EIFF: “Humor Me” (28 June ’18)

Image courtesy of LA Film Festival

“Explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A warning to all who see this film: you will be telling and re-telling all the giddily awful jokes and one-liners within it to yourself and whoever will listen for days to come. Sam Hoffman’s Humor Me is a mixed bag of thin plotting, some uneven performances, and a few touching moments, but its elaborate jests are a laudable standout. As a relatively well-crafted, harmless dramedy, it satisfies.

The film stars New Zealand comedy goldmine Jemaine Clement as Nate, a self-doubting playwright, who hits rock bottom all at once and must move in to a retirement home community with his father Bob, played by the legendary Elliott Gould. Lowbrow yet brilliant jokes are Bob’s stock and trade, and Hoffman must be commended for the reverent way he realizes the elaborate scenarios the setups describe. Humor Me opens in striking monochrome, with vintage music and sound, all amusingly presented as if it is meant for a different film entirely, until Gould’s voiceover begins and it becomes clear this is all leading towards an elaborate punchline. These visuals return every time a particularly long-winded joke is delivered, and the effect is far and away the most memorable and creative aspect Humor Me has to offer. Not to imply that the film is otherwise dithering, far from it, yet nothing quite fits together as well as these scenes.

Clement is a pleasant lead, albeit with a slightly strangled delivery here and there, which can be forgiven as his American accent is not his natural lilt. Gould is certainly a standout for his layered portrayal of the aging jokester, especially in later scenes of conflict; two quite moving examples can be found in moments where Nate questions how Bob has moved on after his wife’s passing, for one, and most notably when they re-watch a VHS of Nate’s first play, which includes, and indicts, an all-too-familiar joking father who seems to ignore pressing problems within his own family. In scenes like these, the film explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace. 

However, the weaker sides of the film are unfortunately hard to overlook. While the monochrome joke-telling segments are delightful, most of the rest of the comedic lines are just not all that funny. To paraphrase an ‘SNL’ (NBC’s Saturday Night Live) zinger, the lines are funny, but not “ha-ha” funny. The whole script is reminiscent of the kind of neurotic-chic off-Broadway play that Nate himself works on within the film, yet it is unclear whether Hoffman finds this style laughable or laudable. The title of Nate’s first play, A Crack In the Clouds, and the way he speaks about theatre in general, are so pretentious that one would think Hoffman is making a joke about derivative, self-important writing, yet the film itself has lines and scenarios just as irritatingly overwrought as the plays he seems to be mocking. One montage in particular, set to the song “Be Ok” by Ingrid Michaelson (who plays supporting love interest Allison fairly well) is just so twee I thought I would implode. Michaelson’s character, and the character of Nate’s ex-wife (played by Maria Dizzia), are also low points in the script; with the exception of some very amusing old ladies, most of the female characters are complete afterthoughts or stereotypes, particularly the ‘heartless ex-wife’ schtick, personified in a character so unbelievably cold and uncaring that one might reasonably think Hoffman has a serious hang-up about ex-wives. 

Hoffman, previous to his filmmaking career, was well-known as the creator of popular podcast Old Jews Telling Jokes, which is everything it says on the tin. It comes as no surprise then that this, his feature debut, is basically Old Jews Telling Jokes: The Movie, but if that sounds up your street, then by all means give the overall pleasant Humor Me a go. 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 28 June)

Go to Humor Me at the EIFF

EIFF: “The Gospel According to André” (27 June ’18)

Gospel according to andre

“A captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I don’t think biographical documentaries get any more delightful than this. The latest unsung cultural icon to get the documentary treatment is gentle giant and “Black superhero” André Leon Talley, a true larger-than-life figure. Director Kate Novack has wisely just let Talley’s remarkable story tell itself, through a combination of interviews with the man, his friends, and his colleagues, and a period of simply following him around his daily life over 2016 and 2017. Along the way, The Gospel According to André reveals a captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest, and not afraid to examine the darker, crueler sides of fame, success, fashion, and race. 

