The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part – Everything is Still Awesome

 

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part had a lot to live up to. The Lego Movie was a phenomenon – a first of it’s kind movie filled to the brim with pop culture references and catchy songs – comprehensible to children but widely enjoyed by adults everywhere. So how could Lego Movie 2 possibly hope to compare?

As it turns out, quite easily. Bringing back the impressive cast of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Will Ferrell (amongst countless others), the film tacks on a host of other A-listers to the sequel; Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Maya Rudolph, and Richard Ayoade, to name a few. Fans of The Florida Project are also in for a happy surprise with the casting of Brooklynn Prince as the youngest sibling and owner of the pastel coloured Duplo introduced at the end of the first film.

This Duplo is the crux of The Lego Movie 2. It begins immediately after the end scene of the first film; the new Duplo characters and Emmett meeting in a Close Encounters style set up. All goes well until the the hearts turn into grenades and begin to destroy Bricksburg, one financial building at a time. Amidst the violence, President Business escapes to his golf course retreat (that is not the last Trump joke within the film) and soon Bricksberg is laid to waste by the violent Duplo characters. Cut to five years later – Emmet, Wyldstyle and the gang are living in a Mad Max type apocalypse (with Metalbeard heading up the oil guzzlers). Everything is not awesome anymore.

There’s two distinct story-lines happening in Lego Movie 2. Unlike the first film, more the ‘real’ world is exposed and one of the narratives is based completely on the humans of the film. What was a wry revelation at the end of Lego Movie turns into a complete subplot, which motivates the Lego characters narratives. Finn, the child of Will Ferrell’s Dad, has a younger sister who is desperate to play with him. In her anger at being rejected from the playroom, she steals (“kidnaps”) Wyldstyle, Metalbeard, Uni-Kitty, Batman and Spaceman Benny, taking them through ‘stairgate’ and into the Systar (‘sister’) System.

Naturally, Emmet’s tries to rescue his friends, and along the way there are raptors, time travel sequences, catchy pop tunes and a burning critique of toxic masculinity. In the real world, siblings Finn and Bianca are fighting over their toys and running the risk of having all of them sent to storage (‘stor-ahge’) in the impending our-mom-aggedon.

First and foremost, we should all be thanking casting director Mary Hidaglo for bringing together some of the funniest and most versatile actors working today. It’s impossible to pinpoint who is at the best here, but Tiffany Haddish’s shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi has to be at the top of the list. From the suspiciously earnest vocals of ‘Not Evil’ to the hilarious ‘Gotham City Boys’, Haddish lends an authenticity to Wa’Nabi that works on multiple levels. Though Emmett may be the star of the film, Will Arnett’s Batman gets a lot of screentime – possibly due to the success of Lego Batman – and the matrimonial/love story between him and Wa’Nabi is definitely a highlight.

There are moments where it feels like Lego Movie 2 is taking it’s time, but when it arrives it really does land. Emmet’s time travelling alter-ego Rex Dangervest is an incarnation of Emmett’s worst insecurities, coupled with the trauma of being abandoned under the dryer. Rex teaches Emmet to break not build, and fills his head with conspiracies about brainwashing to try and get him to abandon his friends. The opposition to this violence is Bianca’s Duplo as it turns out they really do want to be friends with Emmet and the gang (even Wa’Nabi who, as it turns out, is just awkwardly honest). Rex disappearing is a metaphor for Finn rejecting the unemotional, tough-guy mindset that so many boys are taught is the right way to behave.

Though the time travel element and  Rex Dangervest are not entirely without issue (if the plot points are motivated by the humans, where did Rex come from and how do Emmet and Rex move unaided), The Lego Movie 2 just about holds it together to result a coherent message about violence, toxic masculinity and the importance of friendship and kindness.

Maybe it didn’t reach the dizzying heights of The Lego Movie, the distinct lack of marketing feels slightly odd here, but The Lego Movie 2 still has a lot to give. It’s full of heart, meta-jokes and even a Ruth Bader-Ginsberg figurine. The credits are worth a watch on their own – I’m glad they are finally getting recognition as the best part of any movie.

Oh, and ‘Catchy Song’ is definitely stuck inside my he-e-e-a-a-d.

Bandersnatch: Well Done, You Played Yourself

Hype for Black Mirror’s new interactive episode started a few weeks ago when some Netflix users discovered a hidden ‘coming seen’ episode on the streaming site. Rumours flew around the internet – what was is Bandersnatch, will there be more, and what exactly does an interactive episode mean?

Readers beware – from here on there be spoilers for Bandersnatch. This is also more of a ‘here’s my experience with Bandersnatch rather than a review, as I will be talking explicitly about the choices I made during.

Interactive it certainly is, though perhaps the best way to describe Bandersnatch is exactly the way the game within the game is described – it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure. I’m not a gamer myself (my most played and enjoyed games are either the Lego series, Kirby or Spyro) but I am married to one, so I got a bit of background on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre of games. One that stands out from the rest is The Stanley Parable – which is described as an ‘interactive storytelling and walking simulator video game’. They key thing about the Stanley Parable is that the freedom of choice within the game is not merely an illusion – you are free to choose the options you desire, which is sometimes (most of the time) against the will of the supremely pissed off narrator. Throughout the game, you (as Stanley) make choices which can end in several different endings – I’ve been reliably informed that there are roughly thirteen different endings. Every choice you make leads to one of these endings, but the narrative weaves itself back in and out of different pathways, which basically means you are never told to ‘go back’ or ‘game over’ – rather, your choices may lead you to the same point that you would have got to anyway, just in a different loop so to speak.

Confused? So was I. As I said, I am not much of a gamer and so my I was initially a bit disappointing that the new Black Mirror episode was going to expect me – someone who likes to be spoon-fed content – to actually make active decisions about the protagonists future. Still, I went in with an open mind and with ample time, just in-case Bandersnatch was going to take longer than the designated 90 minutes Netflix suggests it will. This is a good move – to experience most of the endings, you will need more than 90 minutes.

