Tag Archives: The Stopover

London Film Festival 2016: Day 13

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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

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

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

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Arrival: Nothing came close to Arrival at the London Film Festival, this year.  Many films tried, one almost succeeded, but nothing else was remotely on the level of Denis Villenueve’s instant sci-fi classic that offers something for everyone – hard sci-fi, existentialism, edge-of-your-seat tension, sincere sentimentality – but still has a singular identity of its own.  Containing many of the best scenes of the entire year (I am still in total awe of the phenomenal first contact sequence), Amy Adams’ best work in a long time, gorgeous cinematography from Bradford Young, an essential score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and all masterfully handled by Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villenueve’s impeccable directing, Arrival is one of those films that really does remind you of just how powerful cinema can be.  Smart, heartfelt, astoundingly beautiful, more adjectives that express positive emotions!

chasing_asylum_01Chasing Asylum: Created with the intention of “shaming” the Australian government over their abhorrent and damn-near illegal immigration policies, Chasing Asylum has found itself more vital relevance given the current state of the Western world and our constant dehumanisation and discriminatory rhetoric towards refugees.  An absolutely horrifying glimpse into the brutal and inhuman detention centres purposefully designed by the Australian government to convince those desperately needing help to turn back or stay locked in as prisoners, Eva Orner manages to create an incisive and righteous condemnation of the kinds of policies a worrying amount of other nations are believing to be the gold standard in immigration control without losing touch of the fact that these are human beings being affected by countries who see them as nothing more than statistical parasites.  Mandatory viewing.

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Christine/Kate Plays Christine: OK, so this is now technically a Top 11 list, but the two Christines are so inseparable from one another to me – both inadvertently complimenting and contrasting, justifying and negating each other’s existences – that I can’t talk about one without mentioning the other.  Both tackling the live on-air suicide of local news journalist Christine Chubbuck in July of 1974 in different ways – Christine via an empathetic and highly-accurate depiction and communication of living with depression, Kate Plays Christine via examining the acting method, finding a meaning in an act that none of us can fully understand, and questioning the quietly sadistic reason why we’re all interested in Christine’s story in the first place – the two films are exceptional watches that have refused to leave my brain ever since I saw them.  And, for the record, Kate Plays Christine is the better film, but Christine has resonated with me more, especially with its career-best Rebecca Hall performance.

elle_02Elle: Yeah, this one really grew on me.  Partially because I saw two other films this festival that demonstrated in great detail just how badly this could have gone wrong, and partially because further discussion about it with other people has made the words coming out of my mouth not sound absolutely horrible.  Elle is button-pushing cinema made by the master of button-pushing cinema, but it also never feels exploitative or offensive, the provocations coming out of a desire to make the viewer examine and re-examine their attitudes towards sexual assault, rape culture, and misogyny – thankfully in ways that cannot be reduced to, and never even get close to, “maybe these are good things.”  Paul Verhoeven directs with assured determination, Isabelle Huppert commandingly keeps things on track at all times with a fascinatingly complex performance, and it’s honestly refreshing to watch a drama about a middle-aged woman for a change.  Plus, like I said before, it’s never ever dull.

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My Life as a Courgette: Incredibly sweet, moving, and taking full advantage of the medium of Animation, My Life as a Courgette is a wonderful drama about life in a group home for orphaned, “damaged” children.  It could stand to be longer than the 66 minutes it runs for, but that’s out of a desire to spend more time in its world and with its characters rather than any rushed storytelling issues.  Crowdpleasing but powered by a melancholy undercurrent that doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the harsh reality that these kids are unlikely to ever be lucky enough to find a new home, and at turns very funny and quietly heartbreaking, Courgette is reminiscent of The Story of Tracy Beaker and is similarly a brilliant piece of work.

nocturama_01Nocturama: At the risk of sounding like every clichéd lad’s mag writer whenever they review a particularly nasty piece of work, Nocturama really does not give a f**k what you want it to be.  It is bleak, confrontational, provocative, seemingly-pointless filmmaking that could lend itself to being called “punk rock” if it weren’t so intentionally detached in its direction, even when it is indulging in stylistic touches.  But Bertrand Bonello’s near-masterpiece, if you get it, eventually reveals itself to a searing indictment of youthful arrogance, egocentrism, and pointless rebellion, a repudiation of materialism and indulgence, and a giant middle-finger to any act of authority-bucking born out of boredom.  It is nasty, compulsive, angry, gripping, callous, essential viewing – Spring Breakers as delivered through the medium of domestic terrorism and without any of the sympathy, and just like Harmony Korine’s own near-masterpiece is gonna divide audiences like there’s no tomorrow.  You’ll either get it or you really won’t, but those that do are in for one hell of a film.

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The Handmaiden: The most pure fun I had at the entire festival, Park Chan-wook’s latest is the Park Chan-wook-iest film ever made, and all the better for it.  The Handmaiden is the trashy psycho-sexual drama that Chan-wook was born to make and he puts on one hell of a directing masterclass, here, effortlessly jumping between tones, genres, and a pile-up of twists with skilful aplomb.  Phenomenally acted, gorgeously shot, and refreshingly gay as all get out, The Handmaiden balances being ludicrous fun with a surprisingly insightful condemnation of misogynistic erotica and the patriarchy.  It does feel about 15 minutes too long and is a little slow to get going, but even as the end credits were rolling I knew that the film was one that will only grow on repeat viewings, as prior knowledge of where things will end up shine a light on elements I missed the first time around.  Plus, it’s a fantastic reminder that Park Chan-wook is still one of the very best directors in the business.

« VOIR DU PAYS » Un long métrage de Delphine et Muriel COULINThe Stopover: French film really cleaned house at this year’s festival, as you can probably tell.  The Stopover is an uncompromising drama about PTSD, misogyny, and toxic masculinity, all brought to boil in the military, and all on the verge of bubbling over during a mandated “decompression” weekend in a 5-star Cyprus resort.  Viewed through the eyes of the 3 women in a regiment otherwise entirely filled with men, The Stopover draws attention to just how tiring, draining, and menacing being exposed to this kind of rampant casual hatred from your ostensible comrades-in-arms can be, building up a surprisingly tense head of steam that pays off in a deeply disturbing way during its finale.  This is one hell of a calling card for The Coulin Sisters, who have very bright futures ahead of them if they can make further films even half as good as this.

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

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

London Film Festival 2016: Day 7

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

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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