LFF: Brigsby Bear

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Does a comedy have an obligation to be funny to be deemed a good film? Brigsby Bear certainly suggests otherwise; sporadically rib-tickling but largely misfiring, this unorthodox abduction comedy rides on a premise that’s brimming with potential to deliver an enormously affecting study of a man unable to escape the manipulation of his captors.

James Pope (Kyle Mooney) is a man-child obsessed with Brigsby Bear, a kids’ television show fabricated by his surrogate parents. Their reasoning for doing so is never defined, but it needn’t be; this is a challenging film where Mooney undergoes a form of mental torture that’s disguised as anything but. His captors mean well but their treatment is like force-feeding a child sugar: the captive may enjoy it, but it remains unhealthy. In this way, the film’s closing images are deeply sinister if you break through its saccharine facade.

Mooney, rescued from his captors early on, attempts to integrate himself in the real world. His parents are awkward, understandably, but Mooney finds his footing, with the not-so-small caveat that he can’t let go of his beloved television show; instead, he decides to reimagine it as a feature-length movie.

With the help of new friends and barmy police officers, he achieves exactly that. There are moments that breach through the Sundance-y skin surface, transforming the cheese into a complex understanding of a frazzled, traumatised mind. Brigsby Bear himself, for instance, is reimagined as having parents who are rescued from jail ‘because what they did wasn’t even that bad, really.’

If the comedy itself is hit-and-miss, Brigsby Bear’s emotional heft more than makes up for it. Tottering on the edge of manipulation, the film manages to keep upright through an ability to carve out a unique dynamic between captor and captive, demanding a degree of perceptiveness from its audience.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Ingrid Goes West

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

With mobile phones, apps and celebrity culture reaching peak popularity, along with its growing number of dissenters, a film like Ingrid Goes West was inevitable. Matt Spicer’s film is a satirical comedy riffing on these themes, that’s neither satirical nor comedic enough to make a dent in our digitised world, but remains a fleetingly entertaining character study/nosedive that plays to the strengths of its main star, Aubrey Plaza.

Plaza’s film career has had a rough time so far, but here she excels, playing a moody and psychotic millennial who becomes obsessed with a famous photographer (Elizabeth Olsen) and her Instagram. In some early images of the film, she’s glued to her phone screen, only leaving it briefly to take some medication. Thankfully Ingrid Goes West doesn’t dwell on this one-note joke (‘Aren’t millennials so fixated on social media?’) for too long, as Ingrid ventures to California to stalk, manipulate, and eventually befriend Olsen’s celebrity.  

For a time, this works, and her exploits in this second act are at its most hilarious when it vies for cringe (rather than a series of batman references that form an inexplicable running joke). Billy Magnussen as Olsen’s gurning brother is a riot; Olsen’s husband, played by Wyatt Russell, is less so, regurgitating the themes Matt Spicer wants to convey. If his wife talks in emoji, he talks in exposition.

Scathing satire falls to the wayside as the narrative takes over, which is when Ingrid Goes West turns into Ingrid Goes Pear-Shaped. The film forgets to have fun with its premise, but is also overconfident in how much empathy it can brew up with Ingrid at the helm. This is a (140-or-less) character study that fails to live up to the potential of its premise – even if the premise itself is inherently watchable.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Loveless

It isn’t often that a review should explain what a film is not about, but Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a spellbinding examination of absence. Absence of connection, of love, and of independence, each represented by its literal incarnation: the absence of a neglected child.

This child belongs to a vile couple going through divorce. We are able to watch and understand their point of view (a shift in perspective during the first act gives a tangibility to the disappearance of their son), but never to the brink of empathy. Miserable and lonely, they have the emotional underpinning of a Roy Andersson character. In fact, every person in Loveless is a pessimist, figures stuffed inside their homes. The windows that they are framed against (literally against) is a way of maintaining the silence. Its themes may not be as enamoured with politics as Zvyagintsev’s last, Leviathan, but this remains an astute indictment of the Russian government.

