Some Beasts (2019)

aka Algunas Bestias

2020 #225
Jorge Riquelme Serrano | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Chile / Spanish

Some Beasts

Sometimes, one thing can ruin an entire movie. Depending on how harsh a critic you are, I’d say that’s quite rare. Unless it’s threaded throughout the entire film (like, say, a terrible lead performance, or a consistently poor cinematography decision), a small constituent part would have to be truly horrendous to take the entire rest of the movie down with it. Some Beasts is one of those films. The problem arrives in the final 20 minutes, which makes it a massive plot spoiler. Out of some lingering respect for storytellers, I provide this spoiler warning; others would argue content of this nature doesn’t deserve such courtesy.

Anyway, before I get to that: the film’s first hour-or-so. It’s about a family — mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, and their maternal grandparents — travelling to a small island near Chile that the mum & dad have just bought. They want to turn its ramshackle house into a luxury hotel, and they want her rich parents to stump up some money. They’re a snobby bunch — not horrendously so, but with that creeping sense that their grumpiness isn’t just a bad day, it’s a lifelong sense of entitlement. They’re accompanied by a guide, but after he’s accused of being inappropriate towards the daughter (which he wasn’t) and he’s groped (against his protestations) by the grandmother, the family wake up the next day to find he’s disappeared, stranding them on the island.

Some Beasts is labelled as a thriller, but there’s not much thrilling about it. By the halfway point, people are literally sat around staring into space… On the surface, it’s just a family on a bad holiday; but there are obvious interpersonal tensions, which combine with some occasionally ominous music and unusual shot choices (like a series of straight-down bird’s eye views that open the film) to lend a mildly unsettling atmosphere. As the film goes on, their behaviour gets worse, but it’s in small increments on a long sliding scale.

Abusers

Later, they all play a board game. And we watch. In real time. And we join it halfway through, so you’re not going to know what the game is or how it’s played. Then the tensions explode and everybody’s arguing. The whole of this unfolds in one long static take, which is either an impressive bit of staging and acting or just directorial showing off, depending how you want to take it. I tend towards the latter, given what happens next.

The final 20 minutes suddenly throw in a very sensitive and emotive subjective, presenting it in a deliberately provocative fashion. To be clear: the grandfather gets into bed with the teenage daughter and rapes her. Like the board game, this is presented in a couple of long static wide shots, meaning we witness more-or-less the whole thing. A raft of questions are posed. Is this the first time? The daughter seems awfully accepting of it. Not that she likes it, but is resigned; she barely protests. If not, when did it start? There’s only been the vaguest hints earlier in the film about the grandfather’s feelings. Who knows about it? Because there are some cutaways that suggest some of the other characters know what’s going on. And the next morning, it seems like they all know — so when did they find out? And what happens next? Because there’s no blazing row; no calm confrontation, either. They all sit around a bit more, looking shocked… then get in a boat and go home. The end. It’s like there’s not enough screen time to deal with the subject in sufficient detail, so the film doesn’t even try. Except, of course, that it’s the filmmaker who decides the running time and the pacing. There’s no “oops, I introduced a serious issue too late in the day and now I don’t have time to examine it properly!”

Because the film doesn’t actually explore with the topic it’s raised, that means we’re left primarily with the manner of its presentation. That seems consciously designed as an assault on our sensibilities via a brazen depiction of something morally abhorrent. Rather than any meaningful engagement with the multitude of questions and issues it raises, it pokes at us for a reaction, being about as provocative as a child saying a rude word at an inappropriate moment — the scene, and its explicit detail, exists only to say, “look how edgy I am! Look how I’m prepared to show things that shouldn’t be shown!” I’ll be the first to argue that depicting something is not necessarily to endorse it (cf. the endless stupid debates about Scorsese’s oeuvre), but when the Bad Thing goes as unexamined and unpunished as it does here, one starts to wonder about the real intent of the filmmaker.

Abused

The first hour or so of Some Beasts is mostly uneventful; the final 20 minutes are offensively ill-judged. I don’t think you get to throw something that serious into your film, and shoot it so provocatively, without also tackling what it means. You can’t take something that so profoundly affects people who’ve suffered it and treat it in such an off-hand manner. Taboo subjects can and should be tackled in films, but you have to engage with them in thoughtful and meaningful ways, not use them as something shocking for the sake of being shocking. The ending is so egregious, it kicks aside what value there was in the earlier portion of the film. It actually made me feel kind of angry, which is not the kind of reaction I normally feel towards a film.

Some Beasts is well made, in its way, but it’s a bad film.

1 out of 5

Some Beasts is screening on AMPLIFY! until Sunday.

The IMDb New Filmmaker Award 2020

Last night on AMPLIFY!, FilmBath presented the 9th annual IMDb New Filmmaker Award, in which a trio of industry judges choose the best short film by a new filmmaker (clue’s in the name). The winner gets £1,000 cash, £1,000 in gear hire for their next project, a natty trophy, and an IMDb pin badge (normally only given to IMDb employees). If you missed the evening, never fear: the whole 90-minute event is available to rewatch for free, worldwide, here.

