LFF 2019: Blackbird – Review

Release date – N/A, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 37 minutes, Director – Roger Michell

A family regather for one last time together to say goodbye to their terminally ill relative (Susan Sarandon).

Almost every year during that patch between Boxing Day and the New Year, while all the big pre-Christmas blockbusters are still competing at the box office, a small film is usually dropped into the market to often mixed or somewhat weak reviews. Either a drama with ideas somewhat similar to It’s A Wonderful Life, a mild family based comedy-drama or just a generic American family comedy; all of these almost always having a big name ensemble cast. Blackbird – while not currently having a release date – falls into the second of these categories. Adapted from his 2014 film Silent Heart writer Christian Torpe pens the story of a family coming together as the terminally ill mother (Susan Sarandon) prepares to live her final days; choosing to quietly take her life rather than suffer by gradually being locked in her own body.

This decision is, of course, met with varying responses from the family. While husband (Sam Neill) and daughter, Jennifer (Kate Winslet), seem to be fine with the idea other daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) secretly wishes for more time to spend with her mother, objecting against the idea. Add into the mix the boring husbands, latest partners, and children of the family, and the best friend of Sarandon’s character (featuring names such as Rainn Wilson and Lindsay Duncan) and the different opinions of the group begin to show and create tensions in what’s intended to be a time of calm.

It’s clear from the subject matter that Blackbird could easily be seen as a straight upsetting drama, however Torpe’s screenplay chooses to inject comedy into the piece to create a lighter tone, possibly with the intention of creating a more human piece. However, the scenes throughout the film appear to alternate between comedy and drama, giving a sense of imbalance. With this being the case it almost feels as if the film itself isn’t sure as to whether it’s a comedy or a drama, as often it certainly feels as if it’s not a mix between the two. A feeling that’s further brought about by the occasionally improvised feel to a number of scenes, some feeling as if they are being performed on a stage rather than as a part of a film – in fact you could easily be forgiven for thinking that this was an adaptation of a play rather than another film. The lengthy nature of some scenes and interactions further creating the stage-like feel that large amounts of the film hold.

While there are one or two laughs throughout the piece, coming from conventional places such as misunderstandings or a bickering family. Much of Blackbird’s central ideas and moments come from places of convention. To an extent this is a film that has been seen a number of times before, making this feel particularly cliche and at times nothing more than rather cheesy, as is possibly to be expected from a feature such as this. The performances throughout are perfectly fine and in many ways reflect the conventional nature of the film. Piecing together as each new element is brought in. Adjusting to the tone depending on what the scene or moment requires, confliction, upset, humour or even just displaying the feeling of casual memories of walking a route taken during childhood. In fact if there’s one box that the film and the performances within it don’t tick it’s that of subtlety. While there is some slight subtlety scattered throughout the piece much of the tone and ideas attempted to be conveyed are mostly very matter of fact, although not quite bordering on being in the face of the viewer.

When everything is brought together the final result is something very safe and conventional. Playing to what we’ve seen a number of times and therefore not quite packing the emotional punch, or at times comedic point, that it may be aiming for it overall feels rather average. The performances are fine and the screenplay, might like the film itself, might feel slightly improvised and tonally imbalanced at times, but overall the film is perfectly fine. It has some decent enough elements and goes through with enough ease to make it a perfectly fine mild family based comedy-drama that fits in with the likes often released between Boxing Day and New Year.

Blackbird has a number of tonal issues, often brought about by the slightly improvised feel. And while it does seem to heavily rely on convention it’s perfectly fine for what it does, and the big name cast also puts in a good turn to help keep things going.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

LFF 2019: The Unknown Saint – Review

Release Date – N/A, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 40 minutes, Director – Alaa Eddine Aljem

A thief (Younes Bouab) returns from jail to the hill on which he buried stolen money to discover that a monument has been placed on it for an unknown saint.

The initial premise of Alaa Eddine Aljem’s feature writing and directorial debut might seem relatively simple. A thief (Younes Bouab) returns from jail to the hill where he buried his stolen money from years ago to discover that a large shrine has been built to an unknown saint. Soon, the unnamed thief, assisted by an accomplice (Salah Ben Saleh), attempts to take back his loot during a night raid. It’s not long until he discovers a guard (Abdelghani Kitab) and dog sit directly outside the building at night, leading to the half incapable pair having to return to their hotel and plan their next moves.