Loveless begins with its setting. This is Russia, a stark, empty abyss. Where are all the people? Kids pool out from inside a school building, and the camera follows the child, Alexey, until it doesn’t. The imagery here is telling, an invitation of the film’s themes before they’re revealed. The emptiness of the wintery wasteland is only filled up during the latter half of the film, where citizens choose to forgo authorities and muster up a search party of their own. Interpreting it this way, Loveless is slyly optimistic, staging a battle between an alienating country and its discontented populus. In many other ways, however, Loveless is not.

Take the mother, for instance, who’s both neglectful of her child and expectant of his good behaviour. It is made clear that she doesn’t want anything to do with Alexey, and her inability to notice his disappearance until two days later is proof enough. She’s Mother Russia represented as a figure who has given up on who or what she’s supposed to love, and this characterisation is (sledge)hammered home in one of Loveless’ closing scenes. The film isn’t interested in delivering its message discreetly – why should it be? Zvyagintsev wants his intentions to be heard loud and clear. Televisions blare out war and chaos, a blah blah of negativity that wears off on the characters. It’s over the top, even comically so, but that’s the point. Loveless is a poetically written letter of desperation that urges its citizens to do something, anything, about their country’s political climate.

Once the focus on thematic layering makes way for an investigative drama, Loveless’ narrative becomes more procedural and just as intense. This film can pull off this argument in tones simply due to the fact that it is in itself an argument. The first half stakes the claim that everything is hopeless in Russia, and that it’s citizens are unable to do anything about it. Its second half contradicts this, depicting people banding together in search. It is the results of the search that dictate which side of the dispute this film lies, leaving the viewer as empty as everything this film is not about.

-Gus Edgar

 

Vogue

LFF: Gemini

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Lola Kirke ventures into neo-noir with Gemini, an underpowered and half-baked thriller that leaves you with nothing to do if you’ve already figured out its (signposted) reveals.

She plays personal assistant to Zoë Kravitz’s celebrity, Heather, and their relationship is fleshed out during the first portion of the film. These early segments flirt dangerously with the idea of being about something (God, anything), but its undercooked thematic breadcrumb on celebrity worship is consigned to first draft fodder.

The two spend the night karaoking after Heather shies away from an acting opportunity. It’s pleasant enough but there’s an inescapable feeling that the movie is passing time – crude stabs at humour (Gemini is annoyingly overconfident in how funny it is) and stilted dialogue do nothing to dispel this feeling, hindering the good work made by a stylish opening shot and Gemini’s moody jazz-electro score.

When the plot really finally gets to work – with a murder mystery that Lola Kirke’s character is made the prime suspect of – the editing decides to take a tea break. This is bland filmmaking with blindingly obvious missed opportunities for visual flair, offensive in how unbearably underwhelming, rather than bad, the whole thing is.

If you’ve figured out the twist – stating there is one isn’t exactly a spoiler considering its genre – then Gemini is a laborious watch. Kirke bounces between ill-defined characters and battles through sloppy cop-out plot devices (Example: a hotel key card that’s somehow mistakenly left for her), trying to make up for the mess with an endearingly bumbling performance.

Gemini peters out, unable to elucidate a point or elicit a reaction. If the exasperated closing scene has been lamented as a sour note to end on by other critics, I reckon that it’s just keeping in line with the rest of the film.

-Gus Edgar

Locarno Film Festival

LFF: Let the Corpses Tan

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Screeching to focus with a smattering of gunshots (the first of many), Let The Corpses Tan makes clear early on that this isn’t your typical French-Belgian psychedelic western. A midnight movie that plays out like an unrestrained Free Fire that’s careless with its pacing and thankfully even more careless with everything else too, directors/madcap cinematic scientists Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani throw everything and the bullet-strewn kitchen sink stylistically to create an exploitation extravaganza that takes advantage of its audience as much as its cast.

Set in the sunscorched Mediterranean (cinematographer Dacosse making full use of that sun with an overload of heavenly silhouettes to frame in front of it), three gang members stash stolen gold in a recluse owned by an unhinged artist and poet. A pair of cops arrive, and what follows is a hyper-stylised shoot-em-up, interpreted in the vein of Tarantino but pushed to breaking point and then some. The editing is simply gorgeous – a kinetic display of whip-pans, zooms, time distillation and everything else,  that playfully pokes fun at its genre like the grinning pastiche it is.

