Christine – LFF Review

christine-1

The life and death of Christine Chubbuck has become a modern myth; the story of the newsreader who shot herself live on air at the age of just 29. Sadly this particular myth is not fiction and has now been brought to the big screen by director Antonio Campos with Rebecca Hall in a career best performance as the titular Christine.

Refreshingly Christine does not linger on the act itself but explores the character of Christine and what might have led her to take such a drastic action on live television. Christine is living with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), lusting after her coworker and lead anchor (Michael C. Hall), and struggling to get taken seriously by her boss (Tracy Letts). None of Christine’s problems are insurmountable but the film subtly shows how numerous issues can culminate in a drastic act. Without obliquely explaining why she took her life the film simply shows us the circumstances of her existence and leaves us to make our own conclusions.

christine-4

Despite the morbid subject matter Christine is not a bleak film. While it might have been easier to make a dour drama about a woman on the brink of depression, Campos has decided instead to celebrate the life of Christine Chubbuck. We get to see what drives her and are shown the passion she had for the local news. Christine took herself and her job seriously and thankfully the film mirrors this and does not turn her legacy into a freakshow. The delicate way the film balances humour and human insight is admirable. By the end of the film Chubbuck is no longer an enigma but a relatable person who just went one fatal step too far. Christine may be about a tragedy but the film itself is not tragic.

Responsible for portraying this complex character is Rebecca Hall; an actor not placed in the foreground often enough. Hall gives Chubbuck a heart and provides the soul behind the eyes of a reserved and seemingly uptight persona. The performance she delivers here should be seen as as a real achievement that will hopefully make her a firmer fixture in the cinematic landscape. Hall has come a long way since her part in Starter for 10 a decade ago.

Roughly 20 minutes too long Christine is otherwise flawless. What we have here is not just a tribute to a woman who died far too young but a showcase for an underrated British talent.

As enjoyable a film about suicide as there is likely to be.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe – LFF Review

the-autopsy-of-jane-doe-3

After a brutal mass murder in suburban America police uncover a corpse half-buried in a basement. Unlike other bodies littered throughout the house this corpse has no identification and no obvious signs of trauma. Baffled, and with half a dozen murders to solve, they take the mystery corpse to Tommy (Brian Cox [not that one]) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) who work as coroners in a basement beneath their funeral home. Tommy and Austin are tasked with finding a cause of death that night so set to work immediately. As they dig deeper (sorry) the more they reveal the more the mystery thickens. With a wry dark humour The Autopsy of Jane Doe gradually reveals itself to be the most terrifying film I have seen all year.

The beauty of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is that it is a film that evolves. Despite a consistently sinister tone to the score the beginning of the film is disarmingly chipper. We spend time with the father and son team, enjoy their interactions with one another and allow the combined acting power of Cox and Hirsch to create a convincing familial relationship that disarms and distracts from impending events. The comfort of the film’s beginning is undercut by the impressive prosthetics as the pair dissect a badly burned corpse. Little did I know that worse was to come.

the-autopsy-of-jane-doe-1

From these humble beginnings the film really does evolve. In imperceptible increments director André Øvredal nudges the film from dark comedy into full-on horror with real scares, endless tension, and a pervading feeling of claustrophobia. It has been a long time since a single film has had me squinting my eyes as I brace for the scare I know is coming, jumping out of my seat in terror, and chuckling to myself for how petrified I am. With effects as simple as the sound of a bell or a shadow where it shouldn’t be, The Autopsy of Jane Doe had me on edge throughout. For all the blood and gore in the tamer moments the film nicely holds back when it really wants to give you a chill. The suggestion of something sinister is frequently more nerve shredding than the sight of it ever is and Øvredal knows when to hold back and when to fill your eyes with horror.

Having such a strong pair of actors in Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch no doubt helps to elevate the film. It forces you to take the film seriously and they really help to sell the more outlandish moments. I don’t know what else to say without spoiling the film’s many delights/surprises/horrors but just know that it is an efficient, enjoyable, and devilishly humourous horror that rarely puts a step wrong.

I laughed, I screamed, I loved it.

La La Land – LFF Review

la-la-land-1

Writer and director Damien Chazelle must really love jazz. His second feature Whiplash had jazz by the trumpet-load and his latest is a musical romance about a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. A musical in this day and age? What will they think of next?

The film opens on a big sweeping musical number. The camera floats around rows of cars in a traffic jam as their occupants burst out and join one another in song. There are bright colours, tightly choreographed dance moves, and even a band hidden in the back of a lorry. This is one big love song to old school musicals and a statement of intent for what is to follow. The opening number misleads in some ways as it raises expectations for a traditional musical plot that La La Land isn’t happy to settle for.

From that opening we meet our two protagonists: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is that very same jazz musician; a man so in love with the genre he dreams of opening his own jazz joint one day. His love interest is Mia (Emma Stone), a desperately auditioning actress and part time barista who sleeps at night under a giant portrait of Katharine Hepburn. They both have big dreams that nobody else believes in and from the moment they meet the only people who can deny their chemistry is themselves. What follows is an incredibly charming romance replete with songs and dance numbers. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers but work with what they have and sing gently rather than belting out showstoppers. Their dance moves are impeccable and my mind kept wandering back to memories of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt dancing in a bank. The role of the well-rounded movie star is alive and well with this pairing.

la-la-land-2

Like all romance it isn’t all song and dance. As their relationship progresses Mia and Sebastian find themselves compromising on their dreams in order to be with each other. As the fairy tale starts to fade so do the songs and La La Land evolves from being a mere musical into something deeper. It it here that the film takes a risk as the razzmatazz is replaced with mundanity and doubt. For a period we are not in the colourful wonderland that opening song promised us but somewhere a lot less fun to be. I started to doubt the film at this point and thought it had gone off course; a valid try but not a triumph.

