Film reviews

London Film Festival 2017: Considine, Lanthimos, Azazel Jacobs and Sean Baker

Callum Petch reviews films form Day Nine of the London Film Festival...

Journeyman

STARRING: Paddy Considine, Jodie Whitaker,  Paul Popplewell

DIRECTED BY: Paddy Considine
WRITTEN BY: Paddy Considine

Journeyman is the directorial return of Paddy Considine, who made waves in 2011 when he unleashed the dark, moody drama Tyrannosaur upon an unsuspecting world. His follow-up… is nothing like that. In fact, for his return to the director’s chair and screenwriter’s typewriter, he’s gone borderline sentimental on us, pumping out a thematically-empty crowdpleaser about a man overcoming the adversity of a traumatic injury with the support of his wife and friends. The man is past-his-prime boxer Matty Burton (Considine), the wife is recent mother Emma (Jodie Whitaker), his friends are his former boxing team that are plagued by unspoken guilt about the injury, and the injury is severe brain damage from his years in the ring, which has stricken him with amnesia, severely damaged his mental capacities, and reduced his physical abilities to almost nothing.

So far, so generic, so disappointing, but whilst I did hear many grumblings from my fellow Press members about what they’d just seen when the credits started rolling, I can’t quite echo those sentiments. Sure, Journeyman is a mainstream-grab for Considine, that’s narratively unsurprising and thematically empty – and don’t even think that this set up is being used as a condemnation of boxing and the sports industry as a whole; boxing training is what helps Matty on the road to recovery, the boxing world is nothing but openly supportive of him and feel incredibly guilty over what happened, and he even admits during an ending speech that “I don’t blame boxing for what happened to me” – and it does kind of sting, especially since there are roughly 15 minutes in the middle where we seem like we’re about to go down much a darker and more difficult direction before getting right back to Feel-Good Recovery Story.

And yet, I gotta admit, it worked on me. There’s even an inspirational montage in the middle of the film backed by an incredibly on-the-nose song by a James Bay-wannabe, and all it did was take the shine off of the film slightly. If anything, Journeyman works as a great counterpoint to the existences of films like Breathe, which I covered in detail only eight days ago yet have forgotten almost everything about already. Films like Breathe and The Theory of Everything put a bad name on the “inspirational crowdpleaser” movie; going through the motions in as hacky and squeaky-clean a manner as possible, without passion or, in a surprising many of cases, competent filmmaking skills. Fact is, this type of movie crops up a lot because when it works, when it’s done well, it works gangbusters, provoking sadness and joy like nobody’s business.

Considine may not have much on the mind or anything to say with Journeyman – although, in fairness, Tyrannosaur could also be argued as not having much to say and that itself being the point – but the emotions in the filmmaking are front and centre, powerful, palpable, sincere. There’s a genuine feeling to this filmmaking, regardless of how many times I’ve seen the nuts and bolts of it before, and that wills the story unfolding on screen into feeling like an exposed raw nerve that Considine plays with perfection. He is not in the slightest bit afraid of falling back on cliché visually to get the job done, and yet he doesn’t coat the film in a glossy sheen that makes everything feel artificial, even if Matty lives in one of those expensive detached luxury homes that always seem fake regardless of their prevalence in the real world or not.

His screenplay, meanwhile, shades his characters just enough to make them feel like more than mere archetypes that adversity happens to, especially with certain actions that happen around the film’s midpoint that shite like Breathe and Theory wouldn’t dare go depict. It’s a film where, even if there are a few contrivances here and there, characters largely act in a way that is emotionally true to themselves, which is why the finale had me bawling my eyes out so. I was telling myself well before it even happened exactly what was going to happen and knew I would absolutely burst into tears should it come true, and that’s exactly what happened. Considine himself is able to turn what, on the surface, is exactly the kind of massively irritating Oscar Bait performance that usually sinks these things into something altogether deeper and more painful through a minor underplaying, whilst Whitaker adds genuine complexity to a role that’s normally one-dimensional and uninteresting.

Now, look, I’m not saying that Journeyman is some kind of classic, and I am not disputing that this is a relatively disappointing regression in ambition for Considine’s sophomore directorial effort. But I was hooked throughout, I found Considine and Whitaker’s performances to be low-key brilliant, Considine is definitely a director of great skill, and I finished the film in floods of tears. Journeyman aims modestly, but it hits its targets with aplomb, and should we really disparage it for that? Again, there’s a reason why this well keeps being returned to, and it ain’t just to fish for meaningless statues.

 


The Killing of a Sacred Deer

STARRING: Alicia Silverstone, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Barry Keoghan

DIRECTED BY: Yorgos Lanthimos
WRITTEN BY: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou

Look, I’m going to be straight with you: I think Yorgos Lanthimos is just not for me. See, I loved the first hour of The Lobster – absolutely adored it, was fully ready to crown it as one of my favourite films of 2015 and was in pained hysterics at many points – and then spent almost the entire second hour very slowly and very painfully falling out of love with it, and those have also turned out to be many of the reasons why I just could not get into Sacred Deer. So I’m thinking that Lanthimos and I just won’t get along on any level other than a disassociated appreciation of decent craftsmanship. Therefore, if you loved all of The Lobster and his past non-English work such as Dogtooth (and none of which I have seen), then continue to be excited for Sacred Deer, cos you’ll probably love it too. I can only tell you what I thought of the movie, though, and what I thought was largely “this is fine, I would like for this to end now, please.”

