All posts by Gus Edgar

Top 20 Films of 2017 (10-1)

(This list is based on UK release dates and festival films without a 2018 release date)

To read my Top 20 Films of 2017 (20-11), click here.

10. GOLDEN EXITS

I may not have enjoyed director Alex Ross Perry’s previous effort, Listen Up Philip, but here he’s created a stunning and perplexing episodic epic. Golden Exits’ apparent shortcomings (namely stilted dialogue and wonky delivery) reveal themselves as integral characteristics of a tour-de-force study of self-hatred and resignation; what at once appears inorganic becomes entirely organic. The impression is clear: this is a film full of characters uncomfortable in their own skin, silently screaming to break free from their inner turmoil. As the wonderful score builds and thrums, there’s an increasing awareness that this is not just a mere character drama or some easily dismissable mumblecore, but something monumental – a film that recognises the methods in which it can manufacture drama, and goes out of its way to avoid them. The characters may remain silent in their discontentment, but there is nothing quiet about Golden Exits’ profundity. It’s a staggering, unique achievement – a balloon that refuses to pop (or, heck, even let out a little air), instead expanding from what is, at first glance, a narrow focus, into something universal.

To read my Golden Exits review, click here.

9. PERSONAL SHOPPER

In 1996, Olivier Assayas directed Irma Vep, a hodgepodge of juicy thematic strands, and a hot, fascinating mess. In Personal Shopper he refines this indulgence, weaving in each individual element rather than leaving them to rot, and thereby dictating a juggernaut balancing act. It’s difficult to explain exactly what Personal Shopper is about or what happens – simply because almost everything does happen. There’s a ghost story – a Hitchcockian exercise in nail-biting suspense. There’s a murder mystery, an elongated text-messaging sequence, a parable on fame and desire – everything and anything and somehow it works. This is in no small part due to Kristen Stewart, who in the lead role gives the greatest performance of 2017. She’s frail yet committed, brandishing a stone-faced demeanour – but the stones are beginning to crumble. She’s haunted; perhaps she wants to be. The camera sweeps, pans, fades in and out. In one of the film’s most ethereal sequences, lifts and automatic doors open on their own; Assays transforms the mundane into the gob-smacking, and no matter which way you interpret what goes on – whether you’re frightened, moved, stunned (I was all three) – there’s no denying the film’s lasting impact. Now you’re haunted too.

8. NERUDA

The only biopic on this list is one that pokes fun at its own genre. Neruda is as playful as they come, developing the figure of writer and political activist Pablo Neruda by staging a fictional chase between poet and detective. Much like Personal Shopper, Pablo Larrain’s latest is many things at once: it’s a biopic that deconstructs biopics, the characters flitting between locations within the same conversation, as if the film is lamenting the idea of rigid truth-telling. It’s a film that does away with convention and truth to deliver something utterly truthful; Neruda’s life isn’t retold, but his character is understood and evoked. It’s a time capsule of mood and emotion and creativity, the screen bursting in warm hues of red and blue, lens flares injecting an extravagance that can only be associated with Neruda himself. It’s a unique and mature reflection on fiction; not simply through the fact that the chase itself is fictional, but through how Bernal’s detective reacts to that fact – and his own non-existence – in a spellbinding expositional sequence. And, most importantly, it’s a fascinating, intricate, beautifully rendered and exceptionally realised take on, if not the life of Pablo Neruda, certainly the life that he created for himself.