Bandersnatch is set in 1984 and follows the story of Stefan, a young videogame designer who is looking for an opportunity to complete and sell his game ‘Bandersnatch’ – a Choose Your Own Adventure game based on a book of the same name. Get it? Stefan’s day, and our viewing, starts out with simple choices (Frosties or Sugar Puffs – we went for Frosties) and gradually leans into more divisive decisions which will inevitably and irrevocably change the direction of Stefan’s life.

Bandersnatch is not like the aforementioned Stanley Parable. It does give you frequent opportunities to make decisions for Stefan which change the narrative, but instead of following through when viewers choose certain path, Bandersnatch has a clear set of choices that it wants you to make. If you make the wrong decision (EG: die before the game is completed, or refuse to talk to your therapist about your mother), Bandersnatch will either aggressively encourage you to pick the ‘correct option’, will launch a soft reset where you are taken (without consent) back to an earlier point) or will inform you that your proverbial game is over and that you should go back and try again.

On our first viewing (or playthrough), we decided that Stefan should take the job at Ritman – a move that felt inline with what we knew about Stefan’s character and his desires. This led very quickly to the ‘Bandersnatch’ game being developed by a team in-office, which was then reviewed horribly when it came out. Stefan, without our interfering, chooses to ‘go back’ and try again – implying that when it came round to refusing or accepting the job offer again, we should refuse. Continuing on this path, we ended up with the ‘Netflix Fight’ ending – which was incredibly jarring as it doesn’t tie up any ends and feels more like a bonus, comic ending that the audience should be able to access once they’ve reached a more conclusive ending.

Between the soft resets and the show itself deciding to start again in particular instances, the idea of Bandersnatch feeling truly interactive is kind of lost. Of course, this is part of the narrative – the show is exploring the idea of freedom of choice vs a predetermined pathway – but I didn’t feel that this was effectively translated into the choices onscreen.

At first I made decisions which I felt Stefan would have made – I attempted to ‘keep character’ as it were. It quickly became obvious that this was not the correct pathway – for example, accepting the job at Ritman ended in Colin stating that we’d chosen wrong and we should go back and try again. Though the creators of the show have explicitly stated that there is no right or wrong way to ‘play’ Bandersnatch, there is definitely a particular set of choices you are being heavily encouraged to choose so any idea that I was deciding Stefan’s fate fell kind of flat. There is, of course, the argument that this is exactly what Bandersnatch is intending to do – give the audience the illusion of choice but to snatch the rug out from underneath them – but this feels like it could have been executed in a more sophisticated way.

The other main issue is that the story itself is relatively uninteresting – at least in comparison to the other Black Mirror episodes which have gone before it. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure which depicts a person trying to create a Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s akin to a novel about someone writing a novel. Sometimes it works, but for the most part the narrative feels sparse and the only thing keeping the audience engaged is the interactive elements rather than a compelling storyline.

Overall, Bandersnatch is a neat idea which feels (like ‘Bandersnatch’ in so many of the endings) unfinished. There are unlimited references to other episodes of Black Mirror (Nosedive, Mental Head to name two), an easter egg playable game and secret endings but none of these things disguise Bandersnatch’s unrealised potential. It’s disappointing because it feels as if it’s on the edge of something quite exciting, but it never gets there in favour of cheap gimmicks and call-backs.

My Bandersnatch experience was most enjoyable once it had finished and I scrolled endlessly through twitter laughing at all the memes.. Unlike with Stefan, my choices here are limited and easy – like or retweet.

Thoughts on ‘Leave No Trace’ (Debra Granik, 2018)

An absence of dialogue, an expanse of beautiful outdoor locations, a minimal budget and two actors pulling out every stop to give performances of a lifetime. We are, of course, talking about the latest feature from Debra Granik – Leave No Trace – a film which crept into cinemas a few months ago and has not left the screens or our minds since.

Leave No Trace – dir. Debra Granik

I was lucky enough to see it this week in the cinema, and I’m glad I finally did. Leave No Trace is not a film which needs to be seen on a big screen, but there is something about the hushed atmosphere of a darkened room that meshes so well with the way in which it’s protagonists, Will and Tom, live out their lives.

Ben Foster is Will, a deeply troubled man who has taken to living ‘outside’ of society with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two make camp in a National Park in Portland, venturing into the city only when supplies run low. Will makes the small amount of money they need by selling medicines to other homeless people in the park – others who are veterans like himself. They survive in near silence, Will training Tom in camouflaging to prevent them being found, planting their own food and sleeping in a single tent hidden by oversized green ferns.

Their lives in the park come to a swift end when a jogger notices Tom. Soon, social workers and police are sent to find the two and they are taken away to be questioned. Tom’s age is never specified and whilst swaddled in large coats, scarves and with a lack of nutrition, she could be anywhere between 11 and 16. On questioning her, Tom is advanced for her age, but she is told that she should be enrolled in high school as soon as possible.  Will’s own questioning reveals a deep depression when he cannot answer questions about hope for the future, or whether he often has troubling and disturbing thoughts. From here, the two embark on a journey to try and adapt into new lives – first in a small cabin on farm which grows and sells Christmas trees.

Tom quickly becomes immersed in their new lives – making a new friend and learning how to present bunny rabbits with the local Future Farmers of America Group, one of the happiest moments within the film. Tom’s natural curiosity and interest in animals is stirred but whilst she is settling into this new environment, Will is uneasy. He needs to move on. Leave No Trace follows this pattern throughout – Tom moulding herself to suit any situation she finds herself in, Will unable to stand still.

Leave No Trace is, in many ways, about the nature of a parent-child relationship. What is the primary job of a parent? To protect, to shelter and to nurture your child? It’s easy to see Will as having done all of these, despite not providing any of them. He is categorically a bad father, but he also nurtures Tom’s education, provides her with his own kind of shelter and protects her from a society that he believes is corrupt.

There’s an anxiety present within Leave No Trace about Will’s misplaced rage, and when he questions Tom about the jogger who spotted her in the woods, there’s a moment when it seems Will is going to become aggressive towards Tom. This never happens. Even in his darkest moments, Will is not an outwardly violent man. His actions, however, do have an indirectly violent consequence for Tom – his decision to go on the run again leads her to the brink of death when the two of them get hopelessly lost in the woodland. Will is so desperate to be his daughters protector, that he ends up becoming someone that she needs protecting from.

