This article can also be found at The Yorker, here.
I’m all for more queer-themed films. Not just because I’m one of those filthy heathen LGBTQ types, but because there’s scope for more stories to be told than common blockbuster archetypes; or failing that, a fresh twist on them.
I assumed Beauty, a South African film by director Oliver Hermanus, would prove to be another Weekend, a low-key hit that tells a story from a queer perspective. I was introduced to the film with the synopsis that the protagonist (François, played by Deon Lotz) was a middle-aged man from a bigoted background, forced to struggle with his own latent homosexuality.
This led me to take for granted that I was in for an experience where lessons would be learned, hearts may end up being warmed, and regardless of the outcome, it would give the viewer something to think about. Yes, this assumption is a little stale and saccharine; but I feel we’re still socially at a stage where a minority-positive message is important and helpful.
Too bad that Beauty ended up as far from that as possible. François has unbridled lust in Christian (Charlie Keegan), the son of a close friend – close enough for them to be in a uncle/nephew relationship; and it’s actually a little unclear that this isn’t the case. For some reason this swiftly escalates into stalking, and eventually – and I apologize for spoiling the film’s climax – rape.
This ungraceful plunge off the moral deep-end isn’t done with much character development; at least nothing to make François a character worth following or Christian more complex than a plot device.
Sure, we get multiple scenes of lingering and dialogue-free shots of François going about his business – Hermanus takes the Axiom ‘show, don’t tell’ a little too close to heart, and these moments are meant to give you the chance to read François’ expression and ponder about what’s on his mind; but they’re a total waste – most feel like a tool to pad out the film’s 105 minutes, and are dull enough to make the film feel more like 2+ hours.
If, at the end of it all, there was a resolution, or some kind of visible sign that François realises he’s a terrible human being, then prepare to throw down your hat in disgust and frustration. After the sexual abuse, Christian vanishes from the narrative, his plot device fulfilled.
The sole redeeming factor of this appalling mess was the script – the characters are bilingual in both English and Afrikaans, and code-switch freely. It’s something that I’ve not seen done in a film before – even ones that have dialogue in multiple languages – and it helps make the conversations feel more legitimate and real.
In fact, realism may have been what Hermanus was going for – there’s no doubt that in real life there are mentally disturbed hypocritical bigots, and something like 90% of sexual assaults do go unreported (regardless of gender); but this is not the way to deliver such awful and distressing topics.
If this is ever released on DVD, I hope there’s a bonus scene of François being hit by a truck. Then I would hate Beauty marginally less.
My media consumption is largely starved of quality Human Drama – partially because I’m a fan of psychological/horror, partially because a lot of my media consumption is in video games, and they tend not to handle emotional narrative too well. To that end, I do relish it when a well-made emotional rollercoaster comes along, and to that end Les Adoptés (The Adopted) knows how to push my buttons.
Maybe the reason for my appreciation is the ‘Foreign Film’ angle. I’m not pretentious enough to label non-English films as better by default, but it works in The Adopted‘s favour thanks to the cultural differences. While a romantic film about beautiful people living bohemian lives in Paris is nothing new, it feels just that little more understated compared to how Hollywood might handle it.
The plot follows sisters Marine (Marie Denarnaud) and Lisa (Mélanie Laurent), equally raising Lisa’s child, Léo. Marine is actually adopted, but it’s never proved a problem for the pair, having been best friends since childhood. Then, when Marine meets Alex (Denis Menochet), a ruggedly handsome (and I do mean handsome) food critic, Marie has to juggle the love of her life, and the fear of shattering the status-quo with her sister.
So far, so stereotypical, right? But there’s a catch – at the end of the first act, Marine is suddenly out of the picture, and the narrative focuses on Lisa and Alex instead. The shift in tone is hardly whiplash, but it’s clear that The Adopted isn’t going to finish how it started out.
Still, the writing is definitely great at keeping pace. Dialogue is witty, especially that from Lisa’s mother, Millie (Clémentine Célarié); possibly owed to a well-localised subtitles translation. I found myself enjoying the character ups-and-downs for the 100 minutes without thinking of how much longer the film was. That said, while the film’s events were kept snappy from scene-to-scene, the actual sense of time progression was really vague. Knowing how much time passes over the course of the second act would do a lot more for empathising with the cast.