7. BLADE RUNNER 2049

2017’s greatest blockbuster belongs to a film whose audience entered with trepidation: why exactly does Blade Runner need to have a sequel? Here’s why: Blade Runner 2049 exceeds expectations and then some, substantiating the themes of the original while creating something entirely unique and operatically operational on its own. There’s so much going on that any talk of shortening its near-3-hour runtime seems ludicrous: it betrays ‘chosen one’ convention, it adds fuel to the furious debate on what it means to be human, and it re-establishes a neon-soaked world with tremendous detail. There’s nothing quite as ambitious this year as Blade Runner 2049 – nor, perhaps, as jaw-droppingly beautiful. Deakins spruces up this dystopian future with intense colour scheming, wide, gaping framing, exquisitely-realised transitions (a scene morphs from flickers of fire to city lights, though if you missed it, that’s understandable – the whole film is just as technically stunning). Not everything works (talks of rebellion belong to a different film), but when it does, – a scene that redefines the term ‘sexposition, for instance – oh boy is it special.

6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Upon its release, a few people I talked to dismissed Manchester By The Sea as Oscar bait, Well, if this is the state of Oscar bait, then I’m all in: Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is a grounded masterpiece, unassuming yet overwhelming. Memories skim through our protagonist’s psyche as he weathers trauma; Casey Affleck sells it wonderfully. It may not be entirely out of his acting range but the perennially-depressed-looking Affleck brother is exquisite as the perennially-depressed Lee Chandler, in a reserved, heart-breaking performance aided by a script that refuses to manipulate. Not content with simply jerking the tears (of which there are many), Lonergan injects his writing with a black humour that ripples throughout proceedings, meshing farce with tragedy. Men struggle to offload his wife into the back of an ambulance. Affleck almost burns his house down for a second time. In Manchester By The Sea, Lonergan has created a mellow masterpiece; a thoughtful, poignant vehicle for Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams to flaunt their considerable ability in front of the camera.

5. ANTIPORNO

Japanese auteur Sion Sono (who also made my Top 20 Films of 2015 with Tokyo Tribe) may be the last person you’d expect to direct a feminist plea and scathing indictment of the porn industry, but watching Antiporno unfold and…yeah, that makes sense. It contains everything that makes Sion Sono consistently greater than Sion so-so: fourth-wall breaks, lurid colour palettes and over-the-top sexualisation with a paradoxical purpose. It’s Duke of Burgundy if Strickland had crammed his gob with sugar beforehand, and it’s as glorious as it sounds. A family engage in a conversation over dinner involving more than just the birds and the bees. Two reporters dressed in Clockwork Orange get-up are ordered to rape the ‘protagonist’s’ secretary. A woman slams her face into cake. It’s erratic, gorgeous to look at, and surprisingly insightful, lamenting a porn empire that has misled the Japanese youth. Men leer, roles reverse, paint splats, paper butterflies flutter away and glue themselves to the ceiling; it’s something resembling Lynch without the dread or Kubrick without the perfectionism, but filtered through Sono’s singular, provocative vision: it’s an opioid marvel.

4. WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS

Having a short film on this list may be cheating a little, but World of Tomorrow 2 has enough ideas crammed into its 22-minute runtime to make any feature-length film blush. Don Hertzfeldt’s successor to the wildly original Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow, this film scours the psyche of its protagonists (Emily Prime, and an incomplete backup copy of her third generation clone) rather than looking to the stars, paradoxically expanding its scope. It loses the interstellar, but keeps the stellar, as we are transported into the minds of two characters who could not be more different. The backup clone’s mind is dour, hopeless, with areas such as the ‘Bog of Realism’, where ‘glimmers of hope’ lie buried and forgotten. Emily Prime’s, conversely, contains ‘Triangle Land’, its presence bursting on to our screens and evoking an instantaneous, deeply heartfelt reaction. Statements are made on identity politics, on the futility of holding on to memories, on the effect of aging and experience – it’s so rich and dense that rewatches are a necessity. And even if you don’t understand a whole lot, at least there’s Hertzfeldt’s sumptuous animation to tide you over – abstract vistas shift with each stick figure’s movement, clouds of smoke shudder and rotate, and red specks distort the screen akin to Interstellar’s gyroscopic wormhole effect. It’s an existential revelation sprawled out and stuffed back in inside 22 minutes; Charlie Kaufman is quaking in his boots.

To read my World of Tomorrow 2 review, click here.

