Films reviewed: “21 Nights with Pattie” (pictured above), “Brand: A Second Coming”, “Cronies”, “Grandma”, “Lost in Munich”, “Men and Chicken”, “A Perfect Day” and “Ruben Guthrie”.
London Film Festival 2015 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Experimenta, Family, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Love, Official Competition and Thrill. Here are the reviews for the Laugh section. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
21 Nights with Pattie – 8/10
Original title: 21 nuits avec Pattie
Directors/Writers: Arnaud Larrieu, Jean-Marie Larrieu
Starring: Isabelle Carré, Karin Viard, André Dussollier
“Even his cock is elegant. He was raving about Egyptian kings, and he was still hard.”
It may take another 21 nights of treading on twigs to make my mind up on 21 Nights with Pattie, an elusive, poetic journey into the woods that never truly settles down. Well, that’s part of the charm. Filmmaking duo Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu shape a lyrical world in which a village’s inhabitants leave front doors unlocked, doze in the grass at night, and are unperturbed by prancing ghosts. Yet it’s a idyllic playground overshadowed by loneliness, unfulfilled desires, and hints of necrophilia.
Fortysomething and in a midlife tangle, Caroline (Isabelle Carré) visits the French countryside for her distant mother’s burial and learns of her mother’s wild reputation. Part of that knowledge stems from Pattie (Karin Viard), a deliverer of the film’s funniest moments with rambling “fuck stories” and frank life advice. Among the locals is Denis Lavant as a barely intelligible builder whose every other line of dialogue involves “a quickie around the corner”. And yes, because it’s Lavant, he dances.
With her own sexual hang-ups, Caroline comes to embrace the magical, sensual nature of her surroundings. Except there’s the small matter of why her stay lasts 21 nights: her mother’s corpse is stolen for undeterminable purposes. Suspects range from formerly famous writer Jean (André Dussollier) to a horny youngster who appreciates a dip in the pool. The mystery is really an excuse for her Caroline to walk around, soaking in the allure of a neighbourhood that treats the outdoors as a personal bedroom. As time passes, the colours and sounds – including a Felliniesque parade – mirror her loosening up, and so too does the film’s summery magic play its charms.
Laced with pathos, Caroline is accompanied on afternoon treks by middle-aged regret. Phone conversations with her husband suggest the seven-year itch has already set in; if only she could be a go-getter like Pattie or her mother. But then, how satisfied is Pattie with her exploits when her summation of sex (“I’m a slave to cock”) is connected to a fear of love? “When I’m not there, I’m afraid something will happen,” Caroline admits about her mother’s house. “When I’m there, I’m afraid nothing will.” The grass is always a little more cinematic on the other side.
Brand: A Second Coming – 7/10
Director: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Russell Brand
Strand: Laugh Gala
“I may be a narcissist. But I am your narcissist.”
Cronies – 4/10
Director/Writer: Michael J. Larnell
Starring: George Sample III, Zurich Buckner, Brian Kowalski
“It’s hard to find true blue friends.”
“Presented by Spike Lee” turns out to be a promising invitation that never delivers, despite the numerous similarities with She’s Gotta Have It – from the black-and-white cinematography that breaks for occasional colour, to improvised interviews straight to camera. Perhaps a mumblecore movie in that it’s evidently low budget and underwritten, Cronies lacks bite and wit, and feels like a film for the sake of being a film. Even Lee’s flops have something.
Grandma – 7/10
Director/Writer: Paul Weitz
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden
“Where can you find a reasonably priced abortion these days? All I can find is this shitty coffee.”
In 1999, Paul Weitz popularised the term MILF with American Pie. Now older and by default wiser, he’s avoided any GILF gags with Grandma, an audience-pleasing indie dramedy with Lily Tomlin making up for easy sentimentality. It’s family-friendly enough that your grandma will enjoy it, before complaining afterwards it was written by a middle-aged man’s idea of growing old: a post-retirement period of loneliness, regret, and swearing at baristas.
