Category Archives: Festivals

Failed Critics Podcast: FrightFest 2017

Spooktacular! Fangtastic! Unbelieva…ghoul…? Yes, it’s our Horror Channel FrightFest 2017 special episode of the Failed Critics Podcast.

Hosts Steve Norman-Bates and VoodoOwen Hughes drag Andrew ‘PVCface’ Brooker and Mike ShawcrossedTheWrongGuy straight from FrightFest and onto Skype for a podcast devoted entirely to the UK’s largest genre film festival.

Amongst the general chit-chat about the five-day event over the bank holiday weekend, we chat about over 15 different films, including: Leatherface; Cult of Chucky; 68 Kill; Better Watch Out; Tragedy Girls; The Bar; Mayhem; Double Date; Psychopaths; FreeholdFanged Up; Jackals;  Bloodshed; Mob; and not forgetting the Adam Wingard’s Netflix Original Death Note.

We’ll be back next week with a spy thrillers triple bill, but in the meantime, check out some of Mike’s photos from the festival below.

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FrightFest 2017 – Day Five

“The legacy is all.”

There was no one in Leicester Square’s Empire cinema on Monday that wasn’t completely and utterly battered. Endless fidgeting from arse ache and leg cramps were just the beginning of a day that was guaranteed to leave most worse for wear. But Andrew Brooker and his FrightFest family persevered. And, of course, would all complain about it whenever there wasn’t a film on the screen on the final stretch of the five-day festival.

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FrightFest 2017 – Day Four

“They’re slipping away” – Paul McEvoy on Tobe Hooper

At a point where it appears that the quality of atmosphere and company is topping the overall quality of the horror films, it’s clear that while we are over the halfway point of this year’s FrightFest, it’s going to be a bit of a slog to the end for writer Andrew Brooker.

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FrightFest 2017 – Day Three

Fear changes people.”

A lovely Saturday morning in the finest city in the world. Seems like another perfect day to hide out in a dark, air conditioned cinema watching scary movies all day for Andrew Brooker, who rejoins a few hundred horror fans for the third day of this year’s FrightFest.
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FrightFest 2017 – Day Two

The great pyramids wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for pussy.”

Embarking on a second journey to London in as many days, on a dangerously low amount of sleep, regretting the choice of jeans for his hot-as-balls morning commute, Andrew Brooker heads back into the fray of the Horror Channel FrightFest.

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FrightFest 2017 – Day One

“Come join the cult”

August bank holiday weekend has finally arrived. Whilst most people look forward to the frivolity of a good birthday drink or the suicide inducing family time that is Christmas; for Brooker, FrightFest is all that and more rolled into one. So begins his journey into “The Dark Heart of Cinema”.

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Can’t get to Horror Channel FrightFest? Watch these instead

The UK’s biggest film festival dedicated to all things horror kicks off later today with over 60 films being screened across the bank holiday weekend. The annual Horror Channel FrightFest returns to its home in the dark heart of London on Leicester Square from the 24-28 August, showcasing some of the most anticipated and unique genre movies around.

If you’re not as fortunate as our writer Andrew Brooker, who is attending the extravaganza (and will be reviewing it on next week’s podcast along with Mike Shawcross), then don’t worry! We’ve picked out two films being shown on the Horror Channel each day across the duration of the festival for you to enjoy instead.

Whack your popcorn in the microwave, crack open that 2ltr bottle of pop from the corner shop, and turn your tele on for some quality horror, all from the comfort of your own home.

Continue reading Can’t get to Horror Channel FrightFest? Watch these instead

FrightFest 2017 – My Itinerary

“You’re scared already… Ain’t ya darling?”

Making his (hopefully) annual trip to the world renowned genre-film festival, Andrew Brooker takes a look at this year’s Horror Channel FrightFest lineup, revealing his plan for the five days in London’s Leicester Square over the August Bank Holiday.

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36th Cambridge Film Festival

 

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Fans of our recent 36th Cambridge Film Festival episode of the Failed Critics Podcast will be pleased to see that contributor Andrew Alcock has written down some of his thoughts on the cluster of world cinema that he managed to get his hands on during the UK’s longest running film festival. Starting with…


Wonderland
Wonderland

Wonderland (2015) – Switzerland

Ten young Swiss directors explore how society would react if their country was plunged into crisis. The crisis arises in the form of an ominous storm cloud which appears over central Switzerland. It quickly spreads until it covers the whole country, stopping exactly at the borders. Experts predict apocalyptic disaster, insurance companies panic, vital services collapse, electricity cuts out, the government re-opens WW2 bunkers, social disorder ensues. Some people try to flee, some hide, others try to ignore it.

The premise is very good, the dark clouds can be used as a metaphor for so many things and the directors have mainly gone in different directions. Some themes are obvious; immigration, xenophobia, power, wealth, the EU. Some are so subtle that I have to admit that I didn’t even spot them. Three or four of the stories add nothing to the film other than increasing the run time.

Had this been four or five perspectives with the directors collaborating so that the stories overlapped / characters interacted it could’ve been superb. Unfortunately, these are independent short films spliced together by an editor leaving your interest yo-yoing. The good stuff is good – at times very good – but overall I was left with a sense of frustration at a missed opportunity.


On the Other Side
On the Other Side

On The Other Side (2016) – Croatia

Vesna lives a content life in Zagreb. She works as a nurse and shares her home with a daughter whose wedding she is helping to plan. Her son and his wife have a house close by and Vesna often pops over to babysit her grandson. Her quiet existence receives a jolt when her estranged husband calls her out of the blue.

[I must point out that my knowledge of Eastern European conflicts, in particular the Croatian War Of Independence, is limited to what I could gather during the film and a bit of research since. I may have misinterpreted some things but I’ll explain as best I can.]

About 20 years prior to this phone call war broke out and split up Vesna’s family. Her husband, Zarko, is Serbian and heads off to fight for the Yugoslav/Serb forces against the Croats, leaving his Croatian wife and children behind. Not only do they have to live in a country at war but they are the family of a Serb, the enemy. The family soon move to Zagreb to start a new life, the Croats win their independence, Zarko is tried at The Hague on war crimes and no more is heard from him. Having reacted to the first call with dismay and anger Vesna receives more calls from Zarko. Over time she discovers he is back in Serbia and as they talk it brings back memories, both good and bad. Her son wants nothing to do with his father. Her daughter is more understanding but feels the legacy of Zarko’s actions when her applications to get a job in the law profession are rejected when the potential employers discover her family history.

Ksenija Marinkovic does a fine job as Vesna, portraying a woman who has horrific memories and is still seeing the effects of her husband’s choices on her children today but has reconnected with the man she loved. There’s a twist near the end of the film which I liked but really wanted more details of. I know what happened, I know who did what but I don’t know why. I’m not sure if it wasn’t explained or if I just didn’t pick up on it. That confusing end took the gloss of what was a very interesting and well-made film.


alba-cdt-stills-43-postalAlba (2016) – Ecuador

11-year-old Alba lives a very quiet life. Her mother has been unwell for some time. Almost entirely bed-ridden, a nurse comes in to wash her and change her clothes and Alba is able to help her to the bathroom and back to bed. Due to this Alba spends her time at home playing silently, allowing her mother to rest. This quietness continues at school where Alba is very reserved. She will sit with the other girls but rarely join in. Always reticent to speak. One night her mother takes a turn for the worse and is taken to hospital for ongoing treatment. This results in Alba being taken to stay with her dad, a man she has not seen since she was three. Her dad is used to a life of solitude, a man of few words. He does what he can to make her feel welcome but finds it hard talking to a child he barely knows.

