Tag Archives: London Film Festival

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.

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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)!

Failed Critics Podcast: Trilogy Trashing Triple Bill

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The Earth still spins, the sun still shines and Hollywood still makes trilogies that nobody in their right mind wants, with Ron Howard’s third Dan Brown adaptation, Inferno, hitting cinemas last weekend.

Rather than expend any amount of energy reviewing the Tom Hanks led mystery thriller, the Failed Critics instead run through a triple bill of film franchises that should have ended before getting to the trilogy stage. Boy, were there plenty to choose from!

With regular host Steve Norman off celebrating his birthday, we drafted in Matt Lambourne to swivel on the comfy high-backed armchair and guide Owen Hughes, Brian Plank and Tony Black through another podcast. There’s no quiz this week, but a discussion about the new Star Wars: Rogue One trailer arose, as did a short summary of this year’s London Film Festival.

In What We’ve Been Watching, the team cover Netflix series Luke Cage and half of their newest feature-length comedy, Mascots. There’s even time for a chat about HBO’s latest smash hit, Westworld, up to episode three (spoiler free!)

Join us again next week as we’re back with a Halloween triple bill, resurrecting the dead… Spooky!

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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

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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.

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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)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 9

your_name_school

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

When you’re at a film festival, tough choices have to be made.  Do I choose to spring for the more expensive full meal that I know my body would love but would drain the bank account too much, or do I choose to subside purely on McDonalds value meals for two full weeks consequently saving vital cash but going to bed every night feeling super hungry?  Do I risk being able to have a proper toilet stop, or do I order my sphincter to stay clenched throughout the fortnight because every second is busy being used up by other far more important activities?  But the most important choices are always schedule related: do I go and see this film, or do I try this film that’s on at the same time instead?  One will always fall by the wayside, oftentimes a film that you’re really excited or interested in, and you’ll spend much of the rest of your time wondering, “What if?” particularly if the film you saw instead of it is a heaping helping of garbage.

Thursday morning had a lot of that.  Do I get up super early for the press screening of Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest despite utterly despising her previous feature, The Riot Club – a film I named the worst of 2014 and was almost 10 seconds away from walking out of?  Do I take a risk and see Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, finally getting a UK release over a year after it was dropped onto American shores, or Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, purely so I can finally understand what one of my film critic friends is on about when they constantly extol the virtues of Dolan?  Or do I do none of the above, as that would mean missing out on the press screening of Makoto Shinaki’s Your Name (Grade: B), which had already totally sold out all three of its public screenings.  If you actually paid attention to the teaser at the bottom of Day 8’s article, you’ll know that this choice was a very easy one for me.

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Your Name follows Mitsuha (Mone Kamishriaishi), a Japanese high-school girl living in the rural town of Itomori, and she’s not happy with the state of her life.  The town is so isolated that it lacks any excitement or even so much as a single café, and those total lack of prospects or friends or any particular reason for remaining there beyond carrying on a village tradition whose meaning has been lost to the winds of time is starting to get to her.  After one particularly bad day, Mitsuha yells out her wish to be reincarnated in the next life as a handsome Tokyo boy, only to wake up the next morning to find her wish granted.  Mitsuha has swapped into the body of Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a hyper-masculine high-school boy in Tokyo, and vice-versa, and this appears to happen randomly between the two several days a week.  Much body-swap hilarity ensues, with Mitsuha both taking full advantage of and trying to improve Taki’s life, whilst Taki in Mitsuha’s body mostly obsesses over having boobs, until the two souls go trying to physically find each other.  Then the laughter very quickly stops.

For its first half, Your Name was on the verge of being one of the very best films I had seen all festival.  It’s both funny and affecting, utilising the body-swap mechanic to explore teenage dissatisfaction, gradual maturity, elements of gender dysphoria and especially gender performance to the rest of the world, and awakening sexuality, particularly when Mitsuha gets bummed about not being able to be in Taki’s body the day of the date she had arranged for him with his crush, Miki (Masami Nagasawa).  The comedy is broad but impeccably timed, and its heart is always on its sleeve with a sincere earnestness to proceedings that’s infectious to watch.  The animation really helps in this regard, adhering to your standard Shōjo designs but utilising a gorgeous colour palette and raw artistry to create a film that’s beautiful to look at even before it starts busting out money shots in its second half.

BUT, and there is a but… there’s a whopping great big twist here as to what exactly’s going on, one that shifts the entire film completely for its second half.  Not just in tone, but in theme, switching to examining missed connections, relationships out of time, and our relationship with history.  In a way, it changes the dynamic of the film more to something more in line with, coincidentally of all things, Denis Villenueve’s Arrival and especially Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and, like with Marnie for me at least, it slowly begins to lose steam once its cards have finally been laid on the table and we see what game the film has been playing.  I don’t mean that it suddenly goes down the toilet, it’s still genuinely affecting and its big scenes still hit their beats with precision.  I mean that, like with Marnie’s eventual reveal, it turns the story into something more traditional and heteronormative than it appeared to be leading up to, and than I personally would have liked.  For all of that fun body-swap build-up and fun cross-body bickering between Mitsuha and Taki to be revealed as needlessly complex groundwork for a star-crossed lovers romance – both literally and figuratively – with an ending stolen straight from The Butterfly Effect… it’s personally disappointing, especially since a romantic connection doesn’t gel with the prior set-up.  Your Name is still a great watch, but it self-sabotages to avoid becoming an essential watch from the halfway point on.

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You know what I haven’t experienced enough of during this festival?  Divisive films.  Not that I’ve done much talking to people, due to the crippling anxiety and social awkwardness and all, but those that I have talked to or overheard talking throughout the festival seem to mostly be in total agreement over what was good and what’s been crap.  Even Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a film practically scientifically-designed to divide and piss off as many people as is humanly possible, appears to have reached a consensus “that was actually really good and surprisingly tasteful” amongst the critical community.  Nocturama (Grade: A (the joys of a rating system other than /10, I can feel more confident in giving outstanding films with minor flaws the highest possible score if they affect me that much)) was here to change all that, and about damn time too.  I overheard, as I exited the film, everything from “that was 2 hours of my life that I’ll never get back” to “I really enjoyed it up until the ending” to “I didn’t get it” to “I have no idea what to think of it.”  This one split the capacity screening I was in, and not unintentionally either.  This is a harsh, angry, deliberately provocative film that could not give a f**k what you want it to be or do.  It is often nasty, it is deliberately static, and it gives off the constant false impression that there is nothing going on here.

And I absolutely f**king loved it.

Nocturama, in both the most straightforward and accurate terms that I have managed to come up with, is Spring Breakers but for terrorism.  Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, the film follows a group of young French radicals as they plan and then execute multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks throughout city of Paris.  Why?  We don’t know and, more to the point, it seems that our cast don’t quite know why they are compelled to do so either.  Some of them talk about starting a war, but they never seem to figure who they’re fighting a war against.  They assassinate a banker, blow up two abandoned floors of a skyscraper office, set off four car bombs in a row in a random street, blow up part of a government building, and spontaneously combust a statue, but there’s a randomness and remove to their targets.  If it’s a war against the status quo, then what exactly is the status quo they’re warring against?  Why do they never talk about why they did what they did?

In truth, there doesn’t seem to be a reason, ideological or otherwise, to their actions or why they united together, and if there is, Nocturama says, that’s not the real point.  More than anything, their actions appear to the result of youthful anger and arrogance, a deluded belief that “setting the city on fire” will somehow spark a giant revolution, mass panic in the streets, or at least something more than the government working together to bring a swift resolution to the crisis and general public indifference.  Terrorism is practically a daily occurrence now, one that we experience vicariously when we turn on the news or have accepted the risk of happening to us when we choose to live in a populated area today.  To believe that some kind of societal war can begin from one (notably diverse) group of disaffected young people pulling off one set of attacks, that one small group of radicals can somehow represent and spark a fire in those who would never dream of committing terrorism, is youthful naivety at best and massive egocentrism at worst.

The attacks are some of the tensest cinema I’ve seen all year, which is saying a lot because this has been a fantastic year for the mid-budget thriller, and they take up pretty much the whole first hour of the film.  The timeline constantly cycles back and cuts between each of its cast as the specifics of their plan start coming together and, more importantly, each commits a tiny but ultimately significant mistake – forgetting to sign the back of a credit card despite repeated reminders to do so, accidental witnesses, becoming hit-and-run victims, exiting the scene of a crime with their gun still drawn when they go back into public.  They may have been able to put their plan together and execute it, but they’re not infallible and, far more importantly than that, they’re all amateur mistakes that draw attention to how these are impulsive, reckless, and self-centred kids with no noble cause or grand reason for committing these acts.

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From there, those that are left regroup and hole up in a high-end shopping mall for the night, planning to split up and get away the following morning once the heat dies down.  Except that this plan failed to account for one thing: these are, for all intents and purposes, immature kids.  They are given very simple strict instructions at the beginning of the night – don’t go outside, don’t go near the lighting aisle as that’s the only one with the security system still on, ditch all of your phones, and stay away from all windows – and every last one of them proceeds to break those rules almost immediately.  Some experience severe crises of conscience, some succumb to paranoia, others are undone by their cigarette addictions, others still are too bored to care about their own safety, whilst the rest spend their time indulging in the rampant materialism that comes with the store.  Sound systems blast out thumping hip-hop, everybody upgrades their clothes to something high-end and classy, one guy does laps of one floor with a go-kart and takes a bath made with buckets of tap water, and another serenades the group with a lip-synced performance of “My Way.”

It’s an absolutely scathing indictment of youthful egocentrism, where their every action acts as them bringing about their own downfall, potentially as a pathological act of self-sabotage – despite storing spare Semtex in case they get found out, nobody bothered to bring the charges or detonators required to use them.  But unlike even Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which found an occasional sympathy or understanding in its various cast members, Bonello has absolutely no sympathy or patience for his cast – I hesitate to call them characters, as the film deliberately leaves all of its players thinly sketched, which will only further divide viewers.  He directs at a remove, even when they’re constantly indulging themselves at the Mall; Blondie’s “Call Me” has never sounded more like a funeral march.

His ultimate judgement of his cast is ruthless and clinical, much like the Special Forces that eventually storm the Mall, and even that ending carries no catharsis or pleasure.  There’s no sympathy for what happens to these people, but there’s no joy in seeing them get their comeuppance, either.  Watching them be hunted like rats, powerless, terrified, out of plans and options as if they had any to begin with, as they are each taken down with horrifying precision, one bullet a time.  It’s the biggest “f**k you” and most blatantly confrontational stance one can take with its audience, and it’s absolutely befitting Nocturama.  I haven’t been this in love with a film that despises its audience and its entire cast this much since Only God Forgives.  This is relentlessly tense and gripping viewing that grabs you by the scruff of your neck and refuses to release that hold until the credits have finished rolling.  Aside from some clunky and unnecessary flashbacks during the attacks to the planning of said, this is an absolute masterpiece.  More than any other film I’ve covered this festival, I cannot guarantee that you will react to Nocturama the same way I did, but I can guarantee you that it will provoke you, and that’s something that more cinema needs to try doing.