Talley is known the world over as a fashion writer with a flamboyant pen and a deeply knowledgable eye. He rose high in the ranks of Vogue magazine, at one point leading its Paris edition, and has in many ways come to represent the diverse possibilities of the fashion world. Talley is a tall, wide Black man from Durham, North Carolina, raised in a conservative household by his loving but stern grandmother. From an early age he was fascinated by accounts of the fashion world, such as John Fairchild’s novel The Fashionable Savages, and of course, the covers and contents of Vogue and its ilk. From there, his story just grows more and more awe-inspiring, as he climbed higher and higher in the fashion industry through his unique eye and captivating personality. Editor-and-chief of Vogue at the time, Diana Vreeland, took one look at the way he had assembled a vintage Hollywood costume for an exhibition and selected him to be her right-hand-man on the spot. He worked with Warhol at Interview Magazine, he befriended Karl Lagerfeld and just about every other designer and model since the early 70s with ease and charm. The film captures all this miraculous story with clever montages of clips, magazine pages, archival footage, and, best of all, long stretches where the film just lets the inimitable Talley talk. 

 

And talk he does. This may go down as one of the best individual-focused documentaries where the individual in focus tells their own story. Unlike the recent head-in-hands bore that was Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Novack’s film does not resort to hagiographic worship of the protagonist as if the viewers are automatically joining in from the off, but instead convinces you, remarkably quickly, that Talley is a figure worth exploring, understanding, and uplifting. The murderer’s row of stylish interviewees seem to agree: everyone from Anna Wintour to Marc Jacobs to Tom Ford to Fran Lebowitz to Whoopi Goldberg has something lovely to say about Mr. Talley, both about his work and his character – and his importance. These interviews and Novack’s framing, in a way that reminded me subtly of Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles, turns the spotlight on the societal implications of the subject’s life and work, and leans heavily into Talley’s groundbreaking achievement as a large, verbose, delightfully charming Black man who became widely beloved and respected by the usually homogeneous, cold fashion world. Though brief, the film’s revisiting of Talley’s progressive work within the pages of Vogue is utterly fascinating — I instantly made a note to look up his “Scarlett in the Hood” series from the 1990s, starring Naomi Campbell as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, which is brilliant and brave in multiple ways. 

The film achieves real gravity at times, in between the celebrations. Aside from the (slightly extraneous) discussions of the 2016 election, as Novack happened to be filming during the lead-up to it and its aftermath, many of the serious aspects are deeply, movingly personal. Talley has moments of great reflection and sombre reckonings with treatment he suffered in his life, from outright racism lobbed at him from ‘dear friends’ in the fashion world, to the overarching question of whether he was so successful simply because of his talent, or possibly because he was considered an ‘exotic’ ornament to keep around for amusement. Talley himself suggests this and more heartbreaking ideas that he has had to grapple with over the course of this remarkable journey, and he deserves immense credit for his honesty and heart.

It is clear that the filmmakers, the assembled guests, his legions of fans, and the majority of the fashion world absolutely love Mr. Talley, and by the end of this film, I expect you will too. See this film as soon as possible. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 27 June)

Go to The Gospel According to Andre at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Flammable Children” (25 June ’18)

“A delight, if you can stomach it.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

What a ride! Rarely does a ‘family comedy’ pack this much bite and savagery, yet complement them so well with side-splitting dialogue and visual bedlam to boot. But the latest from Stephen Elliott does not beat around the bush — it is not for the whole family, it is about the whole family, and how depraved, classless and outrageous three families become during a period of adult idiocy, adolescent recklessness, and young love in 1970s Wallaroo, Australia. The film is a delight, if you can stomach it, but so heinous at times that I would not blame you if you can’t.

