May 13, 2018

How To Talk To Girls At Parties [15]

Dir: John Cameron Mitchell
When you’re a teenage boy, girls might as well be an alien species, so the fact that Zan (Elle Fanning) is literally out of this world doesn’t make her any more unusual to Enn (Alex Sharp). Not that he realises, thinking she’s escaping from a cult. It’s 1977 and Enn and his friends are teenage punks in Croydon. Stumbling into what they think is an afterparty for the gig they have just been to, the end up at an abandoned house that Zan and the other beings from the six colonies that make up her species have taken over. Fascinated when Enn tells her about punk Zan, rebelling against her colony, leaves the house with him, hungry for new experiences in her new human form.

John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation and expansion of Neil Gaiman’s short story is an eclectic mix of genres and influences: a punk sci-fi coming of age comedy, with a sex and kink positive message and, at its heart, a genuinely affecting love story. Mitchell and co-screenwriter Philippa Goslett mash these disparate elements together into a narrative that is sometimes chaotic, but always full of energy and ideas, be they in the film’s story or its wildly colourful and inventive design.

Along with costume designer Sandy Powell, Mitchell creates a distinctive look for the aliens, both as a species and within their individual colonies. All of them are dressed in skin tight latex, but each has their own colour and their own look. The Stellas, for instance, are the most sexualised, with the females wearing different coloured material to highlight their bodies, while another group are dressed somewhat more conservatively, the same material fashioned into blue suits. This way of distinguishing between the various colonies extends into their behaviour and even their movement. There are sure to be many subtleties here to pick up on subsequent viewings.

Set against this colourfully strange world there is the Croydon of 1977 (Sheffield subs for the exteriors). In many ways punk and Zan serve similar functions in Enn’s life; injecting colour and excitement into a dull, grey, time and place. This is where Elle Fanning is perfect casting. I’ve said before that I think Fanning may be the most naturally gifted actress of her generation, and this is one of her best and most finely detailed performances. As she has observed, there is a risk inherent in playing a character who is engaging with the world for the first time that they appear to be stupid, thanks to their misunderstandings of language and social codes. This is not what we get from her as Zan. Yes, there is humour inherent in her telling Enn “I would like to go to the punk now” or telling his mother that she is going to the toilet for the first time, but what we get from Fanning is a sense of Zan’s boundless curiosity and enchantment with everything she is discovering, particularly her own sense of freedom, which is restricted in her colony.

There are the expected broad strokes to Fanning’s performance, but it’s the subtleties that make it. The way she moves is especially interesting; at first there’s a stiffness, she’s getting used to being in this body, but she loosens her physicality as Zan spends more time among humans, both because she is learning to mimic their movement and because she is adjusting to her new form. This is something we also see in the way she observes the world, Fanning has that rare gift of being able to let us see the character thinking. That’s another thing she first shows as pronounced. In the beginning, Zan’s observations are obvious, and often stated as well as simply made, but this is something else that gets naturally folded into her persona, as she becomes more comfortable around people. We get so much of the character through Fanning’s physicality, but she also exhibits great comic timing with her dialogue, and an unforced chemistry with Alex Sharp that aids the film’s love story. Sharp also delivers a strong performance, lifted by Fanning and by Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, who play Enn’s best friends. The dynamic between them is believable and fun and, while it’s a different generation depicted here, there was much in the way they interact that felt familiar from my own teenage years.

In a largely excellent supporting cast, Ruth Wilson stands out as PT Stella, bringing a deadpan comic sensibility that I didn’t know she had. She’s particularly funny at the end of the film, when she too begins to rebel. On the downside there is Nicole Kidman. Tone is important in comedy, and Kidman is the only actor who, for me, misses it. As Queen Boadicea she’s a punk matriarch for whom the movement probably came too late. As an actress she’s trying too hard. The accent is laughably broad and she overplays every moment to the hilt. It’s especially interesting to see her strain her every acting muscle in her few moments with Fanning, whose unaffected work has much more impact and embodies the character rather than performing it. Only in one moment, a stare down with Ruth Wilson, does Kidman stop working long enough to be similarly effective.