Why would you watch an awards show after it’s happened? Well, in this case, you get to hear the judges’ musings on what makes a good film — and when those judges are BAFTA-nominated director Coky Giedroyc (The Virgin Queen, How to Build a Girl), Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning producer Amanda Posey (An Education, Brooklyn), and the CEO of IMDb, Col Needham, those are opinions worth listening to. Even better, you get to watch the five nominated shorts in full, and they’re good a bunch.

But don’t just take my word for it: take my, er, word for it, in the form of these reviews…

If you do intend to watch the awards, fair warning: I’m going to ‘spoil’ who won.

Under the Full Moon

Taking the films in the order they were shown, first up is Under the Full Moon (2020, Ziyang Liu, UK, English, 9 mins, ★★★★☆), about a guy who has his phone pickpocketed and decides to confront the mugger. The most noteworthy aspect here is the whole short is achieved in a single unbroken eight-minute take. I love stuff done in single long takes; at this point it’s a bit of a cliché to enjoy such things — a real film nerd kind of obsession — but, sod it, it’s still cool. To do a thriller storyline like that — something which requires management of tension and suspense, and of information being revealed at the right time in the right way — is even more impressive. You might say, “well, that’s what theatre is — a drama performed in ‘one take’”, but theatre doesn’t have to factor in camerawork; making sure we’re seeing the right stuff at the right time, framed in the right ways. Under the Full Moon manages every different element almost perfectly, the only real flaw coming right near the end, when the camera fails to clearly capture a phone screen with an incoming call, so the director resorts to a subtitle to make sure we get this final ironic twist. And that’s the other thing: this isn’t just a technical stunt, or an exercise in escalating suspense, but a dramatic work with some neatly-drawn character parts and a sense of dramatic irony. Really strong work.

The winner (told you I’d spoil it) was Flush Lou (2020, Madison Leonard, USA, English, 9 mins, ★★★★★), and I entirely agree. It’s a black comedy about the reaction of three women to the death of a man: his daughter (who narrates), his wife, and his mother. It’s got a quirkiness that could be inappropriate, but the tone is juggled just right that it remains hilarious rather than at all distasteful. It’s there in the performances, the shot choices, the editing — the piece really works as a whole to hit precisely the right note. It might call to mind the work of someone like Wes Anderson, but it’s far from a rip-off; it also reminded me of certain just-off-reality American-suburbia-skewering TV shows, like The Riches or Suburgatory (I’m sure there are some more mainstream examples that are eluding my reach right now). Also, it manages to pack eight chapters into its eight minutes, without ever feeling like that’s an unnecessary affectation; if anything, it helps clarify the structure, which is exactly the kind of thing chapters are good for. A huge success all round.

Flush Lou

At the other end of the seriousness spectrum was the winner of the audience vote, The Monkeys on Our Backs (2020, Hunter Williams, New Zealand, English, 8 mins, ★★★★★), a documentary about the mental health of farmers in New Zealand. I think we often have a very positive view of New Zealand — they seem like nice people; their government is doing awesomely well; they make great movies; they’re good at rugby; and so on. But the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and mental health problems disproportionately affect those living and working in isolated rural communities. This is not only a succinct explanation of the problems, with real-life examples as well as expert opinions, but also talks about the solutions, what help is out there and how it’s working. Plus it’s a beautifully shot film (some outtakes in black & white at the beginning show the fundamental quality underlying the colour photography in the rest of the film), with lovely views of countryside life, as if to help remind you that the world is a wonderful place. A wholly different film to Flush Lou, but an equally deserving winner.

The shortest of this year’s five is Players (2020, Ava Bounds, UK, English, 3 mins, ★★★★☆), but that’s not the most noteworthy thing about it. This is: it was made by a 14-year-old. But you’d never guess, because it has a competency and, more strikingly, a surrealism that belies someone much more experienced. Heck, the sound design most reminded me of David Lynch! And the comparison goes beyond the sound work, with an ending that calls to mind some of Lynch’s work where nature and technology clash. Subtitled “a clearly confused film”, I think that was somewhat how the judges felt about its mix of retro costumes and music, computer-generated vocals, and a sci-fi sting in the tail. It’s the kind of film that clearly doesn’t work for everyone — just another way it’s a natural successor to Lynch, then. A 14-year-old making a competition-worthy short film is incredible in itself, but that it also merits so many comparisons to David fucking Lynch? Remarkable.

