Welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast. This one is actually being published within a reasonable amount of time since the recording. Aren’t we spoiling you, eh!
Where does a pirate keep his buccaneers? Apparently on the bucking Failed Critics Podcast this week, as Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are joined by both Andrew Brooker and Brian Plank for some jolly rogering – and to talk about Marvel’s latest space adventure movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2!
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!
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)!
A 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: 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: 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.
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: 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.
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: 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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 Gerry McAuley
I had the chance to see a preview of Denis Villeneuve’s second collaboration with Jake Gylenhaal last Spring when the film was released in North America and Spain. It is testament to the film’s lasting impact on the viewer that I can write this review quite clearly many months later when it finally gets a general release.
I’m not expecting too many people in the UK to see it at the cinema because frankly it’s had minimal promotion; those that do venture out, however, will undoubtedly have a ‘Marmite’ reaction. I absolutely loved it, even if I don’t fully understand it. My other half hated it. This is a polarising film that you will argue over (and try to understand) for a long time. For that reason alone it’s worthwhile viewing but there is so much more that makes it significant.
Enemy is a psychological thriller that centres around two Gylenhaal characters: Adam, a solitary professor who seems to be frustrated by his monotonous life yet incapable of changing it, and Anthony, an aspiring actor who appears to be Adam’s exact physical doppelgänger. When he spots Anthony in a minor role in a movie, Adam becomes obsessed with tracking down his double.
I don’t want to give away anything further about the narrative as this is the key to the film’s success. Based on a Jose Saramago novel, Villeneuve’s direction always seeks to create ambiguity and prompt questions. You will find yourself asking what the hell is going on here on a number of occasions. And that’s what’s so fantastic in my opinion – this is challenging without straying into art-house bollocks, thrilling and puzzling and horrifying and brilliant and potentially rubbish all at the same time.
What I can say is that there is something unmistakably ‘off’ about the entire film. There is a cloying sense of a rotten core, a darkness just below the surface that continually threatens to expose itself fully before scurrying tantalisingly out of the viewer’s reach. No interpretation I have come up with fully satisfies. Currently there are two separate theories/explanations I’m subscribing to without being able to decide if they can be compatible or not.
There are two outstanding elements that prevent Enemy from becoming the aforementioned art-house bollocks. The first is Gylenhaal’s performance as the two protagonists. He brings tremendous variety and nuance to each so that they become distinct while hinting at hidden depths which make the film so enigmatically wonderful.
The second is Villeneuve’s direction – the pacing is measured (some might say slow) and the use of light and camera to create atmosphere is excellent. He’s confident enough to leave extended pauses between anyone speaking, interspersing the narrative work with lingering shots of birds flocking above the Toronto skyline. There is a feeling that everything is deliberate, every element of a shot carrying some kind of meaning that will be crucial when attempting to decipher this film afterwards (and that is what you have to do – probably with a second viewing) that is reminiscent of true masters of the genre like Hitchcock and Haneke.
That’s not to say that I think Enemy is on a par with either of their best efforts, just that Villeneuve is one of the outstanding up-and-coming talents in mainstream cinema. With Enemy the boundaries are pushed even though the experience also feels comfortingly familiar. This is a film that merits several viewings and animated discussions around the dinner table – I will be checking it out again myself with the hope that I can finally debate its meaning with people I know. It’s unusual to be able to say this about a film that’s just gone on general release but I can assure you that Enemy will stay with you for a long time, regardless of your opinion on it.
In trying to provide a conclusion to this review I struggled for quite some time to adequately capture my feelings, to provide a neat, short summary on what this film is or why you should watch it. Truthfully there isn’t any way to accurately convey how good this film is in a short written review. And that, in fact, is probably the best thing I could say.