There are long mute periods between the two, neither knowing what to say, any conversation they do manage consisting of a short question and reply. Alba switches school and her shyness again holds her back until she is approached by an older girl, Eva. They chat, Alba still not saying much, and Eva invites her to a party. Hearing of this the other girls at school try harder to engage with Alba whilst she tries to overcome her withdrawn nature.

The onset of puberty, awkwardness at living with her dad, her first kiss, truth or dare, the party and her mother’s illness all affect her as we see her slowly mature, becoming more confident, wrestling with her conscience whilst trying to be accepted. There’s a really nice scene where Alba and her dad go to the beach. Although they still don’t communicate verbally you can see they have accepted each other and enjoy their time together. Macarena Arias plays Alba wonderfully, displaying the difference between the introverted young girl at the beginning and the more self-assured character she becomes. I definitely recommend you give this a watch when it becomes available on whichever completely legal format you use for film viewing.


tel_0913790_s_01_xx_big_1Between Sea And Land (2016) – Colombia

Over-the-top melodrama. I could leave the review at that point and I think most readers would know whether they want to see this film or not. Many people enjoy this type of thing, I am not one of them. It follows the ‘person with debilitating illness tries to achieve goal with help of family and friends’ formula.

In this film:

Person = Alberto, a man in his twenties
Illness = a form of muscular dystrophy
Goal = experience the sea

To explain how disengaged I was from this film I will share a thought process I had upon seeing a shot which started above Alberto’s shack and pulled back directly upwards until there was a Google Maps-style shot: “I wonder how they got that shot. Perhaps a drone? Would a drone be able to carry a good enough camera to get such clarity? Might’ve had a built-in camera. Either way that’d be pricey. How much would the budget for a film like this be? Is the Colombian film industry particularly wealthy? Maybe it wasn’t a drone. Perhaps a crane? It would need to be a massive crane to pull back that high up and not have it in shot. Maybe they lowered something down and reversed the shot. No, that wouldn’t work, the waves would be going away from the shore…”


press__oneofus_victor_softgun-tif_One Of Us (2015) – Austria

A huge supermarket is the only thing of note in the hometown of 14-year-old Julian. So this is where he congregates with his mates. Sometimes going inside the shop, annoying the stuck-up manager. Often hanging about on the outskirts of the large compound, smoking, vandalising, chatting, messing about, doing whatever it takes to pass the time in their dead town. Michael, a kid a little older than Julian, is starting his career working in the supermarket. Despite not being overly enthused he does what he can to impress, performing his duties and trying to ignore the requests of local wannabe gangster, Sedler, to sneak things out. 16-year-old Marko is freshly out of prison, his first port of call upon his return to town is the supermarket. A reunion with his old mate Sedler soon follows as well as a meeting with Julian. As friendships grow, Julian tries harder to impress. During a night of smoking and drinking the decision to break in to the supermarket ends in tragedy.

I know I’ve not sold the film very well with that synopsis, it’s a tricky one to get across. At it’s heart is a very simple story of youngsters craving adventure, thrills and acceptance. Doing whatever they can to alleviate the monotony of life. The use of the supermarket is superb. Not only is it used symbolically, the most mundane of places seen as the beacon of excitement, but it is utilised visually throughout.

The straight lines of the regimented aisles, the gaudy, unnatural colours of the packaging all in blocks creating a rainbow effect, the bright artificial lighting. It all adds to create a surreal environment in contrast to the dull reality of the outside world. This is another I recommend you catch if you ever get the chance.

Failed Critics Podcast: 36th Cambridge Film Festival Special

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As the 36th Cambridge Film Festival nears its conclusion, we round-up and preview some of the best independent and international movies that you still have a chance to see!

In this episode, Owen Hughes guides you through our pick of the bunch as he’s joined by our world cinema experts Liam and Andy (who you may remember contributed to our World Cinema Special podcast back in January).

From Romanian and Greek, to Ecuadorian and Colombian films. From docu-dramas to short film compilations. On topics as diverse as incest and the Russian avant-garde movement. If you’re looking for a movie that’s just off the beaten track from the usual mainstream cinema, then we’ve got you covered.

In the podcast, we chat about:

Cloudy Sunday – Showing Wednesday 26th October, 4pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Next Generation Tiger Shorts 2016 – Wednesday 26th, 5.30pm (Cinemobile)
Wonderland – Wednesday 26th, 5.30pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Between Sea and Land – Wed 26th 8pm (Arts Picturehouse) & Thu 27th 12.45pm (cinemobile)
Alba – Thursday 27th, 5.30pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Illegitimate – Thursday 27th, 6.15pm (Arts Picturehouse)

Plus the Dutch Scottish drama Bodkin Ras, high-brow documentary Revolution – New Art for a New World, and Andy’s favourite from the festival, Austrian drama One of Us. All of which you’re too late to catch at the festival, but are worth digging out if you can find them!

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Failed Critics Podcast: London Film Festival 2016 Special

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Before writer Callum Petch had even got his foot through the door upon returning from Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire last Sunday, he was answering a telephone call from Failed Critics to let us know exactly how it – and the rest of the BFI London Film Festival – had been this year.

This special bonus podcast is the result of that call, as Callum kindly rounds up five of the best, and a few of the rest from the 60th LFF. If you’ve been following his posts on the site, you’ll have a good idea of which movies came out top, as well as those that flattered to deceive.

Did Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature, Elle, make the cut? What about the new Denis Villeneuve sci-fi, Arrival? Was it as good as Sicario, Prisoners and Enemy? How was Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden received?

Listen to or download the podcast below to find out!

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London Film Festival 2016: Day 13

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

And that’s that.  I’m back home now, in Scunthorpe, got in last night after 2 full weeks away in London.  My experience of gallivanting around the nation’s capital for 12 solid days as a professional film critic all by myself with no backup if anything went wrong has come to a close and, aside from traumatising the neighbour of the man I was Homestay-ing at on the first night by mistaking her house for his, the whole thing went off without a hitch.  I didn’t get lost, I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t run out of money like I was terrified would happen, I didn’t get robbed, I didn’t make an ass of myself in front of anybody.  No, it all went fine.  Hell, it went better than fine, it went near-perfectly.  I saw 40 films overall (41 if you count my seeing Free Fire twice) within the span of 12 days, I got into most all of the screenings I wanted to, and I managed to crank out a full-length article for each one of those days, all without my enthusiasm or energy dropping once – aside from that final night where I finished my work, collapsed onto bed, and then slept for an uninterrupted 9 hours.