The Monkeys on Our Backs

The final film was Home (2020, Hsieh Meng Han, UK, English, 10 mins, ★★★☆☆), in which a girl living with her mother in a single room in a dingy apartment block finds the communal toilet locked, but then hears music coming from a nearby ventilation grill. Climbing through, she finds herself in a brightly-lit world of opulence, with people in elegant clothes dancing to genteel music, and an array of luscious food on offer. She even makes a friend. But then uptight officiousness arrives in the form of a stuffy manager, who refuses to let her use the toilet. It’s like a modern socially-conscious take on Alice in Wonderland, though I’m not sure what point it was ultimately making — kindness is nice and everyone deserves to be allowed to use the toilet?

If any of that tickles your fancy, don’t forget you can still watch the whole event, free, here.

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

2020 #193
Eliza Hittman | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania, and she’s pregnant. She’s young, her family clearly aren’t well off, she’s not in a relationship with the father — the film explains none of this to us explicitly, but it’s all clear. So is it any wonder that Autumn decides she wants an abortion? Her local sex health clinic’s attitude is to show her a video about why it’s evil. Her conservative parents obviously wouldn’t understand; especially, you think, her dad, who is at least verbally abusive. And so with the help of her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), they scrape together what little money they have, throw a simple lie in the parents’ direction, and set off for New York City, where Autumn can get the procedure without parental consent.

Clearly, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not impressed by the state of things in the US of A. It’s an indictment of what women have to endure to have control over their own bodies. The so-called “Land of the Free” isn’t so free for some people. All this is stuff many of us know, thanks to recent political movements and counter-campaigns to change women’s rights. But by showing us a ‘case study’, as it were, of one girl’s experience, writer-director Eliza Hittman makes the real-world effect of these political decisions so very tangible. (It’s interesting that the film is quite prominently a UK coproduction. One suspects that non-US influence and/or cash injection may’ve been necessary.)

Lest you think the film is some kind of feminist polemic, it comments on all of this without ever saying much of it explicitly. It is, if anything, a witness statement; a factually-stated case from which we infer the unjustness of the system because we are capable of empathy. (The natural counterpoint being that, of course, if you showed it to certain groups they’d not feel the same level of care or compassion, but that’s their failing as human beings.) Despite the big issues at play, and these unavoidable conclusions, it’s a subtle and quiet film, with much left unsaid. The scene which gives the film its title is a series of questions posed to Autumn before she can have the abortion. Some are just yes/no answers; some she can’t even bring herself to respond. They’re not specific enough to tell us what exactly has happened in her life, but they indicate and hint at so much. And that’s ok — we don’t need to know the totality of her personal experience to empathise with what she’s going through now; just that she’s not coming from a loving, supportive place that might make it all a bit easier.

Skylar and Autumn

As Autumn, Flanigan is incredible; doubly so as it’s a debut performance (apparently she beat over 100 actresses for the role. Well done, casting director!) Like the film, she conveys so much with so little; so much bottled up emotion. Skylar is a great character, too: so supportive, but not incapable of feeling her own emotions. At one point, as the trip unexpectedly drags on over several days, it all gets a bit much and she has to go off by herself for a bit. That kind of behaviour helps accentuate the realness of events — even when you want to be supportive, sometimes you need a little break. No one’s perfect. Ryder has a couple of minor credits to her name, but both girls deserve to go on to much more on the strength of their work here.

Some viewers will find the film’s style too slow, too wandering, aimless; but, for me, that further underlined the reality. All that time spent just getting from place to place, or just waiting around until it’s time — that’s life. Indeed, for me, it only heightened the film’s tension, which crushes in all the time, throughout. Or perhaps not tension, exactly, but worry; uncertainty; anxiety. What’s going to happen? What’s going to go wrong? How are they going to deal with this, that, and the other? Horribly, this is probably what it’s like to be a young woman a lot of the time, especially in America. That’s the film’s power: it takes a real-life experience lived by so many, and it doesn’t just show it to us, it makes us feel it.

At one point, a professional tells Autumn that “whatever your decision is, is totally fine, as long as it’s yours.” It’s a moment of much-needed kindness, because, in Autumn’s experience, that is not how things are — but it is how they should be.

5 out of 5

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

2019 #145
Taika Waititi | 108 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA, New Zealand & Czech Republic / English | 12A / PG-13

Jojo Rabbit

So much was said about Jojo Rabbit on its release (last October in the US; at the start of this year here in the UK) — and, indeed, before its release, thanks to it debuting on the festival circuit — that, coming to it now, it feels like there’s nothing fresh to add. Doubly so as it’s been through the usual cycle of backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash (rinsed and repeated several times over). That said, it does seem to have dropped out of the conversation and consciousness somewhat, which perhaps hints at its longer-term reception — in short, it’s no Parasite. (Maybe that’s an unfair comparison anyway, given Parasite is the kind of movie that’s already attracted “greatest of all time” status some places.)

