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London Film Festival 2016: Day 11

LION

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara star in LIONPhoto: Mark Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London Film Festival 2016: Day 4

una

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)!