Review: BEAUTIFUL BOY (2019) [Leeds International Film Festival]

The latest Timothée Chalamet film was always going to be a big draw on the festival circuit, particularly at the Leeds International Film Festival, where Call Me By Your Name (2017) on the previous year’s programme, became a quick fan favourite. A sold-out audience for Beautiful Boy (2018) at the Vue at The Light might have been disappointed to not see another Steve Carell comedy (viewers of the haunting Foxcatcher in 2014 will know Carell can do much more than feel-good and gross-out), but instead got a well-meaning, but ultimately mediocre family drama.

Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, is a story of a father and son torn apart and is based on two memoirs from a father and son (David and Nic Sheff) dealing with the latter’s addiction to crystal meth. Nic is good-looking, bright, talented and heading for college, David is a successful Rolling Stone writer, with a lovely family, an artistic partner (Maura Tierney) and a distant ex-wife Amy Ryan (N.B. The women are woefully under-served here). The future is bright, but as the stark opening scene explains, Nic is a drug addict and David is powerless to help.

Drug addiction devastates people of all social classes and races. It isolates, and the fact that this film does too, is part of its failure. The non-linear narrative reduces the scenes to mere mini episodes that appear disjointed rather than strung together with any meaning, and there’s an overwhelming detached tone to the whole thing, that adds a strange, sun-kissed glow to horrible proceedings. The soundtrack is left to do most of the heavy lifting, but my favourite Massive Attack track ‘Protection’ is cruelly dropped into a scene like a clanger, telling you what and how to feel, and a terribly misjudged sex scene in a shower seemed to be gratuitously attempting to gain some ground on the lusty, good-looking, drug-fuelled antics of films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) or Go (1999).

There’s a powerful message about the bonds of fathers and sons and the horrors of drug addiction relayed here, and there’s no doubting that Chalamet and Carell give equally good performances in this family drama, but they are both poorly served by a film that doesn’t seem to want to get too mucky when dealing with a dark and life-altering subject matter. No detail is given in the recoveries or relapses; the highs are few and the lows are scarce. The film could do some real good in showing the realities of the condition and the inadequacies of the provisions for getting clean, instead we just get lots of scenes of Carell typing away, looking writerly and somber.

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Review: COLETTE (2019)

I saw Colette at Hyde Park Picturehouse, followed by a lovely Q&A with its director, Leeds’ own Wash Westmoreland, who offered some insight into how he and his late partner Richard Glatzer first devised the script in the early 2000s, long before their award-winning film Still Alice (2014) drew critical acclaim. It was a sell-out night that also welcomed supporting cast members Elinor Tomlinson and Jake Graf to Leeds! On to the review…

Colette makes an interesting counterpart to The Wife (2018). The current resurgence in reclaiming female narratives and of those previously silenced, has been a slow one to ignite (especially if this year’s Oscar nominations are anything to go by), but like The Wife, Colette is a timely story, that takes a microscope to how a person’s achievements can be co-opted by others.

It’s star, Keira Knightley shines as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French writer and all-round annoyingly-good-at-everything person who through an advantageous but alienating marriage to a good-for-nothing Parisian literary “entrepreneur” played by Dominic West, essentially ghost-writes his most successful novels – the ‘Claudine’ series under his non-de-plume ‘Willy’ in the late 19th century.

Dominic West is at his best when he plays creeps (his turn in TV’s Appropriate Adult still haunts) , and as Willy, his villainy is disguised in ruthless and temperamental business acumen, playing the ‘a man must cheat, it’s in his nature’ card repeatedly until Colette decides to have a little on-the-side fun for herself…with, shock horror, other ladies! Elinor Tomlinson and the marvellous Denise Gough offer a spectrum of same-sex exploration for Colette in much more permissive Parisian Belle Époque literary circles.

Together, Colette and Willy become something of a celebrity couple in Paris, with their titillating books flying off the shelves and everything from hair products to shoe polish being emblazoned with the Willy ‘brand’. As their relationship and career successes intertwine, Colette and Willy are engaged in a constant battle to keep the lid on their own desire for recognition. At one point, Willy locks Colette away to make her write another hit. Its shocking but not surprising to see the escalation of cruelty that kept Colette at the mercy of her husband and “mentor”.

Through breathtaking costuming changes (an intake of breath for that suit did occur!) , we could track Colette slowly unbuttoning the constraints of societal convention and stepping away from the ubiquity of Claudine that seemed to whip France up into a frenzy. Knightley has rarely seemed so comfortable in a role (many who know me will know that I have, wrongly, not always been the biggest Keira Knightley fan over the years), and this is certainly her most engaging performance since The Duchess (2008). As Colette, she expertly manages to portray her as the timid, lovelorn provincial new wife to Willy and later, the dynamic driving force behind her own creative freedom, both on stage and later, by challenging her claim to the Claudine books.

To that end, it did seem as if the film concludes just as her story was about to get truly interesting, the ongoing dispute to get her name on the works she toiled for was something that occupied much of her life. However, as an insight into how women’s work has been appropriated throughout the centuries, it is a worthy, beautifully filmed, document of defiance.