But then… Wow! That final section! The film pulls the rug from under you and throws all your emotions at you at once. In his last masterstroke Chazelle brings the whole film together with a flourish. What seemed to be a mistake became a necessity and La La Land, while not the film I thought it was, cemented itself as a modern musical classic. I’m still humming along now as I type.

For someone brought up on The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this was just what I needed.

The Handmaiden – LFF Review

the-handmaiden-1

Park Chan-wook is back! End of review.

For his next trick the South Korean cinematic force of nature is tackling source material closer to these British shores. The acclaimed director of the Vengeance trilogy, and more recently Thirst and Stoker, has adapted Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith for the big screen and in doing so moved the narrative from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A con man (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to work as the handmaiden to a young heiress (Kim Min-hee) in the hopes of convincing her to marry the con artist rather than her own uncle (Cho Jin-woong) to whom she is betrothed. Once wed the heiress will be confined to an insane asylum and the two criminal elements will split the spoils. That’s the plan at least…

As anyone familiar with Fingersmith will know there is more than one twist in this tale and Chan-wook stays true to the twisting nature of the original if not the entire plot. Where the two diverge is yours to discover. With his adaptation Chan-wook has created a dark fable of lust, betrayal, and a dark humour that flows beneath everything else. Whether creating a scene of extreme torture or sapphic indulgence to rival Blue is the Warmest Colour, Chan-wook never loses a charming sense of fun and as such the sex and violence never feels exploitative. As to whether the erotic scenes suffer from the male gaze is something for someone with different eyes to mine to judge.

the-handmaiden-3

That said the film is undeniably on the side of the female characters as it takes its point of view of events from the heiress and pickpocket, while all the male characters are varying degrees of vile and misogynistic. Twisty plot aside The Handmaiden is about two women finding solace in one another as they struggle to fight the oppression of the men in their lives; men who value their penises above all else. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call The Handmaiden a feminist film but it villianises men as much as it objectifies the women. Two wrongs make a right. Right guys? Excuse me while I wring my hands for loving this film.

Kim Min-hee, last seen in Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, brings complex layers to an elegant woman with a myriad of secrets bubbling underneath, and dares us to judge a character based on first impressions alone. As for Kim Tae-ri; what a debut! Having never done a feature before she tackles a joint lead role which is challenging not just emotionally but physically. “Brave” performance tropes aside the role of the pickpocket/handmaiden requires physical comedy chops alongside the dramatic demands. The whole film rests on these two woman and they are what makes the film work so well.

Overall Chan-wook has made a gorgeous film that is a real treat to watch. Everything from the cast, to the production design, to the subtitles in two colours to help you discern what language is being spoken, everything has been meticulously put together. Some might say that the film is too long at almost two and a half hours but when you’re loving a film this much why would you want it to end?

Beautiful, funny, sexy, and dark. Perfect.

A United Kingdom – LFF Review

a-united-kingdom-1

In a beige-tinted past familiar to viewers of the classic British period drama, Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) falls in love with white Londoner Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) causing unrest in England, Botswana and everywhere in-between. Amma Asante follows up Belle with another period drama about love, racism, and the power of one to conquer the other. Sadly this film is not as successful as her previous.

David Oyelowo gives a convincing performance as the king-in-waiting torn between the woman he loves and the country he was born to rule. It is easy to see what drew him to the role as the film provides numerous grandstanding speeches as the music swells and the camera pulls into his face. Oyelowo carefully balances the monologues and the more tender moments to create a character I could sympathise with despite his alien predicament.

On the other side of the romantic pairing is Rosamund Pike playing the overlooked sister of the overlooked sister from Downton Abbey (Laura Carmichael) and the daughter of Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character from Goodnight Sweetheart. I kid you not. Pike has a character I find harder to like; wearing an unwavering expression of worry and an air of white privilege. Knowing the strength that Pike can bring to a role it was hard to watch her play a more simpering part, though she does rally by the end.

a-united-kingdom-2

Sadly when Pike and Oyelowo were together on-screen I felt no love between them. Their initial romance in London is rushed, and jarringly edited, so reason they are willing to cause so much political unrest never comes across. In fact the whole London segment at the start of the film, despite featuring my beloved Greenwich, is televisual and unconvincing. It is only on reaching Botswana that the film finally gets its cinematic legs. Some moments near the start of the film teeter close to parody as emotional proclamations are made in landmark locations between two characters we barely know, and who hardly know each other, and with two great actors performing below par. I breathed a sigh of relief when the film escaped the confines of London to the vistas of Botswana. Finally the camera could move.

For whatever the reason the film falters at the start and then struggles to catch up for the rest of its running time. The true story at its core might be worth telling but without a well-developed romance to justify it there’s a limit to how engaged an audience can get.

I was expecting a love story but the result was a dispassionate film with some decent performances but no real spark.