Elliott’s film is variably titled Flammable Children and Swinging Safari, depending on its different releases, but in this reviewer’s opinion the former is far better suited to its tone. At the core of the ensemble piece are Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb) and Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson), the only two kids in this massive group that seem to have any morals — they are sort of in love, sort of best friends, sort of just clinging onto each other to keep themselves sane, and due to a freak accident when they were young, involving a match and their synthetic 1970s clothing, they are known as the ‘flammable children.’ The grown-up Marsh narrates the story, which is mainly led and constantly derailed by the parents on the block, played with breathless energy by a delightful lineup of Aussie icons. Proving once again that he is no one trick pony, Guy Pearce delivers in an off-the-wall turn as sunburnt but jacked encyclopedia salesman Keith Hall, patriarch of the Hall family, married to Kaye Hall, played by none other than Kylie Minogue herself. The Jones family is led by evil-grin expert Julian McMahon and catlike Radha Mitchell as Jo, whose motto for their sizable clan, much to the chagrin of neighboring kids/victims, is “If they’re going to experiment, they should do it at home!” Completing the unholy trinity is the Marsh family itself, led by lovable Jeremy Sims as Bob and hilarious Asher Keddie as Gale. As they intertwine and spar intermittently over the course of Flammable Children, the film makes amusingly and dishearteningly clear that people like this just should not be parents. 

If you are wondering just why the film deserves its ribald reputation, observe a brief summary of the goings-on within these 97 minutes: there’s an attempted orgy, infidelity, aggressive urination (albeit after a jellyfish sting), animal abuse, child neglect, child smoking, child drinking, underage sex, violence, partial immolation, and a phenomenally gory finale that I will not dare spoil. Despite what you might be thinking, it’s all just a blast. The film is ruthless with its humour, be warned, and surely depraved, but it somehow avoids being outright tasteless and having a good time above all — or perhaps it is tasteless, but in all the right ways. When Rick tells his daughter to “go play in traffic,” or Gale holds down Kaye’s daughter to pee on her, or when the titular burning episode happens and the parents seem more interested in finishing their card game than putting out their kids, the horrifying misbehavior is somehow far funnier than it is upsetting.

All the insanity is helped along enormously by the natural ridiculousness of the 1970s setting. As Jeff’s early narration quips, a small Australian town like Wallarroo is a town that “time, and taste, forgot,” yet it seems to fit right in with the cacophonous consumerism and colorful grandeur of the 70s aesthetic, and the grainy film stock look that Elliott has used fits the remarkable amorality quite well somehow. Not to mention, the natural beauty of the Australian coast is presented in gorgeous vintage tones, and even the shots of the rotting blue whale carcass that washes up on the local beach are aesthetically pleasing. 

Overall, Flammable Children is good fun, and a pleasure to watch, even though it will probably repulse you at least once a minute. Its frenetic editing, the surprisingly beautiful photography, and the crackerjack insane performances make this possibly my Festival top choice for viewers at home — if you are looking for a funny, crazy, unique midnight watch, Elliott has the film for you. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to Flammable Children at EIFF

 

EIFF: “Solis” (25 June ’18)

“A commendable slice of cosmic panic.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Space survival films are a genre all of their own. From Danny Boyle’s surreal Sunshine, to Daniel Espinosa’s polarizing Life, to the best of the bunch, Alfonso Cuarón’s immaculate Gravity, the film world seems fascinated with throwing interstellar obstacles at terrified protagonists in the deep reaches of space. Carl Strathie’s Solis pays varying levels of homage to not only these films, with its white-knuckle situations and harrowing depictions of the vastness of the cosmos, but also to their headier predecessors, particularly the monumental daring of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through its notable use of imagery and colour. Ultimately, the artistry of Solis, though understandably subtle enough for some to  overlook, elevates the film from what could have been a somewhat staid space flick to a commendable slice of cosmic panic. Plus, a great deal of credit belongs to the captivating lead performance from cult-favorite Steven Ogg, finally given the chance to take the spotlight. 