Mitchell and Goslett’s screenplay strikes a good balance between fish out of water comedy and the growing connection between Enn and Zan. The jokes largely hit and the love story is touching and feels organic; as Zan comes to love Earth and people she grows to love Enn in particular. It’s a rather beautiful thing, believing through Fanning’s performance that this is the first time this being, who is likely thousands of years old and has been through many life cycles, has experienced these emotions. The film also hits some truth about our relationship to music; the community that surrounds certain scenes and the sense of belonging that engenders, as well as the transporting nature of finding a song or a band that means something to you. This last aspect Mitchell takes in a way that is both literal and trippy.

I’m genuinely shocked by how divisive How To Talk To Girls At Parties has been. I can see how its tone will either work for you or not. I found it involving and moving as well as very funny. What I can’t see is how you can fail to appreciate how well designed it is, how Mitchell creates a whole offbeat world for his aliens inside their house. Nor do I get how you can fail to appreciate the many deft touches in Elle Fanning’s performance. Ultimately I think this is destined to be a cult item, appreciated by a group of fans I imagine will grow once the film lands on home formats after its disappointingly limited cinema run. At least, I hope that’s what happens.

Oct 16, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Family Films

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
Dir: Patrick Imbert, Benjamin Renner
This delightful French animated film is set up as three short plays, put on by the animals in a farmyard. In Baby Delivery, Pig and his dimwitted friends, Rabbit and Duck, must fill in for an injured Stork. The Big Bad Fox sees Fox accidentally become mother to three chicks he steals for himself and Wolf to eat. In Saving Christmas, Duck believes he has killed Father Christmas and he, Rabbit and Pig must fill in for him, as they did for the Stork.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is this year’s Family Gala screening at the London Film Festival, this is the strand that contains the films pitched at children, but this is a true family film. It will delight children (I’d suggest it for ages six and over) but, without aiming jokes over children’s heads, it should also work for adults. The animation style is very different; a little sketchy, but beautifully simple and full of character rather than crude, but the tone of the film has much in common with classic animated shorts. The slapstick gags come thick and fast, with the timing and execution of classic era Tom and Jerry, while the way these moments combine with the verbal humour recalls Looney Tunes strongly (especially in the relationship between Pig, Rabbit and Duck).

There are some wonderfully absurd touches and running gags to be enjoyed; the chickens forming a self-defence group because the guard dog is lazy, the calamities that happen to Pig’s house and Little Michel, who pops up in the last two stories to endearing and hilarious effect.

Any further review of this film would amount to my repeating my favourite jokes, which would rather spoil what is a wonderfully enjoyable film. I will say to stay in your seats during the credits as during them there are some lovely jokes, a recipe and a closing moment that seems to be a nod to Michigan J. Frog and sent me out of the cinema with a mile wide smile on my face. This may be pitched as a kids film, but it’s for anyone with a functional funnybone.

The Day My Father Became A Bush
Dir: Nicole Van Kilsdonk
Toda (Celeste Holsheimer) is ten years old and lives with her pastry chef father (Teun Kuilboer) in an unnamed country. When war breaks out between ‘The Ones’ and ‘The Others’ Toda’s grandmother comes to stay, while her father is called to fight. Eventually it becomes too dangerous at home and Toda is sent abroad to join the mother (Noortje Herlaar) she doesn't know. Along the way she gets separated from the people taking her and must make her way on her own.

