Films reviewed: “Afternoon Delight”, “The Bounceback”, “Computer Chess” (pictured above), “Doll & Em”, “Drinking Buddies”, “Enough Said”, “Gone Too Far!”, “Hello Carter” and “Our Sunhi”.
This year’s London Film Festival was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Documentary, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Love, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. These reviews cover the Laugh strand. I sadly missed the Laugh gala film, Don Jon, as I instead saw The Selfish Giant – no laughs were had there. My two other scheduling regrets were Borgman and Love Me Till Monday; I have no idea when they will come out.
Anyway, here are the reviews. It’s worth noting that Doll & Em, Hello Carter and Gone Too Far! were world premieres. For more, follow me on Twitter at @halfacanyon.
Afternoon Delight – 2/10
Director/Writer: Jill Soloway
Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jessica St.Clair, Jane Lynch
UK release date: TBC
US release date: 30th August 2013
“I watched soap operas for a year of my life.”
The one-idea synopsis of Afternoon Delight is vaguely intriguing: middle-class woman turns a stripper into her surrogate daughter. Frustratingly, director and writer Jill Solloway is content with leaving the premise on its own, without proper exploration or fleshing out characters.
Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is introduced to the viewer through awkwardly inserted therapy sessions; the doctor (Jane Lynch) learns of Rachel’s sexless marriage with Jeff (Josh Radnor), forming a midlife crisis flopping into a half-asleep malaise. Of course, these scenarios are played out with stoic laziness, as if the actors warming up for another, more challenging drama on a different set.
To spice up their relationship, the couple visit a strip club; Rachel receives a lapdance from McKenna (Juno Temple), a supposedly 19-year-old stripper. Within five minutes of screen time, McKenna is living in the pair’s home. The concept is gobsmackingly contrived, only receiving open questioning in the final act in time for a final denouement.
That convoluted narrative is bizarre on its own, but exacerbated by empty characters who exist only as Sundance tropes. Solloway reveals inklings of authorial intent, with a few early bathroom scenes keen to promote the ugliness of the human body (and psyche). However, the stilted dialogue is heavy-handed, as painfully demonstrated during an unwise tonal shift into shakey-cam, improvised melodrama. Rachel is painted as a hypocritical moralist for an inability to treat her young houseguest as a real person, yet Temple’s few lines of dialogue exemplify a walking, talking caricature.
Hahn’s protagonist is unable to explain her behaviour to her friends, husband and therapist – at least how her extreme, unpredictable sympathy towards a stranger extends beyond a cliched midlife crisis. I sense Solloway is also unsure. Near the end, I looked around; most critics were slumped with bored disinterest, apart from one guy checking his phone.
The Bounceback – 3/10
Director: Bryan Poyser
Writers: Steven Walters, David DeGrow Shotwell, Bryan Poyser
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Ashley Bell, Zach Cregger, Sara Paxton
Any release date: TBC
“I just wanted some other dick. I lived with Jeff’s dick – it’s just so familiar.”
That frank attitude to sex doesn’t just apply to Kara, but from all the main characters in The Bounceback, to the extent that it moves into a bizarre self-congratulatory area, like a 5-year-old proudly swearing in front of classmates.
However, it’d be more accurate to describe the characters’ mindsets as belonging to 15-year-olds, even though they’re in their 20s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just a screenplay needs to be sharp if it can sufficiently integrate unlikeable protagonists with a predictable plot that revolves around the Air Sex World Championships and penis photos.
The relationship politics involve Kara and her friend Cathy (Ashley Bell) attempting to move on from their ex-boyfriends – or, as phrased by Kara: “You’ve got to put that dick in the past tense.” Both men, played by Zach Cregger and Michael Stahl-David, are in town for the “Air Sex” tournament, which is sort of like what it sounds. What follows is a number of crossover meetings and unfunny sex jokes.
The Bounceback is never cutting in its portrayal of modern relationships, with the narrative hinging on smartphones and Facebook updates. Sure, it covers topics a Hollywood studio would be afraid to touch, but the on-stage antics of Fuckasaurus Sex would also fail the quality test.
The cast are all admirably lively with the poor material, particularly with the “Air Sex” performances. Similarly, the film is shot and edited with a proficient manner that belies its inevitable future away from any big screens. However, that contradiction highlights a major fault; for all its edginess, the saccharine subplots (one involving a pretty musician seems injected from a different film) ruin the anarchic nature – which was hampered by a lacklustre script anyway.