For Will, everything is backwards. It’s society that is the hostile environment. He has a deep mistrust of the world. Quite deliberately, everyone that Will and Tom meet on their journey reacts only with kindness and compassion. From the social workers, to the truck driver, to the community at the caravan park – every single person treats Will and Tom with warmth. This is directly contradictory to Will’s perception of the world and it is heavily implied that he knows this. PTSD is not that straight forward, knowing a truth doesn’t make it a truth  and Will (for whatever reason) is unable to come to terms with this and make his peace.

Granik’s camera often returns to wide expansive shots of the two characters embedded within the landscape – a shot which returns again at the end of the film, cementing Will’s desire to blend in with his surroundings and simply disappear.  The cinematography echoes the empathy that Granik urges us to feel for these characters – tight two shots and close up’s of Tom and Will’s faces convey the smallest emotion.

Though Leave No Trace is a very small story, focused solely on these two characters and their path in this world, it also seems to be talking about society at large. Everyone the pair meet have their own stories, are broken in their own ways. From the other homeless folks at the National Park, to the camping community in the forest – there is a sense that everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. Tom and Will are no different.

Comedy as Activism: Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’

**spoilers for Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ Special on Netflix. Please watch before reading!**

Netflix have just released comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up ‘Nanette’, and everyone is talking about it, and not without very good reason.

In Gadsby’s hour and half routine (named ‘Nanette’ after someone Gadsby thought she’d get a shows worth of material out of, but didn’t), she takes us on an emotional journey through gender, sexuality, the state of society today and why she needs to give up comedy.

Whilst watching ‘Nanette’ (amongst the sniffling into my tissues and applauding loudly even though I was alone in my room), a question began to form in my mind. As Hannah Gadsby took us through the reasons why she feels she needs to quit comedy, I started to wonder what the point of comedy was. Is it to purely make others laugh? Or is laughter a by product? Does comedy have to be funny to still be classified as comedy? This is a question that’s been asked and there’s been attempts to answer it. Brian Logan’s article for The Guardian sparked a debate on whether ‘trauma-comedy’ sets qualify as comedy.

One comedian Logan discusses at length is Sofie Hagen. I’ve been lucky enough to see both Shimmer Shatter and ‘Dead Baby Frog’ performed live, and so whilst I might be quite biased, I also vehemently disagreed with Logan’s assertion that ‘Dead Baby Frog’ was not comedy. Though it left me feeling pensive and introspective, I’d also had the sweet release of laughter throughout.  I spent the next few days going over the more emotionally vulnerable moments in Hagen’s show, connecting them to my own life.

This question of whether comedy = laughter also surfaces when watching ‘Nanette’, as there are definitive moments within the show which are not there to make the audience laugh. Gadsby talks within ‘Nanette’ at length about comedy existing as a two-part structure. You say something that builds tension, then the punchline releases that tension, which enables everyone to laugh. Tension and release.  In ‘Nanette’, there are many moments where there are no punchlines. Gadsby talks about traumatic incidents in her life but doesn’t relieve the audience by giving us a joke at the end to let us know that it is all okay.

There is a similar moment within Tiff Stevenson’s ‘Bombshell’. Stevenson speaks honestly about the current political and social climate within our country, and at one point she comments on Grenfell. The tension has been raised, and because it’s comedy there is an expectation of some sort of release. Stevenson tells the audience that there is no punchline, because it’s not funny. Again, the purpose of this part of the show was deliberately not to make the audience.

Comedians do spend a inordinate amount of time on-stage berating themselves for the pleasure of others. It’s no coincidence that a huge number of comedians suffer from depression and other mental illnesses – so much so that it’s a regular film and TV trope. It seems that something is declared comedy outright if the person delivering it is criticising themselves (or their own ‘group’ in society), but not so much if they are making a point about about another group in society.

‘Nanette’ follows the usual rules of set-up, punchline, laugh all through Gadsby’s teasing about the lesbian community, her own coming out story and reactions from her small Tasmanian towns-folk. The punchlines stopped rolling in when Gadsby started speaking seriously about how she’s been treated in her life, and how the act of making of a joke out of it has been detrimental to her processing her own trauma. When Gadsby speaks to the men in the room, pleads with them to pull their fingers out and just be better, you can hear the tension. It’s powerful and tangible. It’s an authenticity that is unparalleled in any show (comedy or otherwise) that I have ever seen before.

Comedy has always been about ‘sticking up for the little guy’. Even the dictionary definition details comedy not only as a ‘jokes to make people laugh’ but also as satire in which people overcome adversity, usually in a humorous situation. Gadsby, Hagen and Stevenson (and many more) are doing just that. They are using humour, but also powerful ideas and concepts, to triumph over adversity. The thing about adversity though, is that others have to understand the adversity you are facing before you can collectively laugh about overcoming it. Those ‘little guys’ that comedy has always stuck up for – they’ve traditionally always been men. Perhaps men that don’t necessarily fit the traditional ideals of masculinity, but they’ve usually been straight, white men all the same. Mainstream audiences simply aren’t yet used to hearing stories from people who aren’t men, and they are even less used to hearing a gay woman pointing out the injustices in a world where ‘the little guy’ is doing alright comparatively.

In ‘Nanette’, Gadsby uses her sharp and intelligent humour to give a platform to these issues. Paraphrasing here, but her discussion of how anger has no value is searingly on point. Her stories have value, but anger can only breed further anger. Comedy and activism can go hand in hand to create something incredibly powerful, and Hannah Gadsby has done just that.

 

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A Few Key Questions

I have a few questions after seeing Martin McDonagh’s latest feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I guess the first one is on me because, for some reason, I thought this was a true story right up until I actually saw it. I have no idea why, but if anyone else thought it was based on a true story, please let me know so we can all not feel so confused together.