Our senses implode – we hear the squeak of creased leather, we feel the characters roast and their backs sweat, and we see men guzzling champagne that’s being secreted by a woman on a cross. If the film finally succumbs to enervation with twenty or so minutes to spare, it’s only due to the restive cinematic brilliance of what came before.  

Scattered images leave us to pick up and pick apart strands of reason and infer the point of the film. Is the point that we’re all primal, beastly animals at heart? Is there even a point? Is the fact that there may not be a point, the whole point? Who cares – it’s great fun.

-Gus Edgar

Hollywood Reporter

LFF: Beauty and the Dogs

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Beauty and the Dogs plays out like a Tunisian I Daniel Blake that’s overdosed on the long take stunt of Victoria. It’s a well-intended and uneven flare-up of a film, condemning its country’s horrifying political and federal climate as a university student attempts to negotiate a tumultuous night.

This night is segmented into 9 long takes of varying lengths and degrees of outrageous injustice. The method works best at the film’s build – a group of girls, including Mariam (Al Ferjani, who portrays her character with both convincing initial charm and hysterical energy), get ready for a night of partying. Its mundane, but transfixing, the anticipation slowly but surely reaching a crescendo.

That this technique is used throughout, however, does Beauty and the Dogs a disservice. The fluid camera movements do less to contrast Mariam’s panicked state and more to diminish it, creating a tonal rift that prevents the film’s heavy themes of feminist corruption and police brutality from hitting quite as hard as intended.

If empathy goes amiss, however, that’s only for the sake of political rage. This is an angry film that provides Mariam with a series of horrifying hardships, that, if marred slightly by coincidence, stir enough hostility to accompany what Al Ferjani’s scintillating performance deserves.

It is when Mariam partners up with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), a man she flirts with at the party, and who attempts to help her survive the night, that Beauty and the Dogs truly impresses, carving out a complex moral niche. Director Kaouther Ben Hania gradually implies that Youssef’s intended help is an unwanted and extreme form of mansplaining, while a third act revelation muddies the water further. It’s a narrative anomaly affixed to an important film that is treated with less delicacy than required – but an important film all the same.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Person to Person

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Presenting itself as a welcome tonic to last year’s insipidly cynical Wiener Dog, Dustin Guy Defa’s slight Person to Person avoids pretension and hits all the right notes (played from one of its stirring records), bouncing between several characters and their loosely interconnecting NY storylines. The film doesn’t stray away from its cosy shell, nor does it try to do so. Guy Defa provides both the claim and the evidence that perhaps the constant warm fuzziness provoked by a series of heartwarming non-sequiturs might just be enough.

A man is concerned just as much with his new shirt as he is with being made a victim by a record fraudster. Another is depressive, choosing to lounge on his sofa instead of confronting his ex-girlfriend and the fact that he’s posted her nudes online. A millennial laments society to her friend, while an elderly gentleman watches over his clock store. And Michael Cera, in a brilliant turn, stars as a journalist who urges a fresh employee to exploit the potential murder of a wife’s husband.

The storylines are of varying importance but are each treated with the same nuance and affection towards its characters. These characters are broad depictions of New York as a whole, yet somehow feel intensely personal – no doubt due to the individual cast’s honest performances, marked with quirks and the hyper-realised whimsy that richly define them.

That’s not to say that all of the narrative threads synchronise perfectly. Person to Person’s teen angst strand lacks the frantic energy the rest of the film abides by, for instance. But there’s more than enough joy to be had watching Cera and his partner head-bang to the sound of his heavy metal band, or watching a comically glacial bike chase unfold, to make up for its minor shortcomings.

-Gus Edgar

BFI.org.uk

LFF: Sicilian Ghost Story

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Sicilian Ghost Story is a strange take on a real-life mafia kidnapping story involving young lovebirds, weaving the supernatural with a distinct gritty realism that makes you wonder if the supernatural elements are even necessary.