Computer Chess – 8/10
Director/Writer: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz
UK release date: 22nd November 2013
US release date: 17th July 2013
“In this game you’re supposed to defend the king, not send it to its death?”
The mumblecore genre’s lo-fi aesthetic doesn’t quite hold the same novelty as when the movement began. Computer Chess dials back the production even further for a unique, retro look that also fits the dry, almost sci-fi story.
Andrew Bujalski shoots the entire film with a 1969 video camera, creating black-and-white images characterised by the outdated technology’s unpredictable flickers and distortions. Subsequently, the 1970s atmosphere is more authentic than cinematic – as opposed to the digital de-colourisation of The Artist or the gorgeous romanticism of Tabu.
Computer Chess ostensibly follows a tournament for computer chess programmers, set about 30 or 40 years ago; machines are still incumbent, while the geeky enthusiasts struggle to elucidate their futuristic dreams. Set in a hotel, the gathering compete over a weekend by pitting their computer programmes against each other, hoping to win a trophy, cash prize and chance for a machine versus human match – the human being Pat Henderson, a grandmaster played by real life lecturer Gerald Peary.
The rivalry between the programmers and machines begins far earlier, with much of the comedy emerging from awkward social behaviour that extends into incompetent chess software. One participant drolly complains to his teammate, “In this game you’re supposed to defend the king, not send it to its death?”
My expectations of Computer Chess were mixed, given I’m not that much of a fan Bujalski’s signature Funny Ha Ha, but was intrigued by the unusual premise. For much of the first half, the dialogue runs like a comedy of manners: incoherent computer nerds squabble over their programmes, with the calculated naturalism that separates Bujalski from the rest of the mumblecore filmmakers. However, like an actual game of chess, periods of boredom seep in when you’re waiting for someone to make a move you can already anticipate.
That’s where Bujalski’s Najdork Variation reveals itself as an Alekhine gun.
Computer Chess turns into several surreal areas, while staying loyal to the unusual, or lack of, cinematography. One participant, Michael (Myles Paige), is thrown into a running joke with Kafkaesque undertones, whereby he can’t find a spare hotel room that isn’t inhabited by cats. In another bedroom, Peter (Patrick Riester) is confronted by swingers and realises he can only relate to humans as chess pieces. At one point, a computer begins to question its user about the meaning of life, even asking, “Where is your soul?”
It’s hard to pigeonhole Computer Chess as so much happens, despite or because of its minimalist approach. I’m sure it requires at least a second viewing to properly unravel. The dry humour playfully drags out the competitiveness between the men (and one self-conscious woman) and their creations, not just through the chess tournament; the computers are arguable more articulate than the ensemble.
The machines might be on display, but it’s the humans behind them under an old-fashioned magnifying glass; they hint at longings for love, but would be more confident if their romantic targets were mechanoids – or, as it were, a zigzagging bishop or protective queen.
Doll & Em – 7/10
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writers: Dolly Wells, Emily Mortimer, Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Dolly Wells, Emily Mortimer, Jonathan Cake
UK release date: February 2014 on UK Living
US release date: TBC, but picked up by HBO
“I’m not a strong woman. I’m fucking vulnerable.”
It’s often said that Breaking Bad episodes would be best experienced for the first time on the big screen. Well, that’s what happened with Doll & Em, a six-part comedy series set to air in 2014. The improvised sitcom was created by Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, who co-write each episode with the director, Azazel Jacobs.
Em and Doll (as I shall now call them) are best friends, both in real life and within the semi-autobiographical storyline: Em moves to Hollywood to shoot a new film, so brings Doll as her assistant. (“But she’s really my best friend,” says Em, less convincingly each time.) As the series progresses, the relationship breaks down, with Doll’s acting ability creating friction between the pair.
The two leads share a very convincing chemistry that’s both believable and hilarious; as a testament to their watchability, I happily sat through all six episodes (although it was a bit strange seeing the opening credits sequence every 25 minutes).
In the Q&A, the two stars made a comparison to All About Eve, which I can’t quite beyond the initial plot. It’s likelier (and, to be honest, inevitable) that comparisons will be made to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras, but both leads are extremely likeable – enough so that such a bitter storyline can be turned into comfort viewing while still satirising fame. Oh, it’s also very funny.
Drinking Buddies – 5.5/10
Director/Writer: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingstone
UK release date: 8th November 2013
US release date: 23rd August 2013
“I think we should take a knee on this thing.”