¨ Two Lovers and a Bear ¨ / Directed by Kim NguyenPhoto: Philippe Bosse

I turned up for my third, final, and press-ticket-approved film for the day, Two Lovers and a Bear (Grade: C), purely due to it starring Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany.  They also ended up being the only great parts of the film, disappointingly, although that goes a lot further than most redeeming factors in overlooking larger flaws.  DeHaan and Maslany play Roman and Lucy, two lovers living in a remote frozen town, and both running from dark pasts involving their fathers that have left them damaged people.  Lucy ends up getting accepted to study Biology down South, which would separate her from Roman, and after Roman has a suicidal sulk brought upon by said baggage and his rampant alcoholism – that’s not being facetious, either, Roman really does go through his entire character arc before the main plot kicks in – the pair decide to use their snowmobiles to drive down South together across the frozen and inhospitable wasteland that separates them from their destination.

Two Lovers and a Bear is weird, needlessly so.  Ostensibly a drama, the film also has elements of comedy, philosophy, magical realism, and one long detour into attempted horror near the end once the pair stumbles upon an abandoned military outpost, and the tone is all over the place as a result.  Lucy’s past trauma is personified by an actual ghost following her around everywhere, and it’s really serious and dark, but then it can be followed up by a scene where Roman talks to a bear heavily implied to be a God of some kind as it tries to drink his vodka, and the whole screen burst out laughing.  In particular, whilst Lucy’s ghost at least makes a sort of sense, Roman’s ability to talk to bears doesn’t have much of a bearing on the film as a whole beyond adding needless quirk, with even what I think was supposed to be a poignant exchange at the conclusion still causing laughter because it’s so off-beat, even with a film that switches gears into being a horror for 5 minutes for absolutely no reason.  Off-beat does not automatically equal good or even worthwhile, and writer-director Kim Nguyen fails to understand that.

Maslany and DeHaan go a very long way towards why Two Lovers and a Bear is at least watchable, if nothing else.  Whilst they never manage to find the characters they’re supposed to be playing, too hobbled by a script uninterested in properly psychologically examining its two leads despite the set-up, they do get by through sheer blunt force of charisma and a sweet chemistry once Roman stops acting like a massive dick.  For Maslany, it’s ultimately minor work given the continued existence of Orphan Black, but for DeHaan it’s work that’s long overdue given his constant unfortunate roles post-Chronicle.  It’s just a shame that the film surrounding them isn’t focussed enough to back them up, particularly with an ending that’s supposed to be tragic but ends up having no impact due to arriving suddenly as a result of a montage and being proceeded by another bear conversation.  Again, off-beat does not automatically equal good.

Day 10: Tom Ford finally returns to the world of filmmaking with Nocturnal Animals.

Callum Petch will call you for your lover’s lover’s alibi.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 8

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Since I started this, if I’m being blunt, holiday masquerading as journalism of some description, I’ve felt noticeably better about myself.  I’ve mostly been happier, my anxiety has calmed down to arguably the lowest it has been in a long time, and I’ve had far more energy to write than I did throughout the entire 4 months leading up to this.  It’s not been a struggle to get these articles pumped out every night, like it has been with anything else I have written over the Summer, and I actually send them off feeling good about what I have written rather than nervous or unsatisfied.  I’ve been feeling more confident, less irritable, more focussed, like this trip has given me a purpose again (cheesy as that may sound for somebody who is doing nothing but watch 4 films a day for almost a fortnight).

Not coincidentally, I’ve also been in somewhat of a bubble since I started this thing.  I check Twitter every now and again and have glimpsed more US Election troubles, more stories of our Tory government swinging further right, serious sexual assault allegations in the Film Critic Industry, but that’s all they are.  Glimpses.  Minor beams of reality piercing briefly into this bubble before dissipating again with little sustained impact.  I’ve spent so much of my life, and particularly my uni life, remaining engaged in this socially and politically aware atmosphere, sort of fearful that my not doing so would be relapsing too far into my White Male privilege.  Yet that’s pretty much what I’ve done since I came down to London, and I feel better than I have done in a long, long time.  I know that I’m going to feel guilty about that soon after I go back home, for shutting myself off from the world and feeling happy as a result despite everything else going to Hell outside of my bubble, but for now I’m feeling great, waking up each morning with an enthusiasm and relative pep that doesn’t subside for the rest of the day.  Feel free to judge.

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Anyways, movies!  There are only 2 further days of press screenings left after todays, so I’m trying to savour each of them before my schedule becomes a lot more open and less reliant on stupidly early mornings.  That said, I don’t particularly mind stupidly early mornings when they involve catching films as riotous as Prevenge (Grade: B+), the directorial debut of Alice Lowe, who also wrote and stars as Ruth.  Ruth, much like Lowe at the time of filming, is 7 months pregnant, going it alone after her husband dies whilst mountain climbing, and talks to her unborn daughter like most any mother-to-be.  Unlike most mothers-to-be, though, Ruth’s unborn child talks back to her, and she’s getting quite insistent that her mum set about on a murderous revenge spree against all of those they both feel were responsible for her dad’s death.

It’s a bonkers premise but, much like with Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (which Lowe starred in and co-wrote), it’s a premise that utilises psychopathy as an outlet to explore more mundane and relatable fears – pregnancy (of course), that fear over wondering what’s “best for baby” and how condescending everyone who is not you can come off as when they try and give you advice, pre-partum depression and the anxiety over the potential hypocrisy of self-care, the need to find villains to focus your anger against in your grief over a tragedy, plus general sexism and Othering as both a woman and a heavily pregnant woman.  It all sounds heavy on paper, but Prevenge filters all of that through some absolutely delicious dark comedy, flitting between gory violence, deadpan exchanges, and goofy slapstick on a dime with ease and producing frequent full-on belly laughs as a result.

Lowe’s direction is stylish and assured, switching between artfully shot murder sequences and a cold stifling mundanity for most everything else, the pacing never slipping, and helped along by a perfectly-pitched dark 80s B-movie score by TOYBOX.  The performances are similarly great, with Lowe obviously carrying the vast majority of the film, but there’s also another standout performance from Jo Hartley as an excessively peppy midwife.  Much like Sightseers, Prevenge does wrap up more than a little anticlimactically, although its actual ending is a great piece of tonal whiplash, but it doesn’t dilute the ride up to then in the slightest.  This is a pitch-black yet incredibly well-handled directorial debut.  It’s the kind of work I’d expect from somebody halfway through their career nearing the peak of their powers; for Lowe to knock this out on her first try – and, again just in case you missed it earlier, whilst SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT – is quite simply astonishing.  Prevenge is already a future cult-classic, and I cannot wait for that cult to embrace it with open arms.

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Bagging on 76 (Grade: D-), meanwhile, feels more than a tad mean and unfair, if I’m being honest.  Nigerian cinema is obviously not Hollywood, and taking a film from there to task for not being up to snuff with the filmmaking quality of America or Britain or France can be undeserved and ignorant of what their limitations are.  But bad filmmaking is bad filmmaking and bad storytelling is bad storytelling, and I cannot let a film as poorly made, ineptly told, and relentlessly boring as 76 slide through on technicalities.  Inspired by true events, the film charts the lead up to the successful assassination of Nigerian Heads of State and its follow-up failed coup through the eyes of Officer Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) and his long-time partner Suzy (Rita Dominic) as the former uncovers the plot, fails to warn anybody in time due to seemingly everyone in the military being in on it, and then falsely jailed afterwards when he is wrongly linked to trying to carry out the whole mess.

There’s a good story here – filled as it is with espionage, corruption, general injustice, and the opportunity to take the pulse of a vital time in Nigerian history – and it’s told atrociously.  The pacing is horrendous, the tension is non-existent, there’s too much dead weight cluttering down the film (particularly Dewa’s beef with Suzy’s similarly beef-prone family that is just utterly pointless), and so badly written that multiple scenes descend into nothing more than a bunch of flat and uninteresting characters all yelling indistinctly over one another about different things.  The filmmaking is even worse with blatant ADR sessions all over the place, multiple continuity issues, ambient soundtracks that keep starting and stopping, and as for the score…  You remember those “dynamic soundtracks” from old Medal of Honor games or Enter the Matrix, where in theory they were supposed to adapt to the action on screen, but in practice just randomly did their own thing and would suddenly fade out for minutes at a time for no reason?  This has the movie version of that.

And it’s all just so boring.  Once the initial rush of watching a film this poorly put together wears off, it quickly dawns that this is a 2 hour movie, it’s going nowhere fast, and you’ve got to sit through every last remaining second, bored out of your mind watching an unengaging and shoddily told story with constant amateur filmmaking errors that quickly get on your nerves once the realisation that they aren’t going away sets in.  Again, it feels unfair to bag on 76, but this is just bad filmmaking that I really disliked sitting through, and I have to call em like I see em.  76 is just not good enough.

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Despite not having any rush tickets or official press tickets, I still managed to get lucky and acquire myself a comp ticket to get into Kate Plays Christine (Grade: A-), another one of my most anticipated films of the festival which, much like the last time I got a comp ticket to one of my most anticipated films of the festival, is also based around the on-air suicide of journalist Christine Chubbuck back in 1974.  But whereas Christine (which you can get my thoughts on here) was a heavily-fictionalised biopic, Kate Plays Christine is a documentary (OR IS IT) following actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray the role of Christine in a biopic.  Researching her, trying to find footage of her, seeing lots of herself in Christine, and trying desperately to find the emotional truth in her portrayal whilst the lines separating documentary and dramatic fiction blur as Kate ponders whether she’ll be capable of pulling the trigger when it comes time to stage the suicide.

My thoughts on Kate Plays Christine cannot be contained to the space allotted in these articles, particularly since, although they are both trying different things with different themes from different angles and arrive at wholly different conclusions, this and Christine make very interesting yet unintentional companion pieces and comparisons with each other – things I shall expand upon in a separate article either next week or the week after.  For now, Kate Plays Christine is a film trying to do a heck of a lot, particularly as it further blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction.  It’s about the acting method, of course, how actors find and leave pieces of themselves in their characters, having to go to some tough places that they can never fully come back from in order to find that elusive emotional truth in their performance.  The film constantly juxtaposes Kate’s raw, uncertain, surprised empathy to Christine in her interviews with the phonier, campier, more put-on performance she’s giving; Kate Plays Christine constantly exposing the artifice of its film-within-a-film, which is explained to be in the style of 70s soap-operas to further demonstrate the artificiality of acting as a whole.

But Kate herself is aware at every stage of her performance not being good enough, of not understanding the point of certain scenes or why Christine would act, react, or think the way she did.  Kate wants to understand, but her research is getting her nowhere, and she’s failing to find any meaning in the suicide that Christine is remembered for.  This is what Kate Plays Christine eventually pivots towards: trying to find meaning in what, to everybody other than Christine, was a senseless, selfish, and meaningless act.  Why did she decide to kill herself, and why did she choose to do so live on air?  Was it some kind of moral stand?  Was it a desire to be seen for once in her life?  Was it revenge aimed at those closest to her whom she believed had slighted her in some way over the years?  Kate doesn’t know and this fact just eats away at her, both because her process requires that understanding and because she sees so much of herself in Christine and it is heavily implied that this fact terrifies her.