It’s a delicate subject matter, and approaching it with surreal flourishes may lean towards a dangerously blasé slant in the face of child torture. Yet the method’s sparse use manages to carefully sidestep any talk of insensitivity. In doing so, it also sacrifices any room for the film to transcend the stale trappings of its slow-burn narrative.

The film’s initial imagery is bafflingly fixating, promising a much greater film than the one we end up receiving. The camera winds itself around dripping rocks, leaving us to infer the ethereal from the real. Luca Bigazzi, known for his brilliant work with Sorrentino, compliments the film’s overbearing fairy-tale quality with unnatural framing and contemplative long takes, mustering up most of the film’s magic.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough disparity between the surreal and its harsh truth to produce the catharsis the film so desperately strives for. In blending the two, much of the juxtapositional effectiveness is lost, and its sporadic implementation doesn’t do enough to justify the presence of the supernatural.

Though perhaps Sicilian Ghost Story’s greatest problem lies in the fact that this is a tragic love story between two kids where the lead child actors aren’t actually very good. Much may be down to directors Grassadonia and Piazza, who have seemingly told his young cast to sport plastic smiles whenever in frame. With chemistry this fabricated and unconvincing, it’s difficult to latch onto the difficulties that obstruct their plight thereafter. Sadly, they’re left stranded in a dreamlike film that’s too afraid to commit to its own premise and afraid even further to support its own existence.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Beast

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Michael Pearce’s Beast, a study-cum-outbreak of paranoia and blame, is in fact a directorial debut. You wouldn’t think it judging by its unwavering confidence in juggling several trickily incongruous tones; it’s a colour palette of genres, at once a romance and a murder mystery, interweaving shades of black comedy and hues of self-serious character study, before presenting in its final moments one blood-red splotch of melodrama.

The film begins with a birthday, introducing us to an array of characters and dictating exactly why they’re unlikeable. In this scene, it is only the birthday girl, Moll (played with mawkishness-turned-sour extravagance by Jessie Buckley), that goes without judgement.

Rightly irritated by her comically suffocating family, she ventures to a bar, parties the night away, and meets a mysterious young man the next day (Johnny Flynn). His good looks and unorthodox charm impresses, and some wonderful chemistry is created out of a threadbare narrative direction. Soon they’re both in love, and, more disconcertingly, in trouble, embroiled in a police case involving the rape and subsequent murder of several teenage girls.

This is a film that confounds expectations, though its original pretence may not have been intentional, and its change in direction may not have been wise. As an examination of blame, background and prejudice, Beast flourishes. It’s when the film turns into a completely different, ahem, beast, in the third act that the good work of its first two starts to diminish.

Of course, it’s tricky ridiculing a narrative simply because it’s not the narrative you would have chosen, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that there’s huge potential left uncovered. Choosing to neglect building upon Beast’s psychology is brave, but perhaps foolish too. Only a rewatch, with prior knowledge of the events that unfold, can provide much-needed clarity.

-Gus Edgar

Nocturama

Nocturama opens up with a lengthy sequence in which various teens and 20-somethings board trains, walk into buildings and up metro stairs into the daylight of Paris. Visual exchanges are made; worried glances between each person that signify solidarity, if not confidence. But not a single word is spoken. It’s an enthralling opening that rivals There Will Be Blood as an exercise in conveying information with silence. The camera pins to each character, surveilling their every move. The sensation created isn’t so much the silent, urgent stalking of Seconds, but we are able to share the characters’ concerns of being followed. One would be forgiven for thinking that this functions as a homage to the haydays of French silent cinema, if it weren’t for the distinctly modern approach to editing intervals, and Nocturama’s startlingly timely premise.

Following this group of ragtags for the entirety of the film, Nocturama’s first segment focuses on the execution of a plan that reveals itself to us along its runtime, occasionally utilising flashbacks to display both their preparation and their character traits. Though, perhaps intentionally, and certainly appropriately, their traits coalesce until it’s difficult to separate one from another.