Joe Swanberg’s prolific film career has stemmed from a laissez-faire approach to improvised dialogue and natural energy – usually the early chemistry at the start of a relationship, or the dying spark when a couple have spent too much time together. Combined with his rushed camerawork, there’s plenty of Swanberg material, most of which hidden from the mainstream.
With that in mind, Drinking Buddies certainly feels like Swanberg’s self-aware debut to a wider audience. He repackages his traditional style (two couples intermingling), but with recognisable names.
Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson are one obviously mismatched pairing; Johnson’s eager to stay indoors, while the script keenly points out Kendrick’s hobby of long walks. Her rambling partner is Ron Livingstone, who himself is in a relationship with spritely Olivia Wilde. Meanwhile, Wilde spends her time flirting heavily with her co-worker Johnson; they work with alcohol, and use it after hours. The plot unravels fairly predictably.
Of course, Drinking Buddies isn’t about “will they/won’t they?” mystery. Both couples are obviously doomed, given they’re prime examples of the dead sharks mentioned in Annie Hall. Yet with such a character-centric drama, it’s mystifying how undefined the four protagonists comes across – especially given the actors’ freedom to express themselves.
In a way, the cast are too composed to chime with Swanberg’s hands-off style. Wilde is both the most and least connected with the improvised dynamics; her freshness brings confident humour that’s also at odds with the attempted realism. Ultimately, the self-assuredness of these performers isn’t matched by depth of personality. An egregious example is that it’s never made clear why Livingstone would leave his girlfriend for Anna Kendrick, and that statement seems even more ridiculous as I type it.
Admittedly, this failed experiment is still vastly more watchable than early fare like Hannah Takes the Stairs. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the drama is anything more than a decent acting workshop exercise; some light chemistry with little beneath the surface.
Enough Said – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener
UK release date: 18th October 2013
US release date: 23rd September 2013
“I was raised like a veal – put in a dark room, fed, told not to move.”
As a huge Nicole Holfcener fan, I’ve been following Enough Said for a while, repeatedly refreshing the “Untitled Nicole Holofcener 2013 Project” IMDb page for months before the title was revealed long after post-production. Her films don’t exactly oscillate away from her trademark style, but they carry an inimitable voice that can’t be pinned down to a simple formula; a certain level of quality can be expected from her work.
Anticipation for Enough Said is even higher for its posthumous performance by James Gandolfini, who’s heartbreakingly sweet alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus, with the two leads a natural fit for Holofcener’s witty inflections.
A recurring metaphor appears with Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) lugging her masseuse equipment from her car to clients’ homes, without any help; it reflects her ability to cope as a single mother, which is subsequently a lonely endeavour. At a party, she befriends semi-famous poet Marianne (Catherine Keener), while separately meeting Albert (Gandolfini) and forming a slow romance.
Middle-aged regrets dominate Enough Said, but with charming acceptance. Eva and Albert compare the deteriorating state of individual body parts several times, whether teeth, hands, feet or nose (“it’s just an ornament”). The mutual acceptance is comforting for both characters, who share the experience of being divorced with children ready to leave the nest. For a while, the film’s main pleasure is simply spending time with the two enjoying each other’s company; the chemistry is electric and reminiscence of a warmth I can’t remember in a Holofcener outing since Walking and Talking in 1996.
With an unfortunately contrived twist more appropriate to Seinfeld, Eva discovers Albert is Marianne’s ex-husband (“sorry, but he is a loser”). Rather than say anything, Eva wonders if she will also find similar faults in Albert’s lovable, but stubborn, ways. The unnatural reaction – well, non-reaction – is forgiven through the bittersweet likeability of Holofcener’s script that already establishes its everyday heroes before the twist.
One subplot involving her daughter’s best friend doesn’t quite work (like 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, the multi-generational strands can be hit and miss.) Nonetheless, the ensemble possesses a watchable energy, not least through Eva’s giggly chats with her best friend (Toni Collette). As a further recommendation of tone, it’s worth noting Holofcener’s side-gig is occasionally directing Parks and Recreation, a sitcom with a not too dissimilar vibe.
With another smart, funny female-centric drama, Holofcener’s low-key success reminds me of Broadway Danny Rose, in that it became underrated through its similarities to Woody Allen’s previous work during a remarkably consistent era. The link to Allen is relevant: she entered the industry as an assistant on his films, and is frequently labelled “the female Woody Allen”. However, that’s an unfair and inaccurate term as her sharp dialogue possesses its own rhythm and, perhaps more importantly, she seems to genuinely like her characters – a strength that benefits the viewer, which is, I think, enough said.