And so, faced with nothing fresh to say, I will instead just explain and/or justify my own full-marks star rating. “Justify” feels like the right word, because some people (some critics, in particular) really took against the film. Others, less vitriolic, thought it didn’t measure up to writer-director Taika Waititi’s high standard. I don’t think it’s as good as Hunt for the Wilderpeople or What We Do in the Shadows (both modern classics, more or less), but I did like it a lot. When it hit the mark with its humour, it was very, very funny; but it balances this with emotional and hard-hitting bits. The balance it strikes between the two is uncommon but well managed. On a micro level, some parts are outstanding (like the title sequence cut to the Beatles), but I also felt it was a little long in places.

My friend Hitler

Before it came out, some were worried about the wider reaction to a comedy where the ‘heroes’ were Nazis. But, of course, Nazis aren’t the heroes, and it’s not difficult to understand that. Indeed, I can see why some critics were saying that, despite expectations, it’s not actually a particularly hard-hitting movie, because it’s not really shocking (unless you’re easily shocked by an imaginary-friend Hitler being a comedic character; and considering that humorous screen depictions of Hitler date back to at least The Great Dictator, so it’s hardly a revolutionary idea).

Despite some doubts, in the end I rounded my score up to a full 5 because, while it’s not perfect, it contains an awful lot that I enjoyed an awful lot. One to rewatch and reconsider, perhaps.

5 out of 5

Jojo Rabbit is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Patrick (2019)

aka De Patrick

2020 #221
Tim Mielants | 96 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium & Netherlands / Flemish, Dutch, French, English & German

Patrick

Patrick’s hammer is missing. More accurately, one of Patrick’s hammers is missing — he has seven, of different sizes, arranged in a neat row on a bespoke wall mount, and the middle one is no longer there. Patrick is the handyman at a nudist campsite run by his father, who is old and sick. The head of the residents’ council is a busybody; his wife is secretly sleeping with Patrick, not that Patrick seems to care. A famous musician Patrick has never heard of arrives to stay, followed by his pretty but frustrated girlfriend. Then Patrick’s father dies. But, most importantly, Patrick’s hammer is still missing. Fortunately, a former police officer friend turns up to pay his respects, and gives Patrick advice on how to find his hammer — so Patrick launches his investigation.

To sum Patrick up as “Agatha Christie meets the Coen brothers in a nudist camp” doesn’t feel too wide of the mark. Okay, there’s no murder, so perhaps mystery-genre fans could think of a better (though, unavoidably, less famous) author than Christie to sub in. But the fact remains that the missing hammer isn’t just a story hook to hang something else on: it’s a solid mystery narrative, with clues and red herrings and twists. Conversely, it’s not just a mystery, which is where the second comparison comes in. The overall quirky, just-left-of-reality, slightly-heightened tone evokes the Coens’ work, without (thank goodness) being a rip-off. It’s very much a comedy-drama, in that it’s not out-and-out seeking to provoke laughs, but it’s frequently absurd to the point of being laughable — although, with What We Do in the Shadows’ Jemaine Clement among the supporting cast, you can be assured of some genuinely humorous moments too.

One element that isn’t mined for amusement, to the film’s credit, is the nudity. Equally, if you’re the kind of person who hears “set in a nudist camp” and thinks “wah-hey!”, don’t get your hopes up. These are real nudists, not pretty movie ones: middle-aged to older, with lumpy flesh wobbling around all over the place. The one conventionally attractive member of the cast (Hannah Hoekstra as the musician’s girlfriend, Nathalie) remains clothed. Indeed, the positive aspect of how the film treats nudity is that… it doesn’t really treat it at all. It’s doesn’t use the nudity for laughs, nor does it sexualise it, nor does it linger on it, nor does it avoid it. It’s just there; a fact of life. This story takes place in a nudist camp, so people are naked — that’s that. Even if all sorts of bits flopping about strikes you as giggle-worthy at first, before too long you stop even noticing.

Anyone could have taken it

What is often visually appealing is Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography. There are some beautiful shots and scenes, from your obvious screen-cap-able pretty lensing (like a funeral where the whole camp are scattered around a smoke-filled forest), but the way the camera moves, with slow pans (like the one when Nathalie first visits Patrick’s workshop), or clever angles (like when Patrick has to climb out of a tipped-over caravan).

The combination of all of the above made me rather love Patrick. While the limits of a five-star rating system mean I’m only going to give it a 4 for now, it’s sort of a 4+, thanks to a litany of great shots and moments that spike above the overall quality of the film (which, I should make clear, is still high). It’s a movie that appeals to my taste: unmistakably absurd, but without revelling in that absurdity to the point where the wheels of momentum come off and it all falls apart. It satisfies as a mystery; as a pillorying of the politicking that goes on in small organisations; and as a character study of a man who just wants to find his hammer.

4 out of 5

Patrick is streaming on AMPLIFY! from today until 17th November. It’s on general UK release from 20th November.

