typical Dardenne plot built-in, with Jenny debating whether to move up to a better-paying and more-respectable position in a private medical facility or to take over the clinic full-time from its original owner and her former mentor, only for that to be swept away by the murder-mystery investigation. It’s just not something that the Dardennes are a good fit for, resulting in the first film of theirs in a long while – perhaps ever, although I haven’t seen all of their works – that’s merely “watchable.” Props for trying, though.
Day 8: Alice Lowe, whilst 7 months pregnant, writes, stars, and makes her directorial debut in the dark comedy Prevenge.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
You may recall from yesterday’s article when I mentioned that I skipped out on attending the press screening for Trolls based on the fact that the film is due out in cinemas at month’s end and will definitely make it to Hull. I’ve tried to take into consideration in my film choices those two factors when setting out my schedule – as well as what the film is, who it’s by, if it stars anyone I like, and if it’s a name-film that may drag eyes towards these articles, natch – but I have to cop to some exceptions. I didn’t know that A Quiet Passion was due out next month before I saw it, and I watched A United Kingdom because it was the Opening Night film and what else was I going to do on that Wednesday? Bum around Camden Market wasting even more money on vinyl than I already did that day?
But the biggest exception, with it dropping into cinemas a month to the day of this writing, was that of Denis Villenueve’s Arrival (Grade: A). Arrival will be everywhere in a month’s time, representing as it does Villenueve’s big crossover moment before he risks everything on that Blade Runner sequel, but I could not resist the urge to catch this one early. You see, Villeneuve is the director of 3 stone-cold instant classics over the last 3 years – 2013’s unsettling drama Prisoners, 2014’s unnerving psychological thriller Enemy, and 2015’s absolutely sensational and vice-like Sicario – as well as a bunch of French-Canadian films I have yet to see, and, with Prisoners and Sicario especially, he has very quickly turned into one of my favourite working directors. So when the festival line-up shows that his latest feature is on the bill, you’d better believe that I am there all the way for that! I even bought a ticket to the matinee screening tomorrow until I realised that there was a press screening on and that I had effectively wasted my money, that’s how much I wanted Arrival in my eyeballs!
And you know what? Even with those lofty expectations, massive hype levels, and my being completely exhausted from having to run at 8:45am on a Monday morning to make sure I made it to the screening on time… Arrival still left me speechless, which is fitting, really. Based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story Story of Your Life, the film follows linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is recruited by the US Army to help decipher the language of a highly-advanced race of aliens who are hovering slightly above the Earth in their spaceships. There are 12 in all, distributed seemingly at random in each of the world’s strongest powers, and the various militaries are terrified of the fact that they have no idea how to communicate with these beings and, worse, no clue as to why they are here. The military’s getting antsy, the public are terrified, and the veneer of international co-operation is wearing thin fast, so Banks is brought in, along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), to break that language barrier and establish a dialogue before everything goes to hell.
On paper, that sounds like a thrill-a-minute blockbuster ride, or maybe even one of those tightly-wound slow-burning thrillers that Villenueve has made his English-language name with, but that’s actually far from the case. Instead, screenwriter Eric Heisserer and Villenueve have put together a highly-emotional piece of hard sci-fi, where the pacing is measured and the heart is on its sleeve, exploring big themes in heartfelt ways. In a way, particularly with where the film eventually ends up, Arrival is the film that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar should have been. It’s a film that questions whether humanity would be able to get its collective sh*t together if we were ever to make contact with interstellar life-forms, or whether we would succumb to the same fear and paranoia that has driven our way of life for centuries. It demonstrates the worst in humanity along with the best in it, and ultimately comes down hard on the optimistic side of the equation, much like The Martian did last year.
There are brilliant parallels to how we handle people on the other side of the language barrier, how our instincts, codified by years of exposure to our quietly hateful society, can lead us to automatically fear the worst as a result. How we Other outsiders, distrust them out of hand despite them doing nothing to deserve such treatment. Then, as the film progresses, we start exploring themes of fate, our relationship to our past and our future, and whether we can accept all of those things despite that fear of a lack of real control. It’s a story with a lot of different emotions and themes, and Villenueve, along with Heisserer’s excellent script, handles them with aplomb. This is a film that is constantly capable of providing moments of genuine awe that can inspire tears based on their beauty – Banks and Donnelly’s first contact is an absolute masterclass in filmmaking, in particular, and each breakthrough in the sessions between them and the aliens, whom Donnelly names Abbot & Costello, brings the same feeling of satisfactory relief that one can get from learning a language themselves.
Amy Adams is on absolute fire, here. Much of her best work puts her in the role of an ordinary woman dropped into extraordinary circumstances and utilising that empathetic initial-fish-out-of-water status to draw the viewer in and guide them through the new world before eventually rising to the challenge, and Arrival plays to those strengths with aplomb. Louise is frequently haunted by memories of a daughter she lost to an illness, and that kind of specific maternal instinct ends up manifesting itself as a key way of helping foster progress in her relationship with the aliens. Far preferable to the Chinese’s method of communicating via Chess, that turns the art of communication into a game of conflict, where the only states are binary forms of competitive winning or losing. All the while, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s impeccable score juggles each of the different moods superbly – ominous wailing violins during the imposing first contact eventually evolving into wide-screen emotional symphonies as progress is made and the film shifts into a final third that will make or break everything that came beforehand depending on your tolerance for a little sentimentality to go along with your “smart people being damn good at what they do” sci-fi.
Seriously, I have written all of these words and I still don’t think I have managed to do even a smidgeon of justice to what Villenueve, Heisserer, and everybody involved with Arrival have created here. During the 45 minutes of downtime between this and the next movie, I had to compose myself multiple times because I was constantly on the verge of bursting into tears yet again at the astounding beauty that I had witnessed. Arrival is both clinical and emotional, nitty-gritty realist about the methods of its premise and swings-for-the-fences when it comes to themes of loss and fate, and it is always absolutely riveting viewing. My eyes did not leave the screen once during all of its two hours, and once the credits rolled I knew that I had seen an absolute masterpiece. Arrival is not just the best film I have seen so far at this festival, and may see all festival; it is one of the absolute best films of the entire year.
Unfortunately, not only are there more films to come this year, there were more films to come this day, which just felt wrong and not to mention unfair to those poor films. After all, how on earth are you supposed to follow the showstopper? Try as I might, I couldn’t stop myself from being somewhat down on Layla M. (Grade: B-) purely because it deigned to follow Arrival, I put my hands up in admission to that. But even with that margin of leeway, I just never became fully engaged with Layla M. despite it not having anything particularly wrong with it. The deliberately provocative premise follows the titular Layla (Nora el Koussour), a Dutch teenager who is a straight A student, politically and socially active, and also a fundamentalist Muslim. She’s in a secret relationship with radicalised Islamist propaganda filmmaker Abdul (Illias Addab), her father heavily disapproves of her hardline fundamentalism and threatens to ship her and her easily-led brother back to Morocco, and she’s at the end of her tether with Netherlands’ Islamophobic policies and much of her family’s lapse in their Islamic faith.
The film, essentially, follows her slow radicalisation, deliberately resisting blaming any one thing for her turn towards radicalism and instead showing it to be the result of many things. Her absolute faith in the fundamentalist tenants of Islam, the crushing patriarchal control of her home life, the daily discrimination she and other Dutch Muslim women receive for choosing to wear a hijab, a desire to be seen as equal in the eyes of the men in her life, and, yes, her being in love with an older man and being a rebellious teenager. It shows her throwing her life away in her disillusioned desire to escape her patriarchal prison, only for it to turn out that she’s switched one patriarchal prison for another once the film reaches the Middle East and she struggles to find a purpose in her new life. Layla M. is interesting, but I still never really connected with it. Partially, yes, due to Arrival, but I mostly think the film’s just a bit too realist and low-key for my liking. It also starts to carry a small air of shaming its protagonist as it gets closer to its ending that I found a bit off-putting. Again, though, it’s not bad, and I feel like I may be kinder towards it if I were to see it again outside of the festival rigmarole.
Another film that slipped through the “no watching films that are out soon” cracks – both because I like watching comedies on the big screen with a good crowd, and because I wanted to be in the same room as Christopher Guest – was my third and final film for the day, Mascots (Grade: C), which sees Guest returning to the mockumentary format the made famous to tell the story of a group of misfits competing in The 8th Annual World Mascot Championships. As you can probably already tell, that’s the most outwardly wacky premise that Guest has utilised yet for one of his mockumentaries and, as you can probably already deduce, it’s also his flimsiest and least-inspired mockumentary yet, a rare swing-and-a-miss. The best Guest mockumentaries are filled with quirky characters, but they also don’t overdo the quirk. The characters feel like fully-sketched human beings rather than a collection of random traits for the performers to blurt out to score strained laughter, and that way the sentimentality that powers his films rings true.
Mascots overdoses on the quirk, often in the most generic of ways that ends up making the characters feel fake and the sentimentality hokey. It’s not enough for Owen (Tom Bennett) to be a third generation mascot, he also has to have only one testicle. It’s not enough for The Fist (Chris O’Dowd) to be a self-styled “bad boy” of the mascot world, he also has to have a father who is the founder of a religious cult based on a 70s television show. It’s not enough for the mere idea of there being a yearly worldwide mascot competition, there also has to be a swiftly-dropped drug scandal and a loose Furry on the sexual prowl running about the place. Just so many rehashed ideas from prior, better Christopher Guest films, many disappointingly free of the skewed invention that he normally brings to the table.
