Films reviewed: “All Cheerleaders Die”, “The Congress” (pictured above), “Only Lovers Left Alive”, “The Sacrament”, “The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears”, “sx_tape” and “The Zero Theorem”.
This year’s London Film Festival was split into strands including Dare, Debate, Documentary, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. Most of these reviews were originally written for The Digital Fix and cover the Cult strand. Time constraints meant I missed out on Blackwood and Jodorowsky’s Dune. Stupidity meant I saw Locke instead of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? – I only discovered my mistake when the reviews came pouring in, each one laughing at me as I drove away pretending to be Tom Hardy.
Anyway, here are the reviews. It’s worth noting that sx_tape was a world premiere and is spelled differently on various online sources. For more, follow me on Twitter at @halfacanyon.
All Cheerleaders Die – 6/10
Directors/Writers: Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson
Starring: Caitlin Stasey, Brooke Butler, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Tom Williamson, Amanda Grace Cooper, Reanin Joannink
UK release date: TBC
US release date: Spring 2014
“Somebody got fucked, somebody got killed, and I’m going to PE.”
It’s made clear very early on (if not from the title) that All Cheerleaders Die is obsessed with American high school stereotypes. “Boys be dawgs, girls be bitches,” says one cheerleader in the first few minutes, before dying performing a fatal somersault. That playful death, redolent of Final Destination and far too many other recent horrors, suggests All Cheerleaders Die will be a typical slasher film – the opening act even welcomes this ignorance. And then it turns delightfully loopy.
Every character is a trope and keen to stick to that group, whether the football playing “dawgs”, cheerleader “bitches”, or the stoners whose own uniform is emblazoned with a “420” logo. Even the fake cheerleader, Maddy (Caitlin Stasey – yes, Rachel from Neighbours), is a role popularised by Mean Girls and its impersonators.
Maddy joins a gang of cheerleaders (Brooke Butler, Amanda Grace Cooper, Reanin Johannik) who, in the spirit of the film’s mocking of the genre’s tropes, are a mixture of shallow obsessions, closeted lesbian urges, and a desire to wear the uniform whenever possible. After they die (hey, the title predicted this!) in a car accident, the watching jocks (led by Tom Williamson) flee the scene and, like their football matches, hope for the best.
All Cheerleaders Die is largely set apart from similarly titled horrors by its supernatural undertones, yet it’s keen to throw in as many surreal genre elements as the short running time will allow. I won’t list them as it’d ruin the fun, but the playful tone means the laughs will definitely outnumber the screams. In doing so, the film lacks some coherency, even if the directors are unbothered by the absurdity. After all, the lack of background knowledge is part of the joke – the deus ex machina is referred to as “crazy wicker bullshit”.
Similarly, the genre-friendly title is an early hint that subtlety isn’t a priority: if one cheerleader kicks the bucket, the rest shall follow. The subsequent gender battle is a sort of feminist revenge fantasy, albeit one harder to take seriously with both armies formed by deliberately cliched soldiers. Throughout all the outrageous action, there’s still a disturbingly real tone to the way the jocks attack the women – whereas the responses are played for laughs.
Of course, All Cheerleaders Die isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. The onslaught of ideas mean several areas don’t work, particularly the glossy sheen of school scenes soundtracked by American teen punk. However, the revolving door allows a new comedic scenario to take over quickly enough for the viewer to, if not forgive, at least temporarily forget.
Perhaps the hit-and-miss structure is best summed up by Lenna (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), Maddy’s former best friend; fed up of the chaos and gore, she informs the cheerleaders, “Somebody got fucked, somebody got killed, and I’m going to PE.” When the symbolism is fleshed out, that flesh is eaten with smug satisfaction.
The Congress – 6.5/10
Director: Ari Folman
Writers: Ari Folman, Stanislaw Lem (novel)
Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti
UK release date: TBC
US release date: Early 2014
“I voted for Bush. Both of them. That’s four times.”
“I don’t know who you are anymore.”