However, there’s much more going on in The Unknown Saint than just this. The new doctor (Anas El Baz) in the dusty desert village where the majority of the film is set finds himself living the same routine everyday, giving the same tablets to people with conditions such as only coughing when they’re awake. Add onto that a guard that’s endlessly devoted to his dog; more so than he is to his family, and the barber and dentist in the village being the same person (Ahmed Yarziz). It’s safe to say that life in the village is extremely repetitious, and it’s this repetition that creates much of the comedy. The monotony of the bizarre routines compared with the desperation and almost anarchic desperation of the thief and his accomplice (known as ‘the brain’). And with all these characters popping in and out over the course of the narrative it’s possible for some to be easily forgotten about or referenced less than others. However, for much of the run-time there seems to be a fair balance between the amount of time that each character spends on-screen – at times bringing about a feeling of recurring sketches being pieced together to create some form of narrative.

Throughout the film the humour seems to have been almost heavily inspired by that found in cartoons. The use of repetition, long, awkward pauses and a number of visual gags help create a similar feeling to watching an animated short. Yes, most of the gags are relatively simple, especially having been seen before, but when paired up with the fairly relaxed feel that ‘s brought about by Aljem’s direction there are a handful of chuckles and mild exhales of amusement scattered throughout. As a whole the film is rather simple and basic, however this almost helps to emphasise the aesthetic and feel of the slow moving days within the village. And while the ending can clearly be seen coming from well before the half-way point the cartoon nature still helps to bring in a couple of laughs, even if some of them are as predictable as the plot.

In many ways a handful of the various flaws of the film are excused by the semi-understood cartoonish sense that it holds. And while the overall repetition can sometimes loose steam and create a slightly dragged out feel to some scenes overall there’s enough to be mildly amused by within The Unknown Saint to keep it just about engaging and enjoyable enough to help do that little bit more than just pass the time.

Finding the monotony of the cartoon-like bizarre, and within that humour The Unknown Saint might have a fair deal of predictability, but overall it’s a, if slightly lacking in detail, balanced and amusing enough watch.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

LFF 2019: Cold Case Hammarskjöld – Review

Release date – N/A, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 2 hours 8 minutes, Director – Mads Brügger

Journalist Mads Brügger attempts to uncover the events behind the mysterious death of U.N. General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

“I’m a bit confused because there are a lot of names and many people here” says one of the two typists that journalist Mads Brügger gets to recount his tangent filled story behind the various conspiracies surrounding the death of former U.N. General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld in a plane crash in 1961, around halfway through his documentary about such research. “Yes, it’s very complicated” he replies in a rather dead-pan manner, as if trying to reflect on his whole experience in such a brief couple of seconds. After seven years of researching the topic it’s understandable how it could be with every piece of information discovered the story could easily become confusing.

However, it seems that much of the research leads Brügger and companion Göran Björkdahl to near dead-ends – many of which are shown in the film. Leading the pair to discover various different ideas and sub-conspiracies that begin to distract from the main objective of the documentary overall. While some tangents do link to the titular research they do tend to be rather lengthy. Leading to a fluctuating state of interest for the viewer and an overall uneven feel. Much of this comes from the fact that many of the believed reasons behind the death of Dag Hammarskjöld are conspiracies. Conspiracies with no majorly known origin, so after hearing the basics from people near the site of the crash there’s not a great deal to go on. “You don’t mind about what was supposed to be solved in the first place” asks one of the typists as even she begins to notice that almost an entirely different story is being told.

In a number of ways the way the piece unfolds is much alike to Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie in the way that there’s so little known about the central focus, and not many ways to get information about it, that much of the time it feels like thing’s are so secretive that there’s nowhere that the film can possibly go. When this is the case the film seems to rely on previously shown content, jumping back and forth between different ideas – despite a chaptered nature seemingly being used to make things easier to follow through the creation of some form of narrative – often showing a group digging for evidence of the crash – equipped with piths and celebratory cigars for when something’s finally found. It’s light moments of humour like this that begin to feel scripted when heavily leaned on, pushed further by the use of two typists – not explained until lightly touched upon at the very end of the film. Leading to the film almost feeling like a mockumentary at times rather than a documentary, especially during the opening 15-20 minutes of the piece.