Aside from that, I have a lot of other questions.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Mildred Hayes  (Frances McDormand) in her attempts to find her daughters murderer. Seven months after her daughter Angela is brutally raped, killed and set on fire, the Ebbing police department have still not caught the killer. In order to keep the case in the public eye (and also encourage the cops to do their jobs), Mildred rents three billboards just outside the town to ask the question; why has no-one been arrested for this crime? Woody Harrelson plays cancer-cop (he has cancer, he doesn’t arrest it) Chief Willoughby, who seems like a stand up guy apart from the fact he defends co-cop Dickson (Sam Rockwell) who is renowned for torturing black people in custody. Which seems like it should matter more, but the Three Billboards forgets this pretty quickly as Chief Willoughby is portrayed as someone doing their best, and then someone quickly committing suicide after having sex with his wife, a few metres from their children playing by the river (???).

The town blames Mildred’s billboards for Chief Willoughby’s death, even though his multiple suicide notes explicitly state that he killed himself before his condition deteriorated, and things get a bit weird. There’s a weird redemptive arc for Officer Dickson, whose racism, homophobia and bigotry seem to be off-set by the fact that he saves Angela Hayes’ files from the police station. I don’t want to go too into here, because there are a LOT of other people who are more qualified, and who have articulated better than I ever could (Ira Madison’s article at The Daily Beast is the best op-ed I’ve read on it), but trust me when I say that it’s a bizarre bait-and-switch as far as I’m concerned.

Though McDormand is phenomenal throughout, McDonagh spends at least half the film  exploring Dickson’s inner turmoil and his home life, time which (in my humble opinion) would have been far better spent exploring Mildred’s grief, mental state and acceptance of her daughters death. I have a lot of of nit-picky questions about this film, about character intentions and just general confusion, so I’ve decided to break it down below.  Lets go!

Why is Chief Willoughby’s wife half his age?

Okay, so this may not be the most pressing issue but it is one that I took umbrage with. There’s a lot of focus on the fact that Mildred’s ex-husband is dating a much younger woman (it’s implied that she is barely out of her teens). So it’s a bit odd when we see Chief Willoughby’s wife and no-one makes any kind of mention as to the fact that she is 21 years his junior. Maybe not the biggest issue with this film but it annoyed me so it’s on the list.

Why so many offensive slurs?

I know that a lot of white people (and I say this as a white person) think it’s big and clever to use offensive language to point out how offensive it is, and how it proves people are racist if they say it. Well, guess what – you saying it, even trying to prove a point, is also racist. I was really onboard with Three Billboards until the scene where Mildred and Dickson are talking about Dickson’s torturing of black folks, and there’s a back and forth where the N word is liberally applied. Perhaps there was a point behind it all, but I fail to see it.

The film also employs offensive slurs against the LGBTQ community, the kind which many of us (I am sure) last heard in the playground at school whilst having things thrown at us. Considering McDonough didn’t actually cast any LGBTQ actors, or write any LGBTQ characters into the film – what possible justification is there to use these terms?

Why are the only black characters there to support white characters in their journey?

Following on from my previous point… the only characters of colour in Three Billboards are in the film solely because they are black. They have no other personality traits, narrative arcs or reason for being other than their blackness. Denise, Mildred’s friend, is arrested on possession of marijuana (original) to prove that the police force are prejudiced and will do anything to stop Mildred. Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, is a black man, seemingly only to rile up Dickson and the other white cops in the precinct.

When was this film set?

Following on my THAT – when on earth was this film set? This question led myself and three friends to have an incredibly detailed debate as to when it was actually set (something I feel you should NOT have to do – establishing the time period is a VERY basic requirement of cinema). We concluded that, with the use of smartphones and Dickson’s reference to googling, it must be set within the last five years. Which begs the question: why is everyone so cool with bigoted language and attitudes in the town? Mildred seems to be a very progressive woman (at least, we assume from the pedo-priest conversation), so why is she using slurs too? Adding to this the constant jokes aimed at Peter Dinklage’s character, the film felt incredibly dated….

Unless this is just how rural America is? I could be completely mistaken. Do let me know if this is the case, and if you live in an area like Ebbing, you should also let me know so I can try and start a Go Fund Me to get you out of there.

What’s the deal with Mildred’s son?

This is kind of self explanatory, but what is his deal? One minute he’s spouting some crap about how the domestic violence charges against his Dad were only Mildred’s word against his, the next minute he is holding a knife to his father’s throat as if this had all happened before.

One minute he hates Mildred, the next minute he supports her. It’s all a bit weird, and he seems to change depending on what the narrative needs him to do rather than any kind of character development.

Why does Mildred tell her daughter she wishes she was raped?

Just….no.

Does being on fire lead to a complete personality transplant?

The real lesson I took from Three Billboards is that we need to take all racist, bigoted, homophobic police officers in rural America and put them in a burning building but ensure that they survive the ordeal. Apparently, this leads to a complete personality overhaul and they become nice decent people almost instantly.

Is this film going to win best film at the Oscars?

Probably.

LFF 2017: Funny Cow Review

Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow is a mixed bag. Just a side note – I am probably going to focus this review on a very, very small part of the film because I feel like it’s the part which has resonated in my mind since I saw the film, and not in a good way. That’s not to say that the rest of film wasn’t good – I actually found it to be a refreshing and nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her own trauma through humour. There is a just a particular moment within the film which completely altered the way I viewed it, which I will focus on more later.

Maxine Peake plays a female comedian (whose only credited name is Funny Cow). The film takes us through her life, going backwards and forwards all the way from her childhood, to a TV interview she is giving about her life. No matter how tough things get, there is already an understanding from early on that things are going to work out for her. And things do get tough…

From being elated at the premature death of her abusive father, to meeting and marrying a violent husband, to subsequently trying to curb her mother’s alcoholism – Funny Cow is a film which seeks humour in the darkest of moments, and it’s really quite good at it. Peake’s character has a complexity that is rarely seen in female characters. She spends most of the film trying to laugh her way through traumatic events, only to discover that she cannot right all of life’s wrongs with a funny joke. She plays the ‘clown’ expertly, but is also heartbreaking to watch at points – especially in the scenes with her alcoholic mother (played by Lindsey Coulson). Shergold subtly shows the cyclical nature of abuse through these two characters – both mother and daughter become moulded into ‘victims’ by the people around them. The daughters release is comedy, the mother’s release is drink, but they are two sides of the same coin.