And then there’s this simple question that cuts through the heart of everyone who hears it: why do we care about Christine Chubbuck?  By all accounts, she was a depressed, painfully lonely woman with a boring, completely uneventful and un-special life, like so many other women before her and since that nobody makes giant films about.  She is only remembered today, and even then barely, because of how she chose to die rather than as a person in her own right.  Thus, her death carries the risk of being romanticised in any portrayal, even ones that don’t want to do that and instead try to reframe her as a person whom the audience can understand.  Isn’t there something fundamentally hypocritical and uncomfortable about that?  How, no matter where the journey between goes, her story starts and ends with that on-air suicide?  That we still desire to see or recreate the act?  Is that merely a darkly ironic rebuke to one of the potential reasons for her suicide, or is it sadism dressed up in less-objectionable clothes?

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Far less confrontational and complex was the day’s final film, Tickling Giants (Grade: B), a crowdpleasing documentary about Dr. Bassem Youssef.  Once a heart surgeon working in Egypt, what he really wanted to do was be a comedian like his idol Jon Stewart, and ended up being inspired by The Arab Spring of 2011 to finally do just that, launching Al-Bernameg (The Show).  Taking aim at political comedy and openly criticising politicians and the Egyptian media, both big no-no’s in the Egyptian dictatorship, his show blossomed from a YouTube smash to a television sensation, with a weekly audience of over 20 million viewers, only for the constant shifting of Egypt’s political landscape, and the various regimes’ sensitivity to criticism of any kind, to eventually force the show to shut down and for Youssef to have to go into exile.

The film purposefully keeps its tone somewhat light throughout, though, even when the threats against Youssef, The Show, and his staff and family start to become more and more pronounced, vehement, and serious as the years change.  That feeds into Giants’ overall point about the importance of political satire, the requirement for freedom of speech, and how liberals and political activists can never give up hope that things will get better even after they appear to have been defeated.  It charts The Show’s rise when it focusses all of its energies on making fun of the near-universally hated President Mohamed Morsi, and its slow enforced decline once it changed tack and started making fun of the far-worse but mostly-popular Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as if there’s some kind of double-standard response to certain figures being subjected to satire or something.  Tickling Giants is kept from greatness by awkward pacing that oftentimes feels like its near-2 hour runtime, particularly since its more stylish touches disappear by the hour mark, but it is still a very entertaining watch and a strong reminder that political satire is a vital and powerful aspect of society and culture that the world needs more of today than ever.

Also, it reminded me of just how much I miss Jon Stewart.  I’m talking an actual aching pain, here, caused by his absence.

Day 9: 5 Centimetres Per Second’s Makoto Shinkai brings the Japanese smash-hit, and the first animated feature to ever play in Official Competition at the London Film Festival, Your Name to British shores.

Callum Petch is dozing off underneath his sheets.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 7

« VOIR DU PAYS » Un long métrage de Delphine et Muriel COULIN

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

By the time I had reached the Picturehouse Central at about 8:35 in the morning, the lines were out the door for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.  I was not here to see that, though.  Despite it satisfying much of the criteria I had with regards to my screening picks (that I outlined yesterday), I am choosing to withhold watching The Birth of a Nation until it is no longer possible to avoid doing so.  See, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but Nate Parker is a piece of sh*t.  Although he was acquitted of his rape charges, his co-story writer on the film, Jean Celestin, was not, and Parker was alleged to have led an organised harassment campaign on university campus against the rape victim (the university settled), actions for which he has showed no particular remorse for throughout the press tour for his film.  You can see why I am very hesitant to support in any particular fashion a film that he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in.

No, instead, I was there to see The Stopover (Grade: A-), the new film from The Coulin Sisters, Muriel and Delphine.  Set over 3 days at a five-star hotel resort in Cyprus, the film follows a French army regiment stuck there on their way back from Afghanistan to decompress from their time at war, primarily seen through the eyes of childhood friends Marine (Soko) and Aurore (Ariane Labed).  What is meant to help them unwind and work through one particularly horrific flashpoint that has left the group coming apart at the seams, instead turns into a slow-building pressure-cooker of poorly-handled PTSD, toxic masculinity, and rampant unchecked misogyny as the boy’s club atmosphere of the army becomes exacerbated by woefully inadequate therapy that’s only making things worse.

"VOIR DU PAYS" Un long métrage de Delphine et Muriel Coulin

It’s an environment where any weakness is pounced upon, mocked, and stamped out as quickly as possible, where your emotions must remained bottled up for fear of being labelled “a crazy” and risking not being able to go home again, and where the default insult is gendered despite some of their fellow comrades being women.  It’s not healthy, and oftentimes horrifying, and Marine and Aurore provide the perfect P.O.V.s to experience this disintegration via.  They’re not as boorish and disgustingly hateful as their male counterparts, but they’re also trying to conform to that masculine culture of keeping their emotions and trauma bottled up rather than trying to work through them, because they have to.  It’s bad enough that their comrades all think that women are useless fighters and “bad luck,” what would happen if they were to crack?   Soko and Labed put in excellent performances, cultivating a lived-in relationship between one another and communicating that balance of depicting restrained on-the-edge emotion and letting the viewer in so that they can witness what the rest of the characters cannot with grace.

The film is unflinching, particularly as it speeds towards its surprisingly tense final third when Marine and Aurore realise that they can’t outrun their problems and that volatile pressure-cooker even if they escape to the rest of the island.  The gradual disillusionment of its various protagonists and antagonists plays against a gorgeously shot backdrop of sun, sand, and hotel pools in a way that can occasionally tip into ironic dark comedy – one particularly charged group “debrief” is immediately followed by bundling all of these miserable, irritable people onto a boat in order to go for a swim out to sea.  In a way, The Stopover ends up being just like a real holiday, and what’s worse for a group of heightened people who hate each other than a holiday?  It’s a brilliant little movie and one of my favourites of the festival so far.

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I was heavily tempted to cash in on my pre-bought matinee ticket and see Arrival again (which was covered in Day 6), but I figured that you lot would prefer to hear new words about new movies rather than even more words about something I’ve already covered.  So, after handing off the ticket to a friend of mine who lives in London, I headed back into the Picturehouse and caught one of the films I wanted to see but would otherwise have missed due to general scheduling issues: The Pass (Grade: C-).  Taking place over the course of 3 scenes and 10 years, The Pass follows professional footballers and best friends Jason (Russell Tovey) and Ade (Arinzé Kene).  In 2006, they’re both second-string players partying by themselves in their hotel room the night before a pivotal Champions League match.  Excessively macho talk about a desire to sex up all the women, playful wrestling matches, and blackface-whiteface jokes eventually turns bitter when the issue of their professional rivalry gets brought up, then occasionally tender, personal and intimate as the night goes on.  Then, Jason leans in to kiss Ade.

The following two acts deal with the fallout, and it’s a very interesting premise – utilising the blatant homosexuality and competitive masculinity of the world of professional football in order to examine the emotional toll a closeted homosexual would have coming to terms with his identity in a sport, and accompanying mainstream media, that still looks down on such things as nothing more than scandalous behaviour.  The film even succeeds where Una completely failed in depicting a stage play (which this was) in cinematic terms without coming off as overly so, by not blowing the staging up to big screen levels whilst still preserving the intimate nature of the story and dialogue.  It’s a tightly-wound, intimate film that commits wholly to its premise and, aside from the time jumps, never pushes itself into falsely becoming something bigger than itself.

That said, it’s really all for naught because – in addition to its second act being just generally poorly written and ultimately pointless to the story – it’s all in service of depicting one of the most vehemently unpleasant lead characters I’ve witnessed in recent memory.  Russell Tovey plays Jason incredibly well, don’t get me wrong, but the character is just a massively unlikeable drain to be around, particularly the further on the film gets.  It’s not the fact that he’s struggling with that self-loathing and internalised homophobia despite being gay himself, it’s that he’s just so relentlessly cruel and hateful for so much of the film’s runtime.  He has this anger and this conflict, but he lacks even cursory moments in the film’s late stages of vulnerability or redemptive qualities.  At the risk of sounding callous, because I know that there are a lot of people who struggle in the sorts of ways that Jason does in reality, I just found him to be a tiring and unpleasant drain to watch, which may be the point but meant that I ultimately stopped caring by about midway through the third act.

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Continuing the weird coincidence of 3s popping up in today’s screenings was Porto (Grade: D), a film that I have basically nothing to say about because there’s basically nothing to the film in the first place.  Porto is effectively a short filmmaking exercise stretched out very painfully and very noticeably to just about feature-length.  Its end credits music is a full minute longer than the end credits themselves, and I know this because the song keeps going even after all the credits have wrapped, that’s how much it’s stretching to get to feature-length.  I feel like offering a plot synopsis is a spoiler because my doing so would be to genuinely recap the entire 75 minute film within one sentence.  Jake (Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) have a passionate one night stand in Porto that Jake mistakes for something more, things end as quickly as they start, and then, about 10 years later, they reminisce independently of one another about said fling.

That’s it.  That’s the whole movie.  Porto lays out everything it has to say and do within its first 10 minutes, and then just sort of idles about for the remaining 65 having shot its entire load within those first 10 minutes.  Split into 3 chapters for no discernible reason, the film’s timeline is fragmented even further via admittedly stylish filmmaking choices.  It’s all shot on Film, but each section of the timeline is shot in a different type of film – the night of passion in warm 35mm, its ugly aftermath in colder 16mm, and the future where neither Jake nor Mati are particularly happy in more worn-out Super8 – and each of them have different noticeable elements of wear-and-tear to them.  It is a pretty film to look at, but it only serves to highlight the total emptiness of what that film is being used to depict and so, after a while, even pretty cinematography ends up being a negative.

There’s just nothing going on here.  It’s deeply unromantic in part thanks to that structure, which withholds the whole night until the end, long after we’ve seen Jake become a full-fledged abusive stalker and the film seems wholly incapable of recognising that.  That back third becomes weighted down with endless sequences of Jake and Mati talking about love and passion that are neither sincere nor are they anywhere near profound enough to justify the amount and length of them, and constant sex scenes that do nothing to advance the movie after the first 2 instances.  Porto very quickly starts ping-ponging back and forth between “boring” and “irritating” and doesn’t stop until the final piano note makes its faintly embarrassed exit from the whole enterprise.  There is just nothing here, no story, no theme, no aspect that justifies its existence, beyond throwing away 75 minutes of my life that I am never going to get back.

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Breaking the trend of 3s but fittingly bookending the day with another film by a French-Belgium writer-director family double-act, we have The Dardenne Brothers’ The Unknown Girl (Grade: C+).  A murder-mystery procedural, the film follows Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), the resident-in-charge of a drop-in clinic who, one night, refuses to let in a woman who bangs on her door after closing time and is subsequently found dead in mysterious circumstances the following morning.  Wracked with guilt over not admitting the woman, Jenny sets out to find out her identity so that the woman’s family can be alerted and she can maybe clear her conscience somewhat.  Veterans of the Dardennes will likely be confused by the “murder-mystery procedural” tag a little while back, given that the Dardennes are more well known for their simple, quiet, contemplative, hyper-realist personal dramas rather than a complex murder-mystery, and therein lies the problem.

