Boys playing baseball: it's enough to cure me of even the deepest insomnia. I had thought that the only thing more tiresome would be to hear those boys whine about the struggles of playing baseball; The Phenom has me convinced neither one way nor the other as to the verity of that thought. There's precious little actual baseball in Noah Buschel's movie, and all that whining amasses a significant degree of substance in Johnny Simmons' young prodigy's very legitimate ennui. Surprisingly, it's not the premise of The Phenom that irks me. These themes - the pressure of conformity to cultural standards of masculinity, the emotional abuse of a damaged father on his damaged child, a young man's resultant mental deterioration - are worthy ones, and Buschel understands them finely, his actors committing to these well-developed roles with sensitivity. What irks me is that the whole film is rather too well-developed. Though Buschel is adept at directing the viewer's thoughts toward those of his characters, and designs a few mannered shots to accentuate the effect, his directions are much too blunt to lend his film the dramatic credibility it requires. All attempts at naturalism, and the film is literally full of them, start to crumble as each perfectly-put line of dialogue is spoken, too intelligently and succinctly expressing the characters' state of mind. One perhaps even yearns for the elegant, muscular simplicity of actual baseball footage, as a refreshing counterpoint to the incessant (and occasionally painfully rudimentary) theorizing. My insomnia remains, but The Phenom was right on the verge of banishing it for good... or at least for 90 minutes.
Wednesday, 24 August 2016
The critics are rather in love with Kenneth Lonergan's third film as director, Manchester by the Sea. Reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year were exceptional, and the film is tipped to be a major presence this awards season. Not sold on this sappy trailer full of boring white people, but the critical acclaim has my interest, and surely intends to hold it until I get to form my own opinion. Out in the US on the 18th of November, and in the UK on the 13th of January.
An uncommonly restrained studio horror movie, and all the better for it, but still a studio horror movie. One suspects that budget requirements engendered the refusal of all the bells and whistles that ruin so many such movies, forcing the filmmakers to rely more on artistic creativity than financial capacity, until one considers that the majority of those such movies were made for roughly the same amount as Lights Out. Though fallible itself, David F. Sandberg's adaptation of his 2013 short film sets forth some persuasive genre standards: 1) Concept and gimmickry should feed off one another. Don't employ one solely to augment the other. The horror ought to be an intrinsic element of the central choice of gimmick (this genre is practically predicated upon the existence of gimmicks, so get used to it), and vice versa. 2) Don't fuck with the formula. If you've concocted up plenty of good scares inside the house, concoct a few more. Don't leave the house. Don't escalate toward a chaotic climax - that's not scary, it's just silly. 3) Work with what we're already scared of. Silence and darkness aren't especially friendly states for us social, diurnal creatures. But nobody's born with an innate fear of men in hockey masks, or winged monster-men in cowboy hats. 4) Cast good actors. They're not necessarily expensive - Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer won't break the bank, but they'll serve as terrific vessels for the vital emotional investment from the audience. Lights Out follows those standards, and is the better movie for it. It makes mistakes too: revealing too much too soon, succumbing to pedestrian plotting, betraying the essential element of its concept for an easy out in the end. But after all, Lights Out remains a studio horror movie. And, as such, it's a most commendable effort.
Tuesday, 23 August 2016
The TIFF Discovery slate is designed to highlight emerging directors; all of this year's filmmakers are showing either their first or their second film. It's a healthy-looking lineup too, with some acclaimed titles from earlier 2016 festivals alongside a good number of world premieres. Also included in this latest announcement (of many) from the Toronto International Film Festival are three additions to the TIFF Docs slate, the remainder of which you can view here. Check it out!
ARQ (Tony Elliott)
Blessed Benefit (Mahmoud al Massad)
Boys in the Trees (Nicholas Verso)
Divines (Houda Benyamina)
The Empty Box (Claudia Sainte-Luce)
Flemish Heaven (Peter Monsaert)
The Fury of a Patient Man (Raul Arevalo)
The Giant (Johannes Nyholm)
Godless (Ralitza Petrova)
Guilty Men (Ivan D. Gaona)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (Juho Kuosmanen)
Hearthstone (Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson)
Hello Destroyer (Kevan Funk)
Hunting Flies (Izer Aliu)
In the Blood (Rasmus Heisterberg)
In the Radiant City (Rachel Lambert)
Jean of the Joneses (Stella Meghie)
Jeffrey (Yanillys Perez)
Jesus (Fernando Guzzoni)
Joe Cinque's Consolation (Sotiris Dounoukos)
Kati Kati (Mbithi Masya)
Katie Says Goodbye (Wayne Roberts)
The Levelling Hope (Dickson Leach)
Little Wing (Selma Vilhunen)
Mad World (Wong Chun)
Marija (Michael Koch)
Noces (Stephan Strecker)
Old Stone (Johnny Ma)
Park (Sofia Exarchou)
Prank (Vincent Biron)
The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit)
Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell)
Sand Storm (Elite Zexer)
Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie)
Wulu (Daouda Coulibaly)
Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (Nanette Burstein)
Off Frame aka Revolution Until Victory (Mohanad Yaqubi)
The Terry Kath Experience (Michelle Sinclair)
Midway through each year, the International Federation of Film Critics, or FIPRESCI, hands out its Grand Prix for the preceding 12 months. An estimable organization that attends dozens of film festivals every year and doles out fest-specific awards for each, this is the highest honour which FIPRESCI can give. This year's winner is Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann, a comedy which screened in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Ade becomes the first woman to win the Grand Prix. She won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes for the official selection, having attracted enormous acclaim from critics though failing to win any official jury awards. Ade will receive the award at the opening night gala for the 2016 San Sebastian Film Festival on the 16th of September. The 475 voters chose the film over two other nominees: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa and Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.