The film’s at its funniest in the little specific quirks that don’t strain so hard for laughs – like The Fist’s overly-Irish brogue calling the mascot profession “mascotery,” or hardcore mascot believer Phil Mayhew getting the chance to lend his mascot skills to cheering up a disabled school for blind children, or Owen’s “police Tourette’s” and total inability to move his eyes without turning his whole head. The final third, when the competition itself gets underway, also delivers some fun visual gags and routines, with one avant-garde dance number bucking the usual trend of jokes in this film getting less funny the longer they run on for by becoming funnier and funnier the longer it drags on. Plus, it’s honestly a blast to get to see Guest’s usual stable of actors – including Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Chris O’Dowd, and John Michael Higgins – get to do their thing in a Christopher Guest movie again. But there’s sadly no getting past the fact that I just didn’t laugh very much watching Mascots, and that’s disappointing given the quality of Guest’s usual output and the decade’s gap between films. I guess that’s why it’s gone to Netflix, the home of comedies with only occasional funny sequences that you forget as soon as the credits start rolling.
Also, the film can’t seem to decide if it’s going to adhere to its mockumentary conceit or not, and that kind of thing bugs the crap out of me.
Day 7: Two female French soldiers experience the full force of military misogyny in Stopover, and The Dardenne Brothers return to the festival with The Unknown Girl.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Regular followers of my work, whether that be written articles found on my site (callumpetch.com), my former Hullfire Radio show Screen 1, or here on Failed Critics, will likely be aware that I really don’t like costume dramas. It’s not for a lack of trying, mind you; I don’t automatically become actively contemptuous and roll my eyes heavily whenever I spy a costume drama that I’m going to have to watch. I just really don’t like them. They’ve basically never grabbed me, whether they be classics of the genre like the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice, or modern critical darlings like Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, or just apparently enjoyable fluff like Carey Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adaptation. I try so very hard to be interested, hooked, engaged… yet I inevitably get sent to sleep by them, and that’s not an exaggeration. I find the dialogue to be alternately impenetrable and nowhere near as witty as it thinks it’s being, I find the conflicts to be far too insufferable upper-class-wankery to be able to get invested, the pacing to be unreasonably slow, and most all of them carry this air of self-importance to their own existence that keeps me at arm’s length at all times.
I tell you this so that you can adequately understand just how much I love Terrence Davies’ A Quiet Passion (Grade: A-); that even I, a hardcore costume drama sceptic, could fall effortlessly in love with this absolutely phenomenal biopic of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon). Of course, that’s probably because it steers clear of the typical costume drama problems, as well as the typical biopic problems; dressing itself up in that 18th Century upper-class English garb despite being set in 19th Century America and telling a story with issues specific to that time but free from the usual bourgeois un-relatable frivolity that turns me off of these sorts of movies. This is a film that is far less interested in Dickinson as a poet and far more in Dickinson as a person – her complicated relationship with faith and the 19th Century’s hardline Christianity, her fears of death and mundanity, of a life unfulfilled, the difficulty of being an outspoken woman even when surrounded by supposedly supportive family, the condescension she received for trying to be a female artist, and how loneliness and self-loathing can curdle into bitterness and outward hatred.
It moves at a measured pace but avoids tipping over into slowness. Whole months can suddenly pass without any prior warning, Emily continues to write but often makes no further progress in stature as a poet – late on in the film, she mentions having had 11 poems at most published at that late point in her life – her days empty and unfulfilling as friends come and go, family members marry or depart, and Emily slowly becomes more reclusive and difficult for people other than her sister Lavina (Jennifer Ehle) to be around. It’s something that becomes really affecting the longer the film runs for, the viewer slowly acclimating to the fact that Emily, in life at least, ultimately became and lived the very life she was so afraid of succumbing to. It’s hard, but truthful, like the Brontë works that Emily admires yet are written off by male tastemakers out-of-hand as worthless trash that grab the heart but not the memory, and that’s what makes the film hit. Davies’ script is brilliant, but it’s also often a very light thing, which I don’t mean as an insult. It’s genuinely witty, highly quotable, and manages to craft a great complex sketch of its subject.
That complexity then ends up being wonderfully realised by a revelatory Cynthia Nixon. She’s bitingly witty in ways that are hilarious and hurtful. She’s clearly wracked with great pain and aching desire, the kind where you want to give her a great big hug and tell her it’s all going to be alright, but it’s the kind of pain that’s deep-seated and toxic, where she wants intimacy but can’t stop herself from pushing away anybody who gets too close. She’s not always likeable, but she’s always sympathetic, and this herculean work by Nixon is what helps elevate A Quiet Passion into being one of the year’s best films. It’s immensely entertaining viewing, captivating and measured without becoming ponderous and glacial, witty and sophisticated but also heartbreaking and solemn, of a time yet universal in its relatability. Quietly brilliant and loudly phenomenal at the same time; Emily Dickinson could not have received a more fitting movie.
Conveniently, or possibly rather shrewdly on the part of festival programmers, the other big film screened today, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (Grade: B/B+), is also a measured character study about a creatively unfulfilled poet, this one played by Adam Driver. Paterson (Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his loving wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bulldog Marvin, and works as a bus driver. His real passion appears to be writing poetry, poetry that he’s really good at, but he resists labelling himself as a poet and, in fact, refuses to show anyone his book of poems despite the urgings of Laura. He goes through life following the exact same daily routine, living modestly and quietly and never really doing much of consequence, as we see through the one week of his life that the film covers.
Paterson doesn’t say much, and we don’t get to see inside of him that much, but one gets the sense that, despite his claims that he’s content with his lot in life, he’s deeply unhappy with much of it. Or, at the very least, that he’s unfulfilled with the direction his life is going in. Laura appears to feel similarly, but where Paterson’s unspoken unfulfilment leads to him sheltering his creative output to the rest of the world, Laura instead throws her energy behind 20 different things at once – interior decorating, cupcake making, learning the guitar so she can become a world-famous country singer – hoping that at least one of them sticks and brings the validation she so desperately craves. It’s a study of two people who don’t know what they want but do know that, aside from each other (as the film never once hints that they are anything other than deeply in love with one another), what they do want is not this.
As somebody who himself has been struggling lately with uncertainty and anxiety over not knowing exactly what it is he actually wants in life, Paterson frequently managed to strike a genuine chord with me, but maybe not enough for me to become as enthusiastic about it as I was with A Quiet Passion. It’s a very dry and introspective film, sometimes too much for its own good due to just how hard it is to get much of a read on Paterson himself. That said, it also possesses a sardonic wit and sense of humour about itself that manifests itself in often unexpected but incredibly funny ways, as the film finds the funny in the mundane weirdness that can occur in your day-to-day life. Driver is really good, but I was more impressed by Farahani and her effortlessly charming and lived-in performance, and the pair have a wonderful sweet chemistry together that re-routes the film every time it threatens to meander off the tracks. It’s very Jarmusch, to reduce things to their bluntest terms, so your enjoyment will vary depending on your prior tolerance for Jarmusch films. As for me, I was engaged more often than not, and there are some moments of genuine profundity in here.
My journeys into the realm of getting press or rush tickets for public screenings have been wildly hit-and-miss so far, with the surprising find of the vital Chasing Asylum and the expectation-exceeding Christine being followed up by the sadly disappointing Jewel’s Catch One and, now, the nasty and awful Chameleon (Grade: D-). The debut feature from writer-director Jorge Riquelme Serrano and playing in competition, Chameleon follows a bickering lesbian Chilean couple, Paula (Paula Zúñiga) and Pauli (Paulina Urrutia), the day after they host a going-away party for Paula, who is moving to London for a job. They wake up, shower, clean up the house, have a bicker about leaving the taps running, and then the doorbell rings. It’s a handsome young man (Gastón Salgado) who was a friend of a friend’s at their party last night, and he’s brought glasses and wine to make up for said friend supposedly acting like a jackass. Paula invites him in but is suspicious. His story sounds shady, he seems really interested in ploughing the ladies with wine, and he doesn’t seem to get the hint during much of Pauli and Paula’s bickering that he needs to leave.
Then things get nasty. There’s the germ of an interesting movie in here – particularly since the director clarified in the post-film Q&A that it was made in response to the disproportionately high rate of violence against women in Chile – but the way that Chameleon goes about it is in the nastiest, ugliest manner possible. If the film removed the open nastiness for something more subtle and unsettling, or chose to dive deep into examining why the man does what he does, then maybe the film could have had something. Instead, the more unsettling moments of gaslighting and emotional manipulation are undercut by extended sequences of sudden extreme violence, forced-drugging, and some good-old-fashioned rape for good measure. The film also fails to find anything to say about the subject beyond “random violence by monstrous men is a thing that happens,” and that’s nowhere near as unique an insight as Serrano seems to believe it is.
