Monday, 31 August 2020

SHE DIES TOMORROW review

 

The latest film from Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine as director, the remake of Pet Sematary and Alien: Covenant as an actor), sees her behind the camera to deliver a bizarre story about a group of Los Angelinos who through mysterious reasons come to the realisation that they will die tomorrow.

Kate Lynn Sheil stars as Amy, a recovering addict who is the first know she is going to die the next day. Her friend Jane (played by indie stalwart Jane Adams) thinks Amy’s oddly calm demeanour is a sign that she’s relapsed, until she also is struck with the realisation of her own impending demise. Quite how they have landed at this idea is not due to any message they hear, or a Grim Reaper giving advanced notice, but comes in the form of a simple, rational acceptance.

This film has the potential to enlighten, confound, and maybe even annoy its audience; so obtuse it is in delivering its basic idea. It feeds into the palpable sense of anxiety many are feeling right now, and is one of a number of films being released that, although it couldn’t have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing introspection a lot of people have put upon themselves, it taps into many fears of our own mortality in a manner that is incredibly timely.

Faced with her own imminent death, Amy doesn’t go on a Purge style rampage or even attempt to reckon with her own existence and deal with unfinished business. Instead she’s overcome with a curious sense of acceptance, her biggest consideration towards her legacy being her hope to be turned into a leather jacket, something she chooses to spend her final hours researching. As this acceptance of death spreads to Jane and then onto others they are in contact with, there’s a calmness they’re swept up in, visualised on screen as a wave of blue and red lights that bathe the faces of the actors as they stare down the barrel of the camera lens, as if they are about to transcend from their world and into ours.

They’re not the easiest bunch of characters to bond with, the most memorable being Katie Aselton as Jane’s obnoxious sister-in-law Susan, talking about dolphin rape over after-dinner drinks with bemused friends. When Jane arrives at the party with her newfound mortality check, the pervasive nature passes onto the rest of the group and turns them into equally docile and accepting people. 

It’s a slow journey that makes the night seem to last longer, but this measured approach never seems accidental. The pace of Seimetz’s film and the visual language on screen reminds of the films of David Lynch, in particular Eraserhead (but nowhere near as bizarre as that). The concept of fatalism will intrigue, and there are clear correlations to the paranoia and anxiety of life mid-pandemic, but despite an arresting visual flair and some solid performances (including a low-key but scene-stealing turn from TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, and brief appearances from high profile stars Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez doing bit player roles), this will enrage as many viewers as it enthralls.

Verdict

3/5




Monday, 17 August 2020

YES, GOD, YES review

Set at a Catholic youth retreat in the early 2000s, Yes, God, Yes sees Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer star as Alice, a typical high school girl with an increasing number of questions about sex. When an AOL chat room encounter leads to her receiving unsolicited porn and engaging in some unexpected cyber sex, she decides that the retreat her classmates are raving about might offer her the answers she's looking for.

 

Dyer is of course best known for her role of Nancy in the immensely popular Netflix series, Stranger Things, which is beloved by a huge audience around the world. Which is why it's strange that, outside of the older cast members Winona Ryder and David Harbour, the younger faction of the cast (with the exception of Finn Wolfhard in the IT films) has been quite slow to head to feature films. But with her cast mate Joe Keery in cinemas this week with Spree and her on and off-screen boyfriend Charlie Heaton maybe, possibly, finally making his blockbuster bow with his role in the long delayed New Mutants due any day now, the time is right for Dyer to join them on the big screen. Well, that's in theory, of course, as Yes, God, Yes is making its debut straight to VOD, possibly in part due to the Covid pandemic, but also by virtue of being a smaller, indie film, but a belter nonetheless.

At Alice's Catholic high school they teach abstinence before marriage, warn of the dangers of masturbation, are pro-life and anti-hem lines more than two inches above the knee. Alice is curious to know what some of these new phrases she's hearing her classmates say actually mean, including the 'salad tossing' she's been accused of doing to one of the boys in her class. When her best friend Laura (Francesca Reale) hears about Kirkos, the new four day retreat some of the "cooler" girls have attended, they both decide to go along to the next intake, with Alice hoping she can silence some of her questions, such as why she wanted to rewind her Titanic videotape to re-watch the steamy sex scene, before she ends up burning in hell. Sadly, Alice's hopes are soon squashed as she finds herself instantly attracted to Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), a slightly dumb, overly-enthusiastic team leader with fantastically manly, hairy forearms and a proclivity to helping damsels in distress.