So, what’s not to like? Well…

Before Funny Cow (I really, really wish she had an actual name) takes to the stage, she becomes enamoured with stand up comedy after watching comedian Lenny (Alun Armstrong) perform, albeit very badly, at a local venue. His act, proceeded by a low-key strip tease act, is without many laughs. His material is bad. His delivery is bad. He’s also, and this is a pretty key theme later on, pretty racist. Let’s be clear though, the racism isn’t the reason why the audience don’t laugh – he just isn’t very funny. Regardless, Funny Cow is impressed. Not with his actual jokes, but at the idea of making people laugh and getting paid to do it.

Later in the film, Funny Cow is given the opportunity to take Benny’s place at a similar show. It’s a spontaneous decision – Benny is ill and there is literally no-one else to do it. And though she has been faced with a few men telling her that women simply aren’t funny, the worst that happens during her debut stand up show is one shouty drunk guy, who is quickly reigned in by those around him. Funny Cow can hold her own, and a lot of her initial set is bouncing insults off him. The tables have turned and the humour comes from the lack of control this man now has. In any other circumstance, his heckling would be intimidating but Funny Cow is in control, and she is answering back.

After this, Funny Cow proceeds to tell a joke about an Englishman, a Pakistani man and a gay man. Only, that’s not how she describes the latter two. Clearly, I am not going to repeat this joke but the bottom line is that it’s an incredibly homophobic and racist joke, with added offensive vaguely South Asian accents. Of course, the audience in the good ol’ 1980s onscreen howled with laughter. Then I realised it wasn’t just the people onscreen who were laughing, it was the 2017 film’s audience too, all around me.

Shergold wants us to feel happy that Funny Cow’s got the laugh, that she is being accepted. We know this is the first step on her way to success, to being the person she needs to become. But why do we have to build a white woman’s success on the back of other types of discrimination? I know what the answer is already – ‘it’s just how things were back then!’. Funny Cow was written in 2017, not 1982. It doesn’t have to be that way, it’s a fictional story.  Using racist and homophobic jokes to elevate the main white, straight character is at best lazy, and at worst is a sign that this film only cares about white people. It is not interested in social progression or overcoming discrimination if you are not white.

Let’s be clear too, Funny Cow is an incredibly white film. In fact, there is one character of colour who is nameless, and doesn’t actually speak. Everyone is else is white, straight and cis. This lack of POC only kicks salt into the wounds.

Of course, it is possible Shergold wanted us to read this scene as Funny Cow doing what she needed to do to get those racist old white men on side. There’s no evidence that this is the case, though. There is no discussion of it in the film at all, she simply finishes her set and her career takes off. Simply writing racism and discrimination into a film doesn’t equal combating it. It’s only with critique of those institutions within the text that a film can really be seen to understand that ‘this is how things were AND this is why it was bad’. With Funny Cow we only get the first half of that sentence.

As you may have guessed, this means I have a lot of mixed feelings about Funny Cow. Maxine Peake is incredible, to the point that the film probably would not have worked without her. Instead of just tragedy (with a few laughs) Peake connects with the audience and invites them into her world. She’s a comic genius, bringing the (at times) underwhelming script to life. I also have to sing the praises for the production design team – Funny Cow  was consistently gritty and raw, mostly thanks to the attention to detail within the design. Taking us from the gritty Northern industrial landscapes, to Funny Cow’s outlandish reinvention with her peroxide hair and sporty red car is an impressive feat, and one that is pulled off impeccably.  

It’s not a bad film, like I said it’s actually quite a good film. Yet, it left a horrible after taste in my mouth and as much as I attempted to understand how Shergold could justify the rampant racism and homophobia, I just couldn’t get my head around it. I still can’t.

LFF 2017: Ana, mon amour Review

In a student flat, in the heart of Bucharest, Ana and Toma are having a deep, flirtatious conversation about literature and philosophy. They sit side by side, locking eyes, laughing at one another. They giggle at the noises of loud sex that carry into the small flat from the people next door.  It is the beginning of a romance. Ana spills her drink. Whilst Toma walks away to find something to clean it up with, Ana begins rummaging furiously through her bag, looking for something. She’s hyperventilating. She can’t find her tablets. Toma tries to reassure her, but Ana is gone. She is having a panic attack. Toma lies her down, and strokes her stomach – soothing at first, but then sexually. They embrace each other.

The first sequence of Cãlin Peter Netzer’s Ana, mon amour, sets the mood for Ana (Diana Cavallioti) and Toma’s (Mircea Postelnicu) tumultuous, long term relationship. Ana suffers from frequent panic attacks, and various mental health issues that are not completely disclosed. She has trouble leaving the house, an act which often results in her having a full on panic attack. Netzer’ explores their relationship from university, to adulthood, to parenthood – all the while examining the effects of mental illness on a relationship, and the cyclical nature of family trauma. Presented out of sequence, Ana, mon amour takes us through scenes of Ana and Toma’s life together, as Toma is recalling his experiences to a therapist after his and Ana’s divorce.

As in keeping with the traditions of Romanian cinema, Netzer keeps his camera close to his subjects and handheld, for most of the film. We are invited to investigate every inch of their faces, their bodies and their personal space. Much of the cinematography is handheld, giving a sense of constant movement and change – a huge theme of the film. We, as the camera, are never stable – much like Ana, and much like Ana and Toma’s relationship. The camera also feels intrusive in their lives at some points, especially when it captures acts that are traditionally private. Sex scenes between Ana and Toma are graphic and Netzer doesn’t hold back from showing everything. The same goes for Ana’s panic attacks – the camera moves closer into her face, capturing a private and shameful moment for her. It feels claustrophobic – we feel as Ana does.

We weave through their lives, space and time itself (and where we are in time is mostly dictated by the length of Toma’s hair). We learn that Ana is from a poorer rural background, Toma is from an affluent religious background. Their backgrounds, possibly more so than Ana’s mental health, are a source of tension between them – Toma’s parents have a very visceral hatred of Ana on their first meeting. This seems to subside by the time they the two of them have a child, because the next time we see Ana and Toma’s parents together, they are all together at what seems to be a traditional Romanian religious event.

