Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017: P&I Screener Library, Part 1

JailbreakThe Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and Tonsler Park.

At this year’s iteration of the London Film Festival, I managed to view a total of 37 films within the space of 12 days, and despite that objectively being way too many goddamn films to watch within that span of time, it still wasn’t anywhere near as many as I was hoping to witness.  Largely, that’s down to the issue of schedule clashes, where certain films that I wanted to view ended up screening at the same time as other films I wanted to see just a little bit more, and sacrifices resultantly had to be made.  Prior to the Festival, in both years that I’ve done it, I have even created a detailed spreadsheet of each of the screening blocks, the films featured that I was at least semi-curious about seeing, and resultant clashes and potential back-ups should I get shut out of my primary choice for whatever reason!  It’s all very organised and shit!

Fortunately, though, us Press & Industry folks get a bonus little perk that enables us a second (or third if we also couldn’t make the public screenings) chance to catch a film that we had to skip: the Digital Press Library.  This is basically exactly what it sounds like on the tin, an online hub, only accessible to accredited Press & Industry delegates, where we can watch digitally-uploaded screeners of films playing at the Festival.  The selection is primarily composed of the lower-deck in terms of name recognition, and they’re gated off for different members – hence why I can’t lord a second viewing of Brawl in Cell Block 99 over Owen’s jealous head – but they are a lifesaver for those of us with ravenous appetites for films on the Festival menu.  So, over the next two articles, we’re going to have a look at just a tiny selection of the available films – it really should have been more, but post-Festival depression-related laziness is a very serious matter.  Cough.

In fact, we kick off our screener coverage with a film that was one of my primary choices in its particular block… until I decided that I wanted to sleep in for a while longer that morning and saw The Light of the Moon instead.  It turns out, however, that my laziness also led to me being saved from an immensely disappointing morning movie in favour of a very good bordering-on-great one!  Yes, sadly, Jailbreak (C-) is a Redbox-level Cambodian action-comedy that fails to make good on any one of its promises on paper.  It’s a constrained martial arts movie in the style of The Raid – or, at least, that’s what the Festival programme would like for you to believe, as if The Raid is the only recent martial arts actioner of note – where three local cops (Dara Our, Taroth Sam, and Dara Phang) and a French liaison (Jean-Paul Ly) have to escort a notorious mobster known as Playboy (Savin Philip) to prison.  Playboy, however, is nothing more than a figurehead, and the real head of the mob’s operation, Madame Butterfly (Céline Tran), wants him gone so that he can’t squeal.  A bounty is placed, folks on the inside of the prison get wise, and now our cops are trapped in the middle of a mass prison riot with their only recourse being to kick a lot of ass.

That is a nice, lean, solid premise for an action movie; nothing original, particularly when I tell you that there are also crooked cops and noble one-on-one duels and certain extra-tough prisoners who basically act as boss fights, but they are good fundamentals for a martial arts action movie.  But Jailbreak’s biggest problem is that said action, courtesy of Jimmy Henderson, is really not all that exciting to watch.  Henderson’s biggest problem, aside from the fact that the vast majority of his cast appear to be sleepwalking through their fights rather than giving them any passion or strength, is that he is appallingly bad at scene geography.  Every single corridor of this prison looks exactly the same, and there is no sense of progression or distance between any of the characters.  How far apart are our protagonists when they get split up?  Is this hallway putting them closer together or further apart?  Where is the entrance in relation to everything else?  How are certain vital characters getting into and out of this place?  These are questions that Henderson displays little interest in answering, and that’s murder for a film like this.  If I can’t tell where everyone is and if anyone is making any progress, then why am I supposed to care about what’s going on?

Henderson, who co-wrote the film, also has a major problem with tone, in that Jailbreak I believe is supposed to be an action-comedy yet its “jokes” just kind of saunter into and out of the movie every now and again.  They just sit uncomfortably next to scenes where our female lead is nearly raped by some random inmates – she also, disappointingly, exists only to get her ass repeatedly kicked, to be the centre of a one-sided love-triangle, to be noticeably locked out of important fights, and for the requisite Girl Hero vs. Girl Villain showdown at the climax; all despite Tharoth Sam being the only one of the main cast who’s putting visible effort into her strikes.  Jailbreak’s not terrible or unwatchable or anything like that, it has a few decent fight scenes and I liked the fact that nearly everybody wants to kill Playboy purely on account of his being a highly-irritating prick more than anything else, but it’s instantly forgettable and hard to care about.  At one point, two of our protagonists get knocked out cold and are then just… left there, presumably because the film would end early, otherwise.  Would still have been a better ending than the one we do get, though, since that would have equalled the END of something.