It's an unashamed throwback to some similarly themed films released around the time this film was set, like Saved and But I'm a Cheerleader, but with a more refined, real world sense of humour. Although it exists on the tamer end of the scale (the closest this film comes to an American Pie moment involves Dyer and a mop handle - less vulgar than it sounds), at its core Yes, God, Yes is a sex comedy, and an often cringingly funny one at that, steering clear of the more dramatic angles taken on by The Miseducation of Cameron Post and the Church vs common decency conversion dramas of recent years. Here the spin is that this isn't a place they're forced to go to for mending their 'wicked ways' or to stem their feelings of homosexuality (in fact, it's not a subject that's covered at all here), Kirkos is an optional retreat for the students, ran by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) from school, and is a broader stab at the overall absurdity, hypocrisy and unhealthy attitudes fostered by teaching purity instead of proper sex education.

It's a great performance from the charming Dyer, who plays the conflict between Alice's innocence and burgeoning sexual desires with great comedic effect, discovering new things about her body with the help of the classic mobile phone game, Snake. No, really. Written and directed by Obvious Child's writer Karen Maine (expanded from her short film of the same name), Yes, God, Yes is a smart, thought-provoking little gem of a film that I highly recommend seeking out.

Verdict

4/5



Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUNDANCE LONDON 2020 review

Sundance London normally takes place every year in June at its London home of Picturehouse Central, but this year, for obvious reasons, the organisers have had to pivot to an abridged online version of the festival. I've attended the London leg of the festival for the last few years now and it's always a highlight of the film festival calendar for me, so it was with some sadness that it wasn't able to go ahead in its full format, but hey, at least it was able to continue in a form that kept everyone safe. Rather than back to back screenings, this year's festival opted to focus on three of the most popular films from January's original run - the Paul Bettany starring Uncle Frank, Andrea Riseborough's Egypt set existential dilemma, Luxor, and the Grand Jury prize winning documentary, Boys State. Here's my thoughts on all three films.

Uncle Frank
Set in 1970s South Carolina, Uncle Frank follows college student Beth (Sophia Lillis) and her professor uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) as they travel from their New York lives back home to attend a funeral. Also in tow is Frank's longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), who Frank would prefer to keep a secret from his family after a traumatic encounter with his father (an intimidating Stephen Root) in his youth has left him afraid of their reaction to him being a gay man.

Directed by Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is fundamentally a film of two halves, first focussing on Sophia Lillis's character as she leaves small town Creekville, and the close knit family life and expectations of her as a young woman behind to pursue her studies in New York City. There she comes to learn that the comfortable bachelor lifestyle her family think uncle Frank lives is not entirely true (he even goes so far as to have a female friend pose as his sometime girlfriend), and that he is in a long term relationship with Wally, an Arabian immigrant who is similarly secretive to his own family. When they have to return to Creekville for a family funeral, Wally sees this as the perfect opportunity to meet Frank's family, travelling behind them against Frank's wishes.

There's a period in the film where it's just Lillis and Bettany driving alone, and they're among some of the best scenes in the film. It's not much of a road movie, more concerned with the dramatic potential at the other end, but it's a shame more time wasn't given to the development of this pairing. Both are on journey's of discovery, and despite the sense of fun Wally injects into every scene, there was room for more scenes between these three before their arrival in Creekville and the sidelining of Lillis's character.

Despite the introduction of Frank's long held trauma over the end of his first relationship and his increasing alcohol consumption, the drama and jeopardy of Frank's return home is never earth-shattering, but more by-the-numbers in a pleasingly portrayed way, although the reading of a will provides a real kick in the teeth moment that shakes the course that Frank is on. The film has an often repeated idiom along the lines of "I'm going to be who I want to be, not who people say I should be" that gives an indication as to where the story might head for Frank and Beth. We the audience might see where this very sweet, sincere family drama is going too, but that doesn't detract from the charm and solid performances from a great ensemble supporting cast (I haven't even found space to mention that Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margot Martindale also feature in the film), and its leads, Bettany, Lillis, and a stand-out Macdissi.