Strangely, it’s been decades since Tomlin last had a feature-starring role, which she executes superbly as a character written specifically for her by Weitz. She plays Elle, a lesbian poet dumping her four-month fling (Judy Greer in yet another 2015 crying cameo). What sets the story rolling is an unexpected visit from her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who’s 10 weeks pregnant and planning an abortion later that day. Does she want life advice from an older relative who’s seen and lived it all? No. Just money.
It’s a very Sundance premise, that’s for sure, right down to the twee soundtrack. The pair drive around and form a bond, while meeting characters that range from Nat Wolff as a lousy stoner boyfriend, to more fleshed-out figures from Elle’s past. The main example of the latter is an old buddy of Elle depicted by Sam Elliott in the film’s finest segment, fleshing out old wounds from former lovers whose complex relationship still plays upon their minds. Ambiguous enough that a kiss and an argument are possible at any moment, Tomlin and Elliott’s onscreen moments shine a little on the thinness of Sage – a teen with little to say, operating more as an ear for Elle’s amusing rants.
While there’s little original in Elle, a cantankerous loner whose bitterness masks a warm interior, Tomlin truly pulls it off with timing, presence and aplomb – even the quirkiness of building a wind charm out of credit cards. It takes little time for Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) to remember why she lost touch with Elle, but it springs to mind whose side of the family passed on the “mean” genes. In old age, Elle no longer accepts timewasters and encourages Sage to be “more crazy”. Ultimately, that antisocial talent is worth pursuing, even if Grandma dresses up its grouch too neatly.
Lost in Munich – 4/10
Original title: Ztraceni v Mnichově
Director/Writer: Petr Zelenka
Starring: Martin Myšička, Marek Taclík, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo
“People overstate that making a film is like a kind of war. We proved it.”
A “famous” parrot is kidnapped by Pavel (Myšička), a journalist frustrated with the crow célèbre – 90 years old, the bird witnessed the Munich Agreement and can quote revelations otherwise scrubbed from history. The wacky humour is a bit blah, but watchable enough, even if the recurring punchline involves the bird shitting from above.
But, after the first act, the film effectively wakes up and realises it was all a dream. We’re watching a film within a film, and backstage havoc is amok. A few more twists add little to what’s neither clever nor original, while dismantling its own momentum, and outlasting its welcome beyond a kooky premise.
Men and Chicken – 6/10
Original title: Mænd og høns
Director/Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, David Dencik, Nikolaj Lie Kaas
“Do all wheelchair users interrupt this much?”
Which came first, the chicken or the man? The answer is irrelevant according to Men and Chicken, a biological comedy from director Anders Thomas Jensen that places the human condition under a microscope to dissect with rude brio. At times too eager to shock, the disconcerting story follows five crazed brothers living in a discarded mansion populated by chicken, pigs, a bull and the authoritative presence of a mad scientist who died years ago.
Sensible Gabriel (David Dencik) and buffoonish brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) learn on their father’s deathbed that their real biological parent was a genetics experts residing on a barely populated island. What they find instead is a decrepit farmhouse with three similarly disfigured brothers (the cast is decorated in prosthetics to signify plastic surgery) who left their father’s corpse to rot in his bedroom. Isolated from society, the demented trio (Søren Malling, Nicolas Bro, Nikolaj Lie Kaas) possess an IQ approaching negative integers; their daily activities involve sex with animals (in the hope of one day meeting a woman) and bashing each other on the head with household objects. Imagine Reeves and Mortimer inflicting pain upon each other, except they’re unlikeable characters you wish would feel the pain.
It’s up to Gabriel to instil a semblance of sanity upon his brothers, at first in the (sur)name of family bonding, but ultimately to edge closer to the secrets behind a locked door – leading to their father’s laboratory where either grand evolutionary discoveries lie, or perhaps an explanation for why a resident duck waddles on hooves. Along the way, the madhouse’s gross-out humour is uninspired, and so is a limp fairytale framing device. “The island’s humour is pretty basic,” observes the local mayor, a barely disguised authorial device.