The early, self-referential weirdness of The Congress, at first reminded me of Charlie Kauffman in terms of ambition, rather than the execution. The film, a distorted mixture of live-action and trippy animation, is actually the work of director Ari Folman, adapting Stanslaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress.
I’m not familiar with the source text, but it’s safe to assume much of the Hollywood satire is from Folman’s input. The protagonist is Robin Wright, playing herself as she is today, a semi-famous actress in her mid-40s. She is led by her gruff agent (Harvey Keitel) to a board meeting where she’s offered a once-in-a-lifetime deal: sell her body in digital form to a studio, in return for money and an agreement to never perform again. (That last part is what makes it a once-in-a-lifetime deal.)
The studio in question is called Miramount, which is surprisingly the satire’s most biting line. Otherwise, the script throws in light humour about Hollywood’s prevalence for younger actresses and dumbed-down sci-fis. Really, these points would seem tame if blurted at an Oscars ceremony.
Folman’s attention is more spun towards the animated sequences, which take up the majority of The Congress. Without much explanation, Wright enters a cartoon world 20 years later – the loopy visuals suggest a cocktail of LSD and old TV cartoons, oscillating across the screen like a convention of hand-drawn characters: like when The Flinstones met The Jetsons multiplied with a satellite TV subscription.
Wright, herself animated, finds society papers over its poverty in denial in a post-cinema world. At lurid parties, hallucinogenic drinks transform any recipients into a celebrity – they range from Michael Jackson, Jesus Christ, several people who accidentally look like Louis CK, and Robin Wright herself.
The following hour is a vividly impressive thrill, if examining purely on looks. The artists push the medium with wavy lines and rapid transformations.
However, The Congress frustratingly gets stuck inside its own smug maze of self-satisfied, unformulated ideas. Sadly, it shares both the visual flair and incoherence of an acid trip. The first act becomes forgotten amidst the surreal mess; when Wright speaks of missing her son, the emotions unintentionally sound fake – further compounded by digital choreography designed to trick the viewer’s first impression of each frame.
The chopped up structure is likely to annoy audiences, rather than apply dramatic juxtaposition or express more ideas. I personally found the transformation liberating, given the opening act’s overlong set-up, and then exhausting by the lack of heart or focus.
Folman aims for a send-up of Hollywood’s riches and vanity, while attempting to conjure up animation with an underground aesthetic; he’s unable to do both. Subsequently, there’s little depth, a fact even acknowledged when a producer calls sci-fi worthless – although an ironic joke, it’s an accurate self-description.
Only Lovers Left Alive – 4.5/10
Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin
UK release date: 21st February 2014
US release date: TBC
“I was born at night. I wasn’t born last night.”
I’ve been a fan of Jim Jarmusch for quite a while, so Only Lovers Left Alive was one of my most anticipated festival screenings: a vampire comedy with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as ageless lovers swept away in modern subcultures. Sadly, very little of the dry humour clicked and, while the soundtrack suitably rocked, Jarmusch’s sharp wit is noticeably absent.
Jarmusch’s films typically find funny juxtapositions through outsiders ruining settled rhythms. However, the two protagonists share similar personalities that run into severe repetition and diminishing returns. The vampires, named Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton), have lasted for generations, only to be confounded by society’s infiltration of zombies (a nickname for humans) and rockers. After a brief break of 87 years (they do have a lot of time to kill), Eve leaves the spirituality of Tangier to rejoin Adam’s gothic den in Detroit. Their conversations might appeal to newcomers unfamiliar with Jarmusch’s language, but the drop in quality is evident by a running joke of “bloody” as an adjective. Elsewhere, the pair riff aimlessly on science and the burden of technology, as if the viewer also shares the luxury of infinite time.
Eve’s fascination with diamonds forming in space recalls “Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds”; The Beatles pay further influence with the tripped out reactions to drinking blood. That psychedelic pleasure is at odds with the duo’s moody exhaustion with life – or, at least, Adam’s stubbornness. The film certainly picks up when Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) briefly appears as a bouncy intruder – as I mentioned earlier, Jarmusch works best when juxtaposing outsider personalities. Eva also possesses the best line: “I was born at night. I wasn’t born last night.” However, she’s gone after 10 minutes, and it’s back to eternity.