Luxor
I'll be honest that of the three films on this year's slate, the premise of Luxor didn't immediately grip me from the outset, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much it drew me in to its world. The film with an emotional resonance that Eat, Pray, Love could only dream about, Luxor follows Andrea Riseborough's doctor, Hana, as she returns to Egypt after many years away, bumping into her ex-boyfriend Sultan (Karim Saleh) on a ferry and then reliving and re-evaluating some of the choices she made in the past. Directed by Zeina Durra, it's a beautiful piece of wanderlust filmmaking that'll have you booking flights to Luxor (although maybe without Hana's emotional baggage) as Riseborough visits ancient tombs that literally speak to her, and manages to spiritually free herself enough to dance in front of a room full of strangers at a hotel bar before despair grips her again.

There's a real air of the contemplative reckoning of Before Midnight to Luxor, with Hana walking through incredible scenery on an introspective journey to heal her mind from the horrors she's seen in the world, having just finished as a medic in Syria and about to head to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This leads to long periods with little or no dialogue and no non-diagetic sounds, including when she visits archaeologist Sultan at one of his digs. The film also features real archaeologist Salima Ikram, essentially playing herself to give her opinions on the spiritual tourism of the area, with large numbers of (often older aged) visitors claiming to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptians. For Hana, the connection with the world she is looking for is much more current, and even if it's not always overtly stated in dialogue, Riseborough's performance is so strong that we are on Hana's journey with her, experiencing the magic realism of hearing voices from beyond to guide her along her path. Luxor is a journey unlike anything else I've seen on screen before, and worth experiencing for yourself.


Boy's State
The last film of the festival was the Documentary Grand Jury prize winning Boy's State, following a group of young men attending the yearly American Legion sponsored, conservative leaning political summer camp that takes place in Texas each year (there is a girl's state too, although not featured in this documentary). If you think American politics and its cast of characters has become too much of a presence in the daily news cycle, save a bit of room for this thoroughly entertaining documentary that's enlightening about the kinds of 16 & 17 year old boys that would actively choose to enter into the world of politics, performing a mock election and campaigning to decide who gets to be a number of roles, the big daddy of them all being Governor. They all arrive as equal people, or Statesmen, and are assigned as either a Federalist or Nationalist, the party platform to be decided as things go on and the camp mentalities start to resemble something not a million miles away from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

The mixture of nerves, charisma, strategy and natural leadership talent on show is truly jaw-dropping, and a real insight into the system that breeds such a powder keg of bravado and toxic posturing. There's an element of play-acting to it, both to the camera and to their followers, but as these young men stand on a stage in front of hundreds of their peers and spout their views about guns and abortion, the approval their words gets from a braying crowd goes some way to explaining why change moves so slowly in Washington.

Of the cast of characters, there's a number of stand-outs in both the Federalist and Nationalist camps, including the Bill Clinton-a-like Robert McDougall, with his soft texan drawl and easy going manner that makes him an early hit with the camp, the workhorse Ben Fienstein who, despite making some questionable choices (there's an ever present conflict between how much this is reality and a morality free game), is a strong political presence in his camp; and Rene, who on the back of a crowd-winning speech is quickly voted as party chairman, only to see a small faction turn against him and call for his impeachment. He's also able to cut through the pomposity of his surroundings to deliver some of the film's best zingers, including saying about a competitor "I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't think 'a fantastic politician' is a compliment either". But, the absolute star of the film is the plucky Steven Garza, who's a man with principles who actually believes in his campaign platform for Governor and who wants people to vote for him because of his policies, not his charm offensive. As his position on gun control (a major issue at this event, particularly in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shootings earlier that year) is called into question, along with the rumours that he organised a pro-choice rally in his home town, he's ballsy enough to stand his ground and say "what I'm going to say next could cost me my chances of winning, but I'm going to say it anyway". It's his refusal to not pander to his voters that makes him a stand out figure in the film, but it's the fact that he does differ so much from his 16 and 17 year old peers that makes you wish the glimmer of hope he offers outweighed the overwhelming majority.

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So, there you have it. Luxor and Uncle Frank have release dates pencilled in for later in the year (although nothing's set in stone these days, but try to check them out when released), and Boy's State is already available to view for Apple TV+ subscribers. As for Sundance London, it's a shame the organisers had to compromise his year, but it was a quality selection, at least. Here's hoping that Sundance London 2021 gets to return to its regularly scheduled slot at Picturehouse Central next year with even more independently produced gems. I, for one, will be there.