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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)!

Callum Petch’s Top 10 of 2014: #5 – #1

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Welcome back to the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2014.  If you missed Part 1, where we counted down entries #10 to #6, then you can go here to get caught up.  Otherwise, we are going to get straight back down to business.  So, without any further ado, GO GIRLS GO!

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.


under the skin05] Under The Skin

Dir: Jonathan Glazer

Star: Scarlett Johannson

Under The Skin is not on the list because I enjoyed it.  The rest of the films on this list are here because I enjoyed them; the commonly accepted barometer by which people typically measure the quality of a film.  Under The Skin is not here for that, for I did not enjoy Under The Skin.  I experienced Under The Skin, I endured Under The Skin, but I did not enjoy Under The Skin.  Instead, Under The Skin is here, and is this high on the list, for two specific reasons.

The first – and honestly the more minor of the two, which is crazy to believe – is Scarlett Johannson’s performance as the lead character, which is the single best performance by anybody in any film released in 2014.  Her performance of the main character is sensational, having to simultaneously keep them an enigma and yet clearly be able to give the audience some semblance of a clue as what is going on in their mind-set, and she is more than up to the task.  Shedding all of her effortless movie star charisma, she positions herself in this very alien register, taking detached to new heights and playing each new revelation about her character – the discovery of a conscience, strange new emotions, exploring the form that it has taken, the reaction to its humanity – as major game-changers without bursting into a flood of emotion.  She is on a whole other level compared to everyone else this year, and I spent so much of the film’s runtime in awe of her.

You know, when I wasn’t being made incredibly uncomfortable.  That’s the second reason why Under The Skin is on this list, it got to me.  It really got to me.  If I were a hack writer and wanted to undermine the seriousness of that last statement, I’d make pun involving the film’s title right now.  But, although I am, I don’t want to.  Under The Skin really got to me.  See, I am very sexually repressed, possibly bordering on asexual.  I always have been.  Nudity makes me uncomfortable, the concept of sex grosses me out, and having to witness sex or nudity causes me to want to reach for the exit as fast as possible.  One of the main aspects of Under The Skin is all about sex, sexuality, and the body, but the film never shoots any of these aspects in an erotic way.  It instead presents them coldly, clinically, alien, and explores how we are affected by each of those things.

Many of the film’s most disturbing sequences for me come from the depiction of nudity.  The full-frontal shots of the men that return to the protagonists’ dark void of a room, the scene where the biker examines the protagonist, the sequence where they look at themselves naked in the mirror and inspect their body… all scenes that made me thoroughly uncomfortable because they contextualise themselves in the way that I often see the naked flesh, as something alien and strange.  It’s not just that we are presented with these images, it’s the way that we are presented with these images as something unusual and slightly imposing.  It taps very much into my psyche and pushes many of my buttons, confronting me with my fears in a presentation that visualises how I possibly see them deep down.

Not to mention how the film very much plays out its narrative as the visualisation of gender performance and gender awakening.  The protagonist slowly identifying as female, putting on the airs required to be seen as acceptable in modern society, and being viciously punished the second it fails to keep up that act.  If the film weren’t so deliberately abstract, Under The Skin could very much be read as a blisteringly angry clarion call against the way that our patriarchal society treats and views women.  That hateful attitude – not to its protagonist, instead from how our world is presented through alien eyes, how our sh*tty attitudes towards women and our complicated relationships with nudity and sex can look to an outsider – seeps through the entire film and serves to further prey on my underlying fears and deep-seated issues.

No film this year has stuck with me and affected me in the same way that Under The Skin has.  It’s not exactly a film I am clamouring to see again – I had to pause the thing three times whilst watching it because I just needed to stop and calm down – but it more than earns its place on this list.


04] The Raid 2the raid 2

Dir: Gareth Evans

Star: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Alex Abbad

It’s all about pacing.  The Raid didn’t understand proper pacing; that was a film that started at 11 and tried to stay at 11 for all 90 of its minutes.  That gets tiring and it means that your finale doesn’t hit anywhere near as hard as it should do, and in fact bores a bit.  The Raid 2 gets pacing.  It gets pacing very much so.  It starts at about 2 or 3 and then slowly builds to its 11 finale, so the 150 minutes that the film runs for pretty much fly by and its excellent finale works gangbusters and never ever bores or drags.

The Raid 2 also has a plot, something that The Raid sort of hinted at having but ultimately cut most of because it got in the way of the fighting.  It’s not a particularly original story – undercover cop infiltrates a criminal organisation to bring it down from the inside, son of criminal organisation wants to prove himself to his father but his impatience leads to temptation, and then everything goes to hell – but it is fascinatingly told with strong characters and excellent performances.  There’s a real stylish cleanness to proceedings, where every single frame is immaculately constructed and every shot tells you a story of some kind – a care and love that’s frequently missing from other action films nowadays in their desire to “immerse” the viewer by simulating being stuck on a rollercoaster mid-barrel-roll-crash.