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

2020 #239
Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Ireland & UK / English

Rose Plays Julie

Long Lost Family meets rape revenge thriller in this Irish drama about a veterinary student, Rose (Ann Skelly), who was adopted as a baby and now decides to finally meet her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), only to uncover a dark secret about their shared past. Well, I’ve kinda given away the ‘secret’ in my opening ten words, haven’t I? My apologies if you’re a total spoilerphobe, but here’s the thing: some blurbs and whatnot try to conceal that reveal (and when it comes in the film, it is played as a revelation; more on that in a bit), but, frankly, even if you haven’t already had it spelled out (and most reviews don’t try to hide it), it’s pretty easy to guess where things are going — perhaps even from reading one of those oh-so-oblique blurbs (that’s when I figured it out).

But this isn’t your standard rape revenge movie. The act itself is historical, with only its aftermath shown in a couple of fuzzy flashbacks — this isn’t one of those trashy flicks that has its cake and eats it by ickily revelling in the assault before also enjoying the violent vengeance. And instead of the avenger being a dismayed husband/partner, or the (attractive, young) wronged woman who’s suddenly an expert assassin, it’s the daughter who came of it. If you’re after the visceral thrills of the aforementioned kind of rape revenge movies, you won’t find them in this slow-burn, introspective drama; but if you’re open to that style, the mother-daughter angle of how it approaches its subject matter is a unique element.

This is where the Long Lost Family part remains relevant, because the tentative new relationship between Rose and the mother who gave her up two decades ago is almost a big a part of the film as her seeking out and confronting her biological father. This rides a lot on Skelly and Brady as actors, because writer-directors Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy aren’t the sort of filmmakers who write big speeches where their characters explain their feelings — quite the opposite. Instead, we study their passive faces in extended closeups, trying to discern what’s going on as they think things over. One of the most outwardly expressive moments comes when Ellen reveals their shared past to Rose, in a blunt statement just hours after they’ve first met. It’s probably not the best way to go about telling someone that was how they were conceived, but it makes for a slap-in-the-face moment of drama, and Skelly’s reaction is powerful: she doesn’t ‘do’ anything, but her face changes entirely.

The secret comes out

The film’s quiet, subtle mode must be challenging for an actor — no grand emotive speeches to show off with — but this cast are up to the challenge. Skelly is obviously the standout, letting through just glimmers of reaction that allow us to understand how much she’s struggling with all this troubling new information. Brady is very good also, even though I feel like some of her character arc has been left offscreen, between scenes. Rose’s father, Peter, is played by Aidan Gillen, who always excels at embodying smarmy bastards, and that extra-textual awareness helps him to, again, keep his performance mostly subdued and realistic. He’s not some overt monster stomping across everyone’s lives, but an outwardly nice guy with an evil core.

The film’s biggest detriment is that it perhaps takes its serious subject matter a bit too seriously. It’s a very portentous film, in which the restrained performances, gloomy photography, slow-burn pace, and ominous music combine to create an intensely fateful atmosphere. Something is, inevitably, going to happen… eventually… On the one hand, it means that, as Rose gets in deeper, the tension steadily begins to grow. On the other, I’m aware some viewers think it’s so self-serious that it tips over into being laughable. There’s something to be said for varying your tone.

Conversely, I can see why Lawlor & Molloy weren’t in the mood for levity: this is a film about two women, damaged in different ways, who need to come to terms with what has happened to them; both searching for something, even if they don’t know it. You could argue, even, that applies to three people, because Gillen’s character also comes to realise he’s broken — though, in his case, how much sympathy we can feel for him is a whole other discussion. And mixed into all that are major ethical dilemmas: reaching out to birth parents who requested no contact; euthanising healthy animals (if you’re squeamish about injured and dying animals, do not apply); and, by extension, the question of what is appropriate restitution for transgressive behaviour by humans.

Peter the rapist

The latter leads to an ending that I’m not sure how I feel about (massive spoilers follow!) Peter is killed by Ellen, but only because he acquiesces — he accepts what’s happening and allows Ellen to finish it. It’s not exactly suicide (he wouldn’t have done it if Ellen hadn’t turned up and stabbed him with a syringe full of poison), but, by the end, he’s also not protesting. He accepts his guilt and punishment; almost seems to welcome the relief, in fact. If only all rapists were so helpful… and the fact they wouldn’t be is what makes this such a grey area. But then, maybe that’s the point: the film isn’t arguing that this is how things should be done, but asking the question: is this ok? If not, what would be? On another level, from a story structure perspective, it feels somewhat unsatisfying that Rose isn’t involved, after the rest of the film was primarily about her. That might be morally correct (it’s really Ellen’s trauma to deal with), but it feels wrong dramatically to end the film with resolution for Ellen more than for Rose.

Between its heavy issues and unwaveringly doom-laden tone, Rose Plays Julie is not a light viewing experience. If you like the idea of slow-burn dramatic thriller that spends a lot of time focused on people’s still faces as they process information silently and internally, and leaves you with a lot to chew over when it’s done, this is a film for you. If you think that sounds inscrutable or dull, steer clear.