3. TONI ERDMANN

Maren Ade’s acclaimed oddity is as ‘My God, this really shouldn’t work’ as they come. A 3-hour German comedy where not a whole lot happens may not pique the interest, but here we are. In Toni Erdmann, Ade has created a glorious father-daughter parable that revels in its addiction to awkward humour, and languishes in its encroaching ennui. The titular character, you see, doesn’t exist, but is instead a fictionalised persona of a father who’s attempting to reconcile and connect with his estranged, work-obsessed daughter. Peter Simonischek is superb but its Sandra Huller who astonishes, scenario-shifting between business meetings, Whitney Houston renditions and naked dinner parties and making it look and sound believable. Toni Erdmann is more than just ‘believable’ though: it’s honest, hilarious, and genuinely heartbreaking; an emotional odyssey with one cathartic hug worth the 2-and-a-half-hour buildup. Who says Germans can’t be funny? Though not every stereotype is disproven: even with such a long runtime, they remain efficient – not a minute could be shredded off this shaggy epic.

To read my Toni Erdmann review, click  here.

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Last year, Luga Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash was my No. 1 film of the year. He comes close to repeating that feat this year with Call Me By Your Name, a ‘what I did last Summer’ type of film that builds on the director’s fixation of intense sensuality. It’s a rapturous sun-soaked delight, taking hold of you right from the piano-plodding off and not letting go beyond the end credits. Taking place ‘somewhere in the north of Italy’, we follow Timothée Chalamet’s Elio as he traverses the tricky window between youth and maturity, discovering his sexuality after getting to know Armie Hammer’s Oliver – an intern for Elio’s father. Here they fall in love, their relationship stained with the awareness that it will inevitably come to a close (Oliver moves to America once the summer ends). In the moment, however, it’s something to be savoured, the film gorgeously realising the evocations that the experience of a first love can muster up. Hammer may be the bigger name but Chalamet is incredible, his measured performance in turn both playful and heartbreaking. Call Me By Your Name is a real peach of a film. I look forward to Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake claiming no.3 on next year’s list.

1. NOCTURAMA

Some may be surprised by this choice: after all, didn’t I give it four stars in my review earlier this year? Well, yes, but Bertrand Bonello’s heady extravaganza possesses a staying power like no other. My fan-boyish gushing over Nocturama‘s thematic resonance and how it goes about tackling such a tricky topic as teenage terrorists without stooping to vacant provocation remains. On the other hand, my brief, fleeting criticisms have faded away – Nocturama is the nigh-perfect film (though I’m unable to call it Bonello’s magnum opus, as his 2011 brothel-as-capitalism-metaphor House of Tolerance is just as spellbinding). Unpacking each element of Nocturama takes time – but is more than worth it – the film unravelling into a treasure box of conceptual morsels that are each delicious to indulge in. There’s the mannequins, whose clothes mirror our protagonists’.  Multiple interpretations can be applied just to this alone, yet maybe all of them are correct – how their anarchism melts into a singular whole, how they are consumed by the very product – capitalism – that they wish to destroy, how by destroying this structure, they are destroying themselves. To talk about everything Nocturama has to offer in a 200-word thinkpiece is impossible, so I’ll just say this and let you read my review afterwards: for the sheer scope and ambition of Bonello, for the careful consideration taken to humanise his teen terrorists without sympathising with them, for the improbable way in which he balances three tonally jarring acts and makes them function – no, accentuate each other – as a cohesive narrative whole – Nocturama is the best film of 2017. You can watch it on Netflix now, and I suggest you do so immediately.

Thanks for the fantastic year, 2017. And with Wes Anderson, Lars Von Tier, Cuaron, Dolan, Denis, Jenkins, Chazelle, McQueen, etc on the horizon, I reckon 2018 will be just as special.