Then there are the action scenes.  Oh, man, the action scenes!  Again, the film benefits from understanding pacing.  They’re doled out when they fit the narrative, there are no extended fight sequences just for the sake of 15 or so minutes having passed without a few dozen dudes being murdered, and they escalate.  The film’s opening fight involves a good 20 or so guys against 1 but lasts barely 90 seconds, the introduction of important lieutenants get fight scenes to establish their gimmick and dangerousness but they never drag, the final string of action sequences have ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs, and enough breaks between them to keep the plot going and not make the last 30 minutes feel like an endurance test.  Plus, each sequence has enough variety and innovation to keep them from blending into one another.

And that final fight!  Oh, man, that final fight!  It is paced perfectly, the choreography is outstanding, the camerawork is beautiful, the story it tells is captivating and doesn’t require a single line of dialogue, and there is just this electric feeling to it that stands it above all other action scenes I’ve seen this year and maybe even this decade.  It is a perfect six-and-a-half minute encapsulation of everything The Raid 2 does right and every single time I see it I am left short of breath with my palpable adrenaline running through me and a burning desire to fist-pump the air repeatedly.

Prior to seeing The Raid 2, I was excited but also very cautious and sceptical.  After all, I was excited for The Raid and I have never been able to truly love that film.  But The Raid 2 blew me away totally, surpassing my every expectation, fixing every problem with the first film, and being my favourite film of 2014 for the longest time.  Gareth Evans is planning a third entry for some point in the future and I will be satisfied however it turns out.  If it happens, I cannot wait to see how he tries to top what is almost the perfect action film.  If it doesn’t, then I will still be satisfied thanks to this film kicking so much arse and that ending shot and line being almost the most perfect in all of 2014.  This is what sequel-making should be like.


the double03] The Double

Dir: Richard Ayoade

Star: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn

When I saw The Double in the cinema, the thing that stuck out the most to me was the sound design.  Everything about the way that The Double sounded just appealed to me.  The way that the film balanced its score – its bloody, bloody, bloody brilliant score by Andrew Hewitt – with the various diegetic sounds of the film’s world that it handles in such a way as to draw direct focus to them in an almost drone-like repetitiveness.  It does an outstanding job of getting the viewer inside the head of Simon James, conceptualising what it is like to be a spineless creep drifting through life making no impression, and I have done an appalling job at explaining and describing it.  Watching the film is the easiest way to understand why it works for me, so props to the entire sound team for their work here.

In fact, watching The Double is one of the best ways to understand why it works so well.  There have been many, many times this year where I think back on the film and question whether it is truly a comedy – the register it operates on being that black and the tone being that deadpan – only to re-watch it or certain clips from it and find myself laughing raucously along for pretty much every single one of its 93 minutes.  The world that the film exists in is such a bleak and miserable place that there are sections of the police force set-up solely for the purpose of dealing with jumpers in a certain area, yet the officers’ matter-of-factness about their job and the open contempt they have for those they have to deal with somehow manages to make their existence darkly laughable.  James is such a pathetic wet doormat when it comes to the world that it loops around from being sad to outright hilarious.  And the world’s singularly gloomy and laser-focussed hatred of Simon skips straight past irritating and is instead a constant source of laughs.

The world of The Double, whilst we’re on the subject, is one of the most singularly focussed, believable and immersive worlds that I have seen a film construct in a long time.  Even though it’s clearly not our world and many holes, specifically as to how this dystopia is like outside of the focus we get on Simon, are left unexplained, it still feels immersive.  I sit down and I just get transported to this world and at no point do I question it or get dragged out of it.  The sets do such a great job at filling in the details, the low-key lighting and claustrophobic camerawork paint the oppressive nature superbly, and little details like the glimpses of the in-universe TV series The Replicator, a look at their coins, and the usages of South Korean and Japanese artists on the soundtrack give an indication of life in this world outside of Simon James.

But The Double is about Simon James, and his physical doppelgänger, James Simon.  Simon is such a spineless timid useless tool that he is incapable of spitting pretty much anything out.  He walks around in life like he doesn’t exist and uses that to his advantage with his quietly obsessive stalking of his co-worker Hannah.  It is quite clear that he wants to just say the words to her, but he glides through life so passively, and has for so long, that he is incapable of doing so.  Crucially, the film recognises that James’ stalking of Hannah isn’t romantic and never endorses it – right up to the end, too; the last scene’s dreamlike ambiguity providing yet another fantastic ending for a 2014 film, a recurring thing with most every one of the entries on this list – but forces the viewer to have to get inside Simon’s head regardless and see why this has come to be.  It’s a difficult balancing act, and the film pulls it off just about with surprising deftness.