But it doesn’t stop there, either. For one, this is somehow the third film I’ve seen in as many days whose attempts to challenge our preconceptions about rape and the issue of consent turn out to be, “But what if the woman WANTED to be raped?” and maybe we should just stop men from writing stories about rape for the time being. (Side note: that sentence is actually unnecessarily reductive and harsh to Elle, which I think handled this complex and provocative idea somewhat well, but dear lord do I need that film to come out so I can actually talk about it with other people.) Whilst for two, the film opens and briefly flashes back to the young man performing the same sort of routine on the gay man he attended the unseen party with, and although the film and the director refute him being so, this ends up leading to the film tracking in some of the harmful stereotypes of depraved bisexuals that I, someone who identifies as bisexual himself, am just so sick and tired of seeing in the media, especially since much of his treatment of his victims carries sexual undertones on his part.
The only thing that saves Chameleon from being an utterly disgusting disgrace is the fact that it at least has the common sense to realise that what is happening is disturbing and unconscionable, and doesn’t intentionally become exploitative garbage. But the longer it runs on for, the clearer it becomes that there is no point being made here, and that there being no point being made is not intentional. If it were more like the underseen Compliance or Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games, Chameleon may have been salvageable. Instead, I do not blame the drove of people who walked out just prior to the hour mark. The only reason I stayed myself was due to my principle of never walking out of a movie, and even I have to question whether that was worth it.
Day 6: Amy Adams makes first contact as Denis Villeneuve follows up the instant classic Sicario with Arrival.
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.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
So I overslept.
This was bound to happen. For one, and don’t snicker or roll your eyes when you read these words, a film festival schedule is a hard thing to work within. You wake up every morning, mostly well before 7am, have to rush about showering and having breakfast and injecting your morning insulin and getting everything you need for the day, to then get the hour transport into the centre of London where most all the films are happening, and then spend the day watching films, occasionally rushing between cinemas to make it into rush queues (more on those in a later dispatch) for other films before they sell out, before eventually finishing up for the day well after the sun’s gone down, riding the Tube the hour back to where you’re staying, getting in and then spending upwards of 2 and a half hours transcribing all of the thoughts you have on the many films you saw that day, including the one you saw first thing in the morning and which may have been completely wiped from your memory by the many other films you saw, then FINALLY getting to collapse onto your bed and sleep for about 5 hours before getting up to do it all over again. Oh, and you also need to fit in lunch, tea, a second round of insulin, and that irritating downtime where it’s enough to make you restless but not enough to allow you to go anywhere far and do stimulating activities.
And for two, I’d been over-sleeping my alarm at home for a few weeks prior to this trip, so this was inevitable anyway.
This is not a complaint, do not mistake me. I’ve weirdly already settled into this routine despite only being at it for 2 days, like it’s something I’m born to do (more on that in tomorrow’s dispatch). Rather, this is me explaining to you why even the most iron-forged and intricately planned-out festival screening schedules, set in stone well before you even start planning travel arrangements, have to be more flexible than you’d figured they’d be; that you need back-ups for all of your desired film choices, and back-ups for those back-ups, regardless of how desperate you are to see a certain film. Also that the human body is a dick.
So, as a result of oversleeping, I did not wake up with enough time to get to the official press screening of Shola Amoo’s feature-debut, A Moving Image (Grade: B). However, to my joy, it turned out that the film had a digital screener available and so, even though I really don’t like watching films on a laptop, I still got the opportunity to watch the film before heading out for the day. And it’s very good! The film is described as “a multimedia project” rather than a straightforward work of dramatic fiction, incorporating as it does musical numbers, dance sequences, performance art, and non-fictional documentary footage in its tale of a former Brixton native, Nina (Tanya Fear), returning home after a few years away to see the area falling victim to gentrification and deciding to make a film about it.
Cleverly, the film does not shy away from the issue of Nina, despite ostensibly wanting to help, being just as complicit in the issue of gentrification as those she’s trying to help argue the case against – a Black former Brixton native, miserable about where she was, moves away for several years for reasons left mostly unexplained, and finally returns to her home-ground in the kind of trendy apartment that White middle-class hipsters have begun co-opting as their own. Comparisons to Spike Lee works have been bandied about by critics, potentially due to A Moving Image featuring its own Radio Raheem expy, and whilst I get that in the sense of how the film depicts and builds the community featured – of a native Black working-class being pushed out by White middle-classes who shutter local businesses through their desire to only patronise chains and displacing homeowners through skyrocketing rents and luxury high-rise flats – I wouldn’t be so quick to. Much of Lee’s best works are angry rebellious things, whilst Amoo’s film is more resigned and bittersweet, the weight of continued activism getting to the characters too much and making sure that they really can’t go home again.
My main issue with the film is that it’s too short. That’s typically not a bad problem to have with a film, but A Moving Image is only 74 minutes long, so much of the drama gets glossed over or heavily cut down and that leads to the film never really achieving the heights it could have. That’s especially a shame since the characters are all so well drawn and the performers are so likeable and entertaining to watch. It can also lay on the meta-textual “film about this film” dialogue a bit too often, but otherwise this is a very solid debut feature that’s worth checking out if you get the chance.
I finished A Moving Image exactly one hour before the press screening for La La Land was due to start and hot-footed it to the Tube. In my head, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to make it in time, anyway – the average Tube journey I have to take, so far, lasts anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour – but luck appeared to be on my side and I made it to the Picturehouse Central in just over half an hour! I was pumped to join the queue of people outside the screens and proceeded to follow it to the back… and kept going… and kept going… still kept going… That queue ended up snaking from the first floor of the cinema, out the front, along the cinema’s front displays, around the corner and into the middle of the pavement for the street leading to Piccadilly Circus by the time I got there. Then it started to rain. Once again, I resigned myself to most likely not getting to see La La Land. But then the line started moving… and kept moving… and kept moving… I allowed myself to hope again. I may not get to go to the toilet despite my bladder being fit to burst, but at least I’ll get to see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land! The queue moved inside, up the stairs, right up to the barricade…
Then, 3 people away from the barricade in, they broke the news that the screening was full and we were all turned away. My thoughts could be summed up thusly.
Fortunately, and as previously discussed, I had hastily decided on a back-up that morning in case this very scenario came to pass, and – along with seemingly everybody else, given the queue that immediately formed for it as soon as La La Land’s doors shut – I instead put myself in for My Life as a Courgette (Grade: A-), whose title is strange but whose actual film is phenomenal and immensely sweet. The film follows Courgette, a 9 year-old boy who accidentally kills his abusive alcoholic mother and is subsequently sent off to live in foster care, and the film deftly tackles the effects that the system, and the abuse that those there had suffered prior to arriving, has upon those within it.
In particular, its stop-motion animation does an excellent job at visualising the issue in a child’s way. The marionettes all have giant heads attached to smaller-sized bodies, with each child’s eyes having telling dark circles around them that betray the misery they had to and oftentimes still go through. The colour palette is varied but muted, steering away from overdone greys or blacks and utilising alternately warm and cold shades of purple, orange, and yellow instead. Whilst the rest of the world around Courgette and friends is purposefully made to resemble simplistic paper-crafting, completing that aim of representing the world in the same way a young child might see it. That melancholic tone in the world also extends to the script, co-written by Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma, which, for just one example, is able to make one minor character’s habit of thinking that every visitor’s arriving car might be her deported mother’s tragic, then funny, and then some middle-ground between the two.
It’s arguably a crowd-pleaser, never dwelling on the worst moments of each character’s life for too long and actively minimising much of its conflict, and it could stand to run longer than its 66 minutes, but that tone carries it through. That balance between finding the joy in the most unexpected of situations without ignoring the harsh realities of these kids being unlikely to find a foster family. The characters are all lovable, the animation is excellent, and the whole film is so unreservedly sweet and charming that I found it impossible to not be won over. I’ll admit to having even shed some tears at multiple points. If I was given the opportunity, I would most likely have tried watching it again as soon as it was done.
Having learned my lesson from earlier in the day, I made sure to get in the queue for Elle (Grade: B, score most likely not final) as quickly as possible, figuring that the return of Paul Verhoeven after, effectively, a decade’s silence would get butts in seats pretty quickly. Unsurprisingly, it did, so I got to watch Elle with a full screen, something I absolutely recommend to all of you as… well… well, it’s definitely not dull, I can say that with absolute certainty. Picture the kind of film that you would expect the director of Basic Instinct, Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls to make out of the premise of a middle-aged female videogame executive (Isabelle Huppert) being raped and subsequently stalked by an unknown assailant. Elle is both EXACTLY the film you’re expecting and nothing at all like the film you’d think you’d get, if that makes sense. In fact – and I recognise that my words mean very little here, being a man and also somebody who has not experienced rape himself – I actually think the film may be respectful and quietly empowering?
Let me put it this way, in your typical rape-revenge movie, the act of rape often becomes the sole characteristic and defining element of the woman at the narrative’s centre. They’re not really allowed to exist prior to the rape, and afterwards their whole life effectively becomes consumed by the rape and its follow-up. Elle, meanwhile, sets its stall out early, as Michèle, after being raped, rather than sob on the floor or call the police, instead picks herself up, tidies the scene, chides her cat for unsympathetically watching rather than attempting to so much as swipe at the assailant, resolves to get the locks changed, and then tries to get on with her life as if nothing happened. It turns out that she has reasons for not going to the police, ones that add character drama but also double as commentary on how our patriarchal society often throws immediate scepticism on a woman’s rape allegations, but she primarily just wants to move on and get back to her daily routine. When she eventually breaks the news to a select few of her friends and relatives, she basically orders the discussion closed as soon as she’s finished talking.