I did it, in other words.  I really did it.  I had so many fears and anxieties prior to this trip that everything was going to go wrong and that I wasn’t good enough to deserve this trip and what if I hated the experience and what if I wasn’t inspired to work, and none of those mattered in the end because I did it.  Nothing went wrong, I turned in some of what I feel is my best work yet, I loved every second of the whole thing, and, once I’ve taken a day or two to recuperate, I feel fully re-invigorated and ready to start bashing out new pieces left, right, and centre – there’s the Christine/Kate Plays Christine piece I already have plotted out, and I’m finally going to tackle that “Lost Cels” entry I’ve had on the backburner for a year just for starters.  In a rarity for my life, everything was just as I had hoped and I actually pulled it off instead of falling flat on my face.  This fortnight, as previously mentioned, has been the greatest and I currently feel better than I have done in a long time.

But enough about me.  You want to know what the best films of the festival were out of the 40 that I managed to see.  Well, if you are too lazy to go looking back through all my prior articles from the festival in order to figure that out for yourself, then you’ve come to the right place.  I saw a lot of great films during this festival, 2 of which I would especially feel comfortable putting in the upper echelons of my Top 20 of the Year list if both of them come out to the general populace in time, but these are the crème-de-la-crème, so to speak.  They’re also arranged in alphabetical order rather than order of preference both because you should go and read my other articles, and because I’m lazy and really cannot be bothered right now to stamp them into a definitive ranked order.  So, without further delay, here are Callum Petch’s 10 Best Films of the London Film Festival 2016 (That He Managed To See)!

V63A9899.jpgA Quiet Passion: I usually despise costume dramas, and a torturously long and dull pair of Awards Seasons these past two years have turned biopics into a tainted genre for me, but I sincerely could not get enough of Terence Davies’ costume drama biopic of acclaimed-after-her-time poet Emily Dickinson.  Equal parts witty and tragic, Davies manages to walk the fine line between communicating to the viewer how sappingly dull Emily’s life was despite her hopes and wishes without boring the viewer, as he and a tour-de-force Cynthia Nixon performance paint a complex, sympathetic, and all-too-relatable picture of an independent, undervalued, and increasingly bitter woman forced to sit back and watch life happen to everyone but her.  A stunning film.

ARRIVAL

Arrival: Nothing came close to Arrival at the London Film Festival, this year.  Many films tried, one almost succeeded, but nothing else was remotely on the level of Denis Villenueve’s instant sci-fi classic that offers something for everyone – hard sci-fi, existentialism, edge-of-your-seat tension, sincere sentimentality – but still has a singular identity of its own.  Containing many of the best scenes of the entire year (I am still in total awe of the phenomenal first contact sequence), Amy Adams’ best work in a long time, gorgeous cinematography from Bradford Young, an essential score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and all masterfully handled by Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villenueve’s impeccable directing, Arrival is one of those films that really does remind you of just how powerful cinema can be.  Smart, heartfelt, astoundingly beautiful, more adjectives that express positive emotions!

chasing_asylum_01Chasing Asylum: Created with the intention of “shaming” the Australian government over their abhorrent and damn-near illegal immigration policies, Chasing Asylum has found itself more vital relevance given the current state of the Western world and our constant dehumanisation and discriminatory rhetoric towards refugees.  An absolutely horrifying glimpse into the brutal and inhuman detention centres purposefully designed by the Australian government to convince those desperately needing help to turn back or stay locked in as prisoners, Eva Orner manages to create an incisive and righteous condemnation of the kinds of policies a worrying amount of other nations are believing to be the gold standard in immigration control without losing touch of the fact that these are human beings being affected by countries who see them as nothing more than statistical parasites.  Mandatory viewing.

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Christine/Kate Plays Christine: OK, so this is now technically a Top 11 list, but the two Christines are so inseparable from one another to me – both inadvertently complimenting and contrasting, justifying and negating each other’s existences – that I can’t talk about one without mentioning the other.  Both tackling the live on-air suicide of local news journalist Christine Chubbuck in July of 1974 in different ways – Christine via an empathetic and highly-accurate depiction and communication of living with depression, Kate Plays Christine via examining the acting method, finding a meaning in an act that none of us can fully understand, and questioning the quietly sadistic reason why we’re all interested in Christine’s story in the first place – the two films are exceptional watches that have refused to leave my brain ever since I saw them.  And, for the record, Kate Plays Christine is the better film, but Christine has resonated with me more, especially with its career-best Rebecca Hall performance.

elle_02Elle: Yeah, this one really grew on me.  Partially because I saw two other films this festival that demonstrated in great detail just how badly this could have gone wrong, and partially because further discussion about it with other people has made the words coming out of my mouth not sound absolutely horrible.  Elle is button-pushing cinema made by the master of button-pushing cinema, but it also never feels exploitative or offensive, the provocations coming out of a desire to make the viewer examine and re-examine their attitudes towards sexual assault, rape culture, and misogyny – thankfully in ways that cannot be reduced to, and never even get close to, “maybe these are good things.”  Paul Verhoeven directs with assured determination, Isabelle Huppert commandingly keeps things on track at all times with a fascinatingly complex performance, and it’s honestly refreshing to watch a drama about a middle-aged woman for a change.  Plus, like I said before, it’s never ever dull.

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My Life as a Courgette: Incredibly sweet, moving, and taking full advantage of the medium of Animation, My Life as a Courgette is a wonderful drama about life in a group home for orphaned, “damaged” children.  It could stand to be longer than the 66 minutes it runs for, but that’s out of a desire to spend more time in its world and with its characters rather than any rushed storytelling issues.  Crowdpleasing but powered by a melancholy undercurrent that doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the harsh reality that these kids are unlikely to ever be lucky enough to find a new home, and at turns very funny and quietly heartbreaking, Courgette is reminiscent of The Story of Tracy Beaker and is similarly a brilliant piece of work.

nocturama_01Nocturama: At the risk of sounding like every clichéd lad’s mag writer whenever they review a particularly nasty piece of work, Nocturama really does not give a f**k what you want it to be.  It is bleak, confrontational, provocative, seemingly-pointless filmmaking that could lend itself to being called “punk rock” if it weren’t so intentionally detached in its direction, even when it is indulging in stylistic touches.  But Bertrand Bonello’s near-masterpiece, if you get it, eventually reveals itself to a searing indictment of youthful arrogance, egocentrism, and pointless rebellion, a repudiation of materialism and indulgence, and a giant middle-finger to any act of authority-bucking born out of boredom.  It is nasty, compulsive, angry, gripping, callous, essential viewing – Spring Breakers as delivered through the medium of domestic terrorism and without any of the sympathy, and just like Harmony Korine’s own near-masterpiece is gonna divide audiences like there’s no tomorrow.  You’ll either get it or you really won’t, but those that do are in for one hell of a film.

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The Handmaiden: The most pure fun I had at the entire festival, Park Chan-wook’s latest is the Park Chan-wook-iest film ever made, and all the better for it.  The Handmaiden is the trashy psycho-sexual drama that Chan-wook was born to make and he puts on one hell of a directing masterclass, here, effortlessly jumping between tones, genres, and a pile-up of twists with skilful aplomb.  Phenomenally acted, gorgeously shot, and refreshingly gay as all get out, The Handmaiden balances being ludicrous fun with a surprisingly insightful condemnation of misogynistic erotica and the patriarchy.  It does feel about 15 minutes too long and is a little slow to get going, but even as the end credits were rolling I knew that the film was one that will only grow on repeat viewings, as prior knowledge of where things will end up shine a light on elements I missed the first time around.  Plus, it’s a fantastic reminder that Park Chan-wook is still one of the very best directors in the business.