James, meanwhile, is a detestable little shit.  A weasely, conniving, smug prick whose slow absorption of Simon’s life is teeth-gratingly tough to watch.  He is that rare character whom I hate for the reasons the film wants for me to hate him.  As somebody who loves well-written and entertaining characters – and I mean properly loves, where I won’t sit there and demand their head on a pike because I juts enjoy their presence too much – it takes a lot to make me hate a character for the reasons that I am supposed to, but The Double pulls it off flawlessly thanks to an excellent script, by Ayoade and Avi Korine, and Jesse Eisenberg putting in the best male performance I have seen in a film all year.  He’s always been good, and I have always liked him, but he is on show-stopping form as Simon and James, twisting performances that he’s given in Adventureland and The Social Network into something new and fresh and majorly compelling.  The film hangs on his performances and he is more than up to the task.

Plenty of critics were tripping over themselves at the time of The Double’s release to throw plaudits in its direction, only for everyone to cool off and mostly forget it the further the year went on.  I honestly don’t know why because it is the best British film that I have seen all year and one of the absolute very best films of 2014.  Ayoade has had a fantastic directorial career so far, and I cannot wait to see how he tries to top this.


02] Life Itselflife itself

Dir: Steve James

Surprised?  So am I.  For the last month or so, I was quite certain that Life Itself was going to be my Film of 2014, such was the power, emotion and energy it stirred in me as I watched it.  It touched me in a way that no other movie released in 2014, or even that I had seen in 2014, had been able to do.  It sent me into floods of tears and re-invigorated my passion for movies.  Yet, when it came time to set in stone my official list for 2014, I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t put it at the top.  As it turns out, there is one other film that has stuck with me more and affected me more and that I just plain loved more than Life Itself.

That, however, is not to discredit Life ItselfLife Itself is a genuinely uplifting, interesting, and frequently heart-breaking mediation on movies, friendships, rivalries, the progress of society in the last 50 years, the power of criticism, death, and life.  It’s a documentary that uses its supposedly restrictive set-up – a biopic about film critic Roger Ebert – to explore so many themes and ideas, without ever losing sight of its original subject, that even people who have no interest in Roger Ebert can watch the film and get something out of it.  It is a vital documentary and the truest possible definition of a “feel-good movie”.

I will not, however, be writing any more about it.  Not because there’s not enough happening in the film to be able to do so, lord no, but because I can’t.  Fact is, I said everything I can say about Life Itself in my review from back in November.  In it, I laid bare my feelings on Ebert, the ways in which the film touched me, and why it got me so and that took so much painstaking effort to do that I can’t go through it again.  I can’t try and improve or re-state my thoughts on Life Itself because I said damn near everything I had to or could say about it back there, and I don’t want to have to repeat that or condense it to fit in the five allotted paragraphs that each entry in this list gets.  So, if you want further explanations and reasoning as to why Life Itself is this high up on my list, go and (re-)read my review.  But know that Life Itself deserves to be this high on my personal Top 10.

The only reason why it is not number one, is because of the following film…


gone girl01] Gone Girl

Dir: David Fincher

Star: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon

NO, SERIOUSLY, MEGA SPOILERS, DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN GONE GIRL.

I sympathise with and root for Amy Elliott-Dunne.

The more that Gone Girl has been rattling around in my brain, the more that that realisation has stuck out in my brain.  Amy Elliott-Dunne is a psychopath, somebody who uses and discards people as she sees fit, somebody who goes the extra morality-crossing mile to get what she wants, a woman who refuses to compromise, and who is willing to commit a man to death and outright murder another in order to get out on top.  She forcibly inseminates herself with a kid she doesn’t really want to keep a loose end under her thumb, she fakes being a rape victim, she is a walking embodiment of everything that MRAs fear women to be.

And I sympathise and root for her.

Not completely, of course, there are lines that I won’t follow her across, but enough that I get why she does the things she does and quietly hope that she successfully pulls one over on everybody.  Gone Girl is very much presented as a “He Said/She Said” narrative and I am very much more inclined to believe the “She Said” side, even after the reveal that the diary was faked and everything that Amy has ever revealed about her relationship with Nick is thrown into question.  Nick, as presented in both Amy’s version of events and his own segments of the film, is a whiny, selfish, complacent ass who never fully appreciates what he has after he gets it, forces his life on others, bleeds his supportive wife dry, and doesn’t even have the spine to end things with her before moving on to somebody else.  He does have redeeming qualities, and he is forced into situations and events where it is hard to not feel sorry for him, but when Amy states out loud, point blank, that Nick Dunne “took and took from me until I no longer existed.  That’s murder,” I honestly find it hard to disagree with her.

Does this mean that Nick deserves the death sentence that Amy hands down to him?  Honestly, the fact that I don’t immediately go “no” scares me a little bit.