While there is a fair deal of interest and intrigue in the central idea that the film tries to solve the various tangents do get in the way. Leading to the tension that a documentary like this, with the darker undertones that are gradually discovered, should have not quite being present. The film fluctuates for lengthy periods of time, often based on what’s being discussed or looked into on screen at the time. If it weren’t for such moments then the documentary may have turned out to be a fair deal more interesting than it is. However, because of the length of time such tangents last for the interest and overall engagement of the viewer varies throughout, and at times almost makes the film seem far too scripted and at times almost like a mockumentary.

“I hoped that this would save my career as a journalist” Brügger explains late into the film about the reasons behind why he decided to make this documentary. And why the research has obviously been put in what’s used could use some refining. Looking more into the basis of the film rather than the various other pieces of information that pop up and at times seem to dominate over what were initially the central themes.

In many ways Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a highly conflicted documentary. If it didn’t fluctuate as much and focused more on its central themes then maybe it would be a more interesting affair. However, with such little content to go on it occasionally struggles and at others feels far too scripted.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

LFF 2019: The Father – Review

Release Date – N/A, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 31 minutes, Directors –  Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov

A grieving man (Ivan Barnev) must look after his recently widowed father (Ivan Savov) who tries to track down his recently deceased wife when he believes that she has somehow made contact

As Ivan Barnev’s Pavel pushes through a grieving crowd at an almost finished funeral, in the grey cold, making his way to the front where he struggles to light a candle. It’s at this very early point of The Father that the mild sense of dark comedy is clearly established. However, the humour within the film is more emotional rather than dark, showcasing the emotionally tinged humour of grief.

The funeral which Pavel attends is that of his mother, a death that has a huge impact on his father, Vasil (Ivan Savov). However, it’s not long until a friend claims that she received a phone call from the recently departed wife. On hearing this Vasil immediately sets off in the hope of being able to somehow contact his wife, his son following close behind trying to talk sense into him.

As Vasil finds himself going to people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead, something which Pavel insists is a scam, who send him to sleep in the woods, the film never laughs at him as a character, or his grief. Instead the laughs come at the straight seriousness and frustration of his son, whose perspective the film is shown from. The pair creating an almost odd-couple style duo, as is often standard with a number of father-son road trip comedies.

Of course Pavel himself has his own struggles outside of what he views as his father’s delusions, but not quite on a similar scale. As he finds his situation with his father becoming increasingly out of control; to the point where the police become involved, Pavel’s other major worry is finding some specific homemade quince jam for his pregnant wife. And as all Pavel’s world appears to fall apart around him the theme of grief is never forgotten. Almost seeming to pull the pair apart as they start to loose their temper with each other, to an extent presenting a true father and son story.

Arguably a number of these elements are rather conventional, however with the well-placed humour of the first half much of this doesn’t seem to matter. It’s only as the second half arrives that things become much more obvious in how cliche and conventional they are. The film begins to gradually drop the comedy for more quiet, dramatic moments to focus on developing the relationship of the father and son to get ready for the end of the film. As this becomes the case ideas begin to be repeated and the film as a whole becomes much slower. The feeling begins to set in that potentially it would work better as a short rather than a feature as the initial tone and feeling that was once present and made for an enjoyable first half almost seems to be lost. Resulting in a somewhat underwhelming pay-off when everything ends.

While The Father’s first half has a number of good laughs and a true feel of a grief tinged father-son piece the feeling of convention soon sets in, exchanging comedy for grey drama and the feeling that maybe this would work better as a short film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

LFF 2019: Saint Maud – Review

Release date – N/A, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 24 minutes, Director – Rose Glass

A devout Christian nurse ( Morfydd Clark) becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her severely ill patient (Jennifer Ehle)

From the opening scene of Rose Glass’ feature directorial debut the viewer is put on the edge of their seat with intrigue and tension. As they see the figure of Morfydd Clark’s Maud crouched, alone, in the corner of a dimly lit room, after what seems to be a surgery gone wrong. From this very early point the idea that the central figure of the piece is always being spied on – the camera always seemingly put in the corner of a room, looking through a keyhole or gap in a door, or simply looking at the main character through a crowd – is used to full effect. Pushing the feeling of Maud’s strong connection with God and her faith further.

Maud is a devout Christian nurse, assigned to look after a rich, severely ill patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda spends much of her time drinking, taking drugs and occasionally holding lavish parties. Maud strongly disapproves on this lifestyle and feels that she has been called to save the soul of her patient. As her intentions become clearer, and her behaviours more peculiar Maud begins to have a number of visions. Her faith almost becomes so strong that it begins to seemingly mentally damage her.