Guillaume Nicloux's little exercise in filmmaking finally comes to look very large indeed. It's a slight, self-aware, arguably even self-obsessed study, concerned not so much with a wider world, here only vaguely alluded to, as it is with its own state of being. The grief of two distant parents in the wake of their son's death would surely manifest itself as such, and Valley of Love immerses us in the peculiar particulars of their combined confusion. Nicloux's chief creative contribution is to strip his film to a few components, and to blow them up to extreme proportions - the result is an innately stylized work, and eventually crucially so. In the solipsism of these characters, and thus of the film that is so devoted to them, Nicloux must forge an artistic identity unique to that film, one that arises organically from those few, strange components. If its meaning may be negligible in the context of that wider world which Valley of Love so insistently rejects, it's evidently of enormous meaning to the characters - they find what sense and solace they can in their comforting disconnect, discovering at last peace with the world once they embrace the changes it has forced upon them. Grief is a retreat into a bottomless blackness of despair; Valley of Love escapes from this blackness into a fascinating landscape entirely its own. The oddities with which Nicloux constructs this new landscape are not as intangible as you might predict: the film has a cheeky, surprising sense of humour, and an intelligence and sensitivity in working unexpected, unflattering details into its characters that's even more surprising. An unusual, minimalist work with maximum impact.
Friday, 19 August 2016
A sombre discourse on the damaging, potentially dangerous application of gender upon sex; resolutely without humour, though not without hope. Laura Bispuri tackles antiquated, curious standards of gender identification in this story of a young person without a particular place in society, or in what remains of a society in the mountains of Albania. Her statement is less an expected one of trans or non-binary liberation than it is one of quiet condemnation at rigorous cultural rules separating women from men in meaningless ways. In her confused, compelling protagonist, she and Alba Rohrwacher craft the ideal conduit for expressing the film's ever-changing perspectives on its subject, only eventually settling on a timid note of ambiguity that promises a future equally undefined. Sworn Virgin ends on a potentially problematic point, but with genuine tenderness, and its position in the context of the film's thematic explorations wholly excuses it its questionable nature. Bispuri's refusal to make distinct delineations between past and present, clarity and obscurity, one emotional state and the next, produces a film that's undoubtedly intriguing in its construction, and that never shirks its essential complexity, but that's also annoyingly vague. A number of visually interesting compositions aside, the film's casual, monotonous style does little to enlighten the viewer as to the precise significance of what we're shown. If the sum of it all is indeed a thorough and worthy declaration on cultural attitudes toward gender and their impact on individuals, it's never more than it immediately appears to be. But Bispuri is evidently an intelligent filmmaker, and Rohrwacher a terrific performer, and together they make the most of Sworn Virgin.
Presenting the trailer for the full-length theatrical version of Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time, known as Voyage of Time: Life's Journey; remember that there's a separate IMAX version in addition, apparently comprising the same footage only considerably less - you can check out the trailer for that here. Competing in competition at Venice and also confirmed for a Special Presentation at Toronto. Out in the US on the 7th of October.
Thursday, 18 August 2016
Hany Abu-Assad is, as a filmmaker, his own worst enemy. What conceptual worth his projects may hold, and what promise they may possess on paper, he has a horrible knack for spoiling his own efforts, as well as the efforts of his collaborators. He's not a bad artist in theory - his flair for pace and rhythm always shows, he knows a memorable image when he sees one, and he has a keen ear for evocative sound design. But he is a bad craftsman, and The Idol may be the most egregious waste of his potential to date. At times a passable kid-centric yarn, at other times a quietly provocative statement on the Gazan political situation (ever Abu-Assad's ace card), this uplifting melodrama is undone by an insidious technical ineptitude. I'd be the last to criticize a director for whom means are tight in erring in this regard, but the problems in The Idol's execution are neither brief nor perfunctory. They're near-constant (particularly by the film's end), and contribute to a shoddiness and a lack of believability, ranging from the dialogue to its delivery, to the inconsistent film stock, to the sloppy edit job in combining archival footage with new material. Abu-Assad couldn't wrangle a good performance out of a mediocre actor if he was paid to (and he is), and lead Tawfeek Barhom couldn't muster up a decent lip-sync if he served 20 seasons on RuPaul's Drag Race. It's a winning story, though, whose warmth and whose understated political potency shine through no matter what technical incompetence is set before them. But it's way overdue: back to film school, Hany!
And now to Jesus. There is much interest to be found in examining the roots of christianity and the mythology behind it, not least in the religion's enduring relevance worldwide today. Alas, such interest is not to be found in Rodrigo Garcia's Last Days in the Desert, a vague, simplistic, intellectually barren fable. Intimacy is mistaken for substance, thus spoiling the indistinct, uncomplicated charm of the best fables, whilst failing to deliver the kind of philosophical wisdom it seeks to impart. Not that Garcia has few ideas, nor that they lack form, but that these ideas are largely not his own, and his treatment of them is resolutely mundane. Were there ever a case to be made that it was the cinematographer who actually directed a movie, it'd be Last Days in the Desert - the only lasting virtue of the film is Emmanuel Lubezki's photography. He too fails to educe any intellectual value from Garcia's thin concept, but at least succeeds in creating striking images that serve as the film's only reward for the viewer's patience. Patience is not what one expects to require for such a commonplace, middlebrow work as this, though required it certainly is - not that the film is slow-moving, only that it moves through each point in its progression so predictably, and with so little insight. Perhaps, to a christian, there is indeed much interest to be found in humdrum musings on the life of their saviour, but the rest of us may be resigned to seek salvation elsewhere.