One of the more confounding parts of the Festival this year was just how many of the films being featured in the line-up had UK release dates rather close to their Festival showings.  11 of the films I saw at the Festival get UK releases this year, and several received actual cinema releases whilst the Festival was still going on!  That last part was the most bizarre to me, especially since there are still films that I saw at the Festival last year without UK release dates!  Still, that at least meant I could hold off on Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (D+) until I got home, instead putting that screening block entry to better use.  That is both a statement of fact – why waste a screening block on a film that I’m going to be able to see before the year is out and aren’t fanatically excited about – and a nice stealth burn, because The Meyerowitz Stories is yet another maddeningly awful Baumbach film.  I liked it more than his pair of 2015 features, the “Millennials are THE WORST” midlife crisis-screed of While We’re Young and “The Teeth-Nashing Exploits of The Worst People in New York City” more commonly known as Mistress America, but Meyerowitz is still like nails on a fucking chalkboard to me.

My problem with Baumbach’s films is that they aren’t so much critiques of the horrible, self-involved, upper-middle class twat-baskets that they’re centred around so much as embodiments of them.  It’s like how I despise The Breakfast Club, a film that turns out to be Judd Nelson’s Bender: this smug, self-satisfied, slut-shaming, homophobic, performatively-macho, insincere assault on my nerves.  It’s too in love with the personality at its centre to do or say or critique anything.  That’s what I find Baumbach’s films to be and it’s followed through to Meyerowitz like the demon from It Follows.  Our central cast is yet another dysfunctional, borderline-toxic upper-middle class family living in New York City, gravitating around mediocre former-artist and shitty father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and how he’s been playing off his children.  There’s eldest son Danny (Adam Sandler), a failed musician with a bad limp going through a divorce and with a devoted daughter (Grace van Patten) going off to Film School, Matthew (Ben Stiller), the only successful one of the clan who’s taken up a career in business rather than the arts, and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who, just like every other woman in especially bad Baumbach movies, is kind of just there.  For almost 2 hours, we get to watch these people be awful to one another, random strangers, and themselves whilst moaning about shit of no consequence.  Yay.

I’m being glib, I realise, but that’s only because this is territory – that of toxic families who manipulate each other into believing that all members need to live down in the muck with the rest of them and can never be left alone, of upper-middle class sociopathy and self-involvement, and of failed artists worrying about their non-existent legacies – that has been mined by literally thousands of writers, directors, and writer-directors over the years, most far better than this.  Hell, Baumbach himself has done so better before, in lone career highlight Frances Ha, and Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, which I saw at the Festival, is pretty much the not-crap version of The Meyerowitz Stories!  Perry at least remembers to take his awful cast down a peg or twelve instead of becoming weirdly rhapsodic about them and expecting the audience to feel the same way about a bunch of gaslighting, emotionally abusive twits incapable of holding a conversation about anything other than themselves – literally in the case of Harold, especially after he meets Sigourney Weaver at an exhibition for 20 seconds and cannot stop bringing this non-story up.

Perry also understands how to extract humour and legitimate wit from dialogue, which Baumbach proves himself to be utterly clueless about here.  Instead, much like in Sally Potter’s excretable The Party (which also played at the Festival), he equates “sheer verbiage” with “caustic wit” and the results are absolutely insufferable; akin to being trapped in an especially slow-moving elevator with a snobby try-hard artiste who fills all of the remaining space with his directionless ramblings and just will not shut the fuck up.  Meyerowitz is ghastly overwritten, words just dribbling voraciously out of this incredibly stacked cast’s mouths with absolutely no rhyme or reason, so much so that even when something approximating a joke does finally arrive – I chuckled exactly 3 times during this 112 minute ordeal, and I savoured each one like a man trapped in a never-ending desert does the water from an oasis – its impact is dulled due to the ineptitude of its construction.  Sure, it’s befitting the characters we’re having to spend time in the company of, but “it’s supposed to be bad/annoying, that’s the point!” doesn’t magically absolve a work of its sins because, surprise, you’ve still made something bad/annoying!  It’s not commentary because you’re just reflecting the point you’re making back onto yourself!

