Films reviewed: “1001 Grams”, “Appropriate Behaviour”, “Dear White People”, “Excuse My French”, “If You Don’t, I Will”, “Land Ho!”, “Listen Up Philip” (pictured above), “The Mule”, “Ping Pong Summer” and “Wild Tales”.
London Film Festival 2014 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Love, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. However, this post covers Laugh, named after an involuntary human action I’ve long forgotten how to perform. I managed to catch the Laugh Gala (Wild Tales) and mostly caught what I wanted from the strand, with notable exceptions being The Little Death and Queen and Country because I was busy with work stuff. Not that you needed to know that. Here are the reviews…
1001 Grams – 5.5/10
Director/Writer: Bent Hamer
Starring: Ane Dahl Torp, Laurent Stocker, Stein Winge
“Counting atoms instead of weights, that’s more for your generation.”
Everything in life can be measured, whether it’s coffee spoons or me rating a film arbitrarily out of 10. Marie (Torp) is the quiet, pensive lead in Hamer’s ultra-dry comedy that involves an international conference regarding the true weight of a kilogram. Each country brings their native estimation, and Norway is no exception – but the pathos buried in the static humour is that Marie’s representation comes so soon after her father’s passing. “Supposedly the soul weighs 21 grams,” he mutters on his death bed, “but considering the people I’ve met, I find that very unlikely.”
Moving all too slowly without the background wit of Kaurismäki or Andersson, the drama luxuriates in its own mild precision: salads are weighed, people queue up holding their “kilogram”. Marie is an intriguing, unlikely protagonist who can’t sustain a film on her own, especially when the environment and its unidentifiable characters is repetitive in its humour. The film ends up being an acquired taste that, as an experiment, just needs a bit more weight to it.
Appropriate Behaviour – 5/10
Director/Writer: Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer
“It sounds like Maxine was destructive to your bra and your self-esteem.”
There are apparently two types of people: those who like Sex and the City, and those who prefer Lord of the Rings. Well, I’ve never seen Sex and the City and I hate Lord of the Rings, but that’s just me needlessly picking on one of the more throwaway lines in Akhavan’s likeable, meandering New York comedy. The attention-grabbing premise – a bisexual Persian woman has several relationship problems, including the possibility of coming out to her disapproving family – is mostly wasted as the script dovetails into semi-amusing skits, including a pointless riff about teaching filmmaking to 5-year-olds.
Still, Akhavan has enough personality to be “one to watch”, which will hopefully come if she concentrates on material that isn’t so enamoured with Annie Hall. Plus, there’s a funny line about using “safe word” as a safe word to cut out the middle man.
Dear White People – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Justin Simien
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris
“We wanted to be black for a night.”
If the title’s open letter isn’t clear enough, Dear White People is a bold, sharply written satire addressing the evolution of racism in 21st century America. Director/writer Justin Simien targets the worrying pattern of college parties picking “blackface” as a theme (“we wanted to be black for a night”), but also the increasingly blurred notion of identity in a supposedly post-racial society.
The comedy’s four main characters – all black – represent different survival methods in an elite campus where the colour of one’s skin dominates the conversation and airwaves. Most prominent is the new head of student house, Samantha White (outstanding performer Tessa Thompson), who’s also a radio personality described as “like Spike Lee and Oprah had a pissed off baby”. Upon defeating her ex and rival candidate Troy (Brandon Bell) – a less confrontational figure now with a white girlfriend – she vows to fight a proposed randomisation of housing act which would affect their all-black residency. Blogger Coleandra (Teyonah Parris) is green with envy at Samantha’s rise in fame (measured by YouTube subscribers), whereas gay journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is indifferent – but happy to be sent to report the story for the university newspaper’s historically white editorial team.