4 out of 5

Rose Plays Julie is streaming on AMPLIFY! until Thursday 12th November. It includes a half-hour Q&A with the directors, actor Orla Brady, and composer Stephen McKeon.

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

Luxor (2020)

AMPLIFY! film festival starts today, and one of the launch films is Luxor, which is also on general release in the UK today (though not in cinemas, what with them all being closed again). It’s available digitally via an array of services, but, psst, AMPLIFY! may well be the cheapest.

Other titles available on AMPLIFY! from today are…

…and there’s much more to come over the next couple of weeks (the festival ends on Sunday 22nd). For info on all the films, check out the AMPLIFY! programme.

I’ve already seen some of those films, so I intend to review them in the next day or two; but for starters, here are my thoughts on Luxor

Luxor
(2020)

2020 #226
Zeina Durra | 86 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Egypt, UK & UAE / English & Arabic | 12A

Luxor

Hana (Andrea Riseborough) arrives in Luxor, Egypt, for a break — as we will come to learn, she’s a doctor who’s been working on the Syrian border, and the traumatic things she witnessed have clearly taken their toll; and Luxor isn’t just a scenic place to visit, but somewhere she spent a significant time, a couple of decades ago, in her 20s. While touring the sights, she happens to bump into Sultan (Karim Saleh), an old friend from back in the day — and, clearly, more than a friend. He’s an archaeologist on a dig, and so they begin to see more sights together, and their connection is rekindled…

Luxor plays like it’s part gentle romantic drama, part tourism video. There are multiple scenes of Hana leisurely roaming around ancient monuments, soaking in the atmosphere and history. (According to writer-director Zeina Durra, “the film had a whole load more of those silent walking scenes but we had to take them out for the sake of the audience’s sanity!”) There’s a lot going on internally for these characters — a lot of stuff we’re not privy to — which will work for some viewers and wholly turn off others. I found Hana’s mental state to be infectious, to a degree. There’s evident nostalgia for her previous time there, tinged with a certain amount of melancholy. Well, nostalgia is inherently quite a melancholic emotion, with its longing for unobtainable pleasures, but Hana is definitely at a time in her life when she’s considering both the past and possible futures. It’s so palpable that Luxor is, at times, the kind of film that’s so seeped in nostalgia it can make you long for a place you’ve never been.

Sightseeing

Unfortunately, these things I liked about the film begin to lose footing somewhat as it goes on and hunts around for a conclusion. There’s a thread of spiritual, almost magical realism stuff, which doesn’t feel inappropriate given the history of the place, but it doesn’t sit wholly with the romantic drama bit either. It’s the kind of thing that has to be measured out very carefully if you’re going to mix it into an otherwise grounded drama, and I’m not sure how much the film commits to it. It culminates in a dream sequence that I didn’t buy into. Also rubbing me up the wrong way were the occasional chapter-like title cards, which felt like a pointless addition (I’m tempted to say affectation) because they didn’t seem to add anything, not even a shape or structure, that wasn’t there otherwise.

I liked Luxor at lot at first (if describing it as “a tourism video” sounds negative, well, it’s set in the kind of enchanting place you’d like to watch a travel video about, so that’s ok), but by the end it had kind of lost me. I thought it was better when it had less of a plot, even — I’m not normally the kind of critic to take such a view (I like a story in my films, thanks), but I was succumbing to its relaxed tenor quite pleasantly. In the absence of the option for real-world trips abroad right now, others may well feel the same. What unfolds after that is, I think, on reflection, a meditation on a specific kind of female middle-age. I suspect that, too, will play better with some viewers more than others.

3 out of 5

Luxor is screening on AMPLIFY! until Thursday 12th November.

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

The 100-Week Roundup XIV

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

While I’ve been busy with FilmBath and AMPLIFY!, a lot of review dates I intended to hit have flown by, which naturally brought to mind the Douglas Adams quote above. All those reviews that would’ve tied in to something now won’t, but they’ll find a home here someday.

In the meantime, I’m far behind on my 100-week roundups, which is why I’ve put some energy into this little lot. They finish up my reviews from October 2018, as well as dipping a toe into the waters of November 2018. It’s a mixed bag in every sense: very different genres; very different styles; very different ratings…

The films in question are…

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
  • The Lives of Others (2006)
  • Jennifer’s Body (2009)
  • Going for Golden Eye (2017)


    It’s Such a Beautiful Day
    (2012)

    2018 #218
    Don Hertzfeldt | 62 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English

    It's Such a Beautiful Day

    In 2014, when Time Out New York ranked It’s Such a Beautiful Day 16th on their list of the 100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made, critic Tom Huddleston described it as “one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad.” That’s a description I’m about to singularly fail to better.

