“Unhappy marriages so resemble one other, that we do not need to know much about this one.”
Frances Ferguson is a difficult film to assess because it is so deliberately abrasive, a bleak comedy with scant interest in entertaining its audience. Based on real events, our protagonist is an unhappily married, frustrated Midwestern teacher who begins a self-destructive relationship with student. Some will take issue at treating a child sex offence with any humour but Frances Ferguson neither belittles nor belabours the crime itself — the entire affair is concluded within a few minutes, with the film’s focus being the absurdity of the rehabilitation process in a small town. The script’s bone dry humour is sufficiently witty (I did laugh out loud once) but it presents a disposable cast of characters — Nick Offerman’s narration literally announces the last time we see many of them — Frances’ group therapy leader being perhaps the only likeable one in the whole film. Bob Byington deserves credit for bold direction which my find a niche audience that appreciates its acerbic perspective, but I wish there were depth beyond its disquieting sense of disassociation.
“We can both see the Sun, so even though we’re not actually in the same place and we’re not actually together… we kind of are in a way, you know?”
Aftersun is an astonishing debut from writer-director Charlotte Wells, with a father-daughter holiday on the Turkish coast experienced as a beguiling memory through the use of interspersed camcorder footage and a framing device that gradually emerges as the film unfolds. The film’s 90s soundtrack is instantly evocative not only of the era but also a certain type of package holiday. Frankie Corio is a charming revelation in her first acting role, naturalistic with moments where Sophie seems performative not for the audience but for her father. This is paired with Paul Mescal’s gentle portrayal of Calum as a loving father, an idealist burdened by regrets, a darkness lingering beneath the surface. Overtly a personal exploration for Wells, the film examines the struggle of truly knowing our loved ones, even in close proximity. In a wonderfully underplayed karaoke scene, we see Sophie beginning to perceive her father fully amidst her various, often fumbled, attempts to connect with him. It is those fleeting memories that refuse to let go as Aftersun is that rare breed of film that lingers hauntingly like an afterimage.
Afrofuturism is an aesthetic exploring the intersection of African diaspora culture with science and technology, creating speculative fiction that liberates black identity from the present. The Afrofuturist musical Neptune Frost is a collaboration between American writer and musician Saul Williams and Rwandan director Anisia Uzeyman. Its world-building begins with the music, percussive with insistant polyrhythms providing an early statement of intent: the songs blend a respect for traditional ancestral roots with the sound of activism and protest. “What is mine?” asks a voiceover, as we see coltan miners representing the continuing exploitation of African resources and labour, no longer by colonial powers directly but now for the benefit of Big Tech. Yet Neptune Frost’s story of an intersex runaway and a miner joining hacker collective also explores the contradiction that it is the same technology which empowers people to unite, to share ideas and to liberate themselves from oppressive systems. Uzeyman’s creative cinematography is astounding, particularly in the darker, dreamlike scenes with beautifully lit black skin contrasted with vibrant fluorescent paints to conjure otherworldly ecstasy. The film’s layered themes can lack clarity of purpose (particularly from a plot-driven perspective) but they do coalesce into an aesthetic whole that feels vital and original, the message and the medium being entirely intertwined in a way that will leave you vibrating. Neptune Frost has just received a limited release in the UK so — if you have any interest in Afrofuturism that goes beyond Black Panther — do seek it out.
Stop-motion animation is a wonderful art form, largely abandoned in the digital age, and I certainly applaud its use in films with an adult audience in mind rather than just family fare. The House is really a collection of three films from different directors, loosely connected by the same building. They vary in tone though there is a dark, horror-like element to each tale. The first is overt gothic horror about the family for whom the house was built, the second is a Kafka-inspired nightmare of a renovation project, and the third is a more contemplative tale of how other people can support us, hold us back, and sometimes gives us the nudge we need to move forward. As written, however, each of these would have worked better as 15-minute short films; even at around 30 minutes, all three feature repetitive scenes that serve little purpose than to pad out the running time. The art direction still offers much to appreciate, like first tale’s unusually stylised small faces on large heads. Meanwhile the animal character design in the later films share more in common with Wes Anderson’s stop-motion fare. Overall it The House’s ambition to feature-length which renders it a frustratingly uneven experience.
“There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Norman, so long as you don’t let it change who you are.”
The second feature from stop-motion supremos Laika, ParaNorman is perhaps a perfectly pitched family-friendly ghost story. Its scares are quick and sharp rather than the pervasive creepiness of Coraline’s other world and, although it features zombies, there is sufficient slapstick to undercut their horror. The titular Norman is a kid with the ability to speak to the dead, something that results in his ostracisation as a freak until he becomes the only one capable of saving the town. The derivative tale might kindly be described as “traditional”, with an interesting conclusion that revolves around the power of storytelling, a theme that Laika would explore further in the extraordinary Kubo and the Two Strings. Although the voice cast features a number of high profile names, unusually for animated fare they are not hired to be recognisable, only Christopher Mintz-Plasse being easily identifiable as Norman’s bully. The artistry of Laika’s character design is the highlight, eschewing the generically smooth features that pervade most animation for a distinctive and fresh appearance to each of their films.