The narrative of the film is very much told through the central figure’s prayers, everything comes from her perspective. Leading to a sense of mystery due to only one side of the story being shown. Glass’s decision to never show what ‘actually’ happens – until the very end of the film – adds to the fear factor and overall tension that her film holds. Emphasised not only by the quietness of a number of the scenes; reflecting the standard nature of Maud herself, but also by the use of half-shadowed lighting, demonstrating the conflicted nature of the character and the way that the audience could perceive the narrative, and Maud’s mental state.

Further fuelled by the slow pacing of the film, gradually hinting at new ideas through the inclusion of small, simple details there’s no denying the unsettling nature of the film. Pushed on by the unsettling movements that Clark adds to bring her character further to life.

However, amongst all the elements of horror within the film, Saint Maud begins to feel somewhat slack when dealing with much quieter, more dramatic moments, which do seem to be rather lengthy when they do appear. While the performances in such scenes are still strong and help to progress the ideas that Glass tries to get across with her direction and screenplay the scenes can feel as if they’re building up to something that never quite arrives. Despite this there is still a fair deal to enjoy within Saint Maud as a whole. The performances are strong, with as many subtle details as are held within the rest of the film to make it all the more tense and engaging. Constantly leading the viewer to question what’s really happening, what’s real and what’s not.

Saint Maud works best when leaning towards its more horror oriented elements, while the drama sequences can seem a bit too long and quiet there’s still plenty to like within Clark’s leading performance, strengthened by the simple yet effective details that Glass adds in her effective feature directorial debut.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

LFF 2019: The Personal History Of David Copperfield – Review

Release date – 24th January 2020, Run-time – 1 hour 59 minutes,
Cert – PG, Director – Armando Iannucci

David Copperfield (Dev Patel) recounts his life from the poverty and rags of childhood to the struggles of adulthood.

Over the past few years Armando Iannucci has made a name for himself through his often biting satires. Rising from his days as a writer on the Alan Partridge team he has found himself creating The Thick Of It, and eventual big-screen outing In The Loop, alongside 2017’s The Death Of Stalin.

Now Iannucci stays within the realm of the period piece, however this time with a lighter, possibly more family oriented style. Much of this coming from his decision to adapt the words of Charles Dickens, which some might say is almost the polar opposite of the works that helped make him famous.

The Personal History Of David Copperfield follows Dev Patel’s titular Copperfield recounting his life from the rags and harsh conditions of his childhood – forced to work in a glass bottle making factory – to the struggles of his adult life, continuing to deal with those who were a part of his growing up; who almost seem to be invading his adulthood.

Amongst all the lightly, yet convincingly, held drama the standard brand of Iannucci comedy remains present. Often well-placed and naturalistic the frequently whimsical wit helps to form a fine tone for the film that helps to form a connection both with the central character and the world that he creates – the film being told from his perspective as part of a talk. With a cast that includes the likes of Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie there’s plenty of likeable British talent to help bring the world and characters to life. Each cast member clearly understands the eccentricity of their character, yet also the upset and almost tragedy that lingers within their lives. Iannucci’s screenplay effectively combining both of these elements with his sense of warmth and wit to create something undeniably inviting.

At one point Capaldi’s Mr Micawber states “We do currently exist primarily al fresco” – a line which sums up much of the wit and upset of the film. In fact Iannucci himself has said that there is “a sadness to the portrayal” of a number of the characters. One that brings an element of honesty into the piece, showing everyone with their flaws, allowing for a greater connection to be formed. Even if some traits do include constantly chasing people on donkeys, and occasionally kicking the rider off, due to not allowing them on, or near, the property – a recurring trait for Swinton’s Betsey Trotwood.

Everything simply combines to create a more charming, warm and witty piece. As if the words of Dickens’ novel have literally been somehow exactly translated to the screen. The film very much feels like it might do to read the book it’s based on. Through an all-star cast, and in fact the character of David Copperfield himself, Iannucci creates something very close to his own Paddington. Through it’s detail and insanely likeable characters the film just works, bringing the viewer in and never quite letting go of it’s grip on them.

Filled with wonderfully eccentric, likeable characters, never forgetting upset and tragedy, The Personal History Of David Copperfield shows new ground for Armando Iannucci. While still brilliantly funny this latest feature shows his warmth and emotion instead of fear.

Rating: 4 out of 5.