Category Archives: Family

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: 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

FilmSnap: Toni Erdmann

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

Toni Erdmann is an experience like no other. A 3-hour German epic consisting of boardroom mundanity, cheap practical jokes and a sexual shenanigan involving a petit four, all riffing off a beautifully touching and complex paternal relationship.

The father is Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a divorcee adopting the goofball persona of Toni Erdmann in order to become closer to his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), both figuratively and literally. Ines herself is entrenched in the workload demanded of a business consultant, and so the antics of her father distract rather than entertain – her straight-faced demeanour at odds with Winfried’s spirited take on life. Accompanied by farce and several cringeworthy situations, we watch as their relationship evolves.

It’s a triumph of sharp scriptwriting and superb performances, an emotional odyssey with the perfect conclusion. There’s no pretension here, no melodramatic speeches or the excessive swells of a saccharine score. It’s grounded and quietly devastating, director Maren Ade aware of her actors’ ability and the strength of the dialogue, ridding the film of its background noise and thus of its superficiality. With a single embrace, Toni Erdmann profoundly communicates the complications and tribulations of a father-daughter relationship far better than any sickly sob-story could manage.

And it’s funny, too. As unorthodox a comedy as it may be, Winfried’s actions and Ines’ reactions earn plenty of laughs, and several set-pieces are teeming with awkward energy. It’s not a film that consistently provokes belly-laughs, focusing moreso on the ‘drama’ aspect of ‘comedy drama’, but Simonischek and Hüller are totally committed to their roles, and so the humour is both intensely embarrassing and remarkably believable.  

Toni Erdmann’s 3-hour runtime may seem daunting, but it allows its ingeniously realised central relationship to flourish. By the end, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. So you do both.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: A Monster Calls

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

Here’s something refreshing: a story involving a cancer patient that doesn’t baselessly lie to its audience (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, though I do love that film in spite of it), nor dumb down the tragedy into palatable mush (nearly every other filmic incarnation involving a patient with a terminal illness). J.A. Bayona is certainly accustomed to tearjerkers, having directed the deceptive horror-drama The Orphanage and the tsunami-weepie, The Impossible. A Monster Calls is no different, building on his penchant for sob stories with a thrillingly original perspective.

Based on Patrick Ness’ book of the same name, A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he summons a beautifully-rendered Monster (Liam Neeson) in order to come to terms with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) imminent death. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth-esque escapism, though less gothic and more colourful than the 2006 fantasy. Through the animated sequences in the film, their brash, painterly styles contrasting superbly with the sedate real world, O’Malley unearths parables on morality and blame that ease him towards accepting what the Monster refers to as ‘the truth behind his nightmare’. Whether these stories firmly relate to O’Malley’s sufferings when held up to scrutiny is questionable, but if you disregard their lack of focus, these segments serve as delightful interludes to the morbidity Bayona musters up in his primary narrative.

When the ‘truth behind his nightmare’ does finally reveal itself, however, these fantastical elements suddenly seem so distant. The film doesn’t need a wobbly subplot concerning bullies to conjure up the raw emotion Bayona is seeking; the film delivers on its smartly-paced buildup with its powerful, unexpected reveal, and Lewis MacDougall’s astonishingly convincing emotional release, rising above its genre’s ilk by managing to be emotionally devastating without being visibly manipulative.

-Gus Edgar

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

large_3

Fantastic Beasts’ title card may bear the same familiar font and sweeping melody of its big brother, but the film is a far cry from Harry Potter. For one, it takes place in 1920s New York; a more grimy, unromanticized version than we’re used to. This New York is saturated in a general unease with the wizarding community, rather than the embracing of magic seen in the Harry Potter franchise, and thus each wizard and witch is forced into hiding, unable to reveal themselves under the judgement of the No-Maj (America’s less-than-subtle equivalent of a Muggle). So when Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist wonderfully realised by Eddie Redmayne, inadvertently lets loose an array of creatures, or, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, to run amok in the city, you can imagine the chaos it would cause.