Gone Too Far! – 3/10
Original title: Fune wo Amu
Director: Destiny Ekaragha
Writer: Bola Agbaje
Starring: Malachi Kirby, OC Ukeje, Shanika Warren-Markland
Any release date: TBC
“I know my roots. I just don’t need to tell everyone.”
There’s a unsettling déjà vu when watching Gone Too Far! on a big screen, as its frustratingly redolent of a poor BBC3 sitcom pilot. The comedy is on the surface – and maybe at its heart too – about staying true to your national roots, regardless of where you are. However, what comes across is a series of weary jokes that I can’t call cliched, as these gags would be considered unusable by most writers.
One example: “Where do you think Adam and Eve come from?” “Well, his name is Adam, so it must be Dover.”
At the centre is Yemi (Malachi Kirby), a teenager in Peckham struck by teenage love. He’s also hampered by the responsibility of looking after Iku (OC Ukeje), his brother who’s returned from Nigeria; Iku speaks with a strong accent and is noticeably less streetwise, as made evident by his socks and sandals combo.
The pair’s relationship is probably the film’s only worthwhile aspect, with Yemi’s denial of his African roots expressed in his defence that ambivalence is different from self-hatred. The topic is particularly apt for the Hackney setting, where different cultures clash and relate to their identities in different ways. Like in Heat, the best scene is a simple conversation in a diner between Yemi and and Iku.
Both actors do fine with their material, which can’t be said about the supporting cast who are cartoonish in line deliveries – it isn’t totally their fault, given the facile screenplay. Gone Too Far! actually began life as a well-received play; while I never saw that production, I can imagine the outlandish humour corresponding better with a sympathetic audience. It would, for example, explain why everyone keeps accidentally intersecting when walking around London. However, if I was Yemi, I wouldn’t be disowning my roots – I’d be disowning the film.
Hello Carter – 2.5/10
Director/Writer: Anthony Wilcox
Starring: Charlie Cox, Jodie Whittaker, Paul Schneider
Any release date: TBC
“I just want to wake up in the morning and know why I set the alarm clock the night before.”
Anthony Wilcox has spent more than a decade as an assistant director on several great British films, including 24 Hour Party People, Morvern Callar and Hot Fuzz. He makes his full-length writing and directing debut with Hello Carter, a London-centric comedy in love with the capital, portrayed as a city of mischievous scrapes and humorous coincidences. With that, it’s worth pointing out he was also an assistant director on Pearl Harbor, Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj.
The flimsy premise of Hello Carter revolves around a string of incomprehensible decisions that tumble along to establish comedic set-pieces with no laughs. Carter (Charlie Cox) is the weary protagonist – both exhausted from romantic woes and possibly the limp script. In exchange for a woman’s phone number, Carter delivers a letter on behalf of a fictional, semi-famous actor (played by real, semi-famous actor Paul Schneider).
The convoluted plot somehow sprawls into a crime chase, sidelined by lame humour and dreary moping. When Carter asks for a reason to set an alarm clock, I wondered if Wilcox simply transcribed his teenage diaries for the screenplay – if it was ever rewritten, I’d hate to read the first draft.
Carter’s companion is played by Jodie Whittaker, stuck in a role of a pretty woman who indulges in his misery; when their chemistry is supposed to fizzle, it’s actually just Carter talking about himself – just talking at her, endlessly.
As a lead, there’s something amateurish and annoyingly cartoonish about Carter, even the quirky way he stands, as if posing for a film poster. Whittaker and Schneider are unable to inject much energy either, with the latter a shadow of his usual high standards.
Schneider has a “very real fear of antiques” for some reason; it’s never explained, but is what constitutes as a joke in Hello Carter. I think the blandness is encapsulated by the soundtrack’s use of the Jose Gonzales version of “Heartbeats”.
Our Sunhi – 4/10
Original title: U ri Sunhi
Director/Writer: Hong Sangsoo
Starring: Jung Yumi, Lee Sunkyun, Kim Sangjoong
UK/US release date: TBC
“You can’t have a beer without ordering some chicken.”I’m a newcomer to Hong Sangsoo and would otherwise have assumed Our Sunhi was by a first-time director. Three men crush on a reserved woman, with their affections bearing repetition in dialogue. She, however, eats chicken and drinks beer. It works better as an idea.
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