Look, I want to like Noah Baumbach.  I really do!  Even if I found myself yelling at the TV for the film to just end al-goddamn-ready in the last 20 minutes, there are still bright spots in The Meyerowitz Stories; namely those 3 chuckles and the performances, which are all objectively very strong even if they’re being spent on characters scientifically-engineered to get on my tits.  But all of his films (that I’ve seen) bar Frances Ha have just left me angry, being so utterly charmless and exasperating, in thrall to the most insufferable human beings to ever exist.  This also only makes me even more curious as to why Frances Ha is the exception for me, particularly since this isn’t a “it’s his best, comparatively speaking” case because I genuinely love Frances Ha.  My main takeaway from The Meyerowitz Stories, besides being glad that I’ll never have to see it again, is that I need Lady Bird to come out in the UK a lot sooner than next February, so I can get an answer to this conundrum and find out whether Mistress America was just a rare bad-Gerwig-anomaly or not.

Still, and I cannot believe that I am saying this, that was at least preferable to Tonsler Park (D-), a film I was intrigued about when reading through the programme and was quite bummed about having to miss in favour of ManifestoYou might recall that I ended up being very wound up by Manifesto, a film I went to see despite the foreknowledge that I was going to hate it and which ended up exactly as anticipated.  Well, I would like to rescind much of my initial complaints about that film, and not just because it has actually grown on me somewhat as the days have gone by, because Tonsler Park is a literal waste of time.  Kevin Jerome Everson’s latest is a documentary set at a polling station in the titular area of Charlottesville, Virginia on November 8th 2016, and supposedly allows us to witness, direct quote from the Festival’s website, “a dance as voters and officials briefly meet, then part.  Among the bitter ironies, what it reveals is the possibility of hope, now dashed.”  “The functioning, or malfunctioning, of democracy…”

Absolutely nothing that exciting happens throughout Tonsler’s inexplicable 80 minute runtime.  Everson’s film is an observational documentary in the most literal sense possible.  Filmed in 16mm black-and-white for some reason, we watch, from afar, people arrive to vote and then leave.  Everson’s camera does not move, he has not mic-ed any of the people he trains his camera on, and he provides no throughline to these extended shots that go on for upwards of 10 minutes at a time.  So a good 75% of his shots are obscured by the backs of jackets worn by people who wander into shot, any conversations that the subjects of his camera are having with either the voters or their fellow officials are inaudible because the camera is too far away to pick them up, and the voices we do hear all blend together as a general haze of indistinct background noise that’s impossible to follow.

In fairness, nobody’s going to be able to come up with any fresh, substantive, or unbiased analysis on just where last year’s election ended up going so horribly wrong for at least a couple of years yet – this is the same problem that sank 11/8/16, for just one example – but Everson’s Tonsler Park has nothing to say even by those incredibly lowered standards.  You get to watch people, or more accurately the backs of jackets belonging to assorted people, vote and… that’s it.  What’s meant to be the takeaway here?  Who is going to find meaning in this?  What is the meaning in this?  There’s always the chance that race is supposed to be a factor, since the staff and most of the population of this area of Charlottesville are Black so we get to witness them living for 80 minutes, but the film doesn’t say anything about this!  Absent intelligible dialogue or interviews or being allowed to display some kind of personality or a camera that doesn’t awkwardly hang back near the wall at all times, the effect is akin to watching animals at a zoo, which feels like precisely the wrong feeling for myself to be getting when it comes to Black representation in a documentary.  So maybe there’s no racial aspect to Tonsler Park and the film is just about non-descript people voting.  Great, so what?

I finished Tonsler Park 80 minutes closer to death and with absolutely nothing to show for it.  I don’t even know how I’ve managed to expend so many words on it; it’s the result of a Film student leaving their Final Year project until the day before, panicking, turning the camera on and pointing it at a wall for 80 minutes and claiming that the result is “Experimental Filmmaking.”  It’s bollocks, is what it is.  I’ve seen films during the Festival that I hated more, but none that so thoroughly wasted my time as this one managed to.


Tomorrow: Our coverage of the 61st BFI London Film Festival finally properly concludes with three more screeners, including German anarchist-comedy Tiger Girl and Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone.

Callum Petch knows you’re waiting for him to improve.

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