What really bowled me over was me not loathing Léo. Young children in cinema are, as a rule, entirely insufferable; both on screen and in the seats. And yet, i found myself largely tolerating this kid; even finding him somewhat… cute. How appalling; I must be going soft.
The Adopted is definitely a cheesy drama, but most likely more so by French standards than British. If you’re looking for something relaxing but still engaging, this should be your film to watch this week.
This review can be found at The Yorker, here.
This review can be found at The Yorker, here.
This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.
This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.
This review can be found at The Yorker, here.
This review can also be found at The Yorker.
Weekend does check all those boxes, but at the same time it throws all those boxes out of the window, and calls you stupid for bringing up such a formulaic romance plot. Weekend tries to offer something much more real and bittersweet; and starts off by centering the entire thing around a gay romance. Which, for me, definitely puts it in ‘real and bittersweet’ territory, but more on that later.
Russell (Tom Cullen) is stuck in emotional limbo. While he’s incredibly close to his friends, he’s also really closed-off when it comes to talking about himself. On a whim he visits a gay bar, meets Glen (Chris New), and ends up having hazy, drunken sex. All he knows is that Glen is an artist, outgoing and agressively open with his sexuality; and over the period of a weekend, they find that meeting each other has become one of the best and one of the worst things that has happened to them.
This is where the Realness Factor comes in. Everything from the setting to the key events of the narrative are subdued and coated in that thick, matte grey that covers England’s inner-city urban living. It feels so familiar – I understand and recognise the motorways, the glum rides on public transport, and the shitty and cramped nightclubs. However, that’s not to say that Weekend entirely forgoes more traditional film techniques, or is entirely moody and grim. The tone switches from melancholic to funny to sexy (I’m way too prudish to talk about the sex scenes in any real detail but it manages to be both steamy and tasteful with little effort) at a regular rate without stumbling in pacing.
However, Weekend is a movie with a message – and a rather self-defeating one at that. Glen’s openness about his sexuality is augmented with intense ire for a society that’s so heterocentric and prudish, which Russell occasionally gets the brunt of. This means that every so often Glen will have a rant about his favourite topic, and the scene stops just short of flashing “HERE’S THE MORAL” on-screen. That’s not to say that message imparted is wrong, quite the opposite (if asked I would wholeheartedly rave about how social stigma gives LGBT issues the short end of the stick), but no one likes being beaten over the head with a message – even if making it that obvious could be argued as necessary.
Building on this idea, at one point Glen discusses an art installation he’s planning regarding gay sexual experiences, but admits that (and forgive me for not having the exact quote) gay people wouldn’t go without the promise of nudity, and straight people wouldn’t go because homosexuality is still considered a weird and taboo topic for many. You could hear a number of nervous laughs in the audience at that line.
That theme struck a personal chord with me – while inwardly I could agree with most of Glen’s viewpoint, on every other level I embody Russell’s emotionally-distant awkwardness. It made the romance between the two leads – the small silences, the confiding of secrets, the holding of hands – both heart-wrenchingly cute and depressingly unobtainable. The film’s resolution, while not dancing to the rhythm of how a prototypical romance should go, instead sticks closely to the conclusion the general tone of the film implies.
While most first think of Brokeback Mountain as the must-see film with gay themes, for me Weekend is set to have much more social significance. That said, I am still waiting for a film where a homosexual protagonist doesn’t have his (or her) own sexuality as the main conflict.
Psychological thrillers are hard to do properly. Whether trying to appeal to a pretentious deep-seated metaphor, or just a set up for an M. Night Shaymalan-esque twist, attention absoltuely has to be paid to keeping the twist obscured, and orchestrated to pack the biggest emotional punch; what’s colloquially known as the ‘MindF**k’. What you can’t go and do is give the twist at the end of the first act with next to no buildup.
It looks like Dream House didn’t get the memo.
Okay, so the premise then. Daniel Craig is Will Atenton, a British man with an all-American family, moving into the house of his dreams. Problem is, the neighbours are freaked out by him, there are goths hanging out in his basement, and… oh yeah, five years ago the family living there were shot in cold blood. So not so dreamy then.