Ogg, most well-known for his gloriously twisted embodiment of Grand Theft Auto V psycho Trevor Philips, is the sole visible performer in Solis, playing Troy Holloway, an employee of interstellar mining company Orbis. The action begins after a devastating accident onboard the main mining craft, as Holloway awakes in an escape pod hurtling through space, on a crash course towards the sun. While it may seem a tad overdramatic that he is literally going to smash into the sun, Solis keeps its visuals polished and oddly elegant.

The film’s first 2001 reference, of many, arrives as the sun itself is introduced in a manner very reminiscent of the opening chords of Kubrick’s masterpiece. From there, Strathie incorporates a method borrowed from that other space-epic, Star Wars, as Holloway’s minuscule vessel shoots into frame like the Rebel ship, subsequently pursued by a behemoth – in this case a massive cloud of space debris also on a course for the eponymous star. Solis continues its choice aesthetics through its use of colour to augment Holloway’s various attempts to better his situation — blue and orange populate most of the frame during the calmer, more dialogue-heavy interactions, while red creeps in from time to time to signal danger and mortality, to great effect.

As he makes contact with Commander Roberts aboard the main vessel, played by another talented cult favorite, Alice Lowe, Holloway’s fate is considered and reconsidered many times over, as both he and Roberts seem unsure whether his is a lost cause just yet or not. The building sense of doom is well established, again not only in its high order performances but its visual craft. I must specifically mention two particularly unnerving uses of imagery that elevated the experience: the first, a crack in the pod’s window, which progressively grows bigger and bigger, coming to ominously resemble a spider’s web by the climax, effectively reasserting the futility of Holloway’s attempts to escape fate. The second, the more subtle, is the continued return to images of eyes and of spheres resembling eyes, which both recall blips of humanity in the inhumane void, and the stark absence of an over-watching presence in such a vast emptiness. 

In fact, the aesthetics and plotting of Solis seem altogether consumed by the mercilessness of space, which, notably, means the film does not spend much time considering its intriguing potential for beauty, or mystery. This dourness becomes  overbearing at times, as the film seems only to take the most decidedly tragic turns at every corner. The filmmakers do not take their foot off the pedal for long enough to truly empathize with much, and even though Lowe delivers some compelling monologues, and Ogg legitimately carries a great deal of the film with his strenuous energy, its character beats come off as somewhat rushed – as a fan of Ogg’s, I found myself wishing he was given perhaps a few more chances to spread out as a performer.

Overall, however, Solis is a great way to spend 90 minutes, especially for fans of the space-is-scary approach, and/or fans of Mr. Ogg or Ms. Lowe. What’s more, Strathie must be commended for not only delivering a tale worth telling, with a stellar lead performance, but also for making his yarn as aesthetically captivating as this.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to Solis at EIFF

 

EIFF: “Whitney” (22 June ’18)

“A warts-and-all telling of a seriously complicated story, with awe-inspiring moments to spare.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

A true pop culture behemoth deserves a proper beginning-to-end document of their journey. Academy Award-winning Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has attempted as much for megastar Whitney Houston with his new, sprawling, film Whitney, an uneven but deeply moving document of Houston’s life. The film he has made is a curious case; while it performs dutifully as a warts-and-all telling of a seriously complicated story, with awe-inspiring moments to spare, its treatment of its immensely talented subject is not that sympathetic. 

The film ought to be commended for its deeply detailed depictions of Houston’s upbringing and rise to stardom. The access to such personal details is completely owed to the openness of the family, who began the process of getting the film made, not Macdonald. Thankfully, their hand in the process has not exempted them from any hard truths coming to light, and in fact some of the most devastating descriptions of mistreatment or disrespect surrounding Houston and her journey come directly from the family members who were responsible or complicit in the actions. The film almost feels like a scripted slow build; at times, as Macdonald admitted in a post-screening Q&A, even the documentarians are shocked by what their subjects reveal about Ms. Houston and her family. Like many rise-to-stardom stories, there are heartbreakingly tragic double-crosses, miscalculations, and traumas to be found just under the surface, and the film shies away from none of them. 