“The violence hasn’t gotten worse,” the mayor adds in another scene. “People just got more squeamish.” That may be so, but the lowbrow sex gags distract from a remarkably dark turn to horror which, for better or worse, will stick in the mind for some time. Particularly impressive is the house’s intricate design and decades of decay; Elias and Gabriel sneaking down corridors is a rare example of wishing you could stare a bit longer at the wallpaper. While not exactly profound, a smarter film lurks beneath the lowbrow humour. The tag line may as well be: come for arthouse actors participating in bestiality and slapstick, stay for the exploration of science’s manipulative role in evolution.
A Perfect Day – 7/10
Director/Writer: Fernando León de Aranoa
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Mélanie Thierry
“Are you asking the cow?”
If the Coen brothers did M*A*S*H, it could be A Perfect Day – a circular, darkly comic road trip about guessing which side of a dead cow is laced with hidden explosives. Set in 1995, “somewhere in the Balkans”, Mambru (Del Toro) and B (Robbins) are wisecracking aid workers equipped with quips. A sense of humour is certainly required for their day-to-day business, which often slams into walls in the shape of illogical bureaucracy.
Along with new colleague Sophie (Thierry), the duo encounter a dead man in a well infecting the water supply, but when hauling out the corpse, the rope snaps. Much of the first half is about overcoming resistance from the locals to track down more rope. And it’s really funny. Joined by a translator, a young boy from the neighbourhood, and Katya (Kurylenko), the group bicker in a landscaped destroyed by war and laced with the details of survival: an old woman gets by with cows walking in front of her test for mines, like a king with a royal food-taster.
Among the many evocative shots by DP Alex Catalán, what struck me was how the vehicles are seen steering on roads perilously on cliff tops without barriers; a swerve would be instant death. So too would picking the wrong side of the many cow carcasses dragged and left on certain paths as a trap; one side is mined, the other isn’t. For all the one-liners and struggle that their good intentions are fruitless, the battered background tells another story.
Robbins is the standout performer. Deadpan and sarcastic, B is a character that’s seen it all before and is seeing it all again, which may be why he has all the best jokes in preparation. The same can’t be said, sadly, for Kurylenko who’s lumbered with an impossible role: a needy ex of Mambru whose role as auditor means she’s humourless and the snitch. Still, the ensemble produce sparky dialogue that rarely tires, alongside an undercurrent – conversation is a survival method for a gang slowly realising that, despite their best attempts, they can’t improve the world on their own.
Ruben Guthrie – 5/10
Director/Writer: Brendan Cowell
Starring: Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades, Abbey Lee, Harriet Dyer
“Thing is, I love blackouts.”
From Cheers to nearly every romcom prepping a meet-cute, alcohol features heavily in the comedy genre – but not so much on the addiction side. Off the top of my head, there’s an episode of The Simpsons. The rest is Leaving Las Vegas, Smashed and The Lost Weekend. In that sense, Ruben Guthrie tries something new in its out-and-out humorous nature, while also treating addiction as a serious concern.
Ruben (Brammall) is a handsome adman and modern Don Draper in Sydney, sipping cocktails and playing the wildcard at the kind of parties – the kind where suited bigwigs spray champagne onto the floor for someone else to tidy up. When enough is enough, Ruben joins AA, meets a manic pixie dream girl in Virginia (Dyer), and goes sober for a year.
In meshing humour with a dark topic, Cowell’s adaptation of his own play strays into clichéd territory that’s vaguely a romcom and vaguely a redemption story; the jokes mostly flop thanks to a limp script, making it two London Film Festivals in a row for Brammall (clearly talented) laboured with substandard material.
What makes the film tick is the shift in focus from Ruben’s obnoxious behaviour towards the insensitivities of those around him. In slinky Sydney, where everything’s shiny and from an advert (whether for beer or tourism), sober life proves difficult among peer pressure – especially when those peers take it personally that their old drinking pal won’t take a few shots for old time’s sake.
Sure, the Roger Sterlings of Ruben’s office place are pushy. So too is a gay best friend, a stereotype whose main character function is to party and snort drugs non-stop in Ruben’s presence. But most surprising is Ruben’s mother, a woman who twists the temptation of drink into a sweet request from the person who raised him. None of these moments are particularly comedic, though, instead adding a much-needed shot of insight into the unfunny mixer. A half-decent attempt that confirms why The Lost Weekend was primarily a drama.