I am a great believer that children’s cinema can and should be much more than mindless entertainment (not that a bit of mindless entertainment is a bad thing, whether you’re six or thirty six). The Day My Father Became A Bush tackles some big issues: war and its futility, displacement and the dislocating reality of suddenly becoming a refugee, but does it from a child’s eye view, making those issues comprehensible for its target audience. A big part of this success is in the way it addresses war. Nicole Van Kilsdonk never explores what the fighting is about or whether we should see ‘The Ones’ or ‘The Others’ as the good guys in the conflict. This isn't what’s important to Toda, what matters to her is that her father is away and that his camouflage be good enough to make sure he comes home (in one of the film’s most quietly touching scenes she puts branches on his helmet so ‘even birds will think you’re a tree’). 

Ultimately, the film says, which side we’re on doesn't matter much. Her father wears a blue badge but at one point Toda finds herself sharing a shack with a man wearing a blue badge, soon she’s sharing food with him and, sweetly, helping him learn to give orders (he has deserted because he found he wasn't assertive enough for his command role. This scene is a fine example of the way the film leavens its messages with humour and heart.

Toda is a great character for young girls to see and identify with. She’s inquisitive and intelligent, brave in the face of scary situations and compassionate with a slightly younger boy who attaches himself to her, whom she nicknames Stickie (Matsen Montsma). She’s also just a typical ten year old, who calls herself a daddy’s girl. As Toda, Celeste Holsheimer gives a performance free of anything actorly or precocious. She hits the funny moments nicely, but is particularly adept in the dramatic scenes, especially towards the end of the film when, having lost her mother’s address, Toda finds herself a refugee.

The Day My Father Became A Bush asks kids to engage with some big themes, but it takes them gently through those ideas, leavening them with humour and, even in the film’s toughest moments, the optimistic outlook that Toda radiates. It’s an entertaining and intelligent film and an ideal opportunity to discuss some challenging subjects with your kids. 

Oct 15, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Suspiria

Dir: Dario Argento

While he continues to dilute his legacy with garbage like Giallo and Dracula 3D (and the rest of the last two decades), it’s a fine time to be reminded that, at one time, Dario Argento made some of the most visually stunning horror cinema ever seen. Suspiria, recoloured to its intended luridness and remastered in 4K for its 40th anniversary, is a brutal, beautiful, masterpiece.

The paper thin story of Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballet dancer, going to a famous dance academy where people begin to disappear and be killed, couldn’t be any less important. This isn’t one of Argento’s many whodunnits, instead he simply wants a framework on which to hang the film’s stunning set design, lighting and its graphic gore.

Suspiria’s tagline famously told us that the only thing more terrifying than its last 12 minutes were the first 92. I agree in part. The film’s first 15 minutes or so, up until the first two deaths have been shown, are a self-contained masterwork. The vivid lighting, drenching what should be a drab rainy night in unnatural colour, the striking set design - all sharp lines and symmetry - and the Goblin score; ethereal at first, building to something sinister, all these things combine with the shock of sudden violence in a sequence that envelops us completely in the world of the film.

The scenes in the dance school, with their obvious dubbing and over the top line reads, aren’t the film’s strongest suit, but the disconnection from reality that dubbing often lends is, intentionally or otherwise, effective in further dislocating us from reality, just as the film does to Suzy. This isn’t to say that the performances don’t work for the film though, the delicately pretty Jessica Harper isn’t one of horror cinema’s tougher final girls, but our journey through the world of the film is much like hers - slightly surreal, sometimes unnerving, sometimes confusing - and Harper takes us along on that journey effectively. Most memorable among the cast is Alida Valli, (over)playing strict ballet teacher Miss Tanner to often very funny effect.

Argento sprinkles scares, surrealism and beautifully designed slayings throughout the film, but the tagline undersells the film’s last 12 minutes. Suzy’s surreal journey through the ballet school to find the secret at its heart contains some of Argento’s most incredible and iconic visuals, bringing the film to a crescendo. On this viewing, with the picture so vividly remastered and the sound pounding into my ears, I saw Suspiria on a non-narrative level. That’s probably how it works best, as a purely sensory experience; shape, colour and noise colliding into the most beautiful of nightmares.