Simien is evidently bursting at the opportunity to express his ideas, comedic one-liners and political riffs. Each scene is packed with dovetailing subplots as each character battles to have a unique voice in an atmosphere where some believe – or willingly pretend – that racism no longer exists. The narrative messiness reflects the spiralling confusion over a post-Obama society that allows a symbol in racial acceptance, without necessarily the acceptance itself. When seeking an authoritative voice, it’s a deliberately provocative radio show in which Samantha seeks revenge for a lifetime of being pigeonholed. “Dear white people,” she opines, “the number of black friends you need to not be racist has risen to two.”
Dear White People doesn’t lecture the viewer – despite the second-person title – which makes for a vibrant multi-strand piece that instigates open discussion. The ramshackle structure is at least held together by a climax at the aforementioned party in which white students believe it’s their right to dress up in blackface. (If you’re wondering, the script directly mentions Do the Right Thing.) There are numerous day-to-day compromises to be made about being a “black face in a white space”, right down to seemingly minor fibs like Samantha hiding her preference for Ingmar Bergman over Spike Lee. To those who don’t understand, it’s just a party outfit. If this were a TV pilot, you’d be excited about the series up ahead. At it is, the 108 minutes will do for now.
Excuse My French – 2.5/10
Original title: Lamoakhza
Director/Writer: Amr Salama
Starring: Kinda Alloush, Hani Adel, Ahmed Dash
“If you see an elephant, you’ll drown in your own sweat.”
If You Don’t, I Will – 6.5/10
Original title: Arrête ou je continue
Director/Writer: Sophie Fillières
Starring: Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Brochet
“Is she staying there, or getting away from?”
Fillières’ dark, muddy comedy shares little in common with Love Me If You Dare, and is the collapse of a marriage in a natural outback. A married couple (Devos and Amalric) have over the years become sick of each other, which is why they take a camping trip for one final grasp at longevity – because, you know, nothing says love more than being stuck together in horrid conditions without Wi-Fi to avoid conversation.
Adopting a gentle pace, the drama unfolds at a snail’s pace, allowing the two actors to superbly bask in a slow, slightly absurd breakup: Amalric has enough, but Devos decides she’ll stay in the forest alone overnight. It’s a symbolic gesture that leads to her running around with deer, becoming at one with nature, and coming to terms with single life – if being single also meant being homeless in a forest. If You Don’t, I Will never explodes into obvious territory; it just sticks to the tranquillity of a woman freeing herself for one peaceful night.
Land Ho! – 5.5/10
Directors/Writers: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz
Starring: Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson
“You don’t worry about it; I’ve got the spa handled.”
As a huge admirer of Aaron Katz, I’m not quite sure what to make of Land Ho! beyond the immediate that it’s nothing like what I expected from the filmmaker responsible for Cold Weather and Quiet City, and quite possibly aimed at a demographic 50 years above me. But that’s also an unnecessary response to a scenic buddy comedy about relatable topics – friendship and insecurity – that takes two travellers for a walk of self-reflection just like Cold Weather and Quiet City. Furthermore, in Mitch (Nelson) Land Ho! possesses a horny man with the personality of Dance Party 97 in an older person’s body.
The simple story consists of Mitch surprising his brother-in-law Colin (Eenhoorn) with two tickets to Iceland for an impractical holiday with one aim: getting their groove back. Traipsing around Reykjavik, the pair admire geysers, hang out with Mitch’s young female cousins, and generally reflect upon the years that have passed – were they wasted, and are those opportunities gone? Sort of, as it turns out, but that’s not to worry. Land Ho! delights in the company of the two men who take a practical approach to growing old, understanding that a lack of sexual proclivity with twentysomethings doesn’t mean they’re exempty from meaningful relationships.
However, just because Colin and Mitch enjoy their trip, doesn’t mean it’s particularly fulfilling for the viewer, other than making encouragements for booking a flight to Iceland as soon as pay day approaches. Mitch, always with some pot within reach, jokingly disdains at times about being lumbered with a “party pooper” – a sentiment that unavoidably affects the pleasingly gentle film’s lack of vibrancy.