    Animator Don Hertzfeldt enjoys a cult following — you might never have heard of him (though chances you heard about his Simpsons couch gag, if nothing else), but if you have, well, you have. After releasing numerous shorts, It’s Such a Beautiful Day was his first feature — and, indeed, it was first released as a trilogy of short films between 2006 and 2011. Hence my notes break down into three parts, which I shall now share unedited…

    Part 1, Everything Will Be OK. Okay, so, this is weird. Interesting depiction of some kind of mental collapse (I guess we’re meant to infer it’s a brain tumour). Odd everyday events — what does it mean? Maybe that’s the point — Bill [the central character] is pondering what it all means too, after all.

    Part 2, I Am So Proud of You, is like, “you thought that was weird? Get a load of this!” A lot of it seems to be weird — what some people would describe as “disturbed — just for the sake of it. But at other times, it’s almost casually profound. There’s something interesting about its relationship to time and the order of events, or at least the presentation of the order of events.

    Part 3, It’s Such a Beautiful Day. See above. It’s interesting that it was three short films, made over a period of six years, because it really does feel of a piece. Maybe it was just easier to fund/produce shorts rather than a feature, and this was always the end goal.

    Well, there you go. This is not an animated movie for everyone (if you think “animated movie” means “Disney musical”… hahaha), but it’s certainly something unique and special.

    4 out of 5

    The Lives of Others
    (2006)

    aka Das Leben der Anderen

    2018 #220
    Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 137 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany / German | 15 / R

    The Lives of Others

    In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.IMDb

    This German movie won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and BAFTA (as well as a host of other similar awards), and is currently ranked as the 59th best film of all time on IMDb. It lives up to its accolades. It’s tense and thrilling like a spy movie; emotionally and politically loaded like an art house drama.

    Of particular note is Ulrich Mühe, superb as the increasingly-conflicted Stasi agent. He conveys so much with so little — the character’s massive ideological change is all portrayed as inner conflict. I was wondering why we hadn’t seen a lot more of him since, but sadly he passed away the year after the film came out, aged just 54.

    As the film focuses so much on him, it might be easy to underrate the technical merits, especially because they’re unobtrusive; but it’s perfectly shot by Hagen Bogdanski, with crisp, cold, precise photography. As for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, his followup was infamous Johnny Depp / Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourst, a film so maligned it seems to have derailed his career. Shame.

    5 out of 5

    The Lives of Others placed 24th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Jennifer’s Body
    (2009)

    2018 #222
    Karyn Kusama | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jennifer's Body

    Jennifer’s Body didn’t go down well on its original release, but the past few years have seen it develop a cult following, with people regularly recommending it on social media as an under-appreciated horror flick. I didn’t dislike it, but I’m not ready to join their ranks.

    You can see what they were going for, in some respects — it’s trying to be a very feminist horror movie, with the female friendship at the core and so on. And yet, despite the female writer and female director and female stars, chunks of it feel so very male fantasy. I mean, Megan Fox goes skinny dipping for no reason. We don’t see anything explicit, but I’d wager that has more to do with Fox’s contract than authorial intent. Later, there’s a lingering kiss between the two girls that looks like it’s trying its hardest to best the famous one from Cruel Intentions. And talking of references, the whole film sounds like it’s trying really, really hard to be Heathers, with an overload of slang ‘n’ shit. It’s a bit, well, try-hard.

    Megan Fox is surprisingly good though, and there are some neat bits of direction, like the intercut murder/virginity-losing scene. It’s just a shame the whole film doesn’t show that kind of consistency. It did grow on me as it went on (I’m not sure if it took me time to settle into its rhythm or if it just had a clunky start), though exactly how much is debatable: it ends up being a moderately entertaining comedy-horror, but one that’s never really scary and rarely that funny.

    3 out of 5

    Going for Golden Eye
    (2017)

    2018 #224
    Jim Miskell | 60 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

    Going for Golden Eye

    According to IMDb trivia, this is “the first video game mockumentary”. Well, you’re not going to mistake it for a real documentary — the acting is uniformly amateurish, which is one of the film’s biggest hindrances (it certainly gets in the way of selling the documentary conceit).

    Making allowances for such amateur roots, the film does manage some decently amusing bits, although just as many that don’t land. Very little about it will surprise or delight, but more forgiving or nostalgic viewers may be tickled at times. Plus, you have to have a certain amount of admiration for zero-budget filmmakers who managed to produce and get distribution for their film. Even if there’s an occasional for-friends-and-family feel to parts of it, they’ve still completed something many wannabes only dream of.

    Outside of aforementioned relatives, this is only really going to appeal to people with nostalgia for playing GoldenEye on N64 back in the day. In a way, the best part of the whole film is the opening montage about how GoldenEye was unexpectedly great, bucking expectations of both movie tie-in games and first-person shooters. A genuine well-made documentary about the game — why it was so important; what made it so popular — would be interesting…

    2 out of 5

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

    2020 #195
    Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

    Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

    However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

    Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

    A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

    Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

    If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

    Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

    4 out of 5

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Bait (2019)

    2020 #9
    Mark Jenkin | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

    Bait

    The past and the present — the old ways and the new — clash head-on in Mark Jenkin’s Bait, both in its storyline and its production.