Let me quickly state, for the record, that The Unknown Girl is not, by any measure, a bad film.  The Dardennes are too good a pair of filmmakers to turn in something less than watchable, and Haenel adds herself to the long list of strong central performances in Dardenne films with a tangibly heavy and world-weary yet compassionate performance that provides the believable centre integral to your typical Dardenne feature.  Unfortunately, more attentive readers will already note the two qualifiers hidden in that previous sentence: “watchable” is beneath the Dardennes, with much of their work (and especially 2014’s exquisite Two Days, One Night) being closer to essential viewing, whilst The Unknown Girl is not “your typical Dardenne feature.”  It’s a murder-mystery, and that’s just not something that fits the duo’s skillset.  A good murder-mystery slowly ratchets up the intensity as time goes on, loses itself in the miasma of red herrings, shifty suspects, and withholding witnesses.  A Dardenne film loses itself in small-scale personal drama where the stakes never rise above immediate relationships or perhaps continued employment.

The two don’t have much of a crossover dynamic, basically, especially since the Dardennes are not in the slightest bit interested in changing their filmmaking style to reflect the shift in genre and requirements.  Consequently the film never manages to get out of second gear, and the typical beats of a murder-mystery procedural – such as the violent intimidation, the tearful confession, or a suspect shoving our protagonist into a hole in order to give them enough time to escape – come off awkwardly and jar with the world that the Dardennes have created.  There’s even the opportunity for the film to make some commentary with how the White French police force don’t seem particularly motivated in investigating the potential murder of an identity-free Black woman, given how they disappear almost entirely from the film once they’ve arrived on Jenny’s doorstep, but it’s not interested in doing so.

The Unknown Girl is at its best when it focusses more on Jenny’s day-to-day life; her troubled relationship with her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), house-calls to lovely recurring patients, verbal abuse from those looking for unnecessary handouts.  It even has a more typical Dardenne plot built-in, with Jenny debating whether to move up to a better-paying and more-respectable position in a private medical facility or to take over the clinic full-time from its original owner and her former mentor, only for that to be swept away by the murder-mystery investigation.  It’s just not something that the Dardennes are a good fit for, resulting in the first film of theirs in a long while – perhaps ever, although I haven’t seen all of their works – that’s merely “watchable.”  Props for trying, though.

Day 8: Alice Lowe, whilst 7 months pregnant, writes, stars, and makes her directorial debut in the dark comedy Prevenge.

Callum Petch left you for the great unknown.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 6

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Callum Petch can move along here and now.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 5

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Regular followers of my work, whether that be written articles found on my site (callumpetch.com), my former Hullfire Radio show Screen 1, or here on Failed Critics, will likely be aware that I really don’t like costume dramas.  It’s not for a lack of trying, mind you; I don’t automatically become actively contemptuous and roll my eyes heavily whenever I spy a costume drama that I’m going to have to watch.  I just really don’t like them.  They’ve basically never grabbed me, whether they be classics of the genre like the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice, or modern critical darlings like Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, or just apparently enjoyable fluff like Carey Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adaptation.  I try so very hard to be interested, hooked, engaged… yet I inevitably get sent to sleep by them, and that’s not an exaggeration.  I find the dialogue to be alternately impenetrable and nowhere near as witty as it thinks it’s being, I find the conflicts to be far too insufferable upper-class-wankery to be able to get invested, the pacing to be unreasonably slow, and most all of them carry this air of self-importance to their own existence that keeps me at arm’s length at all times.

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I tell you this so that you can adequately understand just how much I love Terrence Davies’ A Quiet Passion (Grade: A-); that even I, a hardcore costume drama sceptic, could fall effortlessly in love with this absolutely phenomenal biopic of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon).  Of course, that’s probably because it steers clear of the typical costume drama problems, as well as the typical biopic problems; dressing itself up in that 18th Century upper-class English garb despite being set in 19th Century America and telling a story with issues specific to that time but free from the usual bourgeois un-relatable frivolity that turns me off of these sorts of movies.  This is a film that is far less interested in Dickinson as a poet and far more in Dickinson as a person – her complicated relationship with faith and the 19th Century’s hardline Christianity, her fears of death and mundanity, of a life unfulfilled, the difficulty of being an outspoken woman even when surrounded by supposedly supportive family, the condescension she received for trying to be a female artist, and how loneliness and self-loathing can curdle into bitterness and outward hatred.

It moves at a measured pace but avoids tipping over into slowness.  Whole months can suddenly pass without any prior warning, Emily continues to write but often makes no further progress in stature as a poet – late on in the film, she mentions having had 11 poems at most published at that late point in her life – her days empty and unfulfilling as friends come and go, family members marry or depart, and Emily slowly becomes more reclusive and difficult for people other than her sister Lavina (Jennifer Ehle) to be around.  It’s something that becomes really affecting the longer the film runs for, the viewer slowly acclimating to the fact that Emily, in life at least, ultimately became and lived the very life she was so afraid of succumbing to.  It’s hard, but truthful, like the Brontë works that Emily admires yet are written off by male tastemakers out-of-hand as worthless trash that grab the heart but not the memory, and that’s what makes the film hit.  Davies’ script is brilliant, but it’s also often a very light thing, which I don’t mean as an insult.  It’s genuinely witty, highly quotable, and manages to craft a great complex sketch of its subject.

That complexity then ends up being wonderfully realised by a revelatory Cynthia Nixon.  She’s bitingly witty in ways that are hilarious and hurtful.  She’s clearly wracked with great pain and aching desire, the kind where you want to give her a great big hug and tell her it’s all going to be alright, but it’s the kind of pain that’s deep-seated and toxic, where she wants intimacy but can’t stop herself from pushing away anybody who gets too close.  She’s not always likeable, but she’s always sympathetic, and this herculean work by Nixon is what helps elevate A Quiet Passion into being one of the year’s best films.  It’s immensely entertaining viewing, captivating and measured without becoming ponderous and glacial, witty and sophisticated but also heartbreaking and solemn, of a time yet universal in its relatability.  Quietly brilliant and loudly phenomenal at the same time; Emily Dickinson could not have received a more fitting movie.

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Conveniently, or possibly rather shrewdly on the part of festival programmers, the other big film screened today, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (Grade: B/B+), is also a measured character study about a creatively unfulfilled poet, this one played by Adam Driver.  Paterson (Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his loving wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bulldog Marvin, and works as a bus driver.  His real passion appears to be writing poetry, poetry that he’s really good at, but he resists labelling himself as a poet and, in fact, refuses to show anyone his book of poems despite the urgings of Laura.  He goes through life following the exact same daily routine, living modestly and quietly and never really doing much of consequence, as we see through the one week of his life that the film covers.

Paterson doesn’t say much, and we don’t get to see inside of him that much, but one gets the sense that, despite his claims that he’s content with his lot in life, he’s deeply unhappy with much of it.  Or, at the very least, that he’s unfulfilled with the direction his life is going in.  Laura appears to feel similarly, but where Paterson’s unspoken unfulfilment leads to him sheltering his creative output to the rest of the world, Laura instead throws her energy behind 20 different things at once – interior decorating, cupcake making, learning the guitar so she can become a world-famous country singer – hoping that at least one of them sticks and brings the validation she so desperately craves.  It’s a study of two people who don’t know what they want but do know that, aside from each other (as the film never once hints that they are anything other than deeply in love with one another), what they do want is not this.

As somebody who himself has been struggling lately with uncertainty and anxiety over not knowing exactly what it is he actually wants in life, Paterson frequently managed to strike a genuine chord with me, but maybe not enough for me to become as enthusiastic about it as I was with A Quiet Passion.  It’s a very dry and introspective film, sometimes too much for its own good due to just how hard it is to get much of a read on Paterson himself.  That said, it also possesses a sardonic wit and sense of humour about itself that manifests itself in often unexpected but incredibly funny ways, as the film finds the funny in the mundane weirdness that can occur in your day-to-day life.  Driver is really good, but I was more impressed by Farahani and her effortlessly charming and lived-in performance, and the pair have a wonderful sweet chemistry together that re-routes the film every time it threatens to meander off the tracks.  It’s very Jarmusch, to reduce things to their bluntest terms, so your enjoyment will vary depending on your prior tolerance for Jarmusch films.  As for me, I was engaged more often than not, and there are some moments of genuine profundity in here.

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My journeys into the realm of getting press or rush tickets for public screenings have been wildly hit-and-miss so far, with the surprising find of the vital Chasing Asylum and the expectation-exceeding Christine being followed up by the sadly disappointing Jewel’s Catch One and, now, the nasty and awful Chameleon (Grade: D-).  The debut feature from writer-director Jorge Riquelme Serrano and playing in competition, Chameleon follows a bickering lesbian Chilean couple, Paula (Paula Zúñiga) and Pauli (Paulina Urrutia), the day after they host a going-away party for Paula, who is moving to London for a job.  They wake up, shower, clean up the house, have a bicker about leaving the taps running, and then the doorbell rings.  It’s a handsome young man (Gastón Salgado) who was a friend of a friend’s at their party last night, and he’s brought glasses and wine to make up for said friend supposedly acting like a jackass.  Paula invites him in but is suspicious.  His story sounds shady, he seems really interested in ploughing the ladies with wine, and he doesn’t seem to get the hint during much of Pauli and Paula’s bickering that he needs to leave.

Then things get nasty.  There’s the germ of an interesting movie in here – particularly since the director clarified in the post-film Q&A that it was made in response to the disproportionately high rate of violence against women in Chile – but the way that Chameleon goes about it is in the nastiest, ugliest manner possible.  If the film removed the open nastiness for something more subtle and unsettling, or chose to dive deep into examining why the man does what he does, then maybe the film could have had something.  Instead, the more unsettling moments of gaslighting and emotional manipulation are undercut by extended sequences of sudden extreme violence, forced-drugging, and some good-old-fashioned rape for good measure.  The film also fails to find anything to say about the subject beyond “random violence by monstrous men is a thing that happens,” and that’s nowhere near as unique an insight as Serrano seems to believe it is.

But it doesn’t stop there, either.  For one, this is somehow the third film I’ve seen in as many days whose attempts to challenge our preconceptions about rape and the issue of consent turn out to be, “But what if the woman WANTED to be raped?” and maybe we should just stop men from writing stories about rape for the time being.  (Side note: that sentence is actually unnecessarily reductive and harsh to Elle, which I think handled this complex and provocative idea somewhat well, but dear lord do I need that film to come out so I can actually talk about it with other people.)  Whilst for two, the film opens and briefly flashes back to the young man performing the same sort of routine on the gay man he attended the unseen party with, and although the film and the director refute him being so, this ends up leading to the film tracking in some of the harmful stereotypes of depraved bisexuals that I, someone who identifies as bisexual himself, am just so sick and tired of seeing in the media, especially since much of his treatment of his victims carries sexual undertones on his part.