-Gus Edgar

 

 

Top 20 Films of 2017 (20-11)

(This list is based on UK release dates and festival films without a 2018 release date)

I’ll cut to the chase: 2017 has been a superb year for films. The blockbusters have been brave, the foreign films have been fantastic, and The Boss Baby wasn’t actually that bad. Though note that while the year’s films have impressed, the people who play a part in making those films haven’t exactly done likewise. If 2016 was the year when celebrities died a hero, 2017 was the year where they lived long enough to see themselves become a villain, with allegation after allegation Wein-staining the names of Hollywood hot-shots. So here’s a welcome tonic: the celebration of the best that 2017 has to offer.

One of the main problems with a top 20 list is that it can never be definitive when you haven’t seen every film that year. I’ve seen over 150 films eligible for this list this year and is still not enough; there’s bound to be films I’ve missed that would’ve made it on this list. Those films include: The Ornithologist, Your Name, The Levelling, The Death of Louis XIV, God’s Own Country, My Happy Family, Certain Women and The Other Side of Hope.

Still – I’ve seen enough films this year to have a considerable amount of HONOURABLE MENTIONS. Aronofosky’s mother! is a divisive film but one where no viewer can deny its ambition; it’s a stunning, shriek-inducing nightmare, in the best way possible. Distant Constellation is perhaps the best documentary I’ve seen this year, presenting a sobering, contemplative look at an old folk’s home, while The Untamed is perhaps the best tentacle monster movie this year, presenting a sobering, contemplative look at… er, homophobia? It wasn’t the only foreign film to just miss out, with Dolan’s It’s Only The End of the World, a tension chamber and wholly underrated piece on interaction *almost* making the cut.

Mudbound was a superb (and satisfyingly different) take on racial politics down south, and The Love Witch rekindled the 70s sexploitation aesthetic to a tee. Wonder Woman was the best superhero film of the year, because 1) Gal Gadot, 2) It didn’t show contempt of its own genre a-la Logan, and 3) Gal Gadot, and, lastly, 20th Century Women was a joyous and quietly powerful insight towards a fleeting snippet of late 70s America.

Now onto the list.

20. ON BODY AND SOUL

My top 20 begins not with a bang but with a whisper, as On Body and Soul’s two introverted leads attempt to connect in spite of their clear disconnect from the rest of the world. The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale takes a dangerously ludicrous conceit – two people share the same dream (of deer in a forest, surrounded by gratifying isolation) – and turns it into something genuine, concealing its profundity much like its characters conceal their feelings. This is not, however, your twee indie romance: cows are gutted, bathwater is bloodied, and Alexandra Borbély’s character does the dirty with a soft toy. It adds a unique, sharp quality to proceedings, its moments of contemplation interrupted by intervals that would seem surreal if it didn’t fit so snugly into the world director Enyedi creates for us. It’s not so much boy-meets-girl as boys-tries-to-meet-girl-again-and-again; there’s something satisfyingly punchy about how little On Body and Soul cares for typical romance, the tropes played out in the heads of its unlikely couple and inevitably abandoned with each interaction.

19. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

I remain one of the few dissenters of Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous effort, The Lobster, but here he finds good use for his deliberately deadpan dialogue and penchant for squirmish scenarios, fashioning a horrifying Greek tragedy on favouritism, blame, justice, and how to eat spaghetti (most horrifying of all, it’s absolutely hilarious). Colin Farrell’s family is put under the cosh by Barry Keoghan, a revelation in his role as God (Old Testament, most likely). Perhaps Lanthimos’ most impressive instinct is to rid the narrative of reason, and focus on the interactions and reactions of each character: lines that may initially seem non-sequiturial morph into anything but (Farrell mentions his daughter’s period to balance the attention given to his son during a party talk, but this favouritism devolves into quite literally a matter of life and death). And even if you don’t manage to reconcile the outrageous (though linear for Lanthimos’ standards) plot, there’s solace to be found in the grim humour of  Keoghan biting a chunk of flesh from his arm and shouting ‘It’s metaphorical! It’s metaphorical!’