And sure, it does cause chaos, but to what effect? Fantastic Beasts takes a while to get going – penned by JK Rowling herself, it’s a film composed of two major plotlines: the escape and subsequent capture of Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts, and the concept of an Obscurus and its relation to the leading members of the Second Salem (an organisation keen on stamping out magic and exposing magicians). Sadly, the plotline the film adopts as its title is both the least interesting and the least relevant of the two.

The film plunges straight into action without first establishing character motivations or defining a significant threat that the protagonists face. A mole-like creature called a Niffler with an affinity for treasure, easily the film’s most memorable critter, escapes from Scamander’s case to provoke an entertaining sequence in which Scamander scurries around a bank looking for it. Here, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an endearingly bumbling No-Maj who’s needed as the audience’s perspective. After a brief(case) mix-up, he accidentally involves himself in the wizarding world, much to the disdain of Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a demoted Auror (investigator of crimes related to the Dark Arts). We’re not sure why Scamander’s in New York, nor the consequences of letting the Niffler loose, and so these opening few scenes lack significance if not entertainment, stripping the film of any momentum. When the main protagonists of Scamander, Tina and Kowalski involve themselves with one another, such as during a dinner scene at Tina’s residence, it comes across as unimportant – there’s simply no driving force behind it all.

We are introduced to The Second Salem, a magic-hating organisation, but it’s not made clearer until the film’s second act how exactly they’re important to the story. Bluntly put, the pacing is dreadful. It takes too long to learn how this plotline interacts with the main protagonists, and when it does, it just casts the realisation that there wasn’t much point to the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ storyline in the first place. That’s not to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had watching Eddie Redmayne attempt to woo a weird rhino-esque creature with an unorthodox mating display in order to capture it, but the scenes lack substance, and are, surprisingly, unmemorable. There’s no moments of wonder created akin to Harry’s first ride on the Hippogriff – most of the magic has seemingly died with the Potter saga.

Kowalski certainly seems taken aback, however, by his discovery of magic. His journey in Scamander’s briefcase is a highlight of the film, signalling how the divide between No-Maj and wizard needn’t be. Fantastic Beasts deals with these politics skillfully – it’s a simple oppressed-minority structure that applies to our world as much as it does the wizarding world, but is integrated well into the story and gives various scenes superb heft. Some of these scenes involve Percival Graves, played with manipulative assertion by Colin Farrell. He’s a senior Auror who works in league with Ezra Miller’s Credence, a member of the Second Salem, and his performance is brash and menacing. This contrasts well with Scamander’s inherent introversion, where Redmayne gives a certain charm to the character that would come across as cloying in the hands of a less capable actor. His performance isn’t the caricaturish loner either – he’s as introverted with humans as he is extroverted to his various creatures, supporting his affixion with the beasts. The roles in Fantastic Beasts are testament to JK Rowling’s knack for churning out interesting, believable characters – the one misstep is Tina Goldstein, her one-note, soapy characterisation wasted on Katherine Waterston’s talent.

Yet her writing, in this instance, doesn’t extend to a sophisticated or restrained plot. The film juggles too much – when it works, it’s awe-inspiring. But there’s an inordinate amount of loose plotlines, all culminating in an exhaustive final battle sequence. As the latest entry in the Wizarding World, it’s a disappointment rather than a failure. There are, however, moments of intrigue and awe to be had among its plodding narrative – Fantastic Beasts is a film jam-packed with superfluous storylines, but also a film jam-packed with mature themes and exciting new characters.

Big Hero 6

large_3

There’s been talk of a Disney renaissance; hot off the heels of Frozen’s commercial – and critical – success, the studio released Big Hero 6, a charming flick that was met with a similarly superb response. So much so, it went on to beat the likes of The Lego Movie and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The accolade was clearly indicative of the golden period Disney now finds itself in – away from the depths of the 2000s; the award was sweet, a success story, a signifier of great things to come. The award was undeserved.

