All posts by 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

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