For much of its runtime, Elle is a more a drama about an older woman, and the various exasperating people that populate her life, who just so happened to be raped, rather than a rape-revenge film or even a drama about rape. And isn’t that in itself quietly powerful? Allowing us to see a rape victim as a Woman with a life and other concerns rather than just a victim, of watching somebody trying to pull their life back together and move on rather than let the event consume them? The rape does eventually become an unavoidable aspect of her life, but that’s more out of a necessity due to the perpetrator refusing to leave her alone, making the issue something that needs dealing with. In a way, all Verhoeven is doing here is applying that same provocative pushing-a-scenario-to-its-extremes touch that he applies to most of his best work to a story about rape trauma, but he manages to do it without ever losing sight of Michèle as a Woman and never losing sympathy or empathy for her either.
Much of the credit also needs to be passed on to Isabelle Huppert, without whom the film would most likely have completely flown off the rails into unwatchable-trainwreck land, even with the master of button-pushing cinema behind the camera. She always keeps the film grounded, adding an extra edge and dimension to Michèle that a script on its own cannot provide, and sells the holy hell out of everything she’s given to do, whether dealing with workplace misogyny or masturbating over thoughts of her chummy next-door neighbour. There’s complexity and dimension here, the film even allowing her to be massively flawed and unsympathetic from time to time, that abounds in positive ways and in murkier ways, particularly once the film reveals the culprit and spends the rest of its runtime flitting between a psycho-sexual thriller and the blackest possible black comedy that it is possible to make. I’m really not sure what to make of the final third, hence why I clarify that my score is not final and may change, but I can tell you that it never tips over into being trashy and, at the very least, Elle is never ever boring. I’m dying to hear some female critics’ voices on this one, cos I really have no idea how exactly I feel about this as a whole.
With my press ticket application for the evening’s screening of Christine (Grade: B+) having been effectively declined by virtue of not-getting-a-reply, I arrived there nice and early in the hopes of picking up a press ticket in the Rush Queue – again, I’ll touch on that whole process in detail some other time – only to see quite busy public lines and staff members explaining to fellow budding press that we’d be unlikely to get in unless we paid for a ticket like everybody else. Since Christine was one of my most anticipated films of the festival, along with its semi-documentary counterpart (screening later on) Kate Plays Christine, I resolved to bite the bullet and queue up in the hopes of buying a ticket like everyone else. But then, in a massive stroke of luck, somebody trying to hock a ticket they didn’t need anymore completely gave up trying to get money for it and pawned it off in my hands, since I had already expressed interest in buying it but had no cash on hand. Wins by technicality are still wins, folks!
Anyway, Christine is, for all intents and purposes, a speculative-fiction biopic about the final weeks of Christine Chubbuck, a depressed local news journalist who, in 1975 and just under a month before her 30th birthday, committed suicide live on television. Outside of being one of the inspirations for Network, it’s a story that has remained largely untold throughout the years, despite being ripe with thematic material that is still relevant to this day – sexism in the workplace, the stigma of depression and anxiety, elements about the state of American gun control laws, the devolution of mainstream news networks – and which Christine proceeds to take full advantage of.
Contrary to so many Awards Season biopics that act primarily as showreels for their lead actors and actresses, Christine actually does act as a legitimate character study, with most of its filmmaking and storytelling decisions being consciously designed to put one in the headspace of somebody living with depression. It resists the desire to make the film a miserable hopeless slog, to become too mired in some kind of overwrought mess, because it understands that depression is not like that at all. It is still a sad and difficult film, don’t get me wrong, but there are moments of humour, moments of sweetness, good days and bad days, and the tone finds a way to return to this isolating sense of numbness. Depression, self-loathing, and anxiety can make you feel crushingly alone and often bitter and unpleasant to be around, where those who try to help you can inadvertently make things worse, and Christine captures that and the difficulty that one can find in functioning “normally” with aplomb. For me, it’s right up there with BoJack Horseman in terms of the best portrayals of depression that I’ve seen and, as someone who is clinically depressed, I really appreciated this film’s handling of the issue.
In particular, though, Christine works thanks to Rebecca Hall’s thunderous lead performance, which is every bit as outstanding as you have heard every single critic rave. It’s hard for me to properly explain, because it’s still hard for me to properly talk about my depression and the ways it makes me act and feel, but watching her on-screen I felt a searing rawness to her work. A truth, an honesty, a nuanced portrayal that doesn’t dare sand down any of Christine’s edges, as both Hall and the film correctly recognise that people suffering from depression can be unpleasant to be around and downright unlikeable from time to time. The film can engage in the kind of excessive telegraphing that most tragic biopics like to indulge excessively from time-to-time, and the ending (whilst befitting the fact that this is Christine’s story first and foremost) does end up short-changing the strong supporting cast – including Tracy Letts as the alternately beleaguered and callous station head, and Michael C. Hall as the anchor Christine has possibly unrequited feelings for – but otherwise Christine is gripping viewing from start to finish. Director Antonio Campos deserves vaulting up into the big time, Rebecca Hall deserves serious consideration in all Best Actress ballots for the year, and this film deserves to be seen.
Day 4: More foreign animation with Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children, a documentary about one of America’s first Black Discos, and more.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
The Picturehouse Central is a wonderful cinema. I love the designs of cinemas, their layouts and décor, their seating arrangements, whether the screens have draw-curtains to signify the start and end of a film, their lighting… it all tells you something about the cinema, and the place and time of their creation. My VUE back in Scunthorpe, for example, you can tell has been around for over a decade with no significant changes by virtue of its low-hanging ceiling in the walkway to the screens, the fact that there’s a significant gap in seating between the two halves of the screen, and the attempt at vintage typography in the screen numbers and “Now Playing” poster holders. Also by virtue of the seating arrangements giving you actual legroom as standard rather than at a premium.
The Picturehouse Central in London really is a marvellous work of cinema design, though. Setting aside the fact that it has two floors dedicated to two separate bars (one with an actual restaurant that you’d better believe I will take advantage of at some point), the building seems tailor-made to create a sense of opulence and class in the act of watching a film, that your ticket price is completely justifiable for a change. Seating is tiered but in a way where every viewer, in every screen, gets an unobstructed view even if someone is sat in an equivalent seat number the row in front of you. Lighting is low but in a classy, old-school Hollywood way that doesn’t distract the eye whilst the film is playing. The seats themselves are super comfortable, and even slide forward at an angle slightly if you’re uncomfortable but don’t want to lose the optimal viewing position. And the screens have draw-curtains! I’m a major geek for cinema screens having draw-curtains.
I know this may not be of interest to the vast majority of you reading these pieces, but I thought I’d espouse words on it since about 80% of my screenings are going to take place in this one cinema, and because I want to make it clear that I really don’t mind dragging myself into this place in time for 9:15am every day for the next week and a bit in order to start catching press screenings. That’s good because it means I’m seeing the films in the best possible scenarios and that, barring occasional bouts of tiredness that come from Moving at 7am, I am fully attentive and appreciative of the films that I am reporting on for you, the good readers of Failed Critics. So, with that all mentioned, my first press screening of the day was Apprentice (Grade: C-), a film that’s really good right up until it frustratingly isn’t.
A Singapore drama, Apprentice follows prisons officer Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), an ex-Army officer who followed up his service by enlisting in Prisons and has been transferred to Malay’s maximum-security, where he finds himself drawn towards its aging Chief Executioner, Warder (Wan Hanafi Su), who is looking to take on an apprentice. Much of the brisk 96 minute film then ends up revolving around the questions of whether legally justified murder is still morally justifiable and whether or not Aiman will be able to reconcile the two and do the job he’s being groomed for. Its best moments are the ones where it clinically and bluntly deals with the realities of a practice that still occurs in many countries, one that many people privately support, but that society is still reticent to acknowledge its part in – semi-covert trips to fishing warehouses to buy hanging rope, detailed conversations about the processes involved in planning a hanging, the efficiency of a hanging itself in a scene that is genuinely disturbing to witness. The film also tries to relate the issue to Singapore at large, when Warder complains that the country’s new generation isn’t being bred with the fortitude required to continue his position, a potentially quiet admission that the country has moved past this line of work altogether.
But then the film, in its misguided attempt at objectivity, proceeds to piss away all of its goodwill by copping out on taking a side with a frankly embarrassing attempt at an ambiguous ending. I honestly briefly thought the projector had eaten up the last 10 minutes of film, such is the suddenness and unfulfilling nature of this so-called ending, deciding that actually paying off dramatic conflict is too much work and opting instead to cut-to-black. Even if Apprentice had bothered to craft an ending, though, I would still have hesitated to call it “great” as there is a twist here, revealed early on but I’ll refrain from mentioning it anyway. It’s meant to provide an additional conflict-of-interest in Aiman’s apprenticeship, but in practice all it does is create false drama that the film doesn’t need, and muddies the main conflict by adding prior personal baggage that detracts from the more interesting struggle of reconciling something that civilised society has deemed acceptable but which you know is morally wrong.