The cold-blooded murder of Desi is seemingly more black and white: she murders him in order to return to Nick and complete the fabricated cover story that paints her as a victim who managed to escape from a crazed ex-boyfriend.  She lies, and therefore she is not to be trusted – incidentally, brief side bar, I absolutely agree with those who interpret Gone Girl to be misogynistic as pretty much every female character in the film is a walking embodiment of a negative male viewpoint of a woman, but I find the dualities between that misogyny and its frequently blistering feminist heart (both embodied by Amy Elliott-Dunne) to be so loaded and so complex that the film cannot be dismissed so easily without a hugely detailed and in-depth analysis from people far more qualified than myself (although I could also be talking out of my arse and apologising for loving something so problematic, that’s the beauty of critical analysis).

gone girl

Yet, Amy is very much trapped with Desi.  She’s stuck in a figurative prison, partially of her own making and partially of Desi’s making.  She’s made commitments she doesn’t want to follow through on, Desi always carries this creepy possessive air around with him, and the slow realisation seeps in for Amy that Desi is the worst traits of Nick only with genuine devotion replacing quietly-resentful hatred.  She’s traded one loveless, inescapable relationship for another and, in both instances, she no longer exists.  Her only out is through force, to turn the tables and take their agency away from them.  Amy has spent much of her life being driven about by men.  In a way, she still is, but now she’s getting a say in the matter.

Does this mean that Desi deserves to get his throat slit?  I will answer “no” far quicker than I would the question earlier, but that itself raises further questions.  Is the fact that Nick isn’t being directly murdered by Amy making it easier for me to not immediately turn on her?  Am I projecting with Desi?  After all, he doesn’t openly act possessive and the film purposefully spends little time with him to properly deepen his character.  Am I just assuming and judging someone without truly knowing them?  Is this all being fuelled by a misunderstanding and misappropriation of feminism on my part?

These are the sorts of thoughts and moral quandaries and conundrums that have been rolling around in my head for the last 3 months, more so the further we got to the end of the year.  More so than even Under The Skin, Gone Girl is a film that has clung to my brain since I first saw it in the cinemas and it has not let go since.  What began as a love for a smart, stylish, complex, and slightly trashy thriller with a phenomenal performance by Rosamund Pike – in other words, a film I loved as a film – has evolved into a constant moral discussion and self-examination that refuses to let me get up and walk away.  Gone Girl commands my thoughts, Gone Girl asks tough questions of myself, Gone Girl is seared into my brain like no other film that I can recall.

And that is why Gone Girl is my Film of 2014.  Not only is it the best made film of the entire year – absolutely nothing else is operating on the same continent as the ball park that Gone Girl resides in – it is the most thought-provoking and personally challenging film I have bared witness to in a long, long time.  I cannot wait to watch it again.


And there you have it.  My Top 10 Films of 2014.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments below and tell me your favourite films of 2014!  Tomorrow, I will return with the first half of My Bottom 10 Films of 2014.  Prepare the pitchforks and torches.

Callum Petch just wants to be a woman.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: La Gone Girl, Le Back Boy

le jour se leveWelcome all to this week’s podcast! As mentioned on the last episode, Carole is taking a break this week so we turned to trusty stalwart James to fill in. He can’t do anything to prevent quiz controversy with Owen’s inept hosting. But then, neither could Carole. Nor Steve, now that we mention it.

Despite James’ temporary return, it’s actually Steve who somehow ends up being the most sophisticated and intellectual of the bunch. No, really. At least, that’s what the guys at EM Foundation thought prior to the podcast as they sent him a copy of the fully restored and fantastic 1930’s French poetic realism movie Le Jour se lève for review. And raise the tone of the pod to BBC4 standards he did, along with help from James sharing his opinion on the award winning documentary Print The Legend… before Owen brings us crashing back down to our usual BBC2 level with a review of the Roger Corman film A Bucket of Blood.

The main review this week is David Fincher’s highly anticipated Gone Girl, replete with a return for the spoiler alert section at the end – so stay tuned for that if you’ve seen the movie (Matt)!

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

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Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a master-class in filmmaking.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

gone girl 2“I picture cracking open her beautiful skull… to see what thoughts go on in there.”

It’s the pause that got me.  The scene is serene; a single held shot, from the perspective of Nick (Ben Affleck), of Amy (Rosamund Pike) as he strokes her hair in a loving fashion before she lifts her head to stare back at him, whilst Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score calmly yet slightly uneasily backs this scene of apparent domestic bliss.  Then Nick narrates that line and the mood flips, the dynamic changes.  It could be a perfectly innocent line – who doesn’t want to know what their significant other is thinking? – but it’s the pause that hits most, because it raises so many questions.  Why the violent imagery?  Has planned on doing this?  Can we trust the serenity of the visuals considering what we just learnt about the man who we are seeing them from?