You can read my review here.

18. AQUARIUS

Presented to clamour at last year’s Cannes, and presented to silence on this year’s Netflix, there are a Brazilian reasons why you should see Aquarius; though the most important is Sônia Braga. She plays Clara, an aging mother refusing to let go of her residence that’s due for demolition (and with it, her past). Aquarius is at once stirring and scathing, its swells of music brimming with the nostalgia Braga clings to, while its narrative a direct indictment of the state of politics in Brazil. The ending may not exactly satisfy (simply for the fact that it’s a little too satisfying for such a clever film), but everything leading up to it is glorious, from its giddy San Junipero-esque opening to its gently furious character study. Zoom ins and zoom outs centre their gaze at Braga, and she commands the screen. She’s the past in miniature, stubborn and melancholic, her residence a temple within which each of her memories exist. The film rests on her shoulders, and Braga more than obliges.

17.  GOOD TIME

Don’t let the title fool you: this isn’t a good time, it’s a great time. Though not for Robert Pattinson’s Connie, who attempts (emphasis on ‘attempts’) to stage a bank heist with his brother. The bank heist goes awry (the film’s only moment you can predict) and his brother is locked away. Thus follows a night of blood, drugs and mistaken identity, as Connie desperately fights for his rescue. In less careful hands, the affairs of the night would come across as implausible, but the Safdie brothers ground their film by stripping it of its inherent melodramatic elements until only its brutalist edge remains. The score pulsates and the camera indulges in the closest of close-ups, exposing a loosening of Connie’s grip on proceedings. But perhaps Good Time’s most interesting dynamic is the relationship between its two brothers – one born out of both love and selfishness. Are Pattinson’s feelings towards his brother genuine, or does he reconcile his crimes with fabricated goodwill? Good Time doesn’t give you a straightforward answer, though its stirring ending is telling. Pattinson sells it magnificently, a figure entrenched in neon-lit grime.

16. LA LA LAND

There isn’t an ending capable of stirring quite as powerful an emotion this year as that in La La Land. The film may have lost out to Moonlight in farcical circumstances at the Oscars, but that’s just following the long list of superior recent runner-ups (see: Gravity, Boyhood, The Revenant). Fittingly, it shares these films’ unreasonable swathes of backlash – talks of racism, Hollywood glorification, etc, that simply aren’t true. So I’ll sing La La Land’s praises. Gosling’s character isn’t a white saviour – John Legend’s stance on revitalising the jazz genre rung true for most of the film. And Hollywood isn’t glorified – Stone may be successful, but think of all those disillusioned singers in ‘Another Day of Sun’ that we ignore for the rest of the film . Yes, on the face of it, both these complaints are true, but by voicing these complaints, people are failing to recognise a much deeper and more thoughtful film than they give credit for. And an audience who remains stubborn in reading La La Land at face value still cannot deny that ending’s impact: a gut-punch of the senses and a melancholy hotpot of incredible production.

15. THE HANDMAIDEN

A Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee, hired by a con-man that acts under the guise of a Count, is sent to work as a maid for a Japanese heiress in order to throw her in a looney-bin and take her money. Sounds (relatively) simple, right? Okay, not really, but this synopsis is still child’s play compared to the actual proceedings. The first time I watched Park Chan-Wook’s twisty, intoxicating thriller, I thought it was a riotously enjoyable film that was a little too clever for its own good. Giving it a rewatch, it becomes clear that The Handmaiden is just clever: lace-laden layers upon layers of commentary. Its a study on objectification that forces the viewer into the role of an objectifier. It weaves 1930s themes that apply to the modern porn industry, utilising ornaments as visual motifs for the transformation from subjugation and oppression to freedom and self-discovery. It parallels the relationship between the Japanese and the Korean with the relationship between its men and women. And yes, it’s still a riotously enjoyable film, realising a narrative that’s funny, emotional, and genuinely goosebumps-level surprising.

