Tag Archives: Sundance Festival

Failed Critics Podcast: Holy Folk! It’s Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac in a still from Inside Llewyn DavisWelcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, and it’s a shorter one than usual as James had to shut up a lot more than usual due to a sore throat. We’re sure many of our listeners will appreciate this improvement.

We’ve only managed to get out and see one new release this week, but [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a great one. The Coen Brothers are back with Inside Llewyn Davis, an exploration of the search for fame in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. Also reviewed this week is the Aubrey Plaza-starring The To Do List, war photography documentary Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, and yet the final member of the team gets around to watching Sightseers.

We also discuss the furore over Quentin Tarantino’s leaked The Hateful Eight script (and the film’s subsequent shelving), and discuss our most anticipated films to come out of this year’s Sundance Festival.

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The Sessions

The Sessions Helen Hunt John HawkesAfter winning plaudits from critics and audience members alike at last year’s Sundance festival, The Sessions is exactly the kind of likeable crossover hit one would expect to find packing in the crowds in both multiplexes and arts centres across the country. A heart-warming exploration of love, faith, and living life to the full in spite of any obstacles placed in your way. The kind of film you could watch with your Gran. That is, if your Gran doesn’t mind seeing Helen Hunt in all her full-frontal glory.

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is Mark O’Brien; a 38-year-old man who has lived most of his life in an iron lung after suffering severely with polio as a youngster. Based on a real-life article written by O’Brien entitled ‘Seeing a Sex Surrogate’, the film focusses on his sexual awakening as a middle-aged man, and his desire to lose his virginity. After consulting with his priest (William H. Macy), Mark employs a Cheryl, a sexual surrogate, to help him do the deed. Enter Helen Hunt. Literally.

As is expected in any romantic comedy-drama worth a damn, complications soon arise. Mark and Cheryl’s sessions are limited to six meetings, and she makes it clear that her job differs from prostitution in that she “ isn’t after your repeat business”. Mark inevitably starts to develop feelings for Cheryl, and dares to dream that Cheryl might feel a similar connection. Luckily the film avoids the Pretty Woman trap of glamourizing the commercialisation of sex, while at the same time eschewing a cynical exploration of Mark and Cheryl’s motives. It would be fair to describe The Sessions as an uplifting film, but it manages to avoid the clichéd pitfalls of lesser comedies.

Hawkes and Hunt are excellent in their roles; fully committed both emotionally and physically to their performances. Macy’s role as Mark’s confidant and counsellor is a little paint-by-numbers at times however, coming across more as self-help book disciple than a man of God. Director Ben Lewin (drawn to Mark’s story as a polio sufferer himself) utilises a wonderfully lit California as the backdrop for this film, and as the camera lingers on fleeting glimpses of natural beauty one cannot help buying into the key messages of the film. Life is precious, every day is a bonus, and Helen Hunt looks incredible for her age.

It’s difficult to see where this film fits commercially. It’s a rather sweet and, at times, very innocent look at what it means to love and be loved. A gently funny film that challenges audience perceptions of disability and independence. But it’s a 15-certificate with good reason, and the frank and non-apologetic sex scenes will put off many people who would otherwise enjoy this engaging film.

The Failed Critic…An Unexpected Journey

It's our birthday - time to party!
It’s our birthday – time to party!

A year ago today I started a blog called The Failed Critic. It was the latest in a long line of attempted blogs and aborted hobbies that I tried to define my personality with. I planned to watch every film on the IMDB Top 250 list (including the ones I had seen) and record the whole experience for posterity.

Since starting the blog I have managed to add only about 30 films to my ‘watched’ list. But the year I’ve had has been one of the most fun and exciting I can remember.

The blog started off very slowly, with a few friends reading the odd post if I badgered them enough. That is until I ‘met’ Steve, Gerry, and shortly after that Owen. That’s when the Failed Critics podcast was born.

We’ve since recorded over 40 episodes of “the slightly shambolic weekly film review podcast”, and one of those episodes has been described as “pretty good”. It even attracted the attention of Carol Morley (director of the brilliant Dreams of a Life). The podcast has been through a number of reboots and guises, but it’s currently better than I ever hoped when we first sat down on Skype and shyly said hello to each other. Despite having never met them, I’d describe each of the team as a friend – and without them I’m pretty sure I would have given up on Failed Critics like I have every other blog.