« VOIR DU PAYS » Un long métrage de Delphine et Muriel COULINThe Stopover: French film really cleaned house at this year’s festival, as you can probably tell.  The Stopover is an uncompromising drama about PTSD, misogyny, and toxic masculinity, all brought to boil in the military, and all on the verge of bubbling over during a mandated “decompression” weekend in a 5-star Cyprus resort.  Viewed through the eyes of the 3 women in a regiment otherwise entirely filled with men, The Stopover draws attention to just how tiring, draining, and menacing being exposed to this kind of rampant casual hatred from your ostensible comrades-in-arms can be, building up a surprisingly tense head of steam that pays off in a deeply disturbing way during its finale.  This is one hell of a calling card for The Coulin Sisters, who have very bright futures ahead of them if they can make further films even half as good as this.

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Women Who Kill: I had a very hard time deciding between this and Prevenge for the final slot, but in the end I gave the edge to Women Who Kill purely on the basis of Prevenge being basically guaranteed to get its due with the world when it gets a proper release, and Women Who Kill being hella gay.  Sardonic, witty, very New York, but also capable of an unsettling streak when it aims for it, this twist on the “is my partner a murderous psychopath?” subgenre is super-entertaining viewing.  Writer-director-and-star Ingrid Jungermann’s script is on-point, the performances are all spot on, and its specific immersion in the lesbian New York scene provides a refreshing perspective and a diverse and non-stereotypical collection of lesbian characters in film who all feel lived-in and somewhat real.  A real discovery, Women Who Kill deserves to find a wider audience than it inevitably will.

Callum Petch won’t play your hide-and-seek game.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 12

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Flash back with me about 60 hours or so, fellow readers, to my press screening of Nocturnal Animals on a Friday morning.  It’s a sold-out screening, completely full from front-to-back of people dying to watch Tom Ford’s new feature.  Now I want you to picture, as soon as the film makes its final cut to black, the sound of the entire back section standing up, grabbing their things, and making straight for the doors.  Not even before a single end title card appeared to denote the film had absolutely and officially finished were a bunch of people making a beeline for the exit.  I was joining them from my slot in the middle of the third row about 10 seconds later, before you judge, and a whole bunch of us basically sprinted the length of Leicester Square to get to the Picturehouse Central, greeting a queue that had already stretched around the corner of the cinema and into the middle of the street.

We were sprinting, you see, because we were all desperately trying to make it into the queue for the press screening of the Closing Film, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (Grade: B), before the intangible cut-off mark became apparent.  It was a queue that had clearly started long before Nocturnal Animals had wrapped, made up of critics and industry professionals either shut out of or uninterested in that film, or who had decided that missing Nocturnal Animals was an understandable sacrifice given the opportunity of making it into Free Fire, but both crowds had clearly gotten there a good hour early.  I got real lucky and made it to the queue well before the shut-out point, which meant that I got to see Free Fire a good 2 days before the screening I had already bought a ticket for!  It also meant that I’ve been under embargo for the past 2 days, but I’m still at that stage in my critical career where embargos fill me with a kind of geeky excitement so that’s all good.

Anyways, Free Fire is Ben Wheatley’s attempt at lean, mean, semi-mainstream genre fare and comes to you with an incredibly simple premise.  Set entirely in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in America in the 1970s, a group of IRA members led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are trying to buy some guns from South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the deal being facilitated by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer).  But what should be a very simple transaction keeps turning ever more complicated and sour the longer it drags on – the guns aren’t what Chris ordered, Vernon is secretly withholding the ammo from the order, nobody trusts each other, and everybody on both sides is a complete goddamn idiot.  When it turns out that one of Chris and Frank’s group (Sam Riley) got into an altercation the night before with one of Vernon’s men (Jack Reynor) over something unconscionable, things turn heated very quickly, and then somebody pulls a gun…

In essence, Free Fire is one of those finger-gun battles you used to play as kids given the big screen treatment, with elements of Sam Peckinpah thrown in for good measure.  That giant kind of free-for-all where everybody’s wildly shooting at everybody else, where every bullet doesn’t kill you cos it totally just hit your shoulder pads rather than any vital part of your body, where everybody has unlimited amounts of ammo for unexplained reasons, and where things eventually just devolve into a lot of people crawling around pathetically in a desperate attempt to finish off everyone else for reasons that are lost even on themselves.  It purposefully aims lower than any of Wheatley’s other films so far, clearly being positioned as a more mainstream calling card and the kind of genre fare that gets placed in various Midnight Movie programmes for many years down the line, which is why it is inarguably his weakest.  It’s a giant empty stylistic exercise, at a stretch you could read the film as being a commentary on rampant unchecked masculinity, but the film also relies on that very thing for its premise and action.

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No, Free Fire deliberately aims rather low.  That said, I don’t consider that a particularly bad thing.  If the film were any less than the massive amount of fun that it is, then I would consider it a bad thing, but I do love me an exquisitely-made and very fun genre piece.  In fact, Free Fire is near-flawless in what it sets out to be.  The idea of an hour-long gun fight can sound tiring on paper, but Wheatley and his partner-in-crime Amy Jump break that macro concept down into more micro elements, feuds, and tasks in order to keep that pace up – going from that initial exchange, to having to deal with a pair of gate-crashing snipers, to re-igniting the initial feud, to trying to figure out a way to diffuse the situation, and so on.  As a result, the film is impeccably paced, its first half-hour very slowly turning up the pressure, exploding all at once when things go to Hell, and then having contained peaks and valleys despite not too much changing in the grand scheme of things.

Wheatley and Jump wring every last drop they can out of their premise – whilst that 70s setting pulls double duty in explaining why nobody can call for back-up, and allowing the pair to indulge themselves in some truly criminal facial hair and snappy suits from the era – and they manage to stage and edit the firefight with surprising coherency.  Logistically, this must have been a nightmare to organise and edit, but it’s almost always clear where everyone is in relation to everyone else and who is shooting at whom, with the few instances where it’s not creating the intentional effect of disorienting the viewer in the same way that the cast are disorientated.  The script does a very good job at crafting a varied cast of characters when it could have been very easy for each of them to become interchangeable and samey, and it’s often very funny, albeit not as funny on paper as it often thinks it’s being.

That’s where the cast comes in.  Stacked from top-to-bottom with a mixture of big names and talented character actors, they’re more than up to the task of picking up the slack when the script occasionally lets them down and turning quips that otherwise wouldn’t be that funny into howlers, as well as finding a hundred different ways of yelling out the f-word.  They’re all clearly having the absolute time of their lives playing thoroughly awful people and staging an over-the-top gunfight, and that enthusiasm is properly infectious.  Brie Larson gets to remind you that she’s capable of some of the best eye-rolls in the business, Jack Reynor continues his recent redemption streak for Transformers: Age of Extinction, Armie Hammer is delightfully smug, Sam Riley is often a goddamn riot, Sharlto Copley finds the sweet-spot between “hammy” and “irritating” that he doesn’t always nail, Michael Smiley is a load of fun, and Cillian Murphy gets to bust out his natural Irish brogue for once and it’s still as dreamy a voice as ever.