Gone Girl does this a lot: presenting you with scenes but then altering their appearance and expectations through a well-timed piece of information, before distorting it again with the heavy implication that the person whose eyes we are seeing events through may be hiding something too.  It is a twisty, jittery film that changes its character dynamics every few scenes and plays on viewer expectations to knock them for six when the time is right.  But where other films would simply use this kind of structure for a pulpy thriller with little thematic depth, Gone Girl uses those twists to explore the ramifications of the revealed information, and to address the media, gender politics, sociopathy, psychopathy, parenting, the way we vilify anybody who seems close to being guilty of anything, marriage and relationships.

It is also f*cking brilliant.

After that opening scene, the film picks up on the day of Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary.  He’s a failed writer who spends his days primarily running a bar with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), whilst she…  Actually, it’s never made quite clear what she does during her days, which is the point.  Nick returns home from The Bar (one character notes how the name is “very meta”) to find her missing and a house that makes it look like she was attacked in some way.  Nick immediately contacts the police and starts to co-operate fully with the investigation except that his behaviour, he forgets or just plain doesn’t know many facts about his wife and her life, his attempts at being pleasant to those who help him come off as creepy and he doesn’t seem to be grieving for his wife’s disappearance as much as some consider right, marks him out as the number one suspect.  Meanwhile, the film flashes back to glimpses of their relationship prior to the disappearance, told through extracts from Amy’s diary, only they seem to be slightly off and overly romanticised too.

To say anything else, almost quite literally anything else, would be to wander into spoiler territory and you deserve to see Gone Girl without arseholes like me spoiling large facets of it.  That’s not to say that twisty turny plot points are the primary reason why Gone Girl works, but its willingness to play the viewer and upend their expectations every time they think they’ve gotten a handle on things is a reason.  This is a twist film in the best and truest sense of the word, doling out multiple twists over the entire length of the film, rather than just at the end or in the middle, although there is one absolute humdinger in the middle of the film that changes everything.

But that twisty nature is not just for show, it’s in service of the films many themes, primarily relationships; specifically marriage and the he-said-she-said nature of hearing about arguments.  Like a master storyteller, Gillian Flynn’s script (adapted from her own novel) dolls out these twists at the exact right moment required to confirm suspicions and blind-side the viewer with info they couldn’t have foreseen.  It shifts the viewer’s sympathies constantly, even full-on flipping protagonists at one point to fill in the blanks, but it is always in service of the characters and its overall themes.  The twists are built into the character motivations so that, whilst one may not sympathise with what they do, one always understands why they do what they do.

And what they do is built into the theme of relationships and, especially, marriage.  No matter what happens, it all comes back down to the relationship and marriage of Nick and Amy and how they both perceive it.  Nick, as it turns out, is not a good husband, not in the slightest, but he also seems more realistic about the history of their relationship.  Amy seems more loving and devoted to Nick than he says she is (in private, to his twin sister, yes this is an important little detail) but her diary entries seem a little too well-written, a little too romantic, a little too cliché.  Then the twists come up and one has to start questioning just how much either side is telling the truth or, more accurately, how much of their preconceived notions and what they believe to be true are actually true.  I wish I could say more than that, I really do, but I am committed to spoiling as little as is humanly possible so now I have to keep schtum.

Throughout it all is David Fincher’s impeccable direction.  Not only does he keep proceedings fast, fluid and stylish (chronology and perspective hopping between Amy and Nick is frequently achieved via fades to black, which is a technique I really like), he keeps things distant.  Fincher is often accused of being cold and mechanical, a filmmaker who never likes to let the audience emotionally into his works that are frequently about terrible people, which is a sentiment I disagree with to an extent, but is true here and it is the film’s masterstroke.  Despite the depths that a lot of its cast plumb, the film doesn’t judge or, at least, it doesn’t judge openly loudly.  Fincher instead presents proceedings and leaves you to shift your sympathies and allegiances from there.  He maintains a clean and steady environment to make sure that you can’t invest too much emotionally, and he always keeps the viewer at an arm’s length because… urgh, spoilers!  But seriously, his distancing directorial style, along with his generally stylish direction anyway, is the perfect fit for this material.  In quite literally anybody else’s hands, this would devolve into a trashy mess.  In his, it remains an intelligent and consistent thriller with a lot to say and a slightly trashy edge.  It works.

Also working… actually, no, not “working”.  “Working” gives off the impression that she’s merely competent and good lord she is so much better than that!  In any case, the absolute standout in the film’s cast, and this is a cast where every single performer is fantastic no matter the role they’re given (in particular, Neil Patrick Harris takes a purposefully underwritten role and embodies it so totally as to make the finale hit that much harder), is Rosamund Pike as Amy.  Now, I can’t explain why due to my self-enforced “no spoilers” handicap, but I can tell you that Amy is far more layered and has far more to do than she sounds like she does on paper and Pike is absolutely phenomenal with what she gets; a tour-de-force who absolutely gets the character she’s playing and is capable of making every single one of her actions justified and consistent.  If she doesn’t get award nods and a breakthrough into stardom for her work in this then I quite frankly give up.

