LFF Day 4 – Apostasy | Last Flag Flying | The Final Year | Pickups

Apostasy

Every morning as I head to Woolwich Arsenal station to get the train to the festival I pass two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing next to a magazine rack filled with copies of The Watchtower. They never make any move to talk to me, just stand there waiting for someone to speak to them so that they can reveal The Truth to them and save their soul.

Apostasy is the debut feature from Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, and deals with a mother and her two daughters (Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson) who struggle to follow their faith in a world at odds with their beliefs. As the mother Siobhan Finneran gives a masterclass in subtlety as a woman so sure of her beliefs she will put it before everything else, including her daughters.

Kokotajlo’s film is not explicitly critical of the religion, instead presenting events as plainly as possible and even showing the human side of the devout that we so often walk past on the street without a second glass. It is up to the audience to judge for ourselves the subtle ways the women are controlled and oppressed by their community and the devastating consequences of life in a patriarchy.

With three strong central female performances Apostasy is a stripped back and quietly devastating film.

Apostasy screens at the festival on 8th, 10th, and 14th October.

Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater has had nothing but critical acclaim lately thanks to his hat trick of films Before Midnight, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!!! so it was about time he made something that was just OK.

Steve Carell gives a subdued performance as a grieving father who enlists the help of his fellow Vietnam vets to help him bury his son. He gathers two old friends in the form of a charismatic drunk (Bryan Cranston chewing every piece of scenery he can) and a born again preacher (Laurence Fishburne). The reunited trio embark on a reluctant road trip and along the way reminisce about the joys and pointless losses of war.

With a period setting of 2003 (frequently cemented by repeated references to flip-phones) the film gives the war in Iraq a lot of head shaking disapproval that might have been edgier 15 years ago but now simply echoes popular consensus. While the film tries so hard to be cynical it is undermined by frequent lapses into sentimentality and a few too many close-ups of the American flag. I couldn’t pick up on what the film was trying to convey beyond the fact that war is bad and friends are good.

A fun enough experience but Last Flag Flying ends up overstaying its welcome and then ending abruptly. Not a Linklater classic.

Last Flag Flying screens at the festival on 8th, 9th, and 10th October .

The Final Year

When Greg Barker set out to make a film about the final year of Obama’s administration he can’t have imagined the devastating end the film would have. Trump lurks throughout the film long before his name is even mentioned as the administration discuss various things we now know he is undoing. There’s nothing more devastating than the bad guy winning in the end and realising you’re in the world he’s won.

The film follows Secretary of State John Kerry, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and to a much lesser extent than expected Barack Obama himself. In their final year we see them work to tackle climate change through the Paris agreement, create solid intelligence sharing with Europe and beyond, work on reducing nuclear weapons, encourage immigration, and advocate for diplomacy over military action. The film, as you can imagine, is positively dripping in dramatic irony.

Without the context of Trump the film might not have been so interesting. It doesn’t allow as much unfiltered access as I had hoped and in no way seeks to interrogate its subjects or show them in anything other than the best light. Those we spend time with appear to be the greatest, most flawless, government employees to ever grace the Earth and while they talk of arguments (“structured discussions”) we certainly never see anything close to an uncensored moment.

Fascinating thanks its belated historical context but ultimately toothless The Final Year is an otherwise fascinating look at how good we had it only just over a year ago.

The Final Year screens at the festival on 8th and 9th October.

Pickups

I really can’t help you with this one…

Jamie Thraves directs Aidan Gillen in a drama/documentary about Aidan Gillen (real or otherwise). Gillen is an actor so method that he becomes a serial killer in order to help prepare for a role. At least he does for a while and then is just a lonely weekend dad and beleaguered celebrity just trying to pick up his dog’s poo in peace.

I have no idea.

Pickups screens at the festival on 8th and 12th October.

Everybody Wants Some!! Sing Street – Film Review(s)

The Boys

Last week I inadvertently scheduled myself a thematic weekend of cinema by seeing Everybody Wants Some!! and Sing Street on consecutive days. The films are quite different but I can’t find a way to talk about one without bringing up the other and so I have decided to review them both completely separately and intertwined. Excuse me while I try to impress you.