I’ve been to the cinema 68 times in the last year, which is a lot more than I managed in the entire decade previously. I’ve attended the first ever Sundance London as a patron, the first ever Bowiefest as a ‘blogger’, and the première of Prometheus as a competition winner (although I ended that evening as personal friend of Jason Flemyng and Benedict Wong). In a year I’ve managed to get Charlie Higson to record an introduction for our podcast, completed a short-film script of my own, and gone from the cine-illiterate idiot who wrote that shockingly bad first post to someone a Guardian critic described on Twitter as a film snob.

One of the greatest pleasures I’ve had has been reading some fantastic writings from people who just wanted to get involved. It’s been a genuine honour to be able to publish the work of these great writers. In the next twelve months I hope that even more brilliant writers will want to get involved with what I’ve been lovingly building here. We’re not professionals, and pretty much everything we’ve reviewed has been paid for with our own hard-earned pocket money. We’re just fans of films – and I hope that comes across.

It’s been an amazing year, and we’re only just getting started. I can’t wait to see what 2013 holds for me, and for the Failed Critics readers.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy meets an auroch in Beasts of the Southern WildBeasts of the Southern Wild, from first-time director, Benh Zeitlin is apparently a heart-warming story of a child’s imagination and resilience in a world beset by disaster. At least, I assume that was the aim.

The film I saw must be different from the one the wowed audiences at Sundance Cannes earlier this year. While there are positives to take from a film that does admittedly look far more expensive than it’s $1.3m budget, most of those positives come from very good performances from the first-time actors in the central roles.

Quvenzhané Wallis is mightily impressive as the six-year-old girl Hushpuppy – a child who’s lived her whole life in The Bathtub; a community who live in the swamps and flood planes beyond New Orleans’ levee flood defences. However, the film lost me in the first 10 minutes, with its patronising white-liberal guilt portrayal of the wisdom of people who choose to live in the bayou.

As the film is told through the eyes of a child it can attempt to fool the viewer into admiring the struggle of these people – but while Hushpuppy’s voice-over describes how they are always having holidays while everyone else in the world has one a year, the harsh reality barely hinted at by the director is of a community beset by squalid living conditions, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and terrible life expectancy. Hushpuppy’s father has indoctrinated her into believing that she is happy here. This is the story of a six-year-old girl manipulated by her father, and who will likely die at a young age.

This attitude of ‘us and them’ continues as disaster strikes The Bathtub. A huge storm floods the area, and leads to the authorities ‘forcibly removing’ (or rescuing to you and I) Hushpuppy and her father to a hospital. The staff at the hospital are painted as insensitive and unhelpful (Hushpuppy is shown being told-off in a crèche in the only scene that features a childcare professional), and Hushpuppy and her father and friends ‘escaping’ is portrayed as a noble act, rather than the actions of a selfish parent blind to the harm they’re causing to their child.

While this is happening the mythical auroch (basically big pigs, as seen above) are making their way south from the Arctic having been woken from their slumber by the melting of the ice caps. I know this because that’s what passes for a science lesson at The Bathtub’s only school. They should be very concerned about their next Ofsted inspection. And as for the Lynchian strip club scene where a variety of women danced in their underwear with some runaway children…

I do have to commend the performances of Wallis and Dwight Henry who plays her father  – first-time actors from the area the film was shot. It wouldn’t be too big a surprise to see an Oscar nomination for Willis, but Henry has been overlooked in many quarters. In fact his portrayal of a father who loves his child, but rarely acts like it is more truthful than anything else in this film.

A recent review in Sight & Sound described this film as being like an Arcade Fire video. A different musical reference came to mind while I was watching it – that of the subjects of Pulp’s seminal Common People.

You will never understand,
How it feels to live your life,
With no meaning or control,
And with nowhere else to go,
You are amazed that they exist…

More awareness needs to be raised about the effects on children living in poverty, and the mind-blowing realisation that so many people  live as portrayed in this film – disenfranchised from a society that has forgotten them. But this sugar-coated childish viewpoint actually distracts the audience from some of the horrible abuses children suffer from in areas of extreme poverty.