14. FREE FIRE

Ben Wheatley is a director who improves with every film, and his follow-up to last year’s brilliant High-Rise is this year’s brilliant-er Free Fire. Taking shoot-em-up tropes and openly mocking them, Free Fire is a genre exercise that’s not afraid to display the ‘exercise’, putting its moustache-plastered characters through the wringer as they battle it out in an abandoned warehouse. The action is gloriously chaotic, the space knowingly ill-defined and the bullets a ricocheting and misfiring mass that makes sure everyone gets injured and no-one dies – until, well, they finally do. The gun-slinging may be chaotic but there’s no mistaking Free Fire’s characters, featuring Wheatley’s most star-studded cast yet. In spite of Armie Hammer and Brie Larson’s presence,  it’s Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley that revitalise Free Fire whenever it threatens to enervate. Or perhaps the film’s defiant refusal to tire out lies in Wheatley’s control: Free Fire is expertly structured, giving time to introduce the characters, build up a sublime tension, and maintain it for the next hour. It may be the most straightforward film on this list, but there’ solace to find in simplicity.

 

13.  DUNKIRK

Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his longest film yet, Interstellar, is his shortest: a thrilling, stomach-churning tension chamber light on the blood and heavy on the bloody good. His tactics of playing with time to inject his films with an unmatched energy pays dividends here, as land, sea and air are separated before clashing together in a cacophony of metal, oil, and patriotism. More importantly, his achilles heel – clunky dialogue – rarely rears its ugly head, the film’s loudness arising from Hans Zimmer’s mania-inducing score. Though perhaps it’s the quiet after the noise that marks Dunkirk out as another excellent entry in its director’s filmography, the closing imagery as inspiring and jaw-droppingly beautiful as anything you’ve seen this year.  Every great director has a war-film under their belt (Kubrick and Full Metal Jacket, Malick and Thin Red Line, etc), and Nolan may just have entered that pantheon of directors if he hasn’t already. The film has its faults – Harry Styles, no matter how good he is, remains distracting, and the fish-in-a-barrel scene jars – but Dunkirk remains a rousing success, and a celebration of the bull-dogged British spirit. Nobody can muster up melodrama like Nolan can.

12. THE RED TURTLE

The second-best animated film this year (spoilers!), The Red Turtle is a Dutch-Japanese collaboration that’s almost about nothing until it’s about something. Simply put, the film is a blank slate, a minimalist recipe of life that gives you the ingredients and tells you to do whatever you want with it. The Red Turtle begins with a man washed up on an island, and his encounter with the titular red turtle forms the first half of the story. There’s little to grab onto from a narrative standpoint, though the magisterial score and lush, painstakingly rendered imagery tides you over. The remaining half then slowly creeps up on you – before you realise it, The Red Turtle transforms from a film about nothing into a film about everything, life – all life – in miniature. It’s a film concerning interaction that interacts with its audience; there’s a reason why its a silent film – the voice is yours to give.

11. PADDINGTON 2 

Britain’s unlikely hero comes in the form of Paddington, a bear with a penchant for politeness. 2014’s Paddington was charming, but its sequel is magical, immediately transporting us into its larger-than-life world, where passersby accept the presence of a duffle coat-wearing bear and newsagents can live in rich West London neighborhoods. Paddington 2 is riotous fun from the off, marma-laden with treats: there’s Hugh Grant’s sublime pantomime villain, Brendan Gleeson’s prison chef with a heart (Knuckles, spelled with a capital N), and a whole host of jaw-dropping set-pieces. London comes to life in pop-up-book form, the trees of Peru spring out of a prison cell, and Hugh Bonneville manages the splits between two trains. King isn’t content with just an excellent plot and a hefty emotional core though – no, Paddington 2 has a vital, spirited message of British togetherness, acceptance – heck, there’s even timely commentary on prisons in England. In a state of transition, where Brexit looms, Paddington 2 is both a relevant cry for solidarity and some gorgeously delightful respite.