Big Hero 6 is undoubtedly a pleasant, likeable film. Baymax, the sidekick of main protagonist Hiro (Ryan Potter), is irresistibly adorable and wonderfully voiced by Scott Adsit. Together these two heroes attempt to stop a mysterious masked villain in control of a creation owned by Hiro himself – microbots -, a figure of formerly ambiguous motives. To conquer this villain, they team up with a group of scientists/thinly-veiled caricatures, each given an upgrade via Hiro’s genius that tailors to each character’s specific skill set. To give any more plot points away would risk delving into spoiler territory – it’s a shame then that you’ll see each plot development coming a mile away. Disney has certainly benefited from their control over the majority of Marvel, and Big Hero 6 is a way to flaunt that control; adapted from the Marvel comics of the same name, the series offers a huge array of creative sequences to choose from. And Big Hero 6 certainly excels in its world-building – the film takes place in the city of San Fransokyo, an imaginative hybrid city that looks beautiful and is much a character of the film as any of the other characters. If the movie shines in one department, then its most obviously the world created, and its sumptuous visuals.

The creativity of the city isn’t translated into plot however, where somehow the writers manage to turn an animation – a cinematic form that has endless possibilities – into a formulaic, albeit enjoyable romp that’s inseparable from a large proportion of live-action movies: A protagonist is introduced, a traumatic event occurs that spurs on the emergence of a hero from within the protagonist, a villain arises and the protagonist, with the help of some lazily-written sidekicks, battle this villain in a huge showdown of mass destruction. It’s disappointing, and frustrating, to see a plot mishandled and shaped into a generic Marvel formula when there’s potential for so much more. It’s not just live-action Marvel films that Big Hero 6 seems to be copying- the animations wears references of The Iron Giant on its sleeve, the similarities bravely shuffling on the edge of ripping-off as opposed to endearingly referencing.

The dialogue itself is a mixed bag – some jokes hit, others are miscalculations, a large portion of the characters are poorly written and used more as plot devices than for realism, and there are many, many expositional problems at the start of the film (“Our parents died in a fire when I was 3, remember?”). Where the script succeeds is in its truthful, adult moral message, and how the film conveys that message. It’s touching, heartfelt, and admirably separates itself from feel-good animations that may end up serving as lies given to younger viewers. This is fast becoming a trend in 2015 – Inside Out deals with a similarly mature, acceptance-themed message too, and is made all the better for it. The ending of Big Hero 6 hits hard (although it’s then hindered by a following scene), despite the likelihood that you may see it coming, and proves to be a high of a film that’s otherwise a little flat.

Big Hero 6 is one of the most beautiful films animated, yet its visuals and resoundingly satisfying message can’t quite make up for poor plot-characterisation, poor plot writing and simply a poor plot. How this won the Oscar over The Lego Movie is anyone’s guess.

– Gus Edgar

Boyhood

large_5

When it comes to reviewing films, the phrase ‘There’s nothing like this’ or ‘It’s completely unique’ is often overused and misused. In Boyhood’s situation, that same phrase is perfectly applicable – there really is nothing quite like Boyhood and it’s concept.

Taking place from 2002 to the present day, the whole cast grow up – literally – before your very own eyes. While the theme of nostalgia is apparent, that’s not the film’s primary focus. Instead, the prominent theme is simply life as a boy growing up (you don’t say…). Its plot is made up of strands – moments in life that can appear mundane and ordinary but when placed together, hold vast amounts of importance. It’s simply amazing and nothing short of a masterpiece in how director Linklater goes about achieving such a moving film – a film that has the power to evoke emotion from the audience just from the concept alone.

The casting choices are superb. There is an obvious amount of risk in choosing a cast that will grow up together over 12 years. Yet every single member is fantastic in the role they play – subtle acts that increase the realism of the film tenfold. Patricia Arquette is incredible as Mason’s mother. Her understated performance where she balances looking after her children with her relationship issues is both contained and touching. The same goes for all of the actors, really – actions that could come across as annoying or illogical are completely natural and can cause certain members of the audience to reminisce with a tear in their eye.

If there are any criticisms that could be made of Boyhood, it’s that a few scenes feel superficial; crammed in to deliver an important message to the audience about life. A scene in a darkroom where Mason’s photography teacher graces him with lessons on life has a facade of importance – but really is all fluff. And while it is touching to watch the smaller moments of the boy’s life, some do come across as a little too mundane and insignificant to serve any fulfilling purpose in the film.

Yet despite its (very few) problems, Boyhood manages to become one of the best films of the year – a powerful character study that focuses not on a particular young boy, but the concept of a boy and his life in general.

– Gus Edgar