This sort of ‘bait and switch’ occurs several times, most notably with the birth of their child. In one scene, Ana and Toma are convinced that they will have an abortion, but a few minutes later, we see Ana at 24 weeks pregnant having tests done on her unborn child.

Consequently, Ana, mon amour can come off as confusing. Netzer gives nothing away, we are expected to do a large amount of work to figure out where we are, how far we are into their relationship and how old the two of them are now. It’s frustrating, perhaps a reflection of how frustrated Toma feels with Ana. Perhaps it is also reflection of the Ana’s frustration at her health and being torn between her failing medication, Toma’s insistence on religion as a solution, and her own desire to see her psychotherapist. Religious symbolism is rife throughout the film, and is often presented as the antithesis to modern antidepressants/medication. 

Though this technique sometimes works well for Netzer, and clearly has deeper connotations, it also means that a lot of smaller details are missed by the audience. It also means that the deeper we get into the film, the more disorientated we are with the constant time-hopping. It is difficult to understand, especially at the end, what has really happened and what has only happened inside Tomas’s head. Though as I’m sure  Ana, mon amour is supposed to be ambiguous, walking away from it not knowing what really went on felt very dissatisfying. 

Though Ana, mon amour is not a film about placing the blame, or deciding who was good or bad in the relationship, there is a sense of competing misery between the two main characters by the end. Toma, expressing this to his therapist, feels that he has been dealt an undeserved hand. He feels that he cared for Ana, that he ‘invested’ in her when she was sick, and now she is better, she doesn’t need him anymore. He also reveals that he believed that he loved Ana because she was dependent on him. In another scene, Ana tells him that he exacerbated her condition by controlling her all the time, by doing everything for her and by never encouraging her to be independent. Now that she is healthy and independent, he doesn’t like it.

Whilst both of them have their own issues to work through, and clearly communication is one of them, I felt very strongly for Ana’s character. Toma, who held the power throughout most of the film, came across as entitled and controlling. This seems to be at odds with Netzer’s intentions, however. It is Toma’s voice that dictates the way we see Ana, as it is through his therapy session that we are reliving their relationship. It feels like we are supposed to see Ana as selfish by the end – with her new blonde managerial haircut, her unwillingness to look after their child and the secrets she keeps from Toma.

Though Cavaliotti does a phenomenal job portraying Ana’s insecurity and anxiety, it is clear that Netzer wants Ana to be a ‘type’, rather than a well rounded character. Ana starts off as a problem which Toma needs to fix, but then becomes the shadow of Toma’s mother – a woman who wants to leave her husband. Equally, Ana’s mother fits this second ‘type’ too – whilst pregnant with Ana, she married another man who was not Ana’s father. Diana, Toma’s ex girlfriend (who we never see, but is integral to understanding Toma’s paranoia) cheated on him as well. For Netzer, all of the woman in Ana, mon amour are essentially the same character.

Nevertheless, I found Ana, mon amour to be a very interesting film. I identified with Ana and whether that is what Netzer intended or not, it doesn’t really matter.

LFF 2017: Brigsby Bear Review

“Room meets Frank meets The Truman Show meets Be Kind Rewind”

On the opening night of the London Film Festival, Brigsby Bear was introduced by the festival’s programmer as ‘what happens when people who made their careers on SNL make a film about child abduction’. She’s not far wrong. From the mind of SNL alumni, director Dave McCreary, and headed up by producer Andy Samberg (who also makes a cameo appearance), Brigsby Bear is truly a light hearted and humorous take on kidnapping and abduction. 

Brigsby Bear has drawn numerous comparisons to several critically acclaimed films, the most obvious of which is Room – predominantly for its subject matter. Let’s be clear, that is really the only thing those two films have in common. I personally found myself reminded of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank because of McCreary’s ability to slide seamlessly between absolute tragedy and a genuinely honest laugh out loud moment. Also, something to do with a monolithic character dress up (you know – with massive heads).  

Though it is Be Kind Rewind that Brigsby Bear resembled the most, for me. Widely regarded as both funny and sweet, it is a film which also created a very strong contender for a second Ghostbusters theme. It is the thread of creativity running through both films characters, and the films themselves, that make them so similar. The likeable and naive main characters (Brigsby’s James and Be Kind‘s Jerry) keep us believing that they can achieve their wildly unattainable dreams. They are forces for creative positivity, pushing us to realise that the world isn’t such a bad place, and we can make other people happy by being ourselves. It’s exactly the kind of message that we need right now.

Brigsby Bear tells the story of James, a young man who was abducted as a baby and has lived underground with his two captors for his entire life. His ‘father’, Mark Hamill, and his ‘mother’ (Jane Adams), seem like pretty reasonable people – albeit the weird dinnertime hand shaking ritual and the weird stuffed animals in their garden.  James is rescued from the disturbingly homely underground bunker and returned to his real family within the first ten minutes. There’s a reunion with his father (Matt Walsh), mother (Michaela Watkins) and teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Claire Danes plays James’ psychiatrist, who reveals to him that the TV show he grew up watching (the ONLY thing he watched for 25 years) is not actually real. Rather, it was created and filmed by his kidnapper Dad. James is the only person to have seen the show Brigsby Bear, and even the ‘friends’ he spoke to on forums about it turned out to have been his kidnapper parents all along. 

After befriending Spencer (“Mr Spencer”) at a party, and employing the help of both his sister, some friends and the local aspiring thespian cop Detective Vogel (played by Greg Kinnear), James sets about creating the Brigsby Bear Movie – an epic finale to the hours and hours of the TV show made solely for him. Of course there are hiccups on the way (including a home-made bomb, stealing police evidence, a bad drugs trip and time spent in a mental institution), but Brigsby Bear has a happy ending, thank goodness.