The only thing that saves Chameleon from being an utterly disgusting disgrace is the fact that it at least has the common sense to realise that what is happening is disturbing and unconscionable, and doesn’t intentionally become exploitative garbage.  But the longer it runs on for, the clearer it becomes that there is no point being made here, and that there being no point being made is not intentional.  If it were more like the underseen Compliance or Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games, Chameleon may have been salvageable.  Instead, I do not blame the drove of people who walked out just prior to the hour mark.  The only reason I stayed myself was due to my principle of never walking out of a movie, and even I have to question whether that was worth it.

Day 6: Amy Adams makes first contact as Denis Villeneuve follows up the instant classic Sicario with Arrival.

Callum Petch knows you’ve always had a feather head.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 4

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

You would think that I would have gotten up bright and early on Saturday morning in order to catch the press screening for DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, given that I am still (to my knowledge) the film critic who is the world’s leading expert on the works of DreamWorks Animation thanks to The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective.  I chose to skip Trolls, however.  I wanted to have a minor lay-in, for one, but primarily it was due to the film dropping in UK cinemas in just over 2 weeks, so seeing it with such a small gap between festival and theatrical screenings felt like wasting precious festival time – hence why I also skipped Thursday’s screening of American Honey.  I am at a film festival, as a credited member of the press, able to see a whole gaggle of films that either won’t be out for several months or won’t make it to Hull at all, so I should take full advantage of that fact!  Indeed, I was going to instead see the other animated feature being screened that morning, Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children (Grade: D+)!

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This was a choice that I would come to regret.  Based on the graphic novel of the same name by co-director Alberto Vásquez, Psychonauts – and, no, it has no relation to the beloved videogame, in order to get the obvious jokes and ignorance out of the way immediately – is set on an island of animal-people hybrids ravaged by some kind of industrial disaster that has split the island into two halves.  The titular Forgotten Children live in the trash-filled Industrial Zone, spending their days searching for copper they can sell for money to buy food which they in turn sell for more copper, caught hopelessly in this cycle of poverty.  The slightly more civilised parts of the island, meanwhile, are all desperate to escape and make their way to The Big City across the sea, in the meantime succumbing to drug addictions that appear to manifest themselves as literal malicious demons, and persecuting the mute Birdboy, an addict whose father sold drugs to children and whom the island’s police force wrongly believe is following in his father’s footsteps.

Hopefully you already see the main problems here.  Psychonauts is far too messy and barely coherent, featuring too many characters – including Birdboy, the Forgotten Children, a group of teenagers trying to get off the island, a fisherman caring for his heroin-addicted mother, and far too many others – each with their own plots, many crossing paths several times, and all utilising different metaphors that complicate any potential message.  Addicts and those suffering from mental illnesses have literal demons that appear to overtake the host’s entire being and can cause harm separate from the host themselves, for example.  The Forgotten Children get barely any screen time and the film never asks the viewer to properly sympathise with them, either, lest its big violent 3rd act setpiece become too offputtingly disturbing for the viewer.  Hell, the film doesn’t even manage to establish a coherent geography of the island itself; I spent much of the film thinking the Industrial wastelands were a framework for a story being told in-medias-res rather than a going concern.

The film is too quirky for its own good, throwing every possible trippy image at the wall and hoping that something sticks – in this world, even otherwise inanimate objects have conscience thought and coherent speech, for some utterly bizarre reason.   Admittedly, the animation is visually striking, which is what saves the film from being a total waste, but it’s also, design-wise, nothing you haven’t seen in the notebook of an emo high-school kid from back in the mid-2000s.  Plus, like with Ari Folman’s visually-trippy but thematically-muddled and narratively-empty The Congress, all the visual trippiness in the world can’t make up for a lack of story and a hopelessly muddled thematic core.

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On the subject of film choices I came to regret before the credits rolled, Una (Grade: D), or “What if a paedophile were actually a really honourable and upstanding man aside from the whole ‘grooming and molesting an underage child’ thing?”  Una wants to tackle our preconceptions of consent and rape, kind of similarly to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (which I saw and discussed in yesterday’s piece), by demonstrating that the case isn’t always as clear-cut for either party as it may appear on paper, that there are long-term ramifications for both parties, especially if one of them sincerely believes that they are in love with the other.  There is a way to tell a story like this, where we come to understand both characters and their headspaces, see them as complex people with wants and desires that aren’t as simple as society would have us believe, and how that can be more disturbing than pat simplicity, or at the very least can be told in a way that isn’t a horrifying mess…

…this ain’t it.  Instead, Una proceeds to spend much of its 94 minutes providing sympathy and understanding and explanations for the rapist, and basically nothing for the title character (Rooney Mara).  Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) gets to plead his side of things repeatedly, cycling through all of the stock bulls**t excuses, complaining about how the 3 month “mistake” ruined his life, and how he had to fight with all of his might to turn things around and claw together the pretty nice life he has now, with a new name, a decent job, and a wife oblivious to his past.  Una, initially, gets to give as good as Ray’s got, tearing down his “woe-is-me” arguments and angrily retorting with how she never got the chance to get her life back thanks to him.  But eventually, she starts to give up, as does he, and the two start to work towards the admission that maybe there was something sincere there between them once, and that may still be there now, 15 years on.  That is interesting, if handled well, and Una proceeds to squander it massively by shifting in its final third to making Ray ultimately a “nice guy” and Una the crazy woman who can’t let the past go.

This massive lapse in judgement ends up occurring as a result of the multitude of smaller, easily avoidable mistakes that litter the film up to that point – first-time film director Benedict Andrews filming almost all of the flashbacks in romantic soft-focus like this were any normal love story, the script not giving Una the depth or comebacks that Ray ends up getting, and awkwardly shoe-horned in subplots only serve the purpose of trying to make Ray likeable all being particular offenders.  Then on just a film level, away from those problematic undertones, it’s just far too blandly shot, uninvolving, and stagey (the film is an adaptation of writer David Harrower’s own play Blackbird and it really shows by the halfway point) to be worth anyone’s time.  Ben Mendelsohn is putting in excellent work playing the character as written, but it’s ultimately wasted on, well, the character as written.  Una is utterly abhorrent, and the worst part is that I don’t even think it knows just how far off-base it ends up going.  Christ, Election did this far better and it wasn’t even a main part of that film!

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Continuing a day of disappointments all round, although this one is much milder and subjective than the others, I must confess to not quite “getting” Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Grade: B-).  Taking place across 3 mostly unconnected segments, the film essentially dramatises a day or two in the life of a group of women whose lives are uneventful even when they are, by some metric, eventful.  The first follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) as she deals with a difficult client (Jared Harris), the second follows a working mother (Michelle Williams) with her husband (James le Gros) as she tries to buy sandstone from a crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) in order to build her house, and the third follows a lonely Native American rancher (Lily Gladstone) who tries to strike up a relationship with an overworked lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class on School Law.  Each of these segments run about 30 minutes a piece, start unassumingly, end suddenly, move very glacially, and nothing much happens in any of them.

This is very much by design, mind you.  Reichardt takes great pleasure in subjecting the viewer to the same boring suffocating loneliness that most of the film’s characters experience, and the overall point, if there even is one since I found very little to connect the three segments beyond them all taking place in and representing a forgotten rural American town, appears to be depicting life.  Monotonous, day-to-day, glacial life.  I can respect that intent, though I do still side with anybody who ends up watching the film and, by the 7th minute of Gina and Ryan’s interminable conversation with Albert or the 14th scene of the rancher riding around the snow on her ATV chased by her adorable dog, yelling, “OK, YES, WE GET THE POINT, ALREADY!  DO SOMETHING, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!”  It can be too slow and dry for its own good, at times, particularly because it’s not aiming to make any grand statements or even perform much of a character study of any of its protagonists.

Certain Women could have been paced better, basically, particularly since it follows up its worst segment (which just goes on for ages and fails to accomplish anything) with by far and away its best.  That final segment is quietly devastating, particularly thanks to the chemistry of Kristen Stewart (inarguably one of the finest actresses working today) and Lily Gladstone (who is one hell of a find and needs a fast-tracked career right the hell now), building up to a phenomenal oner that just broke my heart even deeper the longer it ran on for.  Outside of that segment, though, I was more just appreciative of what the film’s trying to do rather than enthralled or touched by it in any significant way.  It is, in reductive terms, Slow Cinema – cinema that’s paced deliberately for the sake of being paced deliberately – and whilst I can respect it doing exactly what it set out to do and doing it well, I have to admit that it’s not really for me.

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I closed out the day by finally getting an approved press ticket ahead of time for a public screening, that for Jewel’s Catch One (Grade: C), a documentary about the titular nightclub, one of the first openly Black and LGBT discos to open in the USA, and its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams.  It’s an interesting story, examining the club’s societal and cultural significance, its turbulent history, and the life and activism of Jewel herself, a Black working-class lesbian who poured her heart and soul into the club and eventually returning to college to learn various skills that she could apply to her non-profit Village Health Population.  The film is also clearly a labour-of-love, having been worked on for about 6 years, and aims to crowdplease, which it definitely succeeds at judging by the frequent and raucous rounds of applause that occurred during my screening.

Sadly, though, the film is also much too messy and unfocussed to recommend outside of its inevitable home as a Netflix curio.  Part of this is by design, since the subject in question is very locally specific, so archival footage is limited.  Mostly, the film tries to split its chips between the club and Jewel herself.  Either would make a great documentary on its own, but trying to do both at once leads to lots of rushed history, glossed-over sections that should be important (like the founding of the club), and a lack of trying to explain its cultural relevance for those not already up to speed.  There’s a whole extended segment on The AIDS Crisis and I somehow sat there not being particularly moved, which should not be something that happens in a documentary about an LGBT nightclub.  Near the end, the film, on the final night of the club, opts to show a montage of former patrons relating their experiences with and connection to the club, and I could briefly see a glimpse of a far better film than the one we have.  As it stands, Jewel’s Catch One is an interesting story that’s not done enough justice by the documentary telling it.

Day 5: Terence Davies tells the story of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Adam Driver plays an introspective poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and two women get an uninvited dinner guest in Chameleon.

Callum Petch will ease up on our mind.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 3

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

So I overslept.

This was bound to happen.  For one, and don’t snicker or roll your eyes when you read these words, a film festival schedule is a hard thing to work within.  You wake up every morning, mostly well before 7am, have to rush about showering and having breakfast and injecting your morning insulin and getting everything you need for the day, to then get the hour transport into the centre of London where most all the films are happening, and then spend the day watching films, occasionally rushing between cinemas to make it into rush queues (more on those in a later dispatch) for other films before they sell out, before eventually finishing up for the day well after the sun’s gone down, riding the Tube the hour back to where you’re staying, getting in and then spending upwards of 2 and a half hours transcribing all of the thoughts you have on the many films you saw that day, including the one you saw first thing in the morning and which may have been completely wiped from your memory by the many other films you saw, then FINALLY getting to collapse onto your bed and sleep for about 5 hours before getting up to do it all over again.  Oh, and you also need to fit in lunch, tea, a second round of insulin, and that irritating downtime where it’s enough to make you restless but not enough to allow you to go anywhere far and do stimulating activities.