To read my Top 20 Films of 2017 (10-1), click here.

-Gus Edgar

Review Directory 2017

2017 has been a fantastic year for both film and my own film career. I’ve attended my first festival as a press-accredited journalist (and with it, a few press conferences), I’ve seen almost 300 films, I’ve become film editor of my university newspaper, and I’ve expanded my writing to many sites, including ScreenRant, dogandwolf.com, BritFlicks and OutlineNorwich. Here are links to my reviews of all the films I have written about this year, and I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store!

9 Fingers
Ava
Battle of the Sexes
Beast
Beauty and the Dogs
Borg vs McEnroe
Breathe
Brigsby Bear
Call Me By Your Name
Cargo
The Death of Stalin
Endless Poetry
Filmworker
The Fits
The Florida Project
Foxtrot
Gemini
Ghost Stories
Golden Exits
Good Time
Heartstone
Ingrid Goes West
Jackie
Journey’s End
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Let the Corpses Tan
Logan
Loveless
Lucky
Manifesto
A Monster Calls
Murder on the Orient Express
Nocturama
The Party
Person to Person
Sicilian Ghost Story
Silence
Split
Suburbicon
Thelma
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Toni Erdmann
T2 Trainspotting
Wrath of Silence
You Were Never Really Here

You can also read my ScreenRant articles here, and follow me on Letterboxd here.

-Gus Edgar

 

LFF: Ava

The coming-of-age drama is a tried-and-tested genre that is, more often than not, hampered by a stale formula. Overcoming this obstacle with gleeful abandon is Ava, where a scene in which the film’s titular character endures an awkward first date with a boy – who would ordinarily fit the prototype for this genre’s love interest – makes its intent clear: this is not the film for that. Instead, we have a coming-of-age drama spruced up with a stolen dog, robberies that take place on a nudist beach, and the lingering threat of our main protagonist’s encroaching blindness.

It’s Ava’s last summer with sight: as the sun-soaked holidays wind down, she’s left to confront the inevitability of never being able to see again at the age of 13. Her mother intends for her daughter to have ‘the best summer of her life’, but her plans only serve to derail Ava’s own. As far as reactions to news as bad as this go, Ava’s is more than understandable. She steals and befriends a dog, and, pragmatically, transforms it into a guide dog in order to learn how to live in permanent darkness.

Her actions thereafter are telling: motivated by her flagging eyesight, she aims to experience a life beyond her years with sight, even for only a few days. Noée Abita’s performance as Ava is richly textured, her puppy dog eyes belying a false sense of newfound maturity. While the blindness narrative fades away from the forefront, it’s an everpresent threat that acts as a catalyst for her actions.

Of course, her mother is none too pleased with Ava, and their tumultuous relationship is one of the film’s many pleasures. It’s an exciting dynamic filmed in an excitingly dynamic way, the camera framing the two against one another as if Ava’s subsequent flee from home is a foregone conclusion. This also leaves potential for the relationship to augment and develop as Ava herself does. As it turns out, this potential is left untapped; it’s the film, and not the film’s protagonist, that succumbs to blindness first, losing sight of its fascinating maternal dynamic and choosing to prop up an untidy young-lovers escapist narrative instead.

No matter; if not as exuberant or insightful as Ava’s first two acts, there’s enough wild creativity mustered up by director Léa Mysius to make the pursuit entirely watchable. In fact, the film is so confident in its ability to subvert narrative convention that its most misjudged moments just about pay off: an erratically filmed beach robbery, where the young lovers cover themselves in clay to pry their animalistic instincts from within, is set to an incohesive happy-go tune and is bafflingly split-screened, while the film steeps in surrealism before forgetting that that ever happened. Restless as Ava may be, this is a charming study of the typical young-woman-finding-herself narrative, bursting at the seams with an erratic energy that breathes new life into a tired genre.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Breathe

A new addition to the ‘tragic romance where a man is inflicted with a terminal illness and through his wife’s undying love is able to live much longer than expected’ genre is Breathe, taking after 2014’s similarly saccharine The Theory of Everything. It’s a competently-made drama about polio and its effect on the life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife, Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) that’s more removing than moving, belittling its central characters to soapy archetypes, and its supporting cast to samey beacons of hope.