For those who don’t know, in any case – and I’ll tread carefully because I know that exact specifics have largely been avoided by all the marketing up to this point – The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a psychological drama that follows Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell). He’s a heart surgeon, sober for the past three years, with a loving optometrist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman who, by law of averages, I have to encounter in a good film again at some point), and two smart and well-behaved children, elder daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven is also close with a teenage boy called Martin (Barry Keoghan), meeting him in diners, bringing him presents, and going around to the boy’s house for tea. There’s something not quite right about Martin, and Steven’s reasons for associating with the boy aren’t completely altruistic, but the problems begin when Steven attempts to stop associating with Martin, upon which point something inexplicable happens. It’s tied to Martin, in fact it’s his whole reason for insinuating himself into the Murphys lives, and it’s left Steven with an unconscionable choice to make.

In essence, Sacred Deer is a morality play, based around old folklore and mythological ideas of karmic balance and justice, tied towards the theme of indecisiveness and cowardice, topped off with some good old-fashioned patriarchal masculinity. It, like The Lobster, is a fantastic film from a production and sound design standpoint. The score roars with atonal dread, at certain points even sounding more like industrial machinery racing by than instruments playing music together. Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis craft largely-empty, lifeless spaces of pure artificiality, where nothing exists in a recognisable reality, and any and all movement is at once stiff and controlled yet clumsy and uncertain. The actors and actresses all deliver the dialogue better than pretty much anybody else would have been able too, Farrell and Kidman (shaky accent and all) especially.

Want a second opinion? Nicholas Lay also reviewed The Killing of a Sacred Deer for Set The Tape at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

But, try as I might (and I really did try), I just could not cross over the threshold into fully liking Sacred Deer. Despite the film’s very best efforts, it never managed to unsettle me or get under my skin like it was trying so very, very hard to. Part of this is because Lanthimos and his regular co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou can’t help but play a lot of the film for very black laughs, mainly revolving around an obsession with blunt conversations about masturbation and menstruation – although this approach does lead to the film’s brilliant climax, decided by a character spinning around pathetically in a circle – so they don’t invest enough in the slowly mounting dread. Further from that, Lanthimos’s deliberate artificiality actively undermines the psychological dread he’s supposed to be building up. How can I be appropriately unsettled by how weird things are getting, and whether what’s going on is explainable or connected to the boy, if everything was already weird and inexplicable at the outset?

Which brings us to the most obvious sticking point: Lanthimos and Filippou cannot write convincing dialogue. This worked for large parts of The Lobster, where everything is supposed to be artificial and unconvincing, before becoming a major sore point of its second half for me, and it fails here for the same reason it failed in The Lobster’s second half. Nobody speaks like a recognisable human would. At best, it feels like an approximation of how the first-generation of sentient androids would attempt to communicate, trying and failing very awkwardly to approximate human speech. At worst, it feels like something originally written in Greek, copy-pasted into Google Translate, and then copied back into the script with no alterations or clean-up; a soulless computerised bodging of human speech. In any case, it only adds to the deliberate emotional distance of the film, keeping the viewer at too far a reach from the events on screen to unsettle or form any attachments to anyone or anything.

And that brings us to the biggest reason why I think Lanthimos and I just will not get along: like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems borderline nihilistic. Both about its characters and its attitudes to the world and humanity at large. Despite the constant references to the ideas of cosmic justice and the quiet indictment of Steven’s refusal to just buck the hell up and make a goddamn decision already, Sacred Deer is largely uninterested in explaining why this is happening, and how the exact kind of payback is of equal value to the transgression Steven committed. There’s a lack of an underlying message, of something to say about the human condition which this film is ostensibly about – also, side bar, it’s two hours long but could be at least a full half hour shorter; the biggest thematic potential is located in the last half hour, but by then the film is just blowing past it and has wasted way too much time repeating itself at the hospital beforehand to be able to give it the time required – other than “everyone is a selfish amoral bastard, who will either happily cannibalise those nearest and supposedly dearest to them when the chips are down, or are too spineless to do even that, so fuck it all.”

With respect, that’s not really what I’m wanting out of my films right now. I find that specific type of nihilism – of which The Lobster also revealed itself to be addicted to, hence why I eventually finished that film sour – to be immature and lacking in substance, and I can’t connect to it, even when I really try like I have done here and in The Lobster (my issues with clinical depression and attempting to perform self-care also factor in this respect). The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I am willing to admit, is objectively pretty damn good, hence the score. It is a Yorgos Lanthimos film and if you are a fan of his work then I see no reason why you won’t also love this one. But it’s clear to me that Lanthimos and I just aren’t going to be compatible, which is disappointing to me, given how much I like his distinctive visual style. It’s the content that comes with those images that I cannot get behind.

Click Page 2 for reviews for The Lovers and The Florida Project


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