Like I said, Free Fire is almost likely going to be a minor footnote in Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s respective careers once they both finally wrap up and get those giant deserving retrospectives, but that’s by design.  Free Fire isn’t trying to go down as a classic, it isn’t trying to blow minds, and it isn’t trying to say anything at all.  It’s a 90 minute style exercise, an attempt by the pair to make a slice of lean, mean genre fare.  And I can’t really knock them too hard for it, not when Free Fire is this near-flawlessly constructed, and not when I had this much fun the two times I saw it.  I’m cooler on it after my viewing of it on Closing Night than I was after the press screening, but I still really enjoyed it, as did the rest of both of the capacity screenings I was in, and that’s really all you can ask for out of genre fare.

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Sticking with Wheatley-affiliated works, because I did in fact watch other films today, Gareth Tunley’s directorial debut The Ghoul (Grade: C+) is a really hard one to talk about.  I would tell you the premise, except that the premise is not the premise at all, as revealed about 20 minutes in to this 81 minute film, and it’s the kind of reveal that’s necessary to experience fresh in order to get the most out of the film.  In as vague terms as I can put it, The Ghoul is a psychological thriller about depression, daydreams and imaginations, and psychotherapy, that manages to create the impression of the film withholding its ultimate explanation for a reason rather than because the film itself doesn’t even know what it’s doing.  At its best moments, it creates this unsettling bad dream atmosphere; the kind where it feels real but keeps jutting around, and where you feel like something’s wrong but aren’t sure why until it’s far too late.  Like I said, it’s hard to properly talk about The Ghoul, which is why this review’s so short, but it is a solid first effort.  It’s messy, a bit too self-serious, and a little over-ambitious given its no-budget, but that atmosphere and a very well-handled lead performance by Tom Meeten pulls it through.  Worth a look, overall.

Since I didn’t get an approved ticket for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, the kick-off film to my final day at the festival was the Chinese-funded, American-made, Western-aimed kids animation Rock Dog (Grade: C) in 3D (which added absolutely nothing to the film beyond mild dizziness as usual).  Set in an all-animal world – which is distressingly becoming the default setting for most animated films once more – the film follows Bodi (Luke Wilson), a dog and the son of Snow Mountain’s chief protector, Khampa (J. K. Simmons).  Snow Mountain is entirely populated, apart from Bodi and Khampa, by sheep and, once upon a time, they were terrorised by evil wolves, until Khampa used mystical martial arts to repel the village of them.  Bodi is being groomed to take over as protector of the village, but he’d rather become a musician and, after a radio falls from the sky and exposes Bodi to rock music, he becomes inspired to pick up sticks and move to the city to become a rock star.

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If you pulled out your Generic Kids Animation Bingo Card halfway through reading the description and got almost a full-house by the end, you’re pretty justified in doing so.  Rock Dog is absolutely generic interchangeable animated kids fare, almost exactly the same as any other foreign kids animation that’s given a haphazard English dub and punted into UK cinemas in the hopes of a quick easy buck.  There’s the usual “be true to yourself and everything will work out” moral, an excessively naïve and optimistic lead character, a soundtrack filled with incredibly on-the-nose needle-drops, far too many characters that distract from the main tale and lead to the film being far too busy, wacky physical comedy and screaming for the kids and almost-swearing gags for the adults, way too much plot that just needlessly keeps the film in first gear…  If you can think of a cliché, it’s almost definitely here.

That said, it’s not as numbingly dull as most other generic and effortless animated kids fare.  The art style may be poor – although it does feature the interesting design choice of having Bodi’s village represent Eastern, and particularly Tibetan, aesthetics whilst the city more represents Western aesthetics – but the character animation itself is halfway decent, going for the kind of 3D squash-and-stretch that Genndy Tartakovsky and the Hotel Transylvania crew have been trying to accurately transfer over the CG medium.  The film also does pick up some steam once Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) enters the scene, being a delightfully self-centred and cantankerous rock star parody that’s so over-the-top, and so well-performed by Izzard, that he actually pulls out laughs on a regular basis that are otherwise lacking in this film.  Look, you probably already gathered that Rock Dog wasn’t going to be worth much once you realised that they likely expanded all of their creativity and effort on the title (reverse the Dog part) and those are low expectations the film mostly fulfils.  It’s not bad or offensively lazy, it’s actually quite watchable, but there’s also not much to recommend here either.  It’s ok.

Although it does now hold the title of being the weirdest place that I’ve heard Radiohead’s “No Surprises” crop up in.  So, that’s something, I guess.

Day 13: I reflect on the madness of the last 12 days and provide my list of the 10 best films of the festival.

Callum Petch got him a rock and roll band!  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 11

LION

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

So, now that the structure of having daily press screenings in a morning and afternoon has been taken away from me, allow me to tear down the glamourous artifice of the London Film Festival and explain to you how Rush Tickets work.  Now, at a film festival, there are a lot of films being shown throughout the 12 day period, 245 to be precise, both big and small.  Many of them play opposite one another at different venues, and the smaller films can often be dwarfed by the bigger ones.  This means that there can be a surplus of films with unsold tickets that aren’t being snapped up at the usual festival prices – which range from a standard film ticket in London, read: a lot, to the price of a 3 course meal back home, read: a hell of a lot.  As a result, these tickets will be re-sold as Rush Tickets where, 45 minutes before a film, audiences can queue up to buy these tickets at a significantly reduced price, letting them take a chance on films they may otherwise have avoided.

How does this affect film critics?  Well, as critics, we get special press and industry screenings separate from public screenings, so we can see many of these films before everyone else.  If we want to get into public screenings for whatever reason, mainly due to scheduling ensuring that we missed the press screening, we can do so through one of two methods.  The first involves putting in for a set-aside press ticket two days beforehand, guaranteeing you a screening if it’s approved, but these come with the risk of having your requests and choices approved or denied seemingly at random with no explanation, so you may only get your 3rd or 4th choice if you even get one at all.  The second is to head to the Press & Delegate booth at the cinema screening the film about 15 minutes beforehand and trying to blag a spare ticket that way, but these come with the caveat of the cinema only handing these out if the film isn’t busy, as they understandably prioritise paying customers over your vulture-like self, and you may turn up too late to just buy a ticket like everyone else.

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara star in LIONPhoto: Mark Rogers

There’s a lack of permanence or certainty to getting into public screenings, basically, which is why I’ve been quietly dreading this final weekend as somebody who likes having guaranteed structure.  It’s also why I didn’t trust my nerves and instincts enough to hold out for a leftover free ticket for Lion (Grade: C- (barely)), and instead plonked down £16 cash money for the privilege of watching a textbook example of Weinstein Oscar Bait.  Unlike with, as previously mentioned for example, costume dramas, my cynicism alarms do go a-blaring whenever a film that I’m about to watch, especially one released around this time of the year, has The Weinstein Company in its studio credits, home of the most blatant and cynically-calculated Oscar Bait around.