The film’s second, longer segment concerns itself with the aftermath of what they set out to accomplish. The characters huddle together in a department store closed for the night, trapped among excess. They are left to roam the store and indulge in the splendour of what it has to offer, unshackled from the unease of the day before. They are no longer the enigmatic figures of Nocturama’s first half – they are themselves again. They race go-karts, snatch wedding rings, and there’s a wonderful and baffling mimed rendition of Shirley Bassey’s My Way. Tellingly, this re-enactment goes on a little too long; our protagonists are surrounded with decadence – a store-sized world of near-limitless opportunities – yet it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they’re simply passing the time. And perhaps it’s just that – boredom – that dictates the narrative of this clique.

There are many other possibilities that director Bertrand Bonello suggests as rationality for what the characters accomplish, but he never leads his audience towards a single, definitive direction. Bonello understands the intelligence of his audience, leaving us to infer reason and motivation from the strands he leaves behind.

When the music is not being dubbed, it’s being blasted in full volume across the entirety of the department store. It seems as if all of Paris is able to listen in, not that the characters mind. The choice of music is knowingly provocative: ‘Whip My Hair’ is boomed out as haunting footage of the millennials’ actions during the day are broadcast on the stores’ plasma screens. The characters hardly seem to notice the juxtaposition. Why should they? Most of these characters are proud of their feat – to them, it’s not a horrifying act of pseudo-rebellion, but a glorious stunt that they can bask in to the tunes of Willow Smith.

This doesn’t apply to all of them. A girl named Sabrina voices her guilt. The source of it is obscured – she was observed by a policeman, and may simply feel remorse at potentially being caught. A boy, David, doesn’t fulfill his role in the plan. He is seen leaving the department store for a smoke, wandering the streets of Paris for a while. His actions here almost taunt services to find him. It’s not made clear – nothing is in Nocturama – but it’s as if he wants to be caught.

We learn their names gradually as the first half of the film develops – not that their names truly matter. These characters are templates, faceless beings stripped of identity much like the mannequins that Botello frames them against. They serve as passengers of a non-specified ideology, the film’s politics more concerned with species than race, in spite of its subject matter. As David wanders around Paris, he questions a woman his age about the events of the day. ‘It was bound to happen, right?’ she answers. Nocturama is a perplexing film, but it is also an understanding one – Botello acknowledges the complex mind of youth, and all of its contradictory, unexplainable facets. These minds belong to a world that they seek to destroy. These minds, too, are unfocused, the hypnotic determination of the day giving way to a growing lack of restraint as the night wears on. Mika, they youngest of the group, confesses his love to Sabrina. Much like Cairo Station, this is not the film for that, and Nocturama knows it. This exchange functions as a pointed remark of the characters’ insistence on distracting themselves from the horrors that they have committed, and that wait in store for them. And as the group gradually lose any self-control, the sense of the inescapable kicks in.

While Botello’s use of displaying time – the camera switching between each character in a not-exactly-linear fashion – strips the film of some of its urgency, it does fuel a potent inevitability that rears its ugly head in its final few moments. This is slick film-making, an exercise in control. The characters themselves may not possess much in the latter half of the film, but the camera is patient, waiting until the right moment to converge its repeated timelines, and the right moment to sprawl them out again.

Nocturama offers insight towards its cast of young friends on a mission. The trick is that it does so without the need for exposition or background knowledge. It is a current film with a current concept – the flashbacks it does occasionally refer to aren’t entirely necessary and are often contradictory to the film’s intent, marking the low-point in its narrative. These characters don’t need names or faces or dialogue. They may not even need reason. Nocturama is an angry film, but it condemns the notions of this set of youth without dehumanising them. Their awkward dancing, penchant for pop and teenage squabbles do well to offset the distinct lack of humanity on display in the film’s first half. Any association with mannequins isn’t intended to mechanise them, but to simply reveal that they are not unique or special, and neither is the ideology they share. Nocturama’s protagonists aren’t robots, or revolutionaries – they’re infant radicals.

-Gus Edgar