Paul Verhoeven is frequently described as a provocateur, which has led unfairly to mainstream discourse around his film about the life of 17th century Italian nun Benedetta Carlini being reduced to its more provocative elements. Central to Benedetta’s story is her illicit relationship with another sister at the abbey and, although there is frequent nudity, there is surprisingly little sex since the film’s focus is the psychological. Bartolomea is a temptation for Benedetta particularly because she finds herself isolated within the abbey by the visions she experiences which are mistrusted by others. When Benedetta displays the stigmata, she is sanguine about the source, stating that even if they had been self-inflicted, her actions may have been influenced by God. The more transgressive side of Benedetta is its seething distaste for the Church’s hypocrisy (particularly in the counter-reformation though by no means confined to that era) with leaders making professions of faith out of self-interest and condemning others for the same reason. Benedetta has an unfortunate tendency to veer toward melodrama, particualrly in Daphne Patakia’s performance — perhaps appropriately for Bartolomea’s youthful naïvety. Charlotte Rampling’s chilly and determined abbess is a fine counterpoint to Virginie Efira’s conflicted and nuanced performance as Benedetta, while Lambert Wilson provides a gleefully straightforward villain to root against. Benedetta is an enjoyable drama, strongly psychological and mildly erotic, with little sympathy for the machinations of organised religion.
“When you try to bend the ways of the world, I will cheer for you, Birdy, but I fear for you.”
Lena Dunham’s adaptation of Karen Cushman’s YA novel is mirthful medieval mischief, a fresh coming-of-age story that should entertain families beyond its direct target of adolescent girls. This is a feminist tale, with Birdy rebelling against attempts at marrying her off to solve the family’s financial woes. The novel was written in the form of a diary and that is the conceit for Birdy’s voiceover, essentially extracts from the book. The script is recognisably Dunham’s work, frank but generally approaching female hardship with a light touch, aided by a period setting that has no pretence at historical accuracy. The anachronistic soundtrack is also notable, creating an unusually cohesive backdrop through a series of pop covers by London singer Misty Miller. Bella Ramsey is wonderfully expressive as the impetuous Birdy, backed by Andrew Scott’s characteristic blend of comedic charm and emotional depth as Birdy’s profligate father, and an almost unrecognisable Billie Piper as her supportive but concerned mother. The 12A certificate seems appropriate primarily for an intense birthing scene — this is not House of the Dragon, but Dunham does not sanitise it either as it leaves an impression on Birdy, catalysing her changing view of her parents. Rebellious girls are likely to love Catherine Called Birdy; others should find it an enjoyable diversion.
“I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable.”
Reuniting writer-director Martin McDonagh with In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin is at its core a drama about a rift between two lifelong friends. Colm’s realisation of his mortality has left him desperate to create something that might be remembered — he is convinced that Pádraic, described as “one of life’s good guys”, is destined to be forgotten like most on the island. As the rejected Pádraic, Colin Farrell is palpably heartbroken, his eyebrows permanently crestfallen. Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan’s superb supporting performances are easily the match of the leads. Despair hangs over the island’s population through a lack of stimulation and McDonagh has commented that an underlying theme is that depression is something that has long existed in humans, even if we only now accept it (“he could push it down like the rest of us” Pádraic opines). War is literally on the horizon, sporadic explosions on the mainland reminding islanders of the world beyond and contrasting Colm’s search for a sense of peace. The Banshees of Inisherin is the most fable-like of McDonagh’s films to date, reminiscent of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, not only in its Irishness (and Gleeson’s presence) but the sense of impending doom, personified here by the portentous witchlike figure of Mrs McCormick who seems almost plucked from The Northman. McDonagh’s work unfailingly elicits emotion, and The Banshees of Inisherin succeeds in provoking frequent laughter through its often unexpected darkly cynical humour, whilst leaving a profound sense of melancholy behind.
In its moving simplicity, Ikiru is probably my favourite of Akira Kurosawa’s films. Adapting the screenplay 70 years later, Kazuo Ishigura has shifted the setting to London but opted to stay in the same 1950s post-war era. In fact the opening credits could deceive one into thinking that Living was made in the 50s, though it subsequently retains only the antiquated aspect ratio. The period makes sense for Nighy’s particular breed of gentleman civil servant, dutifully slowing down progress (“We can keep it here. It can do no harm.”) and distanced from those with whom he lives by a familial inability to communicate. Ikiru’s themes are all on display: the failure of bureacracy, the search for meaning in life, and the revitalising freedom of being faced with one’s mortality. After receiving his diagnosis, Williams’ ruminations are shown as memories bleeding through from black and white into colour, and he finds the liberation of inebriation brings only exhaustion. Aimee Lou Wood translates the charm she displayed on Sex Education to the big screen as Mr Williams’ youthful colleague who serves as the catalyst for his redemptive work. Her guileless affection serves as a counterpoint to Nighy’s measured performance, a chilly exterior swiftly giving way to a melancholic warmth, and the film’s success is tied to these performances. Living is such a slavishly faithful adaptation that it has little insight to add to its source material and yet — since so many people will balk at watching at a 70-year-old Japanese film — I cannot fault the creation of this British facsimile that is undoubtedly more palatable to a modern Western audience and nearly as beautiful in the same quiet simplicity.
“To be yourself you have to constantly remember yourself.”
After opening with an art heist, Trance takes a sudden psychological turn that spins the entire film into one of unreliable perspective as one of the thieves struggles to remember where he stashed a stolen painting. Although this is established early on, there is rarely a way to distinguish fantasy and reality so the audience is dragged along for the ride in a passive role. That would not matter if the film had greater depth than its central conceit but none of the leads are given any character development and only Rosario Dawson has sufficient material to shine. The script is overreliant on twists to keep the viewer engaged, and the result is the inverse — we never trust that there are stakes to anything we see. The writers are able to shift audience sympathies between the characters effectively, though the voiceovers are frequently heavy-handed (“No piece of art is worth a human life”). I do enjoy films that leave aspects open to interpretation, but by the end Trance felt frustratingly inconsequential — a disappointment from a director as capable as Danny Boyle.