Take a drink whenever you spot an awards-movie cliché in this synopsis: based on a true story, Lion follows Saroo (“and introducing” Sunny Pawar), a young Indian boy in a tiny village separated from his older brother and mother when he insists on tagging along for night work to help support his family.  Trapped on a discontinued train, he is spirited away to Kolkata and spends the following 2 months as a street orphan, constantly avoiding child traffickers and child molesters, before ending up in a nightmarish government centre for forgotten children and, soon after that, being adopted by a nice White Australian family (David Wenham and a spectacularly miscast Nicole Kidman).  They become his new family, along with a difficult fellow adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) who is implied to have been sexually abused prior to living with their new family – and the way the film treats and characterises him is so dreadful and offensive that I’m not going to touch it with a 10-foot pole.  20 years later, once Saroo (now Dev Patel) goes to university, he finally decides to try tracking down his former home via this new-fangled contraption known as “Google Earth.”

Bladdered yet?  Look, my problem with Lion is not that it’s clichéd, real life can oftentimes be a cliché if you’ve experienced enough stories.  No, my problem with Lion is that it is completely soulless filmmaking that has been precision-calibrated to at least rack up awards nominations, if not awards statues themselves.  Every beat and “tear-jerking” scene can be predicted right down to the second, half the movie in advance because it is far too cynically designed to distract the viewer from the artifice of it all.  There are no characters here, none whatsoever.  Saroo meets and falls in love with an American exchange student whilst at university (Rooney Mara) and she does absolutely nothing in this film beyond trying to encourage and support Saroo; we never once get a look at her wants or desires or personality or really any indicator at all that she’s not just some animatronic on a particularly weepy fairground ride.

In fact, on that subject, we never really come to learn much about Saroo, either.  What is he like outside of that desire to rediscover his home?  Why has he gone to university to study hotel management?  Hell, what was he really like as a child before he got lost, outside of the very minor glimpses in weirdly-placed flashbacks late on in the film?  Lion has no idea.  “Look at Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel!” it instead yells fruitlessly, “Aren’t they adorable and so you immediately sympathise with them and stop asking so many questions!”  Whilst, yes, Patel and Pawar both carry genuine amounts of screen charisma and expressive youthful eyes that makes you instantly sympathetic to their plight – Pawar is a genuine find, and Patel really deserves to be a Movie Star already – they are not Gods.  They can’t paper over massive holes in their characterisations, like “there not being any.”  They’re also not helped by a narrative that tries to cover every last second of Saroo’s life, consequently creating a film that undermines its own dramatic pacing every time it finally starts picking up steam with a random time-jump – the massive “20 Years Later” one at the hour mark particularly drew judgemental intakes of breath from my fellow audience members.

Yes, the ending is powerful stuff, but of course it was going to be.  You’d have to be a completely incompetent imbecile to muck up this story’s ending, and lord knows that Lion really tries to.  It just doesn’t work in the slightest, not in the first half when Saroo is wandering around India lost and alone – and manages the uncomfortable unintentional insinuation that India is a savage and unsafe place for a child in any capacity and that they all need saving by nice White families from more developed nations – and definitely not in the second half where it completely fails to make Google Earth browsing a dramatic and emotional act.  One could argue that maybe this story just isn’t suited for Film, but I’d disagree.  It’s just not suitable for this film.  If it were more focussed, crafted actual characters whose personal dramas and conflicts were treated with respect, came up with a decent structure, and was made with soul and a desire to do more than win awards and self-consciously bring attention to how much of A Good Thing everyone involved was doing by tangentially addressing A Serious Issue – never mind that Saroo never once feels like he’s in actual danger once he gets lost, thanks to some terrible directing – Lion could have been worth something.  Or it could have at least dropped the jarring Best Original Song submission by Sia from the end credits.

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Having tried twice prior to today, the third time turned out to be the charm for getting into a Women Who Kill (Grade: B+) screening, and thank heavens my luck came good this time because Women Who Kill is brilliant.  The feature directorial debut of writer Ingrid Jungermann, the film follows two women, the lesbian Morgan (Jungermann) and the bisexual Jean (Ann Carr), who used to be lovers and co-host the titular podcast together, a true crime podcast where the pair interview famous female serial killers and debate which female serial killer is the hottest.  Despite having broken up a while back, the two still do basically everything together, which is making some of their fellow lesbian friends like Alex (Shannon Patricia O’Neal) openly question if the two are finally sleeping with each other again.  But then, one day, Simone (Sheila Vand) walks into the Co-Op that Morgan works at, and Simone’s mysterious allure irresistibly draws Morgan towards her.  Everyone else, however, has their doubts about Simone, like how Simone doesn’t appear to be her actual name, how she’s very evasive about her life before moving back to New York, and how she’s bordering on the verge of psychopathic behaviour.

In essence, it’s an “is my partner a murderous psycho?” movie, albeit one executed in the drollest and most New York way possible.  There’s an undercurrent of genuine menace that Women Who Kill is able to tap into when it wants to, but it mostly doesn’t want to.  Instead, the film acts as a very dry and satirical commentary on self-involved New Yorkers.  “Yawn,” I can already hear you vocally expressing, “we already have a hundred thousand of those.”  But the film situates itself in the Now thanks to both its send-up of the recent podcast boom – Women Who Kill manages to walk the line of being just stupid enough to register as fake, but is also niche enough and self-involved enough to be somewhat believable as a potential real podcast made by 2 New York women – and by being hella gay.  Almost every character in this film is a lesbian, and that simple fact leads to a genuinely diverse cast of characters that avoid falling into the realm of reductive stereotypes thanks to that diversity of personality.

That gender and sexuality flip to a concept as well-worn as “is my partner a murderous psycho?” provides a spark of life to the film that makes it feel new and unique, a breath of fresh air in a played-out genre despite the beats being mostly what you’d expect.  The podcast part even ends up being more than just New York quirk, allowing the film to explore the idea of what we consider socially acceptable psychopathy and paranoia, and feeding that back into examining Morgan especially.  Women Who Kill is also bolstered by great performances across the board, particularly from Jungermann and especially from Vand, who some of you might remember from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and is able to be almost equally unsettling here in an entirely different way.  It carries the same issue as the similarly delightfully-offbeat dark comedy Prevenge from earlier in the festival in that it kind of abruptly sputters out with its ending rather than climaxing spectacularly, but Women Who Kill is otherwise a really entertaining and fresh take on a worn-out premise.  A modest little treasure.

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The exact opposite of a modest little treasure, and a film I didn’t think I’d even be able to get into, was my final film for the day, Dog Eat Dog (Grade: D+), an incredibly loose adaptation of an Edward Bunker novel by Paul Schrader.  Once the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the director of American Gigolo and the 1982 version of Cat People, Schrader has been on a decades-long cold streak for a good while and Dog Eat Dog does not represent some kind of miraculous turn-around in that form.  A very nasty, disposable film about absolutely nothing at all, we follow ex-cons Troy (Nicholas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Defoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) as they work their way through the criminal underworld taking on low-paying jobs in the hopes of eventually making enough to escape Cleveland and fly to Hawaii or some place.  That dream may have a strong chance of turning into reality when they get one last big job to kidnap the one year-old child of a deadbeat who owes their client a hefty sum of cash, but there’s just the slight problem of all 3 of our protagonists being absolute idiots with hair-trigger tempers.