Aaaaand, that’s your lot.  Reviewing Gone Girl in any deep and meaningful capacity without spoiling is a damn difficult, near-impossible feat.  I’ve managed to touch on most of what I wanted to talk about, but there are still a tonne of things going on in Gone Girl that I would like to even vaguely allude to but can’t because I don’t want to risk spoiling anything from it.  Hopefully I’ve done a good job at convincing you to see it despite that handicap because Gone Girl is absolutely seeing, if nothing else so that you get why other people will not stop bleating about it for the rest of the year either.  If you’re still unconvinced, though, I leave you with this one fact…

I have seen 87 films released in the last 286 days and Gone Girl quite possibly tops them all.  Go immediately.

Callum Petch is about to fill his shoes, but you say no.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

What We Did On Our Holiday

What.  The.  F*ck.  Happened?

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

wwdooh2You know the last shot of Crank 2: High Voltage where a flaming Chev Chelios (and I mean that in the literal sense that he’s on fire), a man currently is as high as multiple kites and who has gone through an amount of pain that would reduce most men to damp squibs on the ground, turns to the camera and flips off the audience; a shot that perfectly encapsulates the opinion that Crank 2 has of any member of its audience that wanted a film that made the slightest bit of coherent sense?  That’s as good a metaphor as I can think of for the film debut of Outnumbered creators Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, What We Did On Our Holiday; a good 45 minutes of that middle finger pointed squarely at the audience.

More attentive readers may notice that What We Did On Our Holiday is actually 96 minutes long, and that is precisely my point.  For the first 45 minutes, What We Did On Our Holiday threatens to go to big places, to use its BBC sitcom-style lightweight comedy to address serious topics like death, dissolution of marriage, the pettiness that can come from divorce and other such things that a film that takes many Outnumbered-style detours into “kids say the darndest things” (although, for the most part, they’re actually pretty funny so I’ll let it slide) wouldn’t normally do.  I mean, the comedy is a bit too broad and the drama keeps getting undercut, but the potential for a breakthrough is there.  Then, at about the 45 minute mark, A Thing Happens… and the film promptly flies off the rails and drives straight into Crazy Town from which it never makes a recovery.  The problem for me is that that bit constitutes a giant spoiler… but pretty much all of my thoughts centre around that thing and the back half that follows it.  You see my dilemma.

So, rather than dance awkwardly around the issue for a whole bunch of pages, I am going to split this review into two parts.  The first will attempt to awkwardly dance around the issue, and pretty much anything positive I say should be immediately suffixed with “but it’s pretty much for nought when the film goes to sh*t in the second half”, but will avoid the giant spoiler elephant in the room.  The second part will tell you the exact scene where the film hit The Point Of No Return and then explain, as a result of that, why the rest of the film completely falls apart as a result.  Don’t worry, there’ll be a giant indicator to let you know when to get the hell out of dodge if you really don’t want to know.  OK?  Right then…

Spoiler-Free Review:

It starts a lot like Outnumbered.  That same claustrophobic shooting style, that same family dynamic only switching out Jake for a girl who has just hit double-digits, that same seemingly semi-improvised nature of most of the dialogue, that same small London house…  So far, so “Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin are really sticking to their comfort zone”.  But then little hints punch through that separate the McLeods from the Brockmans.  The kids get along swimmingly, but they keep having to remind Mum (Rosamund Pike) and Dad (David Tennant) that they’re around whenever a conversation starts.  The landlord of their house seems genuinely surprised that Dad is at her door asking for the spare keys.  Mum and Dad snipe angrily at each other at every opportunity.

Then, during a roadside argument, the shoe is dropped.  Mum and Dad are separated and in the middle of divorcing one another (Dad had an affair), and their lawyers have basically frazzled all possible pleasantries between the two, especially since Mum has plans to relocate to Newcastle and take the kids with her.  Their holiday to Scotland and their happy family ruse is all for Granddad’s (Billy Connolly) 75th birthday and everyone is sticking to this ruse as Granddad has cancer and is clearly in the final stages of his life, so nobody wants to shatter this happy portrait for him.  That, of course, will be easier said than done as the kids can’t keep a secret to save their lives, Mum hasn’t actually told anyone yet about her Newcastle plans, and they’re all stuck at Dad’s really obnoxious brother’s (Alexander Armstrong) country house for the duration of the trip.

In other words, it’s a recipe for broad comedy giving way to alternately heart-warming and heart-wrenching dramatics.  But you know what?  I was on board with it.  It probably helps (as much as such a situation like this could “help”, but what the hell) that my own Granddad passed away from cancer just under a year ago and the wound is still fresh for me, so I was basically being set up for tears, but the film was succeeding on its own merits, if not totally.  Although the jokes are funny, I did spend a good amount of the runtime at least chuckling to a degree, the humour is a bit too broad to fully coalesce with the low-key drama.  Instead of easily switching between tones, What We Did more lurches between the comedy bit and the drama bit to a near-whiplash inducing degree; when the comedy is subtler (like when Mum lightens the mood to Granddad by reminding him “at least you’ve dodged Alzheimer’s”), it works better.