Hanging also featured in the second film I saw that day, Park Chan-wook’s gloriously trashy The Handmaiden (Grade: B+), albeit with its most prominent scene being the funniest attempted-hanging in a work of fiction since Paranoia Agent. If you’re surprised that an attempted-hanging could be played for near-literal gallows humour, then you must be new to the works of Park Chan-wook who seemed to have set out here with the intention of creating the Park Chan-wook-iest film it is possible to make. There are even two separate instances where the camera focusses on an octopus in some way! That complete releasing of all inhibitions, and perhaps as a response to having to tone down some of his more openly provocative tendencies for his criminally-underrated English-language debut Stoker, has led to Chan-wook finally making the lurid, openly-trashy psycho-sexual drama he has clearly spent his entire career wanting to make.
All of this, of course, makes it very hard to talk about The Handmaiden in great detail. Being a Park Chan-wook film, the story is filled with more twists than a whole season of Lost, in particular dropping a huge one at the halfway mark from which point the film shoots off into the stratosphere and never really returns back home to Earth until 15 minutes before the end. Then, there’s the fact that this is a family publication, and so talking in specific detail about what often turns into a full-on erotic thriller is going to be a fast way to get this place shut down. In as vague terms as I can manage, then, The Handmaiden follows the appointment of a new Korean handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri) to a mentally-unstable Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) as she prepares to be forcibly wed to her elderly Korean uncle who desperately wants to be Japanese (Cho Jin-woong) and finds herself wooed by a Count (Ha Jung-woo). Unsurprisingly, nobody is who they really say they are, everybody has their own agenda, and that collection of gambits, allegiances, relationships, and double-crosses all end up colliding with each other in joyously entertaining fashion, just like most all of Park Chan-wook’s other movies.
Chan-wook is still one of the best directors in the business today, able to be visually exciting and pacey without becoming distractingly showy, and The Handmaiden lets him apply all of these tricks to the production design of a classy period drama, which provides the perfect juxtaposition for all of the sex, violence, and meticulously-timed black comedy that the story provides. There’s an excellent critique of erotica in here, and more specifically of how mid-30s erotica provided men with misogynistic ideas of consent and what constitutes sexual pleasure, whilst the predatory nature of oppressive sexuality ends up explored through a quietly disturbing character beat that only grows more disturbing the more the story has to return to it, and the eventual conflict goes all-in on the suffocating influence of the hetero-patriarchy for those who do end up under its thumb. There’s even an active attempt to shoot the sex scenes in a way that doesn’t come across as exploitative or Male Gaze-y – I’m not sure it completely succeeds, but props for trying.
I hesitate to bust out the unconditional rave reviews yet, however, as I didn’t feel that same spark that I got when I watched Oldboy or Stoker for the first time. For one, I definitely think the film is 15 minutes too long, with it having basically wrapped itself up by the two hour mark but proceeding to spend another 15 minutes tying up even more loose ends and dragging itself out for seemingly no reason other than for Chan-wook to indulge himself in some good-old-fashioned Park Chan-wook violence. Whilst for two, I feel the film doesn’t really start running until the end of Part I (the film is split into 3 parts), just before the hour mark – although it is still entertaining prior to then, a lot of Part I is groundwork-laying and that didn’t gel well with a slightly tired Me. That said, I can already tell that the film will grow upon repeat viewings, especially now that I’m attuned to its rhythm and structure, since I know I missed so much this first time around. So whilst that “Instant Classic” spark may not have been there for me, The Handmaiden is still an excellently trashy time nonetheless.
The joys of a festival schedule means that you can often be shuffled into a totally different film tonally than the one you just got out of with basically no chance to catch your breath. Such was the case as my screening of a fun lurid psycho-drama was almost immediately followed by Tower (Grade: B), a harrowing and powerful documentary about the Austin University shootings of 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the campus’s tower with a bunch of rifles and proceeded to open fire on the crowds below, killing 14 and injuring 35 more. The film opts to primarily depict the massacre to the viewer through the medium of rotoscoped animation, utilising actors to play younger versions of the various featured subjects, in a way that calls to mind Waltz with Bashir. The animation can occasionally be off-putting, as you often get by nature of rotoscoping, but for the most part it works, particularly through the decision to depict much of the shooting in grayscale and stark whites, whilst any anecdotes outside of that get a vivid full-colour treatment.
Indeed, the intent of the animation and the film’s structure is about putting the viewer in the middle of that chaos and unflinchingly showing you just how terrifying it would be to experience it for real. It also puts the human element back into the story by purposefully limiting its focus to the viewpoints of a few key players – the pregnant woman who was the first one shot and lay bleeding out in the open for hours, the first officer responding to the scene, one female student who spent the whole time hiding out, etc. – in order to work through events in a step-by-step manner, where you learn the facts and specifics at the same time as they would have. This lets the film zero in on themes of survivor’s guilt, bystander syndrome, those everyday heroes who risked their own lives to help whomever they could, and those fleeting connections made during the terror that were never pursued afterwards.
Tower is often powerful, particularly with that conceit – since one of my favourite films of the century is Cloverfield, I really appreciated that ground-view “this is what it was like and how terrifying is it to be here” design – but it also just misses out on greatness. A topic like this demands tying back into modern culture at large, what with an event like this feeling eerily prescient of today’s American societal culture where mass shootings are a near-daily occurrence, and that’s just not something that Tower is interested in doing. Save for a soundbite of a report from America’s Newsman, Walter Cronkite, set to a brief montage of news reports of recent mass shootings, Tower doesn’t tie itself into the modern climate enough, content instead to stick to that human element. That is fine, because the story it tells is still powerful enough and told well enough for this to be affecting viewing, but it does keep it from becoming something truly special.
A lack of tying into modern culture at large was not a problem that afflicted the other documentary I saw that day, however. Chasing Asylum (N/R) is an absolutely vital and horrifying piece of cinema, investigating as it does Australia’s hard-line immigration policies and its utterly inhumane procedures for dealing with refugees. Director Eva Orner piles on the failures one after another with absolutely no mercy and no letting up – smuggling cameras into the refugee detention centres in Manus Island, talking with aid workers who are given no direction to help these refugees who have risked their lives for nothing and won’t be leaving any time soon, relaying intimidation threats that those who wished to speak up against abusive guards received, showing images of tin shacks stacked from front-to-back with hundreds of bunk beds in tropical weather. Every time the bottom appears to have been found, social workers detail allegations of child molestation, some refugees sew their mouths shut to protest their draconian treatment by guards who won’t let them wear caps in the mess hall, or Australia will waste tens of millions of Australian dollars setting up a voluntary resettlement program in Cambodia.
None of this feels exploitative to watch, though, because Orner is constantly finding the humanity in the situation, focussing on those refugees that are being mistreated for their desire to receive the human rights they have a claim to when Australia signed The 1951 Refugee Act with the rest of the United Nations. Families talk about how they were ripped apart, former inmates recall their first-hand experiences of the various riots they were stuck in the middle of, aid workers and camp staff express their defeating frustration at not being able to help those they’re in charge of helping get through the day without self-harming. And throughout it all, the same rhetoric rings out from the mouths of Australian governmental officials, “We stopped the boats.” But that’s not really true, since the refugees keep trying to make that futile journey anyway, and Orner effectively and correctly responds with, “OK, but look long and hard at the cost.”
It’s furious filmmaking, and though Orner frequently stated throughout the post-film Q&A that she made this film with the intent to “shame Australia,” she clearly knows the added resonance that Chasing Asylum will take on for the rest of the world. Given Brexit, the slow and insidious mainstreaming of rampant xenophobia and racism thanks to the mainstream media, and an American Presidential Election being fought with this kind of dehumanising rhetoric, Chasing Asylum has the power to shame most every developed country. I feel weird giving something like this a rating – hence why I haven’t – but it is a film that needs to be experienced by everyone. We need to be reminded that these people we reduce to statistics or lesser beings out of reckless patriotism, whether that be through open xenophobia or propagating the myth of the “economic migrant” (as one man did in the Q&A), are human beings, and Orner’s film does that exceptionally.
Day 3: Damien Chazelle follows up his outstanding breakthrough, Whiplash, with an ode to the Hollywood musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone else, but it always takes a while for me to realise that I am in London. And not in a “constantly awe-inspired and can’t quite believe that it’s happening” way, more in a “this feels like being in a populated place, I guess” way. I guess being a, for-all-intents-and-purposes, Northerner, having spent much of my adolescence in either clustered semi-isolated villages or mostly closing-down towns, the myth of London and other such “Big Cities” can raise expectations a tad too high or fanciful. I recall my brother, after mine and his first trip down here a decade ago, heading back to Junior School at the beginning of the new academic year to brag and launch into tall tales about what London was like, as if he was the first person to ever discover this strange and exotic new land.
