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London Film Festival 2016: Day 13


by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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

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

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


Arrival: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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

London Film Festival 2016: Day 3


by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

So I overslept.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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