And for two, I’d been over-sleeping my alarm at home for a few weeks prior to this trip, so this was inevitable anyway.

This is not a complaint, do not mistake me.  I’ve weirdly already settled into this routine despite only being at it for 2 days, like it’s something I’m born to do (more on that in tomorrow’s dispatch).  Rather, this is me explaining to you why even the most iron-forged and intricately planned-out festival screening schedules, set in stone well before you even start planning travel arrangements, have to be more flexible than you’d figured they’d be; that you need back-ups for all of your desired film choices, and back-ups for those back-ups, regardless of how desperate you are to see a certain film.  Also that the human body is a dick.

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So, as a result of oversleeping, I did not wake up with enough time to get to the official press screening of Shola Amoo’s feature-debut, A Moving Image (Grade: B).  However, to my joy, it turned out that the film had a digital screener available and so, even though I really don’t like watching films on a laptop, I still got the opportunity to watch the film before heading out for the day.  And it’s very good!  The film is described as “a multimedia project” rather than a straightforward work of dramatic fiction, incorporating as it does musical numbers, dance sequences, performance art, and non-fictional documentary footage in its tale of a former Brixton native, Nina (Tanya Fear), returning home after a few years away to see the area falling victim to gentrification and deciding to make a film about it.

Cleverly, the film does not shy away from the issue of Nina, despite ostensibly wanting to help, being just as complicit in the issue of gentrification as those she’s trying to help argue the case against – a Black former Brixton native, miserable about where she was, moves away for several years for reasons left mostly unexplained, and finally returns to her home-ground in the kind of trendy apartment that White middle-class hipsters have begun co-opting as their own.  Comparisons to Spike Lee works have been bandied about by critics, potentially due to A Moving Image featuring its own Radio Raheem expy, and whilst I get that in the sense of how the film depicts and builds the community featured – of a native Black working-class being pushed out by White middle-classes who shutter local businesses through their desire to only patronise chains and displacing homeowners through skyrocketing rents and luxury high-rise flats – I wouldn’t be so quick to.  Much of Lee’s best works are angry rebellious things, whilst Amoo’s film is more resigned and bittersweet, the weight of continued activism getting to the characters too much and making sure that they really can’t go home again.

My main issue with the film is that it’s too short.  That’s typically not a bad problem to have with a film, but A Moving Image is only 74 minutes long, so much of the drama gets glossed over or heavily cut down and that leads to the film never really achieving the heights it could have.  That’s especially a shame since the characters are all so well drawn and the performers are so likeable and entertaining to watch.  It can also lay on the meta-textual “film about this film” dialogue a bit too often, but otherwise this is a very solid debut feature that’s worth checking out if you get the chance.

I finished A Moving Image exactly one hour before the press screening for La La Land was due to start and hot-footed it to the Tube.  In my head, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to make it in time, anyway – the average Tube journey I have to take, so far, lasts anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour – but luck appeared to be on my side and I made it to the Picturehouse Central in just over half an hour!  I was pumped to join the queue of people outside the screens and proceeded to follow it to the back… and kept going… and kept going… still kept going…  That queue ended up snaking from the first floor of the cinema, out the front, along the cinema’s front displays, around the corner and into the middle of the pavement for the street leading to Piccadilly Circus by the time I got there.  Then it started to rain.  Once again, I resigned myself to most likely not getting to see La La Land.  But then the line started moving… and kept moving… and kept moving…  I allowed myself to hope again.  I may not get to go to the toilet despite my bladder being fit to burst, but at least I’ll get to see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land!  The queue moved inside, up the stairs, right up to the barricade…

Then, 3 people away from the barricade in, they broke the news that the screening was full and we were all turned away.  My thoughts could be summed up thusly.

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Fortunately, and as previously discussed, I had hastily decided on a back-up that morning in case this very scenario came to pass, and – along with seemingly everybody else, given the queue that immediately formed for it as soon as La La Land’s doors shut – I instead put myself in for My Life as a Courgette (Grade: A-), whose title is strange but whose actual film is phenomenal and immensely sweet.  The film follows Courgette, a 9 year-old boy who accidentally kills his abusive alcoholic mother and is subsequently sent off to live in foster care, and the film deftly tackles the effects that the system, and the abuse that those there had suffered prior to arriving, has upon those within it.

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In particular, its stop-motion animation does an excellent job at visualising the issue in a child’s way.  The marionettes all have giant heads attached to smaller-sized bodies, with each child’s eyes having telling dark circles around them that betray the misery they had to and oftentimes still go through.  The colour palette is varied but muted, steering away from overdone greys or blacks and utilising alternately warm and cold shades of purple, orange, and yellow instead.  Whilst the rest of the world around Courgette and friends is purposefully made to resemble simplistic paper-crafting, completing that aim of representing the world in the same way a young child might see it.  That melancholic tone in the world also extends to the script, co-written by Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma, which, for just one example, is able to make one minor character’s habit of thinking that every visitor’s arriving car might be her deported mother’s tragic, then funny, and then some middle-ground between the two.

It’s arguably a crowd-pleaser, never dwelling on the worst moments of each character’s life for too long and actively minimising much of its conflict, and it could stand to run longer than its 66 minutes, but that tone carries it through.  That balance between finding the joy in the most unexpected of situations without ignoring the harsh realities of these kids being unlikely to find a foster family.  The characters are all lovable, the animation is excellent, and the whole film is so unreservedly sweet and charming that I found it impossible to not be won over.  I’ll admit to having even shed some tears at multiple points.  If I was given the opportunity, I would most likely have tried watching it again as soon as it was done.

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Having learned my lesson from earlier in the day, I made sure to get in the queue for Elle (Grade: B, score most likely not final) as quickly as possible, figuring that the return of Paul Verhoeven after, effectively, a decade’s silence would get butts in seats pretty quickly.  Unsurprisingly, it did, so I got to watch Elle with a full screen, something I absolutely recommend to all of you as…  well…  well, it’s definitely not dull, I can say that with absolute certainty.  Picture the kind of film that you would expect the director of Basic Instinct, Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls to make out of the premise of a middle-aged female videogame executive (Isabelle Huppert) being raped and subsequently stalked by an unknown assailant.   Elle is both EXACTLY the film you’re expecting and nothing at all like the film you’d think you’d get, if that makes sense.  In fact – and I recognise that my words mean very little here, being a man and also somebody who has not experienced rape himself – I actually think the film may be respectful and quietly empowering?

Let me put it this way, in your typical rape-revenge movie, the act of rape often becomes the sole characteristic and defining element of the woman at the narrative’s centre.  They’re not really allowed to exist prior to the rape, and afterwards their whole life effectively becomes consumed by the rape and its follow-up.  Elle, meanwhile, sets its stall out early, as Michèle, after being raped, rather than sob on the floor or call the police, instead picks herself up, tidies the scene, chides her cat for unsympathetically watching rather than attempting to so much as swipe at the assailant, resolves to get the locks changed, and then tries to get on with her life as if nothing happened.  It turns out that she has reasons for not going to the police, ones that add character drama but also double as commentary on how our patriarchal society often throws immediate scepticism on a woman’s rape allegations, but she primarily just wants to move on and get back to her daily routine.  When she eventually breaks the news to a select few of her friends and relatives, she basically orders the discussion closed as soon as she’s finished talking.

For much of its runtime, Elle is a more a drama about an older woman, and the various exasperating people that populate her life, who just so happened to be raped, rather than a rape-revenge film or even a drama about rape.  And isn’t that in itself quietly powerful?  Allowing us to see a rape victim as a Woman with a life and other concerns rather than just a victim, of watching somebody trying to pull their life back together and move on rather than let the event consume them?  The rape does eventually become an unavoidable aspect of her life, but that’s more out of a necessity due to the perpetrator refusing to leave her alone, making the issue something that needs dealing with.  In a way, all Verhoeven is doing here is applying that same provocative pushing-a-scenario-to-its-extremes touch that he applies to most of his best work to a story about rape trauma, but he manages to do it without ever losing sight of Michèle as a Woman and never losing sympathy or empathy for her either.

Much of the credit also needs to be passed on to Isabelle Huppert, without whom the film would most likely have completely flown off the rails into unwatchable-trainwreck land, even with the master of button-pushing cinema behind the camera.  She always keeps the film grounded, adding an extra edge and dimension to Michèle that a script on its own cannot provide, and sells the holy hell out of everything she’s given to do, whether dealing with workplace misogyny or masturbating over thoughts of her chummy next-door neighbour.  There’s complexity and dimension here, the film even allowing her to be massively flawed and unsympathetic from time to time, that abounds in positive ways and in murkier ways, particularly once the film reveals the culprit and spends the rest of its runtime flitting between a psycho-sexual thriller and the blackest possible black comedy that it is possible to make.  I’m really not sure what to make of the final third, hence why I clarify that my score is not final and may change, but I can tell you that it never tips over into being trashy and, at the very least, Elle is never ever boring.  I’m dying to hear some female critics’ voices on this one, cos I really have no idea how exactly I feel about this as a whole.

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With my press ticket application for the evening’s screening of Christine (Grade: B+) having been effectively declined by virtue of not-getting-a-reply, I arrived there nice and early in the hopes of picking up a press ticket in the Rush Queue – again, I’ll touch on that whole process in detail some other time – only to see quite busy public lines and staff members explaining to fellow budding press that we’d be unlikely to get in unless we paid for a ticket like everybody else.  Since Christine was one of my most anticipated films of the festival, along with its semi-documentary counterpart (screening later on) Kate Plays Christine, I resolved to bite the bullet and queue up in the hopes of buying a ticket like everyone else.  But then, in a massive stroke of luck, somebody trying to hock a ticket they didn’t need anymore completely gave up trying to get money for it and pawned it off in my hands, since I had already expressed interest in buying it but had no cash on hand.  Wins by technicality are still wins, folks!

Anyway, Christine is, for all intents and purposes, a speculative-fiction biopic about the final weeks of Christine Chubbuck, a depressed local news journalist who, in 1975 and just under a month before her 30th birthday, committed suicide live on television.  Outside of being one of the inspirations for Network, it’s a story that has remained largely untold throughout the years, despite being ripe with thematic material that is still relevant to this day – sexism in the workplace, the stigma of depression and anxiety, elements about the state of American gun control laws, the devolution of mainstream news networks – and which Christine proceeds to take full advantage of.

Contrary to so many Awards Season biopics that act primarily as showreels for their lead actors and actresses, Christine actually does act as a legitimate character study, with most of its filmmaking and storytelling decisions being consciously designed to put one in the headspace of somebody living with depression.  It resists the desire to make the film a miserable hopeless slog, to become too mired in some kind of overwrought mess, because it understands that depression is not like that at all.  It is still a sad and difficult film, don’t get me wrong, but there are moments of humour, moments of sweetness, good days and bad days, and the tone finds a way to return to this isolating sense of numbness.  Depression, self-loathing, and anxiety can make you feel crushingly alone and often bitter and unpleasant to be around, where those who try to help you can inadvertently make things worse, and Christine captures that and the difficulty that one can find in functioning “normally” with aplomb.  For me, it’s right up there with BoJack Horseman in terms of the best portrayals of depression that I’ve seen and, as someone who is clinically depressed, I really appreciated this film’s handling of the issue.