I am aware that this all sounds cliché, but that’s genuinely how it feels to me from time to time. For one, there’s that age-old feeling where you suddenly don’t want to do anything as soon as you’re given everything to choose from doing – the “everything” in this scenario being a full day in London by yourself with nothing scheduled to get in the way of exploring. Whilst for two, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees once you’re thrust into a new environment – the forest in this metaphor being “London” and the trees being “the sea of people that are everywhere all the time, dear lord.” So, for a while at least, London comes across to me as nothing more than one of my towns but with the crowds copy-pasted a few thousand times to boost the numbers.
But that “I’m in LONDON!” epiphany does eventually arrive, and it is a pretty great feeling when it does so. I’ve had it twice, so far. The first was on what we shall dub Day 0 (due to there not being any films on then) when I wandered along the Embankment as I tracked down the various screening locations, looked out across the Thames as the sun hit the water and realised that I was, indeed, in the nation’s capital. The second was on my downtime after Day 1 wrapped up. I was in Camden Market, perusing through the various vinyl record shops – because I am indeed every single stereotype you have in your head of a post-uni film critic – and was drawn to a record that I’d never heard before that was playing from the shop’s turntable. Two further songs after that, I asked the owner to bag it up for me and got to live the Vinyl Collector’s preferred boring anecdote for myself, which I just can’t do back home.
Anyway, that’s how I came to own a Sharon Redd record.
That kind of sudden rush of “THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING” adrenaline has been with me with regards to the London Film Festival ever since I picked up my Press Pass on Tuesday lunchtime. As you can see in the picture of it above, that’s a real legitimate Press Pass, with my name, my photo, and the words “Film Critic” printed on it. Sure, the “Film Critic” part carries the slightly delegitimising qualifier of the initial application process requesting that I define my role for The Hullfire myself, but still! “Callum Petch. Film Critic.” Those are actual words printed on official press credentials! Having been seriously critiquing and writing about films as a going concern for the past 6 and a half years now, that kind of validation is actually rather empowering for me; a potential acknowledgment that I can, in fact, possibly do this professionally.
I’ve never really deluded myself into believing that I would make it in the world of film criticism. Trying to earn a living as a writer in this day and age is difficult at best, and if established writers are having a hard time keeping the lights on – I still vividly remember the shock I had when The Dissolve shut its doors last year – then what hope do I have? That’s where my anxiety has been flaring up most in recent years, as that realisation has sank in further and I began truly fretting over where the rest of my life will take me, and having to spend much of third year dropping writing all together due to workload concerns, and the difficulty in getting back into it since finishing uni back in June, has left me wondering if this is even a career path I want to do anymore. After all, when you’ve spent so much of your life dedicated to a certain aspect of yourself, how can you not be terrified when it appears that you’ve fallen out of love with the thing you’ve given so much of yourself towards?
Staring at that Press Pass immediately deleted all of those thoughts and fears. The worry that I have fallen out of love with writing, the fear that I am some kind of fraud undeserving of the right to call myself a Film Critic who gets to run with the professionals, the anxiety that I’ll screw this whole trip up somehow… All of them melted away in the face of that Press Pass and the resultant buzz. This was really happening. I was going to cover the London Film Festival as a Film Critic, which my Press Pass firmly stated with no qualifiers or hesitations. It was a nervous giddy excitedness that stuck with me for the rest of Day 0, resurfaced as I made my way to Day 1’s only Press Screening (and my first of the festival), and likely won’t fully subside until after a few more days of this. After all, I’M IN LONDON AND I’M A FILM CRITIC!
As for the film I got to see, A United Kingdom (Grade: C), it was ok. Nothing more, nothing less. Much has been made of the festival’s attempt at embracing diversity this year – one which has been shared by many of the major film festivals throughout the year, as Hollywood and the industry at large finally starts trying to steer into the #OscarsSoWhite controversies that have plagued awards season for the past two years – so it makes sense to have the newest film from Belle’s Amma Asante be the curtain jerker. A crowd-pleasing biopic about how the interracial love between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an English White woman, and Seretese Khama (David Oyelowo), a Black man who has been studying in England to prepare to take over the protectorate of Bechuanaland, started a chain of events that led to formation of the Republic of Botswana and its independence from oppressive British control; one could not get a more perfect Opening Night festival film if it came permanently rubberstamped with various “For Your Consideration” watermarks over the entire footage, which it might as well have been.
The film’s biggest problem is best epitomised by the fact that, in the courtship between Ruth and Seretese, they have both met, fallen in love at first sight, gone on multiple dates, been racially abused in the street, told each other they love each other, and proposed to one another by the 13 minute mark of a 110 minute film. The first act is extremely rushed, and consequently A United Kingdom loses the human element of its story. We are unable to see these characters as people or characters. Instead, the film wants you to just see them as cogs in an Issue, which is the opposite of what the best kinds of Issue movies end up doing, where they put the human element back in. Depicting a love story, or much in the way of human beings experiencing growth and development and acting like people at all, is not the film’s intended goal, and I at least give it respect for being so upfront about that.
Rather, A United Kingdom wants to be An Important Movie, as it announces from the get-go with the customary “Based on a True Story” title card, and this is less of a problem than most lesser biopics in recent years as, unlike something like The Theory of Everything or Black Mass, it does actually have things to say about its subjects. Occasionally nuanced things, too, rather than just “racism and colonialism are bad,” albeit in inferred ways through story structure than anything textual – the film does a very good job at demonstrating just how much of a rigged “lose-lose” system the British were forcing their conquered colonies to work within, and the effects on the oppressed that politicians don’t consider when they renege on prior promises. There’s also a very good David Oyelowo performance that is desperately trying to elevate the rest of the material it’s attached to. Sure, he gets to play to his wheelhouse of big rousing speeches about equality and how racism is a totally bad thing if you didn’t already know you guys, but he also taps into that same quiet heartbroken heavy strength that he found as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and that pain is apparent in every scene, not just the showier ones.
Unfortunately, he’s paired off with a Rosamund Pike who, fresh off of a career-best and career-redefining turn in Gone Girl, is playing to the material rather than trying to elevate it. Where Oyelowo is straining to find the human element to give the story a proper kick, Pike is straining to find space on her shelf for all the awards statuettes she’s clearly counting on racking up. Most all of her scenes are too forced and unnatural, a noticeable playing up to the show-reels that get trotted out come January, and consequently she never gels with her on-screen partner, the two effectively starring in two completely separate films – with Pike’s film also featuring a cornucopia of moustache-twirling obstructive and outright evil British governmental representatives (portrayed by folks like Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) because subtlety is not something this movie particularly understands.
That’s ultimately the problem. A United Kingdom plays it far too safe and is far too bland to work as anything other than a late-afternoon film that ITV1 shows before the next Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. It’s clearly been precision-refined to the sensibilities of aging White Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voters: every character-based conflict resolved with disappointing ease, every frame actively straining for awards consideration and screaming “YOU ARE WATCHING AN IMPORTANT MOVIE” so that the voters can feel morally superior, and an ending that comes dangerously close to “AND THEN RACISM WAS CURED IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC OF BOTSWANA FOREVER, THE END!” That last part especially is genuinely disappointing because I’ve heard that Asante’s Belle actively avoided falling into that trap, or any of those prior traps (I must confess to having not seen it myself).
In fairness, it’s not bad, particularly – it’s well-made, some of the bigger scenes do manage to stir the emotions somewhat, I appreciate that it never once starts entertaining the idea of slipping into a White Saviour narrative, and Oyelowo does good work – but it’s just instantly forgettable and disappointingly bland. Also, I fear that, since Hollywood has a bunch of films tackling race in some way coming down the pipeline this awards season, this is going to be rather indicative of their overall quality. My heart won’t be able to take Jeff Nichols’ Loving (which is not playing here) being bad, you hear me?!
Day 2: Park Chan-wook finally returns to the stage with the erotic drama that’s got all the heads turning in The Handmaiden, the 1966 University of Texas shootings finally receive the documentary treatment in Tower, and much more.
Pan cannot fly, audiences do not give The Walk something it can feel, Steve Jobs wins everything, Knock Knock does Trash, and Other Box Office News.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Proving either that audiences are getting smarter at avoiding garbage movies, or that completely phoning in your marketing by near-outright admitting that the film you’re trying to sell sucks isn’t a fool-proof strategy for box office gold, Pan has flopped big time. For what was supposed to be a big, tent-pole, $150 million, franchise-starting blockbuster, the film was completely dead on arrival, managing an absolutely pathetic $15 million for third place. Would you like a measure of just how dreadful that is? 2015 has been a year filled with terrible big budget blockbusters (and Jupiter Ascending shut up) bombing domestically, and Pan is still the worst opening of the lot! Worse than Tomorrowland ($33 million), worse than Terminator: Portable ($27 million), worse than Fantastic 4 ($25 million), and even worse than Jupiter Ascending ($18 million)! So, err, yeah. Probably not getting a franchise out of this one. Thank Christ.
Elsewhere, the bizarre-to-me “release early in IMAX” strategy has claimed yet another victim from studios that fail to understand that this is a TERRIBLE IDEA as Robert Zemeckis’ 3D extravaganza The Walk made the leap from its underperformance in IMAX last week to cinemas where actual people could see the film. Not that anyone was interested in seeing it, mind, as The Walk completely failed to find an audience, finishing up in seventh with $3.7 million, presumably because The Martian has the whole “crowd-pleasing spectacle” market on lock. Speaking of, that film is still your Box Office Number One with $37 million, only dropping an excellent 32% between weekends. It’s almost like we reward Ridley Scott if he actually makes a good movie. Maybe he should do that more often.