The cast, meanwhile, end up establishing quite the rapport with one another.  Not only do the jokes themselves pop a lot more than they could have due to everyone managing to operate on each other’s wavelength, the more dramatic sequences carry genuine impact as well as everyone is able to believably sell the illusion that they are a real family.  Billy Connolly is especially great, clearly comfortable with everyone he interacts with (which is basically everyone) and he’s even able to sell his character’s acceptance-of-his-fate arc (with sample lines like “Life is like when somebody tickles your toes.  Whenever it’s going on, you’re always screaming ‘Stop!  Stop!’  But when it does, you shout ‘More!  More!’”) as stuff that human beings might actually say.  Connolly’s a rare presence in film, but it’s performances like this that remind me why I perk up whenever he turns up.

So, everything seems to be going great… then Something Happens and What We Did On Our Holiday promptly takes the very next available train to Insanity Station, never really coming out from there until the credits start rolling.  Its tonal issues become exacerbated, its emotional nuance goes out of the window, it deploys a large amount of absurdity but doesn’t stick with it, it threatens to use that absurdity to make an overall point but then tries to eat the cake it also wants to have, the dialogue drops down several notches, it tries to slip back into the Outnumbered skin that it shed early on but that just kills the pacing, I have absolutely no idea where the saccharinely sweet happy ending came from…

To put it bluntly: the second half of What We Did On Our Holiday is a total and absolute mess that wastes nearly all of the hard work the first 45 minutes had put in and left me in completely bewildered bafflement for the remainder of the film, growing more and more baffled as it went further and further off-the-rails the longer it ran for.  I thought I had the film figured out, even if that would have shown the first half to have had way too much effort put into it for said point, but then the ending came along and I instead settled on the idea that Hamilton and Jenkin actually had pretty much no clue, as well.  Hence the question that makes up the deck of this review.  Seriously: what the f*ck happened, guys?  Did you misplace some script pages?  Smush a whole bunch of half-finished ideas into one film cos you desperately wanted to make a film?  Were you both victims of a dare or just decided to see how far audiences are willing to stick with a comedy as long as jokes occasionally rear their head?  What?

Unlike many other films where the audience laugh along at every cue whilst I sit there in bafflement (feel free to change one or two words in that sentence so that it can apply to all genres of film, if you wish), I get why the people in my screening of What We Did On Our Holiday loved it.  I get the feeling that you might too.  See, although the film goes completely cuckoo-bananas and boils the beating heart that used to sit in its centre in sulphuric acid, the jokes and attempts at jokes don’t let up.  If you can get past the fact that the second half of the film housing said jokes is a total mess, you’ll probably really like What We Did On Our Holiday and think of me as some big meanie pants who just can’t have fun at the cinema.  But I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t get over how badly the film squandered its potential depth, heart and emotional resonance at the altar of the absurd, and I couldn’t get over how the second half feels like it was thrown together awkwardly over a period of months with long stretches between work being done on it.

What We Did On Our Holiday had something and it blew it hard.  It is the most hopelessly confused I’ve been at the cinema all year, though, so maybe it can take pride in that dubious distinction.

OK, that’s the spoiler-free bit done.  Now I need to detail the moment that the film goes doolally so that I can better explain why the second half of this film crashed and burned spectacularly; none of this dancing around the elephant nonsense.  So, this is your last chance.  Below this image, I will spoil a pivotal sequence in What We Did On Our Holiday.  If you don’t want to know or still intend to see the film, TURN BACK NOW.

 wwdooh3

SPOILER BIT:

So, at about the 45 minute mark, Granddad passes away.  He’s on a beach trip with the children, many miles away from the country house and he’s purposefully let his phone run out of battery charge so that Dad’s obnoxious brother can’t hassle him back for his birthday party.  The death itself is represented in a really overblown way (he sees a vision of his deceased older brother calling to him just as he drifts away), but it still got a reaction out of me so good job on that, filmmakers.  Anyways, the kids react rather underwhelmed to the fact that their Granddad just passed away in their vicinity, but the eldest elects to run back to the house they’re staying at to get somebody to help them.  The parents, however, are arguing and the other adults are tied up organising the birthday party with hair-trigger tempers, so the kids decide to deal with it themselves.  And they deal with it by honouring Granddad’s last wish: to give him a Viking funeral.  So they do.

This is played completely straight.