In particular, though, Christine works thanks to Rebecca Hall’s thunderous lead performance, which is every bit as outstanding as you have heard every single critic rave.  It’s hard for me to properly explain, because it’s still hard for me to properly talk about my depression and the ways it makes me act and feel, but watching her on-screen I felt a searing rawness to her work.  A truth, an honesty, a nuanced portrayal that doesn’t dare sand down any of Christine’s edges, as both Hall and the film correctly recognise that people suffering from depression can be unpleasant to be around and downright unlikeable from time to time.  The film can engage in the kind of excessive telegraphing that most tragic biopics like to indulge excessively from time-to-time, and the ending (whilst befitting the fact that this is Christine’s story first and foremost) does end up short-changing the strong supporting cast – including Tracy Letts as the alternately beleaguered and callous station head, and Michael C. Hall as the anchor Christine has possibly unrequited feelings for – but otherwise Christine is gripping viewing from start to finish.  Director Antonio Campos deserves vaulting up into the big time, Rebecca Hall deserves serious consideration in all Best Actress ballots for the year, and this film deserves to be seen.

Day 4: More foreign animation with Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children, a documentary about one of America’s first Black Discos, and more.

Callum Petch will never say anything nice again.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 2

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

The Picturehouse Central is a wonderful cinema.  I love the designs of cinemas, their layouts and décor, their seating arrangements, whether the screens have draw-curtains to signify the start and end of a film, their lighting… it all tells you something about the cinema, and the place and time of their creation.  My VUE back in Scunthorpe, for example, you can tell has been around for over a decade with no significant changes by virtue of its low-hanging ceiling in the walkway to the screens, the fact that there’s a significant gap in seating between the two halves of the screen, and the attempt at vintage typography in the screen numbers and “Now Playing” poster holders.  Also by virtue of the seating arrangements giving you actual legroom as standard rather than at a premium.

The Picturehouse Central in London really is a marvellous work of cinema design, though.  Setting aside the fact that it has two floors dedicated to two separate bars (one with an actual restaurant that you’d better believe I will take advantage of at some point), the building seems tailor-made to create a sense of opulence and class in the act of watching a film, that your ticket price is completely justifiable for a change.  Seating is tiered but in a way where every viewer, in every screen, gets an unobstructed view even if someone is sat in an equivalent seat number the row in front of you.  Lighting is low but in a classy, old-school Hollywood way that doesn’t distract the eye whilst the film is playing.  The seats themselves are super comfortable, and even slide forward at an angle slightly if you’re uncomfortable but don’t want to lose the optimal viewing position.  And the screens have draw-curtains!  I’m a major geek for cinema screens having draw-curtains.

I know this may not be of interest to the vast majority of you reading these pieces, but I thought I’d espouse words on it since about 80% of my screenings are going to take place in this one cinema, and because I want to make it clear that I really don’t mind dragging myself into this place in time for 9:15am every day for the next week and a bit in order to start catching press screenings.   That’s good because it means I’m seeing the films in the best possible scenarios and that, barring occasional bouts of tiredness that come from Moving at 7am, I am fully attentive and appreciative of the films that I am reporting on for you, the good readers of Failed Critics.  So, with that all mentioned, my first press screening of the day was Apprentice (Grade: C-), a film that’s really good right up until it frustratingly isn’t.

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A Singapore drama, Apprentice follows prisons officer Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), an ex-Army officer who followed up his service by enlisting in Prisons and has been transferred to Malay’s maximum-security, where he finds himself drawn towards its aging Chief Executioner, Warder (Wan Hanafi Su), who is looking to take on an apprentice.  Much of the brisk 96 minute film then ends up revolving around the questions of whether legally justified murder is still morally justifiable and whether or not Aiman will be able to reconcile the two and do the job he’s being groomed for.  Its best moments are the ones where it clinically and bluntly deals with the realities of a practice that still occurs in many countries, one that many people privately support, but that society is still reticent to acknowledge its part in – semi-covert trips to fishing warehouses to buy hanging rope, detailed conversations about the processes involved in planning a hanging, the efficiency of a hanging itself in a scene that is genuinely disturbing to witness.  The film also tries to relate the issue to Singapore at large, when Warder complains that the country’s new generation isn’t being bred with the fortitude required to continue his position, a potentially quiet admission that the country has moved past this line of work altogether.

But then the film, in its misguided attempt at objectivity, proceeds to piss away all of its goodwill by copping out on taking a side with a frankly embarrassing attempt at an ambiguous ending.  I honestly briefly thought the projector had eaten up the last 10 minutes of film, such is the suddenness and unfulfilling nature of this so-called ending, deciding that actually paying off dramatic conflict is too much work and opting instead to cut-to-black.  Even if Apprentice had bothered to craft an ending, though, I would still have hesitated to call it “great” as there is a twist here, revealed early on but I’ll refrain from mentioning it anyway.  It’s meant to provide an additional conflict-of-interest in Aiman’s apprenticeship, but in practice all it does is create false drama that the film doesn’t need, and muddies the main conflict by adding prior personal baggage that detracts from the more interesting struggle of reconciling something that civilised society has deemed acceptable but which you know is morally wrong.

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Hanging also featured in the second film I saw that day, Park Chan-wook’s gloriously trashy The Handmaiden (Grade: B+), albeit with its most prominent scene being the funniest attempted-hanging in a work of fiction since Paranoia Agent.  If you’re surprised that an attempted-hanging could be played for near-literal gallows humour, then you must be new to the works of Park Chan-wook who seemed to have set out here with the intention of creating the Park Chan-wook-iest film it is possible to make.  There are even two separate instances where the camera focusses on an octopus in some way!  That complete releasing of all inhibitions, and perhaps as a response to having to tone down some of his more openly provocative tendencies for his criminally-underrated English-language debut Stoker, has led to Chan-wook finally making the lurid, openly-trashy psycho-sexual drama he has clearly spent his entire career wanting to make.

All of this, of course, makes it very hard to talk about The Handmaiden in great detail.  Being a Park Chan-wook film, the story is filled with more twists than a whole season of Lost, in particular dropping a huge one at the halfway mark from which point the film shoots off into the stratosphere and never really returns back home to Earth until 15 minutes before the end.  Then, there’s the fact that this is a family publication, and so talking in specific detail about what often turns into a full-on erotic thriller is going to be a fast way to get this place shut down.  In as vague terms as I can manage, then, The Handmaiden follows the appointment of a new Korean handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri) to a mentally-unstable Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) as she prepares to be forcibly wed to her elderly Korean uncle who desperately wants to be Japanese (Cho Jin-woong) and finds herself wooed by a Count (Ha Jung-woo).  Unsurprisingly, nobody is who they really say they are, everybody has their own agenda, and that collection of gambits, allegiances, relationships, and double-crosses all end up colliding with each other in joyously entertaining fashion, just like most all of Park Chan-wook’s other movies.

Chan-wook is still one of the best directors in the business today, able to be visually exciting and pacey without becoming distractingly showy, and The Handmaiden lets him apply all of these tricks to the production design of a classy period drama, which provides the perfect juxtaposition for all of the sex, violence, and meticulously-timed black comedy that the story provides.  There’s an excellent critique of erotica in here, and more specifically of how mid-30s erotica provided men with misogynistic ideas of consent and what constitutes sexual pleasure, whilst the predatory nature of oppressive sexuality ends up explored through a quietly disturbing character beat that only grows more disturbing the more the story has to return to it, and the eventual conflict goes all-in on the suffocating influence of the hetero-patriarchy for those who do end up under its thumb.  There’s even an active attempt to shoot the sex scenes in a way that doesn’t come across as exploitative or Male Gaze-y – I’m not sure it completely succeeds, but props for trying.

I hesitate to bust out the unconditional rave reviews yet, however, as I didn’t feel that same spark that I got when I watched Oldboy or Stoker for the first time.  For one, I definitely think the film is 15 minutes too long, with it having basically wrapped itself up by the two hour mark but proceeding to spend another 15 minutes tying up even more loose ends and dragging itself out for seemingly no reason other than for Chan-wook to indulge himself in some good-old-fashioned Park Chan-wook violence.  Whilst for two, I feel the film doesn’t really start running until the end of Part I (the film is split into 3 parts), just before the hour mark – although it is still entertaining prior to then, a lot of Part I is groundwork-laying and that didn’t gel well with a slightly tired Me.  That said, I can already tell that the film will grow upon repeat viewings, especially now that I’m attuned to its rhythm and structure, since I know I missed so much this first time around.  So whilst that “Instant Classic” spark may not have been there for me, The Handmaiden is still an excellently trashy time nonetheless.

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The joys of a festival schedule means that you can often be shuffled into a totally different film tonally than the one you just got out of with basically no chance to catch your breath.  Such was the case as my screening of a fun lurid psycho-drama was almost immediately followed by Tower (Grade: B), a harrowing and powerful documentary about the Austin University shootings of 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the campus’s tower with a bunch of rifles and proceeded to open fire on the crowds below, killing 14 and injuring 35 more.  The film opts to primarily depict the massacre to the viewer through the medium of rotoscoped animation, utilising actors to play younger versions of the various featured subjects, in a way that calls to mind Waltz with Bashir.  The animation can occasionally be off-putting, as you often get by nature of rotoscoping, but for the most part it works, particularly through the decision to depict much of the shooting in grayscale and stark whites, whilst any anecdotes outside of that get a vivid full-colour treatment.

Indeed, the intent of the animation and the film’s structure is about putting the viewer in the middle of that chaos and unflinchingly showing you just how terrifying it would be to experience it for real.  It also puts the human element back into the story by purposefully limiting its focus to the viewpoints of a few key players – the pregnant woman who was the first one shot and lay bleeding out in the open for hours, the first officer responding to the scene, one female student who spent the whole time hiding out, etc. – in order to work through events in a step-by-step manner, where you learn the facts and specifics at the same time as they would have.  This lets the film zero in on themes of survivor’s guilt, bystander syndrome, those everyday heroes who risked their own lives to help whomever they could, and those fleeting connections made during the terror that were never pursued afterwards.

Tower is often powerful, particularly with that conceit – since one of my favourite films of the century is Cloverfield, I really appreciated that ground-view “this is what it was like and how terrifying is it to be here” design – but it also just misses out on greatness.  A topic like this demands tying back into modern culture at large, what with an event like this feeling eerily prescient of today’s American societal culture where mass shootings are a near-daily occurrence, and that’s just not something that Tower is interested in doing.  Save for a soundbite of a report from America’s Newsman, Walter Cronkite, set to a brief montage of news reports of recent mass shootings, Tower doesn’t tie itself into the modern climate enough, content instead to stick to that human element.  That is fine, because the story it tells is still powerful enough and told well enough for this to be affecting viewing, but it does keep it from becoming something truly special.