This could have devolved into a run-of-the-mill slasher film with the ghosts of the recently deceased causing havoc, but no, Dream House is clearly too smart for something so gauche. After finding out that the husband of the murdered family survived and was interred at the local mental hospital, Will goes to visit the facility, and then The Twist happens. I would feel bad for spelling it out (though the film’s trailer blatantly spoils the twist…), but I’ll just say that the reveal is laughably contrived, lacked build-up, and poor Daniel Craig did his best to act as if the revelation was tearing him apart.
With the twist out of the way so early into the film, the rest of the runtime is taken up with a one-sided murder mystery. Only Will Atenton seems particularly interested with the pursuit of the truth, neither the police nor the audience offer more than a shrug, and just leave him to get on with it.
That’s not to say that Daniel and the rest of the cast are doing a bad job of working with the awful source material; they just can’t do anything to save it. A fair amount of dialogue is required from the two daughters of the family in order to go for a sappy, heartstring-pulling angle (rendering them immediately annoying from the get-go), and the rest of the cast does a good job of keeping them in line, but the end result doesn’t really work. It’s pandering and tedious.
Dream House’s thrilling conclusion goes down like the clichéd path it was predestined to roll towards. Villains are evil and hateful simply because they’re evil and hateful, everything goes down in flames, and it all resolves with a happy ending like there was no gruesome murder in the first place. Yawn.
Dream House turned out to be a movie that thought it could survive on star power. Hopefully its failure will stand out as an example to other film projects as what not to do when putting a thriller together.
This review can also be found at the Yorker.
I’m not particularly well-versed in horror films, but a lifetime of cultural osmosis has left me with a good understanding of how it’s supposed to go. Morally bankrupt, personality-lacking, or otherwise Orange County everydude Americans are put somewhere dark and isolated through contrived circumstance, and are summarily killed – by a supernatural entity, a guy with a chainsaw, or just ’cause.
Aside from the killings, Demons Never Die entirely ignores this framework – and really it’s worse off for it. While I doubt it’s a full explanation for why this is the case, Demons is a British film, an oddity in a genre seemingly dominated by the US. Set in London, it has that same mixture of authenticity and self-parody that Attack the Block had with its council-estate setting. The soundtrack is Grime and D’n’B throughout, which I honestly quite liked.
The plot follows a group of kids who form a suicide pact when a girl at their 6th Form College takes her own life. Most have the details as to why they want to die fleshed out, and some are surprisingly serious – the female lead Samantha (Emma Rigby) suffering from schizophrenia, and Ricky (Femi Oyeniran) being pressured by his homophobic father. Lead character Archie (Robert Sheehan) has some trappings of unhinged stalker to his personality, which is interesting in his interactions with Samantha, but after a while it’s played as endearing. Odd.
As the story progresses, they eventually realise that an elaborate suicide is not the solution to their problems, and become all a bit more comfortable with themselves. The cast have had their share of movies prior (sharing a few names with Adulthood), and they manage to get some compelling character interaction going, and you find yourself rooting for them to find a solution. That’s not how slasher films are supposed to go at all! All of the Final Destinations and the Halloweens out there have almost intentionally flat or dislikeable characters, so when the flesh-rending eventually occurs, we don’t feel like awful human beings for finding it entertaining.
Speaking of flesh-rending, that aspect is the weakest part of Demons Never Die by far. At the same time as the suicide pact plot, we find that there is a masked killer picking off the kids one-by-one with a hunting knife. It’s clear that the film was produced on a low budget – not being able to go all-out on the violence is understandable, but Demons employs some incredibly obvious cutaways, torn clothing and blood packs; and it feels cheap; especially since the death of the kids doesn’t seem to drive the plot as much as you think it would.
Up until the third act where literally every named character ends up knifed (to no real emotional impact – even with all the effort they put into characterisation), nothing would be particularly lost if all the murder scenes were removed. In fact, with some editing, Demons Never Die would be better off as a one-shot BBC human drama.
Part of me wonders if when this film was initially pitched, they had to crowbar in a crazed killer to get it to fit into a Halloween season release; but that’s just wishful thinking on my part. There’s nothing wrong with having a different take on a genre, but Demons is too tame to be a horror, and too shallow to be a drama – a failed experiment.