Breathe opens up promisingly, at least, with a swooning 50s pastiche rendered assuredly with stylised fonts and an achingly beautiful melody. Cavendish and Blacker immediately fall in love, and soon they’re dancing as silhouettes in the African sunset; their romance isn’t grounded, nor does it need to be: these are the lofty, idealised heights before the inevitable fall.

When the fall (literally, in Cavendish’s case) does emerge, the glamorous 50s backdrop makes way for a more procedural, and altogether unexciting affair. Cavendish is paralysed, and Garfield sells his affliction magnificently with pained gurgles and gurns, but the narrative is just as stationary. One gets the feeling that director Andy Serkis – who is good friends with Cavendish’s real-life son, Tom – was reluctant to spruce up the script with unsympathetic  embellishments that would have fictionalised the story – but would have also given us a reason to keep us invested.

It’s a sympathetic take on Cavendish’s character, but also one free of any intense difficulties to overcome. Everything is just so easy, (despite the best efforts of a ridiculous segment involving a dog), making for a pleasant tea-time watch but a frustratingly stale cinematic experience. With convincing on-screen chemistry, this may have been difficult to notice, but Garfield and Foy can’t act their way out of clumsy characterisation. In truth, they are one-note figures, reduced to tired symbols of steely determination. In turn, the audience are reduced to senseless observers, unaffected by Breathe’s insistence on stirring up emotion. Its supporting characters, played by an odd array of British comedians (including Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan and Tom Hollander) simply exacerbate the film’s problem of struggling to amass any sense of conflict. Their comedy, however, is a high-point of the film, bolstered by a sharp script that refrains from melodrama.

As the film nears its close, it becomes what its opening parodied, succumbing to cheesy methods of affectation. It’s a sign of laziness from a director who has clearly worked hard in not just evoking, but reproducing the life of Cavendish. These travails are apparent, but also vary in degrees of success – in straying too close to Cavendish’s son’s account, he has created a film without the dramatic urgency required to entertain – but with enough careful treatment of its subject matter to inspire.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Cargo

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

Here’s a film that fits the festival prototype and not much else: Cargo is a drama concerning a trio of brothers and a fishing ship, that’s as taxing on its audience as it is on its protagonists. The crux of the film – a stretched-out decision on whether to sell the fishing boat or keep it as part of the brothers’ history – already sounds like a snoozefest. The onus is on the director, Gilles Coulier, to give the film the vitality and stakes the synopsis fails to create.

Sadly, this is not the case. Opening with an urgency that is sorely lacking throughout the remainder of Cargo’s runtime, we are launched into a midnight boating expedition gone wrong that’s as intense as anything on a cargo ship suited for fishing can be (read: quite mild). The brothers’ father narrowly escapes drowning, and it is quickly revealed that he chose to fling himself overboard.

Why? Well, because Cargo is a festival film and an onslaught of heavy, depressing themes is what festivals demand. There is literally a scene in which one of the brothers confesses that he is in love with a man, who happens to be an illegal immigrant, to his coma-inflicted father. With a permanent self-serious tone, Cargo is a dour affair, and no manner of nifty title-wordplay can salvage it.

What does salvage the film somewhat is its well-intended and competently-realised sibling relationship. While the screen time isn’t shared equally, we each get enough to grab onto to sympathise with the characters, if not empathise with their plight.

A melodic, melancholic score that accompanies the closing imagery is stirring, but the resolution itself is irritatingly lazy. Cargo ends with the whimper that it deserves – after all, this is a slow-burner whose light fades well before the wax has finished melting.

-Gus Edgar

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