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A lack of tying into modern culture at large was not a problem that afflicted the other documentary I saw that day, however.  Chasing Asylum (N/R) is an absolutely vital and horrifying piece of cinema, investigating as it does Australia’s hard-line immigration policies and its utterly inhumane procedures for dealing with refugees.  Director Eva Orner piles on the failures one after another with absolutely no mercy and no letting up – smuggling cameras into the refugee detention centres in Manus Island, talking with aid workers who are given no direction to help these refugees who have risked their lives for nothing and won’t be leaving any time soon, relaying intimidation threats that those who wished to speak up against abusive guards received, showing images of tin shacks stacked from front-to-back with hundreds of bunk beds in tropical weather.  Every time the bottom appears to have been found, social workers detail allegations of child molestation, some refugees sew their mouths shut to protest their draconian treatment by guards who won’t let them wear caps in the mess hall, or Australia will waste tens of millions of Australian dollars setting up a voluntary resettlement program in Cambodia.

None of this feels exploitative to watch, though, because Orner is constantly finding the humanity in the situation, focussing on those refugees that are being mistreated for their desire to receive the human rights they have a claim to when Australia signed The 1951 Refugee Act with the rest of the United Nations.  Families talk about how they were ripped apart, former inmates recall their first-hand experiences of the various riots they were stuck in the middle of, aid workers and camp staff express their defeating frustration at not being able to help those they’re in charge of helping get through the day without self-harming.  And throughout it all, the same rhetoric rings out from the mouths of Australian governmental officials, “We stopped the boats.”  But that’s not really true, since the refugees keep trying to make that futile journey anyway, and Orner effectively and correctly responds with, “OK, but look long and hard at the cost.”

It’s furious filmmaking, and though Orner frequently stated throughout the post-film Q&A that she made this film with the intent to “shame Australia,” she clearly knows the added resonance that Chasing Asylum will take on for the rest of the world.  Given Brexit, the slow and insidious mainstreaming of rampant xenophobia and racism thanks to the mainstream media, and an American Presidential Election being fought with this kind of dehumanising rhetoric, Chasing Asylum has the power to shame most every developed country.  I feel weird giving something like this a rating – hence why I haven’t – but it is a film that needs to be experienced by everyone.  We need to be reminded that these people we reduce to statistics or lesser beings out of reckless patriotism, whether that be through open xenophobia or propagating the myth of the “economic migrant” (as one man did in the Q&A), are human beings, and Orner’s film does that exceptionally.

Day 3: Damien Chazelle follows up his outstanding breakthrough, Whiplash, with an ode to the Hollywood musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

Callum Petch won’t call it a fight when he knows it’s a war.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 0 & Day 1

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone else, but it always takes a while for me to realise that I am in London.  And not in a “constantly awe-inspired and can’t quite believe that it’s happening” way, more in a “this feels like being in a populated place, I guess” way.  I guess being a, for-all-intents-and-purposes, Northerner, having spent much of my adolescence in either clustered semi-isolated villages or mostly closing-down towns, the myth of London and other such “Big Cities” can raise expectations a tad too high or fanciful.  I recall my brother, after mine and his first trip down here a decade ago, heading back to Junior School at the beginning of the new academic year to brag and launch into tall tales about what London was like, as if he was the first person to ever discover this strange and exotic new land.

I am aware that this all sounds cliché, but that’s genuinely how it feels to me from time to time.  For one, there’s that age-old feeling where you suddenly don’t want to do anything as soon as you’re given everything to choose from doing – the “everything” in this scenario being a full day in London by yourself with nothing scheduled to get in the way of exploring.  Whilst for two, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees once you’re thrust into a new environment – the forest in this metaphor being “London” and the trees being “the sea of people that are everywhere all the time, dear lord.”  So, for a while at least, London comes across to me as nothing more than one of my towns but with the crowds copy-pasted a few thousand times to boost the numbers.

But that “I’m in LONDON!” epiphany does eventually arrive, and it is a pretty great feeling when it does so.  I’ve had it twice, so far.  The first was on what we shall dub Day 0 (due to there not being any films on then) when I wandered along the Embankment as I tracked down the various screening locations, looked out across the Thames as the sun hit the water and realised that I was, indeed, in the nation’s capital.  The second was on my downtime after Day 1 wrapped up.  I was in Camden Market, perusing through the various vinyl record shops – because I am indeed every single stereotype you have in your head of a post-uni film critic – and was drawn to a record that I’d never heard before that was playing from the shop’s turntable.  Two further songs after that, I asked the owner to bag it up for me and got to live the Vinyl Collector’s preferred boring anecdote for myself, which I just can’t do back home.

Anyway, that’s how I came to own a Sharon Redd record.

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That kind of sudden rush of “THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING” adrenaline has been with me with regards to the London Film Festival ever since I picked up my Press Pass on Tuesday lunchtime.  As you can see in the picture of it above, that’s a real legitimate Press Pass, with my name, my photo, and the words “Film Critic” printed on it.  Sure, the “Film Critic” part carries the slightly delegitimising qualifier of the initial application process requesting that I define my role for The Hullfire myself, but still!  “Callum Petch.  Film Critic.”  Those are actual words printed on official press credentials!  Having been seriously critiquing and writing about films as a going concern for the past 6 and a half years now, that kind of validation is actually rather empowering for me; a potential acknowledgment that I can, in fact, possibly do this professionally.

I’ve never really deluded myself into believing that I would make it in the world of film criticism.  Trying to earn a living as a writer in this day and age is difficult at best, and if established writers are having a hard time keeping the lights on – I still vividly remember the shock I had when The Dissolve shut its doors last year – then what hope do I have?  That’s where my anxiety has been flaring up most in recent years, as that realisation has sank in further and I began truly fretting over where the rest of my life will take me, and having to spend much of third year dropping writing all together due to workload concerns, and the difficulty in getting back into it since finishing uni back in June, has left me wondering if this is even a career path I want to do anymore.  After all, when you’ve spent so much of your life dedicated to a certain aspect of yourself, how can you not be terrified when it appears that you’ve fallen out of love with the thing you’ve given so much of yourself towards?

Staring at that Press Pass immediately deleted all of those thoughts and fears.  The worry that I have fallen out of love with writing, the fear that I am some kind of fraud undeserving of the right to call myself a Film Critic who gets to run with the professionals, the anxiety that I’ll screw this whole trip up somehow…  All of them melted away in the face of that Press Pass and the resultant buzz.  This was really happening.  I was going to cover the London Film Festival as a Film Critic, which my Press Pass firmly stated with no qualifiers or hesitations.  It was a nervous giddy excitedness that stuck with me for the rest of Day 0, resurfaced as I made my way to Day 1’s only Press Screening (and my first of the festival), and likely won’t fully subside until after a few more days of this.  After all, I’M IN LONDON AND I’M A FILM CRITIC!

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As for the film I got to see, A United Kingdom (Grade: C), it was ok.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Much has been made of the festival’s attempt at embracing diversity this year – one which has been shared by many of the major film festivals throughout the year, as Hollywood and the industry at large finally starts trying to steer into the #OscarsSoWhite controversies that have plagued awards season for the past two years – so it makes sense to have the newest film from Belle’s Amma Asante be the curtain jerker.  A crowd-pleasing biopic about how the interracial love between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an English White woman, and Seretese Khama (David Oyelowo), a Black man who has been studying in England to prepare to take over the protectorate of Bechuanaland, started a chain of events that led to formation of the Republic of Botswana and its independence from oppressive British control; one could not get a more perfect Opening Night festival film if it came permanently rubberstamped with various “For Your Consideration” watermarks over the entire footage, which it might as well have been.

The film’s biggest problem is best epitomised by the fact that, in the courtship between Ruth and Seretese, they have both met, fallen in love at first sight, gone on multiple dates, been racially abused in the street, told each other they love each other, and proposed to one another by the 13 minute mark of a 110 minute film.  The first act is extremely rushed, and consequently A United Kingdom loses the human element of its story.  We are unable to see these characters as people or characters.  Instead, the film wants you to just see them as cogs in an Issue, which is the opposite of what the best kinds of Issue movies end up doing, where they put the human element back in.  Depicting a love story, or much in the way of human beings experiencing growth and development and acting like people at all, is not the film’s intended goal, and I at least give it respect for being so upfront about that.

Rather, A United Kingdom wants to be An Important Movie, as it announces from the get-go with the customary “Based on a True Story” title card, and this is less of a problem than most lesser biopics in recent years as, unlike something like The Theory of Everything or Black Mass, it does actually have things to say about its subjects.  Occasionally nuanced things, too, rather than just “racism and colonialism are bad,” albeit in inferred ways through story structure than anything textual – the film does a very good job at demonstrating just how much of a rigged “lose-lose” system the British were forcing their conquered colonies to work within, and the effects on the oppressed that politicians don’t consider when they renege on prior promises.  There’s also a very good David Oyelowo performance that is desperately trying to elevate the rest of the material it’s attached to.  Sure, he gets to play to his wheelhouse of big rousing speeches about equality and how racism is a totally bad thing if you didn’t already know you guys, but he also taps into that same quiet heartbroken heavy strength that he found as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and that pain is apparent in every scene, not just the showier ones.

Unfortunately, he’s paired off with a Rosamund Pike who, fresh off of a career-best and career-redefining turn in Gone Girl, is playing to the material rather than trying to elevate it.  Where Oyelowo is straining to find the human element to give the story a proper kick, Pike is straining to find space on her shelf for all the awards statuettes she’s clearly counting on racking up.  Most all of her scenes are too forced and unnatural, a noticeable playing up to the show-reels that get trotted out come January, and consequently she never gels with her on-screen partner, the two effectively starring in two completely separate films – with Pike’s film also featuring a cornucopia of moustache-twirling obstructive and outright evil British governmental representatives (portrayed by folks like Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) because subtlety is not something this movie particularly understands.

That’s ultimately the problem.  A United Kingdom plays it far too safe and is far too bland to work as anything other than a late-afternoon film that ITV1 shows before the next Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.  It’s clearly been precision-refined to the sensibilities of aging White Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voters: every character-based conflict resolved with disappointing ease, every frame actively straining for awards consideration and screaming “YOU ARE WATCHING AN IMPORTANT MOVIE” so that the voters can feel morally superior, and an ending that comes dangerously close to “AND THEN RACISM WAS CURED IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC OF BOTSWANA FOREVER, THE END!”  That last part especially is genuinely disappointing because I’ve heard that Asante’s Belle actively avoided falling into that trap, or any of those prior traps (I must confess to having not seen it myself).

In fairness, it’s not bad, particularly – it’s well-made, some of the bigger scenes do manage to stir the emotions somewhat, I appreciate that it never once starts entertaining the idea of slipping into a White Saviour narrative, and Oyelowo does good work – but it’s just instantly forgettable and disappointingly bland.  Also, I fear that, since Hollywood has a bunch of films tackling race in some way coming down the pipeline this awards season, this is going to be rather indicative of their overall quality.  My heart won’t be able to take Jeff Nichols’ Loving (which is not playing here) being bad, you hear me?!

Day 2: Park Chan-wook finally returns to the stage with the erotic drama that’s got all the heads turning in The Handmaiden, the 1966 University of Texas shootings finally receive the documentary treatment in Tower, and much more.

Callum Petch is a long way from home.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!