    The former is the tale of a fisherman without a fishing boat: Martin (Edward Rowe) is a Cornishman through-and-through, a lover of his community and resistant to change; but his brother, Steve (Giles King) has turned their boat into a tourist vehicle, and they’ve had to sell their childhood home to well-to-do city-dwellers (played by Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine, as the very embodiment of upper-middle-class London-types with the money for a rural second home). As the summer season arrives, and upcountry tourists descend on the small town, flashing their cash, Martin struggles to get by; and the clash between two different worlds comes to a head.

    As to the latter (the production method), Jenkin has steeped his film in both older filmmaking methods and the place it was made. It was shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with a wind-up camera, with all the sound post-synced because the camera was too noisy to record on set. All 130 rolls of film were hand-developed by Jenkin in his Cornish studio, with a deliberate degree of what some might call “carelessness” to add authenticity: scratches come from washing the film under a running tap; exposure varies because the film was wound manually, therefore at an inconsistent speed; a “strange sparkle” on one bit of film was caused by leaving the studio door open and pollen blowing onto the drying film (there’s more about tall that in an interview with Jenkin by British Cinematographer). It’s a defiantly hand-crafted and old-fashioned method for making a movie; a way that’s becoming ever rarer thanks to the appealing ease of digital, both to blockbuster and low-budget productions. It’s funny that the only people ‘allowed’ to use film are either your Christopher Nolans — big-name auteurs who make tonnes of money for the studios, so they can do what they want — or your Mark Jenkins — tiny independent artists producing films for a pittance, so they can do it how they want.

    Beautiful black and white

    Some might consider Jenkin’s method to be unnecessarily pretentious — self-consciously Arty — but it’s actually a wonderful marriage of form and content; the earthy, hand-hewn visuals reflect the film’s themes. It’s not just an exercise in style, either. This would be a worthwhile narrative if told in a more conventional manner, but it would feel less striking and authentic with a glossy digital sheen. Of course, all filmmaking is “technology”, but there’s something about using such old cameras and film stock, developing the footage by hand, post-dubbing the sound, that all feels like The Old Ways, like it’s traditional and handmade, in a way that matches up with Martin’s desires and goals.

    Some reviews have compared the end result to silent film, which doesn’t wash for me. The damaged visual quality might initially call to mind a poorly-preserved and unrestored print, which, if one has encountered such a thing at all, is likely to be from a silent film. But the actual feel is more 1950s location-shot social realism, with the themes of everyday rural working life, naturalistic acting and lighting, and post-dubbed dialogue (there’s none of that on your average silent movie, is there?)

    Lest you think Jenkin is a one-note polemical storyteller, different points of view are allowed to exist: the upcountry folk aren’t all ‘evil’ (Martin may feel they’re a thorn in his side, but sometimes they’re actually on his side), and not all the locals long for the past (some are happy, or at least resigned, to fitting in and making their way with how things are). These are issues Cornwall has been dealing with for decades — it’s one of the poorest regions of the UK, thanks in part to so much property being bought as holiday homes and only occupied for a few weeks a year. But now is the right time to tell a story like that, because those problems are coming to a head: Brexit is set to be a disaster for Cornwall, because they’re going to lose a lot of EU funding. Will the British government replace it? The Cornish people, who did vote for Brexit, presumably assume so. I think they’ll be lucky.

    This is a local pub for local people

    Not that Jenkin is directly engaging in the Brexit debate here. In one scene we can overhear it being discussed on the radio, leaving us in no doubt when we are, but this isn’t a commentary on political upheaval. This is a story of normal people and how their lives have been altered by changing times. It may be unquestionably set now, but, as the filmmaking style underlines, the story is fairly timeless; it’s grounded and everyday.

    Well, until a shocking event near the end, anyhow. No spoilers, but I have mixed feelings about that plot development. In one sense, it takes away from the feeling that this is an everyday situation that plays out across modern Cornwall; but, in another way, it’s a realisation of all the tensions that have been brewing throughout the film, like it’s almost inevitable that some tragedy would occur. Fortunately, how the film then deals with the aftermath is typically coolheaded and understated. We don’t get to see the immediate fallout (there are some characters we don’t even see again), just what ultimately happens later. In some ways that’s almost too little (for example, we’re not shown how it affects the locals’ relationship with the upcountry folk), but it also lands its overall point.

    Bait has mostly been a regional success; regional not just to the UK, but to specific parts of the UK: according to figures published in Sight & Sound (and repeated in the BFI’s booklet accompanying the film’s Blu-ray), a typical movie makes 4.9% of its UK box office in the southwest, but for Bait that’s up at 35%. Hopefully time will see it break out further, because it’s a compelling story, both timely and timeless, uniquely told.

    5 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of Bait is on Film4 tonight at 11:20pm.