In Autumn 2014 Richard Linklater returned to a key period in his own history as he recreated early eighties Texas and filmed Everybody Wants Some!! in which Jake (Blake Jenner) starts at a new college and joins his baseball teammates in pursuit of girls. For Linklater the film is not just a return to his adolescence but marks a continuation of the theme of childhood and adulthood running through his earlier work Dazed and Confused and more recently Boyhood.

In Autumn 2014 John Carney returned to a key period in his own history as he recreated early eighties Dublin and filmed Sing Street in which Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts at a new school and leads his reluctant bandmates in pursuit of a girl. For Carney the film is not just a return to his adolescence but marks a continuation of the theme of music and romance running through his earlier work Once and more recently Begin Again.

In Everybody Wants Some!! we find ourselves immersed in the world of a tribe unfamiliar to myself: the jocks. We follow the jocks from party to party as they clash with one another and change their appearance to better match the style of the girls they are pursuing. Music and costume are equally important in this film and the fluctuation of each goes hand in hand. As the boys move from pursuing girls in a country club to chasing girls in a grunge club their outfits switch to suit the soundtrack they will be grinding to. It is no surprise that the film’s soundtrack will be getting a cassette release alongside the more traditional CD.

In Sing Street we find ourselves immersed in the world of a tribe familiar to myself: the nerds. We follow the nerds from genre to genre as they sing with one another and change their appearance to better match the style of the music they are pursuing. Music and costume are equally important in this film and the fluctuation of each goes hand in hand. As the boys move from imitating the style of Duran Duran to writing music like The Cure their outfits switch to suit the soundtrack they will be singing to. It is no surprise that the film’s soundtrack will be getting a vinyl release alongside the more traditional CD.

The Girls

As well as attempting to be authentic to the era in which it is set Everybody Wants Some!! also echos what we have come to expect from seeing the time period and genre portrayed through cinema. The story of the young college student, played incongruously by a man in his twenties, pursuing sex in sun drenched America is one we know well and this film easily blends in amongst its siblings shot over the past thirty years. This cinematic authenticity helps make the film and its characters feel relatable even if you haven’t ever been a jock or stepped foot on American soil, let alone lived through the eighties.

As well as attempting to be authentic to the era in which it is set Sing Street also echos what we have come to expect from seeing the time period and genre portrayed through cinema. The story of the young school student, played accurately by a boy in his teens, pursuing escape in grey and drizzly UK & Ireland is one we know well and this film easily blends in amongst its siblings shot over the past thirty years. This cinematic authenticity helps make the film and its characters feel relatable even if you haven’t ever been a musician or stepped foot on Irish soil, let alone lived through the eighties.

At the film’s core is a story of lust and the pursuit of many women. Aside from his love for all women the apple of our protagonist’s eye is Beverly (Zoey Deutch); a performing arts student who catches Jake’s eye at the start of the film. Despite possibly (I’d need to double-check) passing the Bechdel test the film spends no amount of time fleshing out its female characters. Beverly is a two-dimensional character of whom we learn very little and probably isn’t even developed enough to earn the title of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Beverly is primarily treated as something to be won and I wasn’t convinced that our protagonist deserved to “win” her.

At the film’s core is a story of love and the pursuit of stardom. Aside from his love for songwriting the apple of our protagonist’s eye is Raphina (Lucy Boynton); an aspiring model who catches Conor’s eye at the start of the film. Despite possibly (I’d need to double-check) not passing the Bechdel test the film spends a good amount of time fleshing out its female characters. Raphina is a three-dimensional character of whom we learn a lot and the film slowly reveals enough for her to ditch the title of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Raphina is treated as a character in her own right and any romance feels authentic and earned.

Overall the film is a success within the familiar framework it is working and will likely be enjoyed by fans of the genre or the director’s work that it follows on from. The soundtrack will be what sticks with you the most once you’ve stepped back out into the real world and will run through your head on your journey home. I had fun.