The Sacrament – 4/10
Director/Writer: Ti West
Starring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones
UK release date: TBC
US release date: Unspecified in 2014
“We’re Vice. We’re not Red Cross.”
Ti West introduced the screening of The Sacrament by noting the film might not be what the audience were expecting. The horror marks the first of West’s films to not feature any supernatural elements (Joe Swanberg’s impressive basketball skills don’t count), although it sticks to his slow-burn style – except this time the fear factor comes from human cruelty.
The Sacrament is framed as a fake documentary created by two Vice journalists (Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen). The found footage technique is a distracting storytelling device and often incomprehensible. Much of my time was spent wondering who, if anyone, was holding the camera – and why they didn’t drop it and run away.
The documentary idea springs up when a Vice colleague (Kentucky Audley) is sent a letter by his missing sister (Amy Seimetz), with the note revealing she lives in a mysterious commune in an isolated rural area. The trio fly by helicopter to investigate further, only to discover a religious cult led by a frightening, older figure named “Father” (Gene Jones). Generalisations turn out to be true: members are encouraged to recruit family members and raise funds, while a murkier streak of suspicion flows through group activities.
Although the group is supposed to be sober, the exceptions suggest the commune serves another purpose.
Members of the cult smile in unison, somewhat disturbingly; one family seep through the cracks and inform the journalists they can be punished for talking to “outsiders”. The Vice reporters spot further evidence of brainwashing, but “Father” avoids their questions with ease. The interrogation takes place in front of the commune as an audience, outnumbering the cornered interviewers who stutter when their journalism style is questioned – namely that their intrusion ruins the privacy and lifestyle of the “family” for the sake of an article.
If the plot starts to sound like any real-life incident, then you’re sort of right and sort of wrong. West mentioned in the Q&A it’d be unjust to portray any historic events because that would require an eight-hour miniseries to serve any justice. With this, West highlights the flimsiness of The Sacrament: it plays like a rushed, inaccurate version of better known examples. The final act is powerful, sure, but because it echoes history. When certain characters die, there’s no mourning over them as specific people, as their few lines of dialogue barely shape a persona.
In that sense, The Sacrament is a rushed job – which is primarily what West’s filmmaking wishes to oppose.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – 5.5/10
Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps
Directors/Writers: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Starring: Klaus Tange, Jean-Michel Vovk, Sylvia Camarda, Sam Louwyck
UK/US release date: TBC
“She had a secret…”
Well, I enjoy a giallo as much as the next emotionally dead film reviewer, but The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is one only for the die-hards – and even then, only on a big screen with loud speakers.
The directorial team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani don’t stray too far from the template already established with Amer. Their style pays tribute to 1960s Italian giallos, while cutting out the pulpy murder mystery dialogue scenes – to put it mildly. Oh, they also amp up the gore and on-screen effects with blinding imagery, creating a distinctly modern tribute. In a way it reminds me of a horror compilation one might find on YouTube.
While Amer didn’t have a plot (okay, technically it did…), The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears has a somewhat tenuous narrative involving missing spouses, secretive neighbours and blood dripping from the ceiling. However, it’s unlikely anyone will follow the story (which is mostly free of dialogue anyway) as the film focuses on assaulting the senses with abrasive colours, quick cuts, flying blood, piercing sound effects, abrupt pacing changes, juxtapositional animation, and a start-stop soundtrack that crescendos into a violent cacophony which has the cinema seats vibrating.
It sounds thrilling, and sort of is, for maybe 20 minutes. As a bold experiment in substance over style (especially considering that criticism often applies to traditional giallos), the viewing experience turns into a trial of endurance, especially with on-screen Freudian imagery torturously repeating itself; there are more penis-shaped knives and boxes symbolising vaginas than completed sentences.