In the land of the Limited Releases, the big winner was Steve Jobs, possibly surprising quite literally no-one. I mean: it’s a biopic about Steve Jobs, one that’s gone through hell to get made, directed by Danny Boyle, written by Aaron Sorkin, starring Michael Fassbender, heavily resembling The Social Network, with excellent reviews, and has first been released in 4 cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. If this film didn’t make an absolute killing this weekend, I’d have been incredibly surprised. But a killing it did make, absolutely at that, with a weekend total of $521,522 and a per-screen average of $130,381 – the highest of the whole year, easily blowing past Sicario’s $66,881 from a few weeks back. Of course, the real test is whether it can be similarly successful when it goes Nationwide in two weeks, since Danny Boyle’s been struggling with wider acceptance since Slumdog Millionaire, but I see no universe where this movie fails.
Feel free to shout that line back at me in two weeks if it does fail.
Steve Jobs was not the only Limited Release this weekend, though. Lionsgate continued their admirable attempt to distribute films aimed specifically at Latino audiences with heist caper Ladrones. The film, somewhat unfortunately, did not manage to do particularly well on its 375 screens, closing the weekend in thirteenth place with $1.4 million in ticket sales. On the bright side, at least it wasn’t Knock Knock, Eli Roth’s latest excuse for a movie with a Keanu Reeves performance seemingly precisely calibrated to make one take back any praise given to him for his work in John Wick. In accordance with a more enlightened movie-going audience realising that Eli Roth was never a particularly good filmmaker, the film crashed and burned on 22 screens with just $18,623 and an $847 per-screen average. And as for Trash, a film that came out in the UK in February: $10,230 from 17 screens for a $602 per-screen average. Ouch.
Here’s the Full List now, ENTERTAIN US!
Box Office Results: Friday 9th October 2015 – Sunday 11th October 2015
1] The Martian
$37,005,266 / $108,715,595
This film is rather sticking with me, for some reason. I really didn’t expect it to, since I found it way too long and had the distinct sense that it would be one of those films I really like whilst watching but would just sort of forget about in the days following that viewing, but it’s genuinely sticking with me. I think it’s because the whole thrust of the film – Mark Watney getting through his situation by organisation, bite-size tasks, and logic & reason – is very relatable to me, as somebody who goes about his life much the same way, so it resonates on that deeper level way more than I thought it would. I like seeing that.
2] Hotel Transylvania 2
$20,420,392 / $116,942,033
Review will be along tomorrow, I guarantee it. I’m also really sorry for not having written it already, I have just been absolutely swamped this past week and I’m behind on everything. Just bear with me, it is coming.
$15,315,435 / NEW
Oh, boy, I need to find the time to get a written review of this out. To not review this total trainwreck would be a dereliction of my duties as a Film Critic. Not kidding, this is… this is really something. At this rate, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 won’t be in my Bottom 10 of 2015 at all, and that is an utterly miserable thought to have.
4] The Intern
$8,678,187 / $49,592,234
Fun Fact I learned in my inaugural East Asian Cinema lecture this past week: What Women Want received a Chinese remake in 2011. Why, I have no idea, but it exists for those of you who may be interested in checking that out.
$7,579,324 / $26,935,340
Seeing this again on Saturday! Might even be inspired to finish my review, too, because everyone should be singing from the rooftops about this one. It really is that brilliant. Very nice to see it doing OK at the Box Office, too.
6] Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
$5,371,941 / $70,765,331
There is not one element of this story that doesn’t make me hate every single one of this film’s cast members. “And everyone just takes stuff, obviously…” Obviously. You just take stuff when told not to. That’s something everyone just does, obviously, you goddamn f*cking prat.
7] The Walk
$3,719,177 / $6,430,676
Kinda disappointed in this one, even though I did rather enjoy it. It’s charming, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fun, and the actual walk itself is brilliantly tense, but it falls down the same way that most recent biopics have fallen down and that’s in the fact that it has absolutely nothing to say about its subject other than “wasn’t this a cool thing that happened?” It doesn’t want to interrogate Phillippe’s arrogance or the reasons as to why he wants to do the walk, so the film ends up feeling empty. It almost gets away with it, because Zemeckis is a brilliant popcorn filmmaker, but the film’s ultimately too insubstantial to make it worth watching over Man On Wire.
8] Black Mass
$3,118,427 / $57,557,128
I really don’t have anything to say about this movie until I can see it. Stupid release window disparities…
$3,073,035 / $38,253,250
I keep forgetting this movie happened, which is especially weird since I rather liked it and even shed a tear at the ending. Huh. Probably a good thing I don’t hand out star ratings, otherwise I’d look like a bit of a fool right now.
10] The Visit
$2,523,505 / $61,158,030
Crimson Peak is going to completely bomb, isn’t it? Like nearly everything else that Guillermo del Toro makes, it’s going to be brilliant and it’s going to bomb hard, isn’t it? Yet M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie will close having made more than 12x its budget domestically. Goddammit, World…
Dropped Out: War Room, The Perfect Guy
The Martian sciences the sh*t out of making money, The Walk loses its (bank) balance, Sicario means “dolla dolla bills y’all”, the public vote against Freeheld, and Other Box Office News.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Proving that Matt Damon can say all of the most accidentally ignorant crap that he likes and that Ridley Scott can spend a full half-decade crapping out stinkers whilst both still remain the kind of perfectly lovable and bankable box office draws that Hollywood executives wish to Maker they could create out of thin air, The Martian is your new box office number 1. The big story for many people is how the film has fallen just short of breaking Gravity’s “Best October Opening Ever” record – by $750,000 – although the estimates may push it over the top. Because, after all, who cares about excellent openings unless they break records, right? Besides, if we should be sad about anything, it should be the fact that the godawful Hannibal is still Ridley Scott’s best opening weekend ever. That’s the real tragedy.
Speaking of tragedies, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Pepé le Pew imitation in The Walk. This is meant to be a serious movie, right? Cos, quite frankly, I probably won’t be able to take seriously two hours of “Omlette du fromage”. Audiences very much seemed to agree with me, in this instance – that, or they saw Man On Wire and sussed that they didn’t need to see it fictionalised and in 3D – and even with critical acclaim and an initial opening exclusively on IMAX theatres, its true home, the film failed to find much of an audience. In fact, and in sharp contrast to Everest from a few weeks back, it didn’t even manage to crack the Top 10, stalling out at number 11 with only $1.5 million. The film hits actual theatres that people want to go to next weekend, but this whole “release early in IMAX” thing really doesn’t seem to be paying off as studios were likely hoping it would. Y’know, probably because IMAX really just isn’t very good.
But do you know what is very good? Sicario, that’s what! One of the year’s absolute best films finally went wide this week and, for a bleak-as-f*ck and slow-moving thriller that is as decidedly uncommercial as… well, as Denis Villenueve’s Prisoners, did surprisingly well, securing third place with a decent $12 million. The film even supposedly has an “A-“ CinemaScore, too, so it may have some legs over these next few weekends. Comfortably above it on the chart, meanwhile, is Hotel Transylvania 2 which actually held better than the first film did – and that only dropped 36% between weekends, let’s not forget – with a miniscule 32% drop and $33 million. So, once again, can Genndy Tartakovsky please go and make whatever he wants now? It’s clear the public will accept it!
Do you know what they didn’t accept, though? Freeheld. Yes, the weekend’s big Limited Release, and the latest blatant entry in Julianne Moore’s awards nomination reel, turned out to be a bit of a stinker, and nothing kills off a Limited Release’s box office prospects better than middling reviews. Freeheld therefore only managed to scrape $40,000 from 5 screens and a per-screen average of $8,000. Still, at least it can take comfort in the fact that it’s not Stonewall! That film, incidentally, dropped down to 83 screens and made an absolutely pathetic $18,700 this weekend. Better performing was the documentary He Named Me Malala which took a strong $56,000 from 4 screens for a per-screen average of $14,000.
You know what’s been strong this week? My paragraph transitions! …here’s the Full List.
Box Office Results: Friday 2nd October 2015 – Sunday 4th October 2015
1] The Martian
$55,000,000 / NEW
Super happy to see this one do well, if for no other reason than it might give Ridley Scott the kick up the arse he needs to stop making crap films this decade. Yes, I know that he plans to make his next film another Alien movie/Prometheus sequel, let’s focus on his career after that, OK? In fact, whilst I have everyone’s attention, can we all just stop making Alien-related movies, please? We haven’t had a good one in almost 30 years, and I highly doubt that the Neill Blomkamp who just made Chappie is going to turn that around. Although I will admit that I am still excited for that one, in a “trainwreck fascination” kinda way.
2] Hotel Transylvania 2
$33,000,000 / $90,541,765
Saw this yesterday and a review will be up by Thursday as I still have to write this week’s Lost Cels first. Film’s millimetres away from being genuinely great, for the record, although its best asset is still its utterly amazing animation. Seriously, the work that Genndy and co. have done with translating 2D-style squash-and-stretch animation to 3D is just outstanding. I cannot wait for him to put it to use in a film that doesn’t have Adam Sandler’s icky undertones attached to it.
