Category Archives: Drama

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: 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

 

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