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

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: Split

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

M.Night Shyamalan’s latest may not be the return to form that many have suggested, but at least it’s a return to watchability. It focuses on Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), an introverted teen who, along with two other victims, are abducted and imprisoned in an underground facility. Their abductor? A man with 23 different names and 23 different, competing personalities, with the 24th personality, ‘The Beast’ waiting to be unleashed…

Split is a film that epitomises Shyamalan’s career so far, laying bare his greatest qualities and exposing his worst. He manages to conjure up more than enough entertainment – a pulpy brew of ridiculous conceits and committed performances – to make the whole viewing experience worthwhile. Yet, similar to many of the flops in his filmography, Split is hampered by shoddy dialogue and bland characterisation. Bettie Buckley’s Dr. Karen Fletcher, for instance, is a character wasted on exposition, a figure for McAvoy to act against while never amounting to anything more substantial. In truth, only McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy are given enough screentime to truly function as characters. McAvoy has terrific fun in his role – it’s no Oscar-worthy performance but he’s able to act each character out with enough believability that the narrative doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own preposterousness. Taylor-Joy, in the ‘final girl’ role similar to her part in The Witch, reacts to her situation with superb measure, an enigmatic presence whose past is revealed in a series of surprisingly dark flashbacks.

As a tension chamber, Split succeeds, through murky lighting, slow-panning camera movements and a refusal to acknowledge the ridiculousness of its own premise. More impressively, it manages to explore mature themes in a wholly unique, if clumsy manner. Sadly, the film’s penchant for unnatural dialogue and abandonment of any form of characterisation leaves me with split opinions.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Jackie

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

Pablo Larrain’s first of two biopics released this year (The second being Neruda) is a tamely unorthodox character study of Jacqueline Kennedy, following her husband’s assassination. Using an interview as a rather unnecessary framing device, Jackie details her anguish and subsequent resilience to lovingly memorialise him, visualised through a series of flashbacks that agitatedly shift between settings. She’s holding her dead husband in her lap, ingraining a grotesque, lingering image. She’s confiding her insecurities to a priest, played by John Hurt, in sequences too brief to impact. And she’s arguing with several members of the White House regarding her husband’s funeral.

This argument forms the crux of Jackie’s narrative, an axis on which to apply themes of legacy, grief, and letting go. Natalie Portman stays true to the character, and her despair is certainly believable. Yet the performance is inherently flawed: Portman, in attempting to resurrect Jacqueline Kennedy with a desperately faithful performance, draws attention to the unnaturalness of the character’s mannerisms, and, most noticeably, her accent. It’s a loyal depiction, sure, but it’s hard to pry the celebrity away from the figure when the accent disengages the viewer from the drama.

Shot on 16mm, Jackie is framed and textured to recreate its era, archaically draining the image of its colour and sensibly placing Portman in bold, sanguine shades. The intent is clear: it’s Jackie in isolation, disembodied from normality, left to grasp at what’s left of reason in the face of her husband’s death. This idea is furthered via Mica Levi’s score, a deliciously foreboding melody that phonetically encapsulates Jackie’s friable state of mind. Crescendoing to a forceful and resonant finale, Jackie ends strongly, but you can’t help but feel that Larrain’s artistry is too subdued to memorialise the film with the same vigor that Jackie memorialised her husband.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: The Fits

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

When a film pose questions, do they have to be answered? The Fits stages a mystery – a girls’ dance troupe is plagued by a series of seizures that have no discernible explanation – but doesn’t seem all too interested in figuring it out. The film instead uses these fits as a backdrop to explore the identity and development of its central character, Toni, an eleven-year-old tomboy played with tremendous vulnerability by Royalty Hightower.

She slowly involves herself in the dance group, gradually learning the moves and straying further away from her initial routine of training in the boxing ring with her older brother. She makes friends, gets her ears pierced, and plays in empty swimming pools. It’s a simple, contained story, exemplified by director Anna Rose Holmer’s decision to stage most of her narrative in a single location: the sports facility. Yet The Fits isn’t entirely grounded. Its eccentric score overrides its mundanity, and the fits are filmed almost as dance sequences. There’s an element of the supernatural to the seizures, an awareness of the metaphorical significance that they possess, despite several people, notably adults, treating it as a very real and scientific threat.

The film shares many similarities to Carol Morley’s The Falling: they both sculpt their narrative around seizures in a group of girls, and tie them to themes of self-discovery and sexuality. But The Fits is The Falling’s less woozy American cousin, a more placid interpretation that trades complexity for focus. It may lack dramatic intensity for the majority of its runtime, but its admirable restraint lets loose in its final, euphoric moment: an ambitious stab at surrealism that both conflicts with its tone and makes perfect sense. It may not answer its own questions, but The Fits doesn’t need to when its final image speaks for itself.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Endless Poetry

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

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s second installment in his planned quasi-autobiographical quintet is an opulent odyssey, utilising his trademark brazen surrealism and contortion fetishism to full, nauseating effect. His younger self, played at first in his youth by Jeremias Herskovits, and then soon after by his actual son, Adan Jodorowsky, is a self-obsessed man with the ambition to become a renowned poet.

His quest sees him abandon his parents, join a group of artists, and begin an unconventional romance, but nothing his character ever says or does should be taken literally. There are strands of meaning, concealed visual cues that support and substantiate the film’s tangled narrative, but to uncover its metaphorical tenacity is like traversing treacle. The motif of passersby wearing expressionless masks that strip them of identity and signify the protagonist’s blatant solipsism is relatively easy to work out. His anarchic portrayal of a self-loathing clown pointing to his frustration with not being taken seriously as a director is manageable, but also flawed in its concept by eventually urging the audience to laugh. And the film’s monologues on the meaning of life are more often than not lazily profound babble. It’s an uneven hodgepodge of ideas that is similar to an exuberant fever dream, but the ideas are so exciting, if occasionally impenetrable, that Endless Poetry always remains at least interesting.

At 128 minutes, it also boasts the contradiction of being both overstuffed and overlong. Endless Poetry resembles the blueprints of Jodorowsky’s swan song, the veteran director cramming his film with as many ideas as possible, and exhausting his audience in the process. Yet, while it may not be quite the concentrated cinephiliac ecstasy he conjured up with his magnum opus, The Holy Mountain, Endless Poetry is nevertheless a heady and stirring delve into the mad, mad mind of Jodorowsky.   

-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