Review: THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of a handful of actors that can compel me to go see a film simply by virtue of their name alone. Such is her mercurial talent and on-screen charisma, whether its playing the timid but sexually-awakened titular character in Secretary (2002) or a commanding but conflicted peer in The Honourable Woman (2014), Gyllenhaal has carved out a niche for playing interesting and withholding characters both on TV and in cinema. Her draw then, extended to yet another title role, this time The Kindergarten Teacher, written and directed by Sara Colangelo. 

Due to the increasingly intense nature of the story, I’ll keep the synopsis brief: Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, an unfulfilled teacher begins to claim the spontaneous poems spouted by a young pupil in her class as her own for her poetry class. It’s a simple but intriguing set-up, and being based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, it has a lot to do to make the remake worthwhile.

Five year-old Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak is also an impressive but unnerving presence. Much like his character, Parker seems unaware of his talent, displaying a placid exterior but perhaps slightly weary of his teacher’s unwarranted attentions. As Lisa becomes more and more compromised, we’re left feeling concerned, perhaps even terrified, for the genius child’s welfare. I can’t remember feeling more scared during a swimming scene since Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Almost immediately, however, you are lulled into the narrative, and the indie touch to the domestic and school scenes are matter of fact, unshowy and believable, even if the teenage children are merely ciphers to demonstrate the generational stalemate that adds to Lisa’s unsatisfied life. Almost all of Gyllenhaal’s lead performances could be classed as a career high, but as the alarmingly determined Lisa, we are never on safe footing, but party to a performance that shakes with ruinous mid-life frustration. A fellow film writer, Rhys Handley termed this as “Maggie Gyllenhaal’s own Taxi Driver” and I couldn’t have summed it up better. Damn. 

Yet again another masterclass from Gyllenhaal, reaffirming her position as one of the boldest actors out there. If you can handle having your stomach in knots for pretty much most of the third act, then give The Kindergarten Teacher a go. 

Review: SUSPIRIA (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Viewed at Hyde Park Picture House as part of #LIFF2018.

It would be remiss of me to not mention that Suspiria is gory. While the original poured deep red colours into its set design and cinematography, the gushing blood red in this incantation of Suspiria are reserved only for the acts of body horror that occur. The violent body transformations are shocking and nauseating, and dreamlike fast cuts of disturbing imagery have a trance-like, subliminal power. Certain scenes will last for a long time in the memory, that’s for sure.

Welcome to Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria, a 30-year ambition finally realised and hot off the heels of his evocative  2017 sun-drenched tale, Call Me By Your Name. A switch to horror and a ‘remake’ of a Dario Argento classic befuddled many, but with a stellar cast, an updated but equally unforgiving plot and flashes of gore, Suspiria tantalises and mystifies in equal measure once again.

Set in Berlin in 1977 at the prestigious Markos Company dance school, Tilda Swinton is Madame Blanc, the austere but brilliant principal who is immediately drawn to new American student, Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion. As Guadagnino has been keen to point, Swinton also plays Lutz Ebersdorf as Dr. Josef Klemperer, a kindly psychiatrist that is more or less the emotional centre of the film.

Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as Patricia looms large over the opening acts, a young student targeted by the teachers within their secret coven, but determined to escape their grasp. Johnson, previously seen in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) alongside Swinton, is mesmeric as Susie, unknowable and seeming naive to the real trade of the Markos Company. Johnson and Swinton’s scenes together, even those as they stare at one another within a mirrored rehearsal room or appear to be talking without speaking across a crowded restaurant, are electrifying.

As points of view shift, the well-worn narrative of ‘an American in a strange country’ is left behind as Susie soon becomes a dancing conduit for the coven’s sadistic spells. Contorting, tribal dancing are never too far away from seeming like demonic possession and the camera, and Madame Blanc’s gaze, lingers on Susie’s unexpectedly libidinous movements. We are left to wonder if this is just her dancing style or has her time at the Markos Company transformed her already?

A history of the coven’s acts are hidden deep in the bowels (wrong choice of words there) of the school, horrific antiquities and weapons of choice such as the swift metal hooks that swipe as Thom Yorke’s haunting soundtrack swells. Berlin in 1977, the backdrop of the film seen on TVs or echoed through a radio, is a turbulent time that saw the hijacking of a plane and kidnappings by the Red Army Faction. The real world events act as a counterpoint to supernatural violence and its struggles for supremacy. Female autonomy, expressed through cruelty and occultism subterfuge, is attainable, if only as a result of atrocity and suppression. Taking place in a decade that rode the wave of radical feminism and when Germany continued to grapple with its position as a post-war nation, the coven’s secrets mirror the setting’s overwhelming struggle for normalcy. The coven’s power is an affirmation of the period’s feminist movement operating on the fringes of mainstream society.

The abuse of power is an overwhelming force throughout Suspiria, from the long-lasting generational guilt and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to the coven’s secret manipulation and disposal of unsuspecting students. The school’s faculty are like a rubber band, stretching and contorting between the need for secrecy and culpability. As Susie, Patricia, Sam and Dr Klemperer become further entangled in the dance school/coven’s acts, the more they become manipulated, enlightened and repulsed by the coven’s violent tyranny.

A warped, unsettling and nihilistic film that slips from grasp just a handle on it seems within reach, Suspiria is likely to frustrate as many as it is devilishly delights. Immaculately directed and designed, Guadagnino shows once again why he is a contemporary master at period detail and sensuality on screen.