Listen Up Philip – 8/10
Director/Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Kristen Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume
“I’m glad he’s dead and all, but it would have been great to have done the interview.”
No comma, Philip with a single ‘L’. With a title that demands attention, Perry’s third feature is a thrillingly bitter follow-up up to The Color Wheel (amateurish and reliant on shock value) that is one of the few truly worthwhile Sundance films about writers. The central character, Philip (Schwartzman), is a self-absorbed novelist in his 30s, driven by the [Great] American [Novelist] Dream of being a respected New York writer with no friends. He’s Jonathan Ames from Bored to Death stripped of empathy and a cuddly circle of pals. His girlfriend, Ashley (Moss), can’t take any more, puts the relationship back on the shelf, and replaces him with a cat – ideal because it won’t make hurtful, selfish comments.
What follows isn’t a period of maturation for Philip, but rather a glimpse into a future of misery and book prizes. His idol, Ike (Pryce), is somehow even more acerbic than his protégée, informing his daughter than marrying the mother was a major regret. The two men yearn to be remembered as writers rather than nice people, but in danger of instead being remembered as the two worst humans alive.
With a flowing narration from Eric Bogosian, Listen Up Philip unravels like a novel; sometimes the voiceover drowns out someone’s dialogue, which is surely what happens in the minds of real authors. The hilarious, misanthropic dialogue is complemented by a suitably nostalgic Super 16mm grain, often zooming in on a terrific cast who completely buy into following Perry’s voice: “author theory”.
The Mule – 6/10
Directors: Tony Mahony, Angus Sampson
Writers: Jamie Browne, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell
Starring: Angus Sampson, Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell
Ray (Sampson) suffers a different kind of bad drug trip when he’s stopped on the borders of Australia having ingested several condoms’ worth of heroin, before being led for an incredibly unpleasant seven days as the detectives wait for… well, you know. A legal loophole means Ray can’t be held for more than a week, meaning he just needs to hold it in, sweating in agony while being yelled at by Hugo Weaving.
While The Mule sounds like a juvenile Jim Carrey film, it’s actually a dark thriller that takes in corruption on the outside, while examining how Ray got to this point in his life. What never really works though is being stuck with a main character in a permanent state of anguish, trying to avoid a toilet – under these circumstances, there’s only one facial expression on show
Ping Pong Summer – 7/10
Director/Writer: Michael Tully
Starring: John Hannah, Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson
Michael Tully is a cool guy and played tennis with Kevin Barnes. I interviewed him.
Wild Tales – 7/10
Original title: Relatos salvajes
Director/Writer: Damián Szifrón
Starring: Rita Cortese, Ricardo Darín, Nancy Dupláa
Strand: Laugh Gala
Split into six isolated chapters, there isn’t much to connect the stories in slick comedy Wild Tales other than a loose theme of revenge and indication that Szifrón has been bottling up everyday rage for quite a while. In fact, his sick sense of humour is driven by everyday fantasies motivated by rude strangers in diners or on the road; violent fantasies about the man who wronged you a decade ago, only for that very person to step into your restaurant with an apple on his head
Despite the aforementioned universality, Wild Tales doesn’t really overcome that it’s anything other than a few stories thrown together with the same vivid energy. In terms of structure, Szifrón at least bookmarks the collection with the best stories. The opening segment traps passengers on a notable flight with a walloping punch line, while the film ends on a highpoint with a wedding in which the bride discovers the groom hasn’t been faithful – what follows is the kind of retribution one spends years dreaming up, in the agonising “why didn’t I do that?” questions lingering days after the incident.
The other four chapters are only a bit more hit than miss, and clearly overshadowed by the succinctness of the opener and closer – so much so, it’s a bit of a struggle to remember what takes place in the compendium’s manic centre, other than it’s best enjoyed in the company of laughing strangers. Just be sure not to make any enemies.
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