The film, meanwhile, has the slight problem of just being absolutely no fun to watch whatsoever.  There’s style coming out the wazoo – as Schrader and his filmmaking team go through every last possible transition effect, shoot a strip club sequence in black-and-white for (as Schrader himself admitted in a remarkably candid post-film Q&A) no reason whatsoever, and go overboard on the drug-trip-representation effects – but it’s all in service of a trio of incredibly unlikeable and unentertaining protagonists.  Unlikeable protagonists aren’t an inherent problem, we’re going to talk about a certain film tomorrow that I absolutely have not already seen that has nothing but unlikeable protagonists, as long as they’re interesting or entertaining enough to watch, and Dog Eat Dog’s idea of entertaining dialogue is for the f-word to be sputtered out like a machine gun throughout the whole length of the movie.  It’s all really forced and strained offensiveness – Mad Dog throwing around the n-word like it’s going out of style, sudden extreme violence and gross misogyny, the constant drug sequences – that’s both played-out and never feels genuine, which is why the film never crosses over into being a guilty pleasure in any way.

It’s what American readers might refer to as A Redbox Movie: a nasty low-budget masculine crime movie that’s too shambolically made and instantly forgettable to go to cinemas, despite having once-name actors, and so is sent straight-to-DVD to live out its days as a $5 impulse purchase or a rented movie that entertains a certain audience for as long as it lasts before being instantly discarded.  Dog Eat Dog could have used its premise to examine the criminal cycle, where ex-cons simply re-enter a life of crime once they get out because they have no other options open to them, that Bunker writes about in his novels, but instead Schrader has just created a nasty and instantly forgettable crime movie that’s just unpleasant to watch, albeit one that features Nicholas Cage busting out his best Humphrey Bogart impression for reasons that have already escaped me.  If you’re particular to seeing Cage and Defoe ham it up in bad crime movies, though, you may want to bump that score up a point or two.

Day 12: The festival draws to a close as Ben Wheatley brings Free Fire, a film I most definitely have not already watched.

Callum Petch spent a life-span with no cellmate.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 10

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Since last Sunday, I’ve taken to wearing my press badge whenever I’m out of the house I’m staying in in London.  Before I even step out of the door first thing in a morning, I throw the pass on around my neck and it stays there for the entire remainder of the day, until I get back to the house and start writing.  Even when I don’t need it on, if I’m just wandering around London killing time or attending screenings that I’ve paid money for, I still keep it hanging.  It brings me a kind of comfort, that I am making the absolute most of this experience whilst I have the chance to do so.  This fortnight has been the greatest – it really, really has – and I haven’t felt anything less than happy the entire time I’ve been here, on this trip.  And as I sat down in the Picturehouse Central café after definitely not watching a film that I am absolutely not under embargo for and so can’t talk about for the time being, that was the only thought that ran through my head: this has just been the greatest.

I can tell you that I definitely won’t miss the ridiculous sleep schedules, though.  Ploughing through a massive 18 hour day on less than 6 hours sleep is kind of a pain, I won’t lie, but at least that kind of schedule allowed me to be disappointed by Nocturnal Animals (Grade: C+) a good month before I would have been in general cinemas.  The long-awaited film follow-up to A Single Man by fashion designer Tom Ford, and an adaptation of the novel Tony And Susan, the film supposedly follows highly-disillusioned art gallery designer Susan (Amy Adams) who is in a loveless relationship with her second husband Walker (Armie Hammer), is slowly going broke, has grown to despise her artistry, and is also currently suffering from severe insomnia.  One night, she receives a package from her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she has not spoken to in the nearly 2 decades following their divorce.  Edward has finally finished the novel he always wanted to write and has sent Susan the first manuscript.  He’s also named it after an in-joke between the pair, dedicated it to her, and the characters in the story are heavily reminiscent of Edward (named Tony in the manuscript), herself (represented by Isla Fisher), and her daughter, and very nasty things happen to the lot of them.

Nocturnal Animals, basically, is an endless drumroll for a crescendo that never fully arrives.  In theory, the movie is two separate stories that are meant to keep converging and intersecting in ways that tell us more about the two characters, but the overlap turns out to be relatively minimal.  In reality, the movie is two films taking turns to play out across 2 hours, and the supposed subtext and character study elements in the second story don’t manifest themselves enough.  What instead happens is that you’re watching this B-grade gritty thriller that is clearly meant to be an examination of regretful male impotence, and then every 15 minutes the film will cut to a shot of an absolutely wasted Amy Adams staring pensively into the middle distance.  If you’re lucky, the film might even throw in a flashback to Susan and Edward’s relationship to add some kind of actual context to proceedings.

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There’s just no real indicator of what Ford (who also wrote the script) is trying to say with these sequences, outside of the immediately obvious theme of how creative types throw themselves into their work and that those who know the author and what to look for can become understandably troubled by what they experience as a result.  Otherwise, the film is so deliberately opaque and meticulously designed that any deeper meaning or reason for being or message that Ford is trying to convey was utterly lost on me.  Kind of like most fashion for me, come to think of it.  He clearly thinks he’s saying something profound or meaningful given the way he directs these sequences, but I’ll be buggered if I can tell you what those are.

That said, Nocturnal Animals isn’t a waste.  The manuscript sequences are quite entertaining, and its inciting incident is genuinely gripping in a way that kind of makes me wish that Tom Ford had just made a straightforward thriller, or actually delivered the psychological thriller he initially promises, rather than the unwieldy hodgepodge he’s crafted.  The film looks absolutely stunning, of course; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey having clearly pored over every single image in a concerted effort to ensure that each and every single shot could be slid into a fashion catalogue and fit right in.  There are also a great pair of performances from Michael Shannon, as a rule-adjacent West Texas Detective that is exactly as perfect a fit for him as you would expect, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as a slimy redneck psychopath – and from whom another good performance has been LONG overdue.  Mostly, though, I’m just disappointed by how empty I found the film to be.  There may be substance here, but it’s all been scrubbed away by the relentless need for style, and I’m left wondering if there was actually any substance in the first place.  If you want to make a nasty, gritty thriller, just make a nasty, gritty thriller.  Own that; don’t detract from it by trying to be something you’re clearly not.

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Having most definitely not spent the 3 hours between Nocturnal Animals and our next film watching a totally different film that I can’t talk about yet, my day eventually led me back into the realm of public screenings, which I’m now relying on for the rest of the festival.  The Last Laugh (Grade: C+) was the first of 3 for the day and attempts to tackle the burning question that surrounds Comedy ever more nowadays: should comedians make fun of tragic events?  Specifically, The Last Laugh attempts to discuss that question in relation to The Holocaust, one of human history’s greatest atrocities and still a taboo subject to this day, for the most part, when it comes to humour and jokes.  Is it OK to make light of The Holocaust?  The Last Laugh comes at this from a variety of angles, particularly through questioning whether Comedy can help people work through trauma and eventually heal thanks to it, as depicted through a Holocaust survivor who likes cracking really dark jokes about her experience.

All of the usual arguments in this debate are brought up and examined – whether jokes about taboo subjects re-enforce negative stereotypes even if they’re being done with kind intentions (as illustrated by Jack Benny’s “your money or your life” skit re-enforcing the stereotype of the cheap Jew), how much time needs to pass before such material becomes acceptable fodder, whether only certain groups of people are allowed to make certain jokes, how different people can find certain jokes and portrayals to be wildly different in terms of respectfulness or offensiveness based on their subjective beliefs, everybody’s personal “line” and whether they’re capable of finding comedy in situations that other comedians can, and of course the old standby of “if you’re gonna go there, the joke had better be a riot.”  Each is backed up by relevant clips and analysis, and the result is a very comprehensive look at this more-relevant-than-ever issue.