Both films are on release in the UK now.

Michael Apted’s Boyhood

Apted Boyhood

As an aspiring film writer and chronic procrastinator an above average amount of my spare time is spent reading what the rest of the world has got to say about film. Doing so allows me to stay in touch with the latest fads, deepens my belief that a good sub-editor is vital, and highlights when someone has been copying somebody else’s homework.

The numerous glowing reviews for Boyhood are a key example of when film journalists seem to be influencing one another or tapping into a limited group archive of cultural references. A striking number of reviews for Boyhood have made at least a passing reference to Michael Apted’s Up documentary series and I call shenanigans.

To back up my case I have performed a literature review of sorts and checked the coverage of Boyhood in 14 popular UK publications, skipping lowly blogs like this, to see how frequently Apted’s documentary oeuvre was mentioned alongside Linklater’s opus. The result is below:

Apted Chart

As you can see exactly half the reviews I read mentioned Michael Apted or the Up series. I am being generous to myself here and including Mark Kermode’s review in the Observer which merely refers to all the other critics referencing Apted because 50% is much more satisfying a figure than 42.86%. As I see it there can be only two reasons for the ubiquity of the comparison:

  1. It is a valid and obvious observation.
  2. One person had the idea and everybody else copied.

First let’s see if Apted’s Up series is a valid and obvious companion piece for Linklater’s Boyhood.

Up is a series of documentaries following the lives of fourteen British children. The first installment was made when the kids were just seven years old in 1964 and the series has revisited the participants every seven years with the most recent film made when they were fifty-six. In contrast Boyhood was filmed for a few days every year for 12 years taking the lead character Mason from the age of six to eighteen.

While both do follow children growing up I would argue that the comparison of Up and Boyhood is neither obvious nor valid. Boyhood‘s filming process may have been periodical but compared to Up it has a relatively smooth flow. Watching the former it isn’t always obvious when one year moves into the next apart from when hairstyles or levels of pubescence have dramatically changed. The two projects have completely different rhythms with Up actually following a similar beat to Linklater’s other most popular cinematic work; the Before trilogy.

In the Before trilogy we follow the romance of Jesse and Céline at nine-year intervals taking them from youthful love to embittered marriage in the space of three films. This pattern is much closer to the Up series if we really do have to find an Apted-Linklater connection. I have visualised the pattern of filming for the three works below to prove my point beyond any doubt and perhaps beyond all reason.

The Up Pace

Boyhood‘s filming schedule is a relative uninterrupted shoot when compared to both the Before and Up franchises. I think we can happily dismiss the first option and say that referring to Michael Apted when discussing Boyhood is both invalid and disputable. Linklater himself has dismissed Up as being a source of inspiration and now we have the charts to back him up.

Maybe it’s just because of my age – the Up kids have always been grown ups closer to Jesse and Céline but for older wiser critics they are always going to be seen as the children that started the series decades ago. If only they could have seen my charts before they submitted their reviews.

All of this leaves us with the second option; that one critic had the crazy notion to compare the documentaries to the story of Mason and everyone else jumped on their wobbly bandwagon. I’m not saying they did this maliciously but by foul means or fair the idea lodged in their brains and resurfaced when time came to write their reviews. Perhaps a critic loudly made the comparison at a press screening, critics do love to say impressive things to each other, and it was subconsciously picked up by those seated nearby. Only a seating plan for all Boyhood screenings can prove or disprove this theory.

There really is no other conclusion; Boyhood is not akin to the Up series (but the Before trilogy may be) and if you read too many reviews for the same film certain analogies and opinions will start to repeat themselves until the cinema journalism community starts to resemble one hive mind.

A worthwhile investigation I am sure you’ll agree.

Appendix

Reviews mentioning Apted:
Radio Times
Independent
Telegraph
Guardian
The Times
Daily Mail
Sight & Sound
Observer

Reviews not mentioning Apted:
Empire
Total Film
Financial Times
Express
Mirror
Daily Star
Little White Lies