It must be noted, artistically, there is little directorial signature or flair on the finished product — it mostly runs as a series of clips and related interviews, assembled in chronological order. The lion’s share of the memorable moments are down to Ms. Houston herself; clip after clip of archival footage proves again and again that she was truly one of the most talented pop singers of all time. By the time the film reaches the date of her death in 2012, the viewer will most likely empathize with the tragically doomed Houston more than ever. This is the true triumph of Whitney, for the film makes a compelling argument for her complete exoneration from the gruesome tabloid rumors that sank not only her career but her self-confidence. The film does well to simply play a performance of hers in full from time to time, just to recall what a breathtakingly beautiful voice she possessed. (You just try and maintain a dry eye when they revisit her performance of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the 1991 Super Bowl – you just try!)

That being said, Macdonald’s framing of the story does such a good job pointing out the mercilessness of tabloid interference in famous lives like Houston’s, that the nature of his own film gets consequently called into question. Horrid headlines concerning Houston’s dirty laundry and possible vices are sprawled across the screen as the film reaches the 2000s, Houston’s worst period of self-destruction; while this effect is well-measured, as the film itself began revealing similarly lurid details, I found myself beginning to question what the difference really is between the two outlets. Though Macdonald defended his film as ‘the truth,’ so therefore ‘better’ than tabloid journalism, the film does take a few steps too far into broadcasting the darkest sides of Houston’s past as if their tragic implications have entertainment value. 

The film’s clinical approach to telling the story seems to treat its sensitive material at an arm’s length, which somewhat irresponsibly allows for sarcasm and humor where there really should be compassion and understanding. From the racial implications of its subjects’ statements, to certain allegations of terrible abuse, to the private inconsistencies of some contacts of hers, (her complicated ex-husband Bobby Brown asserting that Houston did not have a drug problem at all, for instance), the film simply has too many moments where the heartbreaking material seems meant to elicit a laugh, rather than a tear or a moment of reflection, and though there are more high points than low, Macdonald’s film never quite feels entirely respectful as a result.

Overall, however, Whitney is a fascinating two hours, and a must for any fans of The Prom Queen of Soul, or fans of the music biz in general. 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 June)

Go to Whitney at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “The Most Assassinated Woman in the World” (25 June ’18)

“Captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Behind the most elaborate facades, there must lie an even more fascinating true story — or so director Franck Ribière must believe. In this case, the first-time French writer/director takes on the larger-than-life tale of the Grand Guignol, and specifically its captivating real-life star, Paula Maxa, who is estimated to have been ‘murdered’ onstage more than 10,000 times in her two-decade career. Fortunately, Ribière seems to understand the sinister yet irresistible allure of the horrific goings-on within the infamous Parisian theatre, which specialized in naturalistic body-horror pieces which shocked and revolted adoring audiences. His film is chock full of gory, tasteless grisliness worthy of the Guignol stage through and through. Unfortunately, where the onstage gore ends and the ‘real-life’ fictionalized plot of The Most Assassinated Woman in the World begins, it all just becomes a big mess. 

The film is set in 1932 Paris, at the height of the Grand Guignol’s notoriety. While protestors scream until they are blue in the face with evangelical rage at the sinful delights going on inside, the detractors are overshadowed by the almost sycophantic devotees of the theatre, particularly the men so enraptured by Paula Maxa (Anna Mouglalis) that they wait outside the theatre just to hear her scream. While the film certainly talks a big game at how many mortals long to fall at Maxa’s feet every night, there is more telling than showing in this regard, and Maxa is, more often than not, seen gliding about alone. That is, until plucky reporter Jean (Niels Schneider) decides to get involved with ‘helping’ her, initially for a story but eventually as a partner. As a real-life murderer begins savaging women across the city — all of whom look suspiciously reminiscent of Maxa’s general aesthetic — Maxa and Jean engage in varying methods of self-preservation and digging down to the truth. 