I think the real highlight of Brigsby Bear is the sincerity it manages to pull off within its characters, and this in part due to a fantastic performance by Kyle Mooney as James. He has some of the funniest lines (‘what’s wrong with you?’… ‘I was abducted as a baby..’), and delivers them with such straight-faced integrity that we genuinely feel for him, even whilst guffawing with laughter. Whilst James story is perhaps unbelievable, the relationships he forms with his ‘new’ family and friends keep us intrigued and engaged in the story. Particularly the arc of James and Aubrey as they reconnect as siblings which (unless you’ve got a heart of stone) will make you feel super happy.

There is some finer point being made somewhere in the background of Brigsby Bear about how television, cult or otherwise, can help us through difficult moments in life. James frequently talks about how Brigsby was all he had whilst he was kidnapped and when the Brigsby videos go viral, people are enchanted by it’s quirkiness. Cult TV features heavily throughout the film, Spencer’s bedroom is filled with Star Trek posters – a programme itself that was slightly out of the mainstream to begin with, but is deeply loved and obsessed over by it’s fans. A bit like Brigsby, perhaps?

The film never reveals Ted and April’s true intentions or motivations behind abducting James. At one point Brigsby Bear almost gets there but it stops because James’ character is not interested in those things. We learn what James wants to learn, we go where James goes. He isn’t really interested in his captor’s motives (probably because he has not been able to mentally mature properly), and he still sees them as good people. Of course, the process of creating the Brigsby Bear Movie is an attempt at processing his trauma and coming to terms with his life now, but fortunately the film doesn’t push this too much. Brigsby Bear is light hearted, and succeeds because it doesn’t delve too deeply into James’ experience.

We are left with a sort of surreal, strange yet emotionally savvy film, which also fits very comfortably into the comedy genre. Honestly, t’s just a really, really lovely film with a stellar cast and a ethereal soundtrack. I can’t wait for the Brigsby Bear TV series.  

THE BEGUILED: Coppola’s Most Accomplished Film So Far?

Sofia Coppola has made an incredible career out of documenting boredom. A constant of nearly every single one of her feature films is the sense of complete and utter boredom, and desire to do something – anything. The Lisbon girls from The Virgin Suicides  are driven to horrendous acts, partly because of their parents rigorous control but also because they live a life of captivity. Nothing to do, no books to read, no-one to see. Lost In Translation’s Charlotte and Bob are held in a linguistic limbo, and their inability to communicate with those around them leads to incredible bouts of boredom. Meeting each other alleviates that. The teenagers of The Bling Ring are lead by temptation yes, but also a desire to do anything different, anything that gets them out of their boring lives.

The Beguiled then is a true Sofia Coppola film. Six young girls and two women, alone in a huge school house at the height of the American Civil War. They’ve been stuck for three years, none able to go home for various reasons. They are occasionally visited by Confederate soldiers, but they mostly have only each other for company and are left to their own devices.

The first time Elle Fanning’s Alisha is introduced, we can feel this numbness and ennui  creeping into the school house through every dilapidated wall and window. The girls are in a french lesson. Schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) lists off variations from the blackboard. The other two girls are sharply repeating phrases, but are less than engaged with the process. There is a sense that they have done this before, many times. Alisha drums her fingers on the desk, her repetitions are a beat behind the other girls. She is stuck, and bored out of her teenage mind. The arrival of wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), slaps them all awake from their monotonous lives – with unforeseeable consequences.

Alisha and Edwina represent this idea of boredom and desire for something else that is wound tightly throughout The Beguiled, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Edwina is naively obsessed with McBurney , to the point at which she can’t see how much of a fool he is making out of her. Comparatively, Alisha feels in control of her desire. It is, after all, McBurney who comes to her room as opposed to Edwina who goes looking for him, during the most climatic scene.

All of the women, including stern headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) see McBurney as an escape of sorts. For Edwina, he is a physical escape. For Martha, he is an intellectual equal. For Alisha, he is sexual desire. McBurney may be exploiting their desires for him, but there is also manipulation on their part. Their collective desire for the war to be over and to be freed of the repetitive lives they live are realised in McBurney. Miss Martha allows him to stay, knowing that it is not the right thing to do, because he signifies a change in the schoolhouse, a change in their situation.

This fatigued repetition is visually communicated by Coppola returning to the same or similar shots over and over again. Beautifully composed, yet repeated shots of the front of the house, mist seeping through the trees in the mornings, light glimmering through the bushes in the evenings. There is a series of shots of Jane, each slightly different, out on the veranda peering through her spyglass. At one point during The Beguiled, a day is represented by early morning sunshine streaming through a window, followed by a shot of the schoolhouse in the evening sun. Every day is the same. That is, until McBurney.

The strength of The Beguiled comes from Coppola’s deliberate focus on the present. There are very few details about any of the characters backstories, or anything that could deter us from the moment in front of us. Not allowing the audience to learn much about just one character is fitting as it allows a more objective view of the situation. Rather than feel sympathy for any one of the characters, we are encouraged to see the situation for what it is. In a way, this allows us to take a step back from the narrative and allows us to identify with multiple characters (often those who are on opposing sides) and the choices of almost every single character (including McBurney because we aren’t on a singular journey.

The cheating, lying and indiscretions seem to be spurred on by the background of war rather than any individual characters backstory. The sound of bombing is ever present in the distance, the presence of soldiers in and around the house is almost continuous. Though McBurney is not wearing a uniform, he is a constant reminder to the women that they are surrounded by war on all sides. The Beguiled depicts the war as having penetrated their feminised space inside the house, with the arrival of McBurney.

A review of the The Beguiled would not be complete without at least mentioning the lack of black characters, particularly black women. Coppola’s version of The Beguiled does not feature Hallie, the black slave character from the original text. Coppola was criticised for this decision, and tried to justify it by explaining that she didn’t want to trivialise the slave narrative. Whilst Coppola’s intentions seem honest (if not a little naive), there is no denying that a film about America’s Deep South at the the time of the Civil War feels very uncomfortable without even one black character. The ‘slaves’ are mentioned once, and then never spoken of again.

It’s interesting that Coppola, a white woman, distinguishes the stories of women and POC into two distinct categories, not once accepting that Hallie’s character was also a woman. Her story didn’t need to be reduced to just a ‘slave narrative’. Coppola has said that she wanted to tell the story of The Beguiled from the perspective of the women in the film, unlike the original. She has succeeded, but to erase Hallie’s story is the erasure of black women from the sphere of what a woman’s story consists of.