Where it all falls down is in two key areas, the first being the film’s half-assed attempt at trying to remain objective and not pick a side.  Despite attempting to remain neutral, by sheer force of number on the part of the comedians and the way the footage is edited and ordered, the film can’t help but come down on the side of those wanting to preserve their rights to make taboo gags.  I’m not knocking the film for coming down on their side, hell I mostly agree, but I am knocking it for clearly wanting to remain objective but doing such a terrible job at trying to be so.  For two: in a documentary about offensive comedy, 90% of the contributors to the talking-heads are Men, and all of them are White, so unchallenged issues of privilege come into play as a result.  To be fair, the film is explicitly primarily in relation to The Holocaust rather than offensive comedy at large, but given the social and cultural landscape that The Last Laugh has been released in, for it to be about taboo comedy and not feature a single person of colour and maybe just 4 women in your interview list feels incredibly out-of-step with the current world and recklessly irresponsible as a result.

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The evening brought about the second of the films I had bought a ticket for prior to the festival, in the shape of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (Grade: B), which I guess you could say was one of my absolute most anticipated films of the festival.  Set in New York, as many indie dramedies usually are, the film follows The Commune, a highly respected but struggling improv comedy troupe founded by the 37 year-old Miles (Birbiglia).  Its current incarnation includes the slowly-embittering Miles, obvious breakout talent Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and his girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the aging Bill (Chris Gethard), aspiring graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), and the parent-reliant Lindsay (Tami Sagher).  About twice a week, they perform a super-cheap sold-out improv show at Improv America, and the rest of the time they live together, work menial low-paying jobs to get by, and gather around every weekend to watch Weekend Live, an American comedy institution that likes to poach talent from The Commune at every opportunity.

The group begins to fracture once Weekend Live comes a-knocking once more, offering Jack and Sam audition spots, at the same time as their beloved Improv America is being shut down, Bill’s dad gets into a serious accident, and Miles becomes more and more bitter for being passed up by Weekend Live.  After all, “why wouldn’t the show want to hire the guy who taught most of their recent hires everything they know?” he reasons.  Don’t Think Twice pivots on this, on that heartbreaking moment where you realise that the artistic or creative lifestyle you desperately want may not be achievable after all.  Do you try and keep up that optimism, putting forward strong writing packets and hoping that your big break is still just around the corner?  Do you turn incredibly bitter towards your friends as they achieve the success that eludes you, especially if you think they don’t deserve it?  Or do you deliberately screw up your opportunity out of that anxiety of change, of wanting to try and preserve your life as it is now despite all the tides fighting back and winning against you?

It’s a very bittersweet film, funny due to our cast of characters being semi-professional funny people, but mostly dramatic as the group very slowly and very painfully splinters apart.  As a result, I honestly feel like this film was done a disservice by watching it with a sold-out crowd, who all seemed to think they were watching a straightforward comedy and laughed uproariously at any cutting remark regardless of how hurtful it was and loudly winced every time the drama got too heavy.  I feel that my viewing experience didn’t allow me to fully appreciate the film, snobbish as that is to say, and drew more attention that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have paid to the film’s minor flaws – the ensemble is all well-performed and lived-in but certain characters get noticeably underserved by the script, and the blatant Saturday Night Live swipes are too self-conscious and loudly inside-baseball, seemingly born out of genuine sourness on the part of Birbiglia.

But Don’t Think Twice is worth watching purely on the back of an absolutely sensational Gillian Jacobs.  Jacobs is a brilliant comic talent, as anybody who watched Community will be able to tell you, but she’s asked to carry the bulk of the film’s drama and pulls off that task masterfully.  Sam began as a super-fan of The Commune before being asked to join, and their slow disintegration causes her to start self-destructing out of a desire to try and preserve this perfect little status-quo she currently has.  To Sam, improv is not a stepping stone to Weekend Live or some alleged higher-form of comedy, improv is the best that things can get and that desire to remain locked in her comfort zone is quietly devastating to watch.  Jacobs absolutely nails her work here, especially during a heartbreaking final improv scene, and her performance will touch the hearts of anybody who has tried in vain to keep their group of friends together or has committed intentional or unintentional self-sabotage in their creative careers for whatever reason.

man_from_mowax_the_01

Since press screenings wrapped up for good today, leading to there being no reason to get up super early the next morning, I chose to stay out on this Friday evening and catch a second evening movie for once, with my press-ticket-approved screening of The Man From Mo’Wax (Grade: B+).  A warts-and-all documentary about James Lavelle, the founder of the highly-influential Mo’Wax Records label and co-head of the group UNKLE.  And when I say “warts-and-all,” for once, I do mean warts-and-all.  This is the kind of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption documentary that really does properly lay into its subject during its middle-stretch.  I’m not talking about a documentary that goes “yeah, he could be an asshole during this period, but the man was a genius so it was all good,” I mean this is a film that unrepentantly looks at the man that James Lavelle was after Psyence Fiction dropped and goes, “No, this guy was an A-grade ASSHOLE and there was no excusing it.”

That’s actually really exhilarating to watch, and the film going so all-in on this period makes the two sections either side of it much stronger as a result.  Lavelle starts off as a youthful visionary, a misfit drawn to Hip-Hop thanks to it sounding “otherworldy,” with the drive, ambition, and raw unvarnished skill that led to him dropping out of college and founding Mo’Wax at just 18 years of age.  But that youthful nature quickly ends up enabling all of his worst impulses once he and the label become famous, leading to him burning professional and personal bridges through rampant assholery, letting his attention drift away from being a label boss, and trying misguidedly to become a musician and songwriter in his own right as the primary creative force of UNKLE, epitomised by the film’s reveal of just when exactly the vast majority of these “present day” interviews are taking place – a quietly brilliant reveal so masterfully done I was on the verge of standing up and applauding at the sleight-of-hand being pulled off.

Spending so much time on James driving himself further into a hole is what makes the epiphany of his behaviour and his eventual curation of 2014’s Meltdown Festival act as a genuine act of personal redemption.  The film doesn’t pretend that it’s some kind of massive world-beating success that shows everyone just how wrong they were to write James Lavelle off, and it doesn’t pretend that this lets him off for how much of a massive dick he could be throughout the 2000s, and that’s what makes James’ minor redemption work gangbusters.  It would have been so easy for director Matthew Jones and editor Alec Rossiter to betray all of the hard work of their film’s previous hour to give James an unambiguous happy ending, and their refusal to do so is what makes The Man From Mo’Wax a real find.  Even viewers with no interest or prior knowledge of Mo’Wax, UNKLE, or even Trip-Hop can find something in this focussed and super entertaining documentary about a youthful visionary being undone by success and eventually beginning to turn themselves back around again.

Day 11: Things become far less set in stone as I start braving the Rush Queues in order to make up my schedule on the fly.

Callum Petch got this sinking feeling he sank with the tulip.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!