This film has a lot going for it. Underneath all the eyesore viscera, the oddly 80s-like pulsing score (which is a great score, don’t get me wrong), and the somewhat staid cinematography, there is a bona fide neo-noir begging to be let out. Mouglalis is quite good as the mysterious, capable, yet troubled Paula, and supporting cast members such as Eric Godon, Michel Fau, and Constance Dollé imbue their moments onscreen with palpable emotion, while the story itself could approach some genre classics with its haunting twists and turns. But Ribière seems to have skipped a lot of steps when plotting, and for the last hour the story is one long meander, needlessly twisty — not helped by the fact that a good number of the actors look exactly the same under all those shadows. 

Not to mention – and gosh I had not realized how much this device irritates me until I saw this film! — it can be hard at times, when watching The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, to properly deduce who is an apparition, and who is not. There are so many hallucinated people in rooms, meant to denote a haunting memory, or even a spectral suggestion, that the effect just gets maddening with its repetitiveness. Suddenly all sorts of deceased loved ones are appearing in bathtubs and behind closet doors to remind the audience that the hallucinator is ‘troubled,’ but they add nothing after the first couple of times. Overall, Ribière’s film has some captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting, yet one wishes the content was leaner, clearer, and simply more fun by the final curtain.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to The Most Assassinated Woman in the World at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “White Chamber” (22 June ’18)

“A mind-bending, satisfyingly twisty yarn. “

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Just when it was beginning to look like science fiction had passed the 72nd EIFF by, writer/director Paul Raschid’s White Chamber steps in to save the day for futureheads. Opening with the simple title card: “The United Kingdom… Soon,” the film continues down the near-future-commentary path from then on and delivers a mind-bending, satisfyingly twisty yarn. 

Shauna Macdonald turns in a layered performance as the film’s lead, a woman who wakes up in the eponymous, blindingly fluorescent white chamber, itself a barbaric torture device that can perform essentially any sadistic physical torment imaginable. Her captor, unidentifiable due to the muffled microphone, alternates between forcing her to endure extreme heat, unbearable cold, an electrified floor, and other revolting cruelties. Honestly, if the film had continued a second longer in this vein, this would be an abject failure of a story. The tortures are tasteless, the female victim a tired trope, and the faceless evil outside more irritatingly anonymous than intriguingly so.

But Raschid, as the film’s next few moments make clear, knows all this. I was lucky enough to catch a Q&A with him after the film, and he elaborated that the crude, done-to-death beats of the beginning scenes are intentionally unoriginal, because he wanted to twist the genre on its head in a fresh, new way. Without revealing his methods, suffice it to say that’s exactly what he accomplishes, with a great deal of wit and some deeply satisfying plotting. This is a film that is particularly hard to review in much detail, as most of the meat of the plot is one huge spoiler. So, without giving it all away, let me just recommend you give Raschid’s film a try for yourself.

In some regards, the film is relatively entry-level in its ultimate messaging and character work. Certain individuals experience arcs that are somewhat predictable, and certain scenes end exactly how you expected them to end ten minutes ago when they began. Numerous shots, as well, are bland and flat, an approach which, of course, reflects the feeling of the sterile chamber, and what lies beyond, but starts to feel too uninteresting a background. Thankfully, many of the assembled performers, especially the impressively talented Oded Fehr, make up for the film’s few shortcomings, and make White Chamber, though hard to watch at times, and possibly too clever for its own good in one or two moments, a compact sci-fi thriller worth exploring. For fans of tight, witty sci-fi escapades, this is not one to miss. 

 

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 June)

Go to White Chamber at the EIFF