The Beguiled feels like Sofia Coppola’s most technically accomplished film to date. It’s stylistically consistent, the performances are phenomenal (especially from Kidman) and it’s exploration of sexuality, desire and boredom feels new and exciting. It will be a career defining film for its director, but releasing the film has also shown Coppola’s true ideas about diversity and inclusion. The Beguiled sticks closely to Coppola’s previous films about the struggles of white women, and she shows no sign of branching out from this territory. That’s not to say The Beguiled is a ‘bad film’, but it certainly doesn’t make it a feminist one either.

The Circle: Privacy is Bad and So Is This Film

A narrative reminiscent of an Orwellian novel? Check A talented cast consisting of Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan and John Boyega? Check. A timely interrogation of the reaches of social media? Half a tick. What should be a unique and thought provoking film? A big fat X.

The Circle (dir. James Ponsoldt), recently release onto Netflix after its limited theatrical run in April, tells the story of a young woman called Mae (Emma Watson) who lands a job at the biggest internet/social media conglomerate in the world. The film never talks in specifics about what it is that Circle is (it’s implied that it’s an amalgamation of Instagram, Facebook, Google and probably Youtube), nor is it explained to us what Mae’s job actually is. She is assigned a customer service role, where her main focus seems to be on retaining a good feedback score from customers – though it is never explained what her customer service entails. Her job, of course, is incidental, as Mae soon finds herself immersed within The Circle – both physically and mentally.

Confused and unfocused, The Circle makes small nudges towards criticising companies like Google, Facebook etc for their anti-piracy stance, but fails to either decide where it stands on the subject or make any kind of significant argument in favour or against.

What begins as a job to help get out of her small town life, transforms into a much more invasive presence in Mae’s life. At least, that’s how it feels at first. Mae is told, within her first week, that her social interactions at work are just as important as her work performance. She is encouraged to join in with communities and societies on campus, and socialise in the evenings at the Circle’s array of bars, events and concerts. Mae definitely seems taken aback slightly at the idea of spending all of her waking hours at the Circle’s campus, but after a months she seems to have settled into life there.

Though she is given a pretty severe warning by a new acquaintance Ty (John Boyega) about where the Circle is headed, Mae becomes a pseudo messiah for the company after two incidents. Firstly, her parents are given access to the company’s healthcare package, meaning that her father, who suffering from MS, is given the treatment he so badly needs. The second incident comes when Mae decides to steal a kayak and paddle out into the San Francisco Bay in the dead of night. Unable to see an approaching ship in all of the mist, Mae’s kayak is upturned and she is suddenly in danger for her life. The coast guard’s come to her rescue almost immediately, due to the Circle’s latest invention – a miniscule, versatile camera called ‘see-Change’. One such camera was mounted on a nearby buoy, capturing Mae’s accident.

After these two events, Mae decides that she will go entirely ‘transparent’, i.e. wear a ‘see-Change’ camera at all times, with a live broadcast online. Whether it is out of guilt, a feeling of debt to the company or an actual genuine belief in the technology – Mae doesn’t give her motivations away. This is one of the biggest flaws of The Circle. Mae goes from a naive yet curious worker bee at the Circle, rightly sceptical of the invasive nature of the company, to the face of the Circle cult where she shares a platform with CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Her previous scepticism floats off into oblivion and is never considered again.

Even after Mae accidentally broadcasts her parents having sex to her entire audience, resulting in her becoming estranged from then, Mae continues as the face of transparency at the Circle. Later, Mae reveals some new technology to Circle employees (and the rest of the world via Mae’s feed) which aims to be able to track down anyone in a matter of minutes. When Mae’s childhood sweetheart Mercer is tracked down and accidentally killed, Mae still doesn’t revert back to her original distrust of the company.

In fact, Mae affirms that she needs to be online in order to receive the support she needs to grieve Mercer’s death. The film ends with Mae ousting Eamon Bailey for not being transparent enough, and demanding that everyone should be fully transparent. If Mae has had some epiphany about privacy and connection, it is never revealed the viewer. Rather, the film ends with a particularly bad taste in the mouth – if Mae is wrong, then why are we taught to identify with her perspective the entire way through the film?

There are several moments throughout The Circle that seem at odds with itself. Eamonn Bailey’s few mottos (“Secrets are Lies”, “Sharing is Caring”) are representative of a world where privacy is not a privilege anyone is afforded. Far from resonating with an audience, they remind us of Huxley, Atwood and Orwell – none of whom imagine futures that anyone wants to live in. Why does The Circle strongly allude to these dystopian futures when the film clearly doesn’t know if it believes them or not?

Maybe The Circle’s characters motives are so incoherent because of the dialogue. The majority of the dialogue is bland and says absolutely nothing about the characters or how they they really perceive the Circle. We are briefly introduced to Ty who makes some very ambiguous statements about how the Circle has gone too far, how he never intended it to be like this… blah blah. Ty’s original plan for the Circle is never revealed and it is never explained what he meant by that. He seems to be lamenting the loss of privacy, but at the end of the film he seems to be satisfied with Mae’s ideas about global transparency.

Mercer is also a fundamentally 2 dimensional character. He serves only as the antithesis to the connectivity the Circle is trying to achieve by living completely off the grid. Mercer’s defining characteristics are that he hates the internet and that he is Mae’s backwater town ex boyfriend – a symbol of everything she tries to get away from. We see so little of the two of them together that little feels lost when Mercer dies, rather it feels like it is supposed to be a wake up call for Mae – but she doesn’t wake up.

In short, The Circle suffers from a whole load of under-development in terms of it’s plot and characters, a confusing stance on the issue it’s trying to deal with and completely nonsensical actions by its protagonists. The Circle is basically everything you don’t really want a film to be, rounded of nicely with a helping of ‘if you don’t share your entire life, then you are a terrible person’. I’m not an internet hermit by any means, but honestly? Privacy is not a bad thing, and sharing isn’t always caring.