$12,075,000 / $15,076,295
Just a few more days and I get to see this brilliance again! God knows I’m going to need something to wash down Pan with. Have I ever mentioned that Pan looks like utter garbage? Cos it really does.
4] The Intern
$11,620,000 / $36,523,892
You know what? If this actually built to something and wasn’t two sodding hours long, I’d be giving this a full-on enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s not particularly funny, but it is really charming and its characters are really likeable and the cast are great, and it manages to balance lionising The Older Generation and The Way Things Were with a genuine respect for the modern world and businesswomen who try to juggle work and family without being condescending or placing one higher than the others. Seriously, it gets so much right; I just wish it built to its ending, was actually funny, and wasn’t two sodding hours.
5] Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
$7,650,000 / $63,241,124
And the maze keeps running running, and running running, and running running…
6] Black Mass
$5,905,000 / $52,521,030
No, seriously, how has no-one made a Black Eyed Peas parody song about The Maze Runner yet? Is it because The Black Eyed Peas were The Absolute Worst and nobody actually remembers anything from any Maze Runner after having experienced them? And I just answered my own question.
$5,510,000 / $33,181,310
Tosh from Torchwood is in this. Unsurprisingly, she is given basically zero lines.
8] The Visit
$3,950,000 / $57,695,090
Anybody managed to see Cooties yet? I have high hopes, since I actually laughed at the trailer and it has Alison Pill who always deserves the best things, but I know that this can easily go very, very wrong and the reviews aren’t great. Still, at least it looks better than Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, a film whose trailer is Exhibits A, B, C, and all the way down to Z on why we should just stop using zombies now forever. ZOMBIE BOOBS LOL!
9] War Room
$2,800,000 / $60,544,613
Oh, just go away already.
10] The Perfect Guy
$2,400,000 / $52,615,190
So Creed isn’t due out in the UK until January. January. Now, initially, I got really confused, since it’s basically a new Rocky movie and Rocky Balboa opened simultaneously in the USA and the UK. But then I realised something: they’re setting up Creed to be an awards season contender, so now I’m just annoyed. Even if it’s good, Creed ain’t getting nominated for jack, and the whole Awards Season thing of keeping us Brits out of the loop on seeing these films until the opening of the next year is bullsh*t. Again, NON-SIMULTANEOUS RELEASING OF ENGLISH-LANGUAGE FILMS IN 2015 IS BULLSHIT!
And you thought I’d get through one of these pieces without stepping on my soapbox! Ha!
Dropped Out: The Green Inferno
The public checks back into Hotel Transylvania, The Intern gets paid (unlike actual interns), Stonewall crumbled, The Green Inferno immolated, and Other Box Office News.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Much like the first film before it, Hotel Transylvania 2 is officially your new Best September Opening Weekend Ever. Yes, despite the first film exiting all of our collective memories almost as soon as it entered them – and it really pains me to say that because I love Genndy Tartakovsky so very, very much – it turns out that the Hotel Transylvania brand is strong with the audience that matters: kids and, even more importantly than that, the desperate parents who just want them to be quiet for 90 goddamn minutes. They both helped power Transylvania 2 to an excellent $47.5 million haul, a good $5 mil more than the first one made… three years ago?! Oh, GOD, time won’t stop getting away from me!
Kids weren’t the only underserved market being thrown a (possibly juicy it’s kinda hard to tell until I can see these films) bone this weekend, though, as Nancy Meyers finally returned from exile to provide yet another film that ITV2 can add to their schedules whenever they need to fill a spot and the Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift file is too worn out. This one, The Intern, did the usual Nancy Meyers business, slotting comfortably into second place with $18 million, although that is a step down from what It’s Complicated made 6 years ago ($22 million). Also returning from exile was Eli Roth with his evil-savage-cannibal-tribe movie The Green Inferno, but nobody gives a sh*t about Eli Roth so it barely made $3.4 million from 1,540 theatres for ninth place.
Meanwhile, the world of Limited Releases was just bursting with activity this week. To start with, Sicario went up to 53 screens ahead of its nationwide expansion next weekend and managed to crack the Top 10 with an astonishing $30,000 per-screen average. In terms of the weekend’s actual openers, though, the biggest success came from Lost In Hong Kong, the second feature from Xu Zheng and a massive hit in its native China, which rode a 28 screen opening to a very strong $558,900 and a per-screen average of $19,961. Next up was Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, a film that features Michael Shannon yelling so I’m sold, which did a very strong $32,807 from 2 screens and a per-screen average of you can figure that out. And, finally, Half Nelson writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck returned with Mississippi Grind which opened on just the one screen but managed a very respectable $14,335 nonetheless.
Bountiful weekend for the Limited Releases then! Well, unless you’re Stonewall. Yeah, Roland Emmerich’s apparently-thoroughly-misguided passion project crashed and burned on the 129 screens it opened on, taking an absolutely pitiful $112,414 for a per-screen average of $871. Just goes to show: trying to turn one of the most important and diverse moments in LGBT history into a whitewashed Wizard of Oz-ification about a generic bland White guy because stories about events like these can’t just be for LGBT audiences, oh no, they must also provide easy “ins” for White straight audience members too, will just get you a tsunami of backlash, scathing reviews, and nobody will see your ‘accessible’ movie in the first place. This almost feels like justice, it really does.
Oh, it’s been one hell of a week for me, so let’s crack on with this Full List.
Box Office Results: Friday 25th September 2015 – Sunday 27th September 2015
1] Hotel Transylvania 2
$47,500,000 / NEW
OK, Sony Animation. Now, maybe, pretty please, can you let Genndy just make whatever he goddamn wants? He’s given you two solid hits whilst tethered to the sinking Sandler brand, can you just let him off the leash and make his own damn films now? Please? I’m still bitter that you shoved that brilliant-looking Popeye movie he was developing back into the basement for this.
2] The Intern
$18,225,000 / NEW
This looks like hot garbage. That said, I haven’t actually seen any Nancy Meyers films yet, although I want to try and find the time to get at least one watched before I sit down on Saturday and spend… 121 minutes?! …how?
3] Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
$14,000,000 / $51,685,672
For those who missed it a couple of weeks back, here’s my review. Still waiting for a point to appear in this franchise, some reason as to why I am spending this much time with these non-characters, but I will say that I would take this series over the Divergent films any day of the week. For one, despite them having nothing going on so far, at least Maze Runner isn’t drop dead boring like Divergent is. And for two, unlike Divergent, there are only going to be three of these things instead of four. Hopefully. Please.
$13,090,000 / $23,129,805
Oh, yeah, this one went to actual cinemas this week. Think we can see that this genius release strategy hasn’t really worked at all. Just because something worked for a Mission: Impossible movie, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for your film as well. Your film doesn’t feature Tom Cruise, after all.
5] Black Mass
$11,510,000 / $42,608,179
A lot of my university friends are really, really excited about this one, for some reason. In fact, if it weren’t for them, it’d probably have flown under my radar near-totally. The fact that it’s not coming out in the UK until mid-November for some bizarre reason might have something to do with that. Plus, I’m mega-excited for The Peanuts Movie whilst those heathens couldn’t give two sh*ts, so…
I don’t actually have a punchline for this entry, so we should probably just move on.
6] The Visit
$6,750,000 / $52,260,580
OK, I’m hearing from a lot of people that this is actually alright and that is very disconcerting to me. Because, well, it sounds awful and it’s Shyamalan. But it’s apparently alright? I dunno, this sounds wrong to me. Or, you know, maybe I’m just worried that it being OK and doing decent business will lead to him trying to make a second Avatar movie. I know that that series will never hit cinema screens again, but he’s already ruined it once and I don’t much like going through the rest of my life being terrified that he may try again.
7] The Perfect Guy
$4,750,000 / $48,871,135
I got nothing. In fact, to tell you the truth, I completely forgot this thing existed until I just typed in the words for this entry. Remember when this was number 1 two weeks back?
8] War Room
$4,275,000 / $55,999,681
Oh, please, October. Please hurry up and eject nonsense like this from the chart. God, September is the worst.
9] The Green Inferno
$3,494,000 / NEW
Right, this won’t be sticking around next week so let me get both of my commentaries for this film out of the way in one go. 1] This film stars Sky Ferreira, who is primarily a pop singer and should be way bigger than she is (due to lots of bad luck, mainly). If you haven’t listened to her 2013 debut Night Time, My Time, go do so. 2] American movie goers, it worryingly sounds like critics are going to give a passing grade to Knock Knock in a few weeks when that finally drops on your side of the pond. Do not believe them, stay away from it.
$1,770,000 / $2,350,594
Got to see this one early on Wednesday as part of an Unlimited Screening. My review’s not up cos I can’t crack it – left it too long for various personal issues you don’t care about – although I may try it again after I see the film again when it properly comes out, but for now… oh, you need to see Sicario. You need to book your tickets in preparation for Sicario right now. Right. Now.
Dropped Out: A Walk in the Woods, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Grandma