Now, admittedly, this whole sequence had been foreshadowed.  Granddad was obviously going to die before the credits rolled, the Viking stuff had been frequently brought up due to the son having an obsession with them, and all three of the kids are shown to have “issues” of various kinds that would lead them to think that this was a good idea.  That being said, that still doesn’t mean that an extended and mostly humourless sequence of the kids (whose ages I estimate to be 10, 8 and 6 respectively) constructing a raft, loading Granddad’s body onto the thing, lighting the raft on fire and then letting it drift out to sea is going to come off as any less left-field and ridiculous.  Especially since the film prior to that was rather realistic and relatively low-key (when I mentioned “broad humour” earlier, I meant in terms of fart jokes and “kids saying the darndest things” stuff; broad but still in keeping with the realistic aesthetic of the film).

And yet, the film wasn’t totally a lost cause for myself by that point, because then the kids come back home and break the news to the adults, at which point everyone reacts as you’d expect sane human beings to do.  At this point (alright, about 15 to 20 minutes after this point), I thought that the film was going to use that as fuel to parody and deconstruct, in the most deadpan and straight-laced way possible, the kind of coming-of-age film where kids end up getting involved in that kind of ridiculous life-changing experience.  You know, show how that kind of thing would look to people who weren’t involved in it.  But the film keeps trying to wring emotional pathos out of the absurd in the most melodramatic and non-jokey of ways, and it doesn’t have the balls to follow through on its threats.  The ending proceeds to diffuse any possible risks or consequences in the most blatantly cliché and sappy ways possible with no jokes or subversive intent, hence my prior usage of the “having your cake and eating it too” saying.  It’s just a total mess that muddies whatever point and intent there may possibly have been thanks to nonsense and weak nerves.

Also, there’s a frequent occurrence where an ostrich runs across the camera.  It belongs to a nearby ostrich farmer but escaped from its pen.  One would think that this would lead up to some kind of joke, a payoff of some sort.  It doesn’t; after we find out where it comes from, it’s never seen again until the last shot of the film where… it runs across the camera.  This sounds like a nit-pick, but it’s rather representative of my issues with the second half of the film, where What We Did On Our Holiday throws away whatever it was building towards for a second half that messily jumps from setpiece to setpiece before just fizzling out without any payoff.

Callum Petch’s call never comes too late.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

New Release: Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher Tom CruiseBefore I review the film, I feel like I need to address the controversy regarding the casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Clearly fans of the novels are loyal and passionate people, and many were up in arms at the prospect of ‘short-arse’ Tom Cruise playing the man-mountain Jack Reacher. Someone even hysterically told me that it was the same as Whoopi Goldberg being cast as Harry Potter. Well, apart from the fact that it was an American action star being cast as an American man in an action film.

But Cruise isn’t tall enough, they cry. And? I read a brilliant point on a forum I frequent where someone quite reasonably asked if there was a major plot-point where Jack had to reach something on a very high shelf. Lee Child likely wrote that Reacher was 6’5” as literary short-hand for being physically menacing. Luckily, in films, we don’t need words to paint a picture; the director can just paint a picture instead. And the picture that Christopher McQuarrie paints with his Tom Cruise-shaped oil and canvas is one of a physically imposing man who doesn’t give a solitary shit whether you think he should be six feet tall.

As for the film, it’s a grizzled action-thriller that could have come straight out of the nineties. And, as such, it’s quite a rare and entertaining thing indeed. The plot concerns an apparently open-and-shut case involving a former military sniper killing five people and refusing to talk to the police other than to call for Jack Reacher. Reacher is an one man A-Team, a soldier of fortune who drifts from town to town using public transport. Hopefully the next film sees him tackling someone playing dubstep through their tinny phone speakers. Basically if you’re in trouble, and no-one else can help you, and you can find him…

Well, you know the score.

Rosamund Pike and Richard Jenkins provide perfectly capable support as the inevitable love interest/defence lawyer and her District Attorney father. Werner Herzog shows up in a rare screen performance as the antagonist, and his voice steals every scene it is in. I would pay good money for an audio book of ghost stories read by Herzog. In fact I’d pay good money to hear Herzog read aloud the Facebook terms and conditions.

Back to Cruise and his apparent inability to play the unstoppable force of Jack Reacher. I haven’t read the original books, so I’m not sure if the main problem I had with the film is the fault of the source material or the adaptation. Jack Reacher is presented as one of the smartest and toughest men on the planet, and he’s also an expert marksmen and incredible driver. At no point in the film is he in anything more than the mildest of peril and, because of this, the film lacks tension and urgency, especially in the final third of a pretty long film. Even James Bond has to escape capture now and again, and he often has to use an inflatable helicopter with a laser-sighted staplegun or some such to facilitate it. Reacher just solves mysteries with the ease of Sherlock Holmes while kicking ass like Jean-Claude Van Damme. It all seems a little too easy. He doesn’t even need a notebook for fuck’s sake.

I know some Lee Child fans will hate me for this, but the characterisation and some of the plotting of Jack Reacher was pretty predictable and clichéd, and it was only the charisma of Cruise, and particularly Herzog, plus the stylish direction of McQuarrie that made it such fun.