Ultimately, it’s exhausting and short on ideas. The filmmakers could in future follow the example of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino by adapting existing novels, but that would defeat their aggressive shock aesthetic, where a nightmare is stretched by the width of the frame, scraping at the sides with fingernails. I liken it to a continuous loop at an art gallery – you lose yourself in the colours and sounds, and then you’re ready to move on and never return.
sx_tape – 3.5/10
Director: Bernard Rose
Writer: Eric Reese
UK/US release date: TBC
Starring: Caitlyn Folley, Ian Duncan, Diana Garcia
“This is so dirty. I’m not even sure if I’m into it.”
As far as I know, sx_tape is still without a distributor. The found footage horror could take a future life as a VHS tape left around abandoned hospitals in 2014 to build further buzz. Otherwise, the takeaway from the London Film Festival screenings, where it received a world premiere, is that Bernard Rose has helmed a very ordinary scare-a-thon with flimsy characters – only to redeem itself with a glorious WTF ending in the last few minutes. However, I’m unsure as to how many viewers will have the patience to reach that finale, which is an amendment that doesn’t apologise or explain the dull inanities that take up the majority of sx_tape.
The unoriginal premise involves a horny couple, Adam (Ian Duncan) and Diana (Caitlyn Folley), who film themselves having sex in locations that escalate in daringness: a bed, in a car, and then an abandoned hospital. Adam holds the camera most of the time, while Diana flirts extravagantly in minimal clothing; her provocative behaviour is coordinated with eye contact into the lens, as if her demeanour is designed to guilt the viewer.
Inside the deserted hospital, where most of sx_tape is set, the creaky corridors are haunted by a wandering spirit: a ghostly woman who pops up unexpectedly, much in the vein of every other found footage film. If anything, Rose might be parodying the genre as every character and plot beat is so unimaginative. At least, I think he is, even if it’s impossible to tell for the majority of the running time.
The only original comment emerges from a turnaround of Diana’s character, from a male fantasy (underdressed and underwritten) into a possessed shell who informs her boyfriend, “You raped me.” She is speaking psychologically, but also to the audience in an unexpected role reversal that tackles the genre’s tropes – a message likely to be missed by the number of viewers who switch off along the way.
The Zero Theorem – 4/10
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon
UK/US release date: Presumably in 2014
“What does it mean? It makes no sense.”
The latest dystopian sci-fi from Terry Gilliam is depressing for the wrong reasons. If Brazil was a director at his peak in 1985 predicting a nightmarish future, then The Zero Theorem is a director trying and failing to return to that peak. (He should probably use the time machine from 12 Monkeys.)
The Zero Theorem certainly has the Gilliam aesthetic of the 1980s; the DIY props are perplexing to an extent, but his style is stale – an autopilot mission of someone sticking to a formula. Whether or not its intentional, the plot even revolves around mad scientist Qohen (Christoph Waltz, somewhat balder than usual) locked in a room, trying to solve the same equation with limited success.
But the film goes even further with unfortunately self-referential plot points. Notably, Qohen’s job is to identify if the world really is meaningless, prompting meta-lines: “It makes no sense!”, “I don’t think this means anything!” and “Is this really the same guy who made Brazil!” Okay, maybe the last one is made up.
Still, there’s a dispiriting lack of ideas, with all the creativity seemingly pumped into the wacky set. Even the characters are wild caricatures, with the most prominent one being Bainsley: a femme fatale played by Mélanie Thierry with a deliberately paper-thin personality and even less noticeable amount of clothing. Another forgettable cameo comes from Tilda Swinton as a rapping psychiatrist, which is even less funny than it sounds.
I don’t want to be down on The Zero Theorem. I want to call it an ambitious failure, much in the way I admired The Fountain for is philosophical intent – I believe Aranofsky slaved over research texts and poured his heart into the project. However, all I can picture is Gilliam shrugging at the final draft. Waltz, who can’t even speak off-screen without alluring charisma, somehow does – I imagine that received a shrug from Gilliam as well.
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