Spank's LFF Diary, Tuesday 11/10/2022
Spank's LFF Diary, Thursday 13/10/2022

Spank's LFF Diary, Wednesday 12/10/2022

Reviewed today: Crows Are White, Enys Men, The Origin, The Whale.

The Whale11.00am: The Whale [Q&A from TIFF]

Seeing as they’ve made us come out here at ELEVEN O’CLOCK IN THE GODDAMN MORNING, a quick update on the Royal Festival Hall, which for the second year running has been converted into the main cinema for special LFF screenings. The big question in my mind always was, has the sound been fixed after last year’s debacle? The jury’s still out on that one after seeing three films there (Bardo and Living were the other two). We’ve made a point of sitting further back in the room, around row T in each case, and it feels like the dialogue is coming across more clearly: but that may be a subliminal consequence of all three films having subtitles. We’re seeing one more film there this week which may be our only chance to properly test the room’s audibility: not sure yet whether or not it’ll have subtitles, that’ll be a surprise.

As the RFH is the venue for the big screenings, it’s nice that this 11am one is treated as being almost as important as last night’s official gala: we get a few minutes of chat from director Darren Aronofsky and writer Samuel D Hunter. You get the feeling, though, that most people in the room would have loved to see the film’s star Brendan Fraser, who apparently nipped off after last night’s screening to attend another film festival in Bilbao. Fraser’s one of those actors who inspires great affection in people, which makes the story behind his long-time absence from the public eye even more tragic. When a bunch of us from the Guardian talkboards went to see him on the West End stage 20 years ago in Cat On A Hit Tin Roof, we fondly referred to him as Big-Ass Brendan Fraser.

Yeah, that’s kind of awkward given that he’s playing a morbidly obese man in his new film. Charlie doesn’t leave his house any more, partly because he can barely fit through the door, partly because a series of tragic events has persuaded him that he doesn’t really need to engage with the outside world. His only regular online contact is with the students on his Zoom English classes: the only real person he sees on a regular basis is his nurse Liz (Hong Chau). As it becomes apparent that his weight is going to kill him at some point, he makes tentative steps towards opening himself up, starting with his daughter (Sadie Sink).

What we’ve got here is a brilliant performance in an almost brilliant film. Fraser got a standing ovation at last night’s gala, and you can see why: rather than letting the three tons of prosthetic makeup do the acting work for him, he creates a fully realised character, always careful to present different sides of himself to the different people he encounters. Samuel D Hunter hasn’t done too much to open up his stage play for the screen, and Aranovsky in turn is more restrained than we’ve ever seen him – the single set is constrained inside a 4:3 frame to make us feel as trapped inside it as Charlie is.

This is a sentence I never thought I’d have to write, but the film starts losing its way a little when Samantha Morton comes on screen. Before Charlie’s ex-wife arrives at the house, it’s a drama about all sorts of human connections, the one with his daughter being just one of them. Once Morton – as excellent as usual, of course – enters the room, it becomes a more conventional family dynamic, and loses some of its power as a result. But it’s still worth seeing for a performance that’s bound to be racking up awards next year.

Enys Men3.15pm: Enys Men [official site]

You know how it is: you don’t want to do too many four film days. We had two of those back to back over the weekend, and that seemed like enough for this year. But when you’ve got a five hour gap between your first and second film of the day, what else can you do? So shortly after coming out of The Whale, we pick up a couple of just-released returns for another one. Good call, as it turns out.

But before we go any further, let’s get back to the subject of subtitles. Two of the films we’ve seen at the RFH this week, Living and The Whale, were both been subbed for the hard of hearing. Now don’t get me wrong, increased accessibility is brilliant, but those two films have made me change my previous opinion that the biggest trouble HOH subtitles cause for the non-HOH is that they spoil the timing of jokes. I’m now convinced of something that first occurred to me in Edinburgh last year: they’re also capable of damaging a subtle orchestral score by flashing up phrases like [SOMBER MUSIC CONTINUES] on the screen (to take an example from The Whale this morning).

In fact, I’d go one stage further: it’s a massive distraction to have anything non-dialogue described on screen, be it music, sound effects, or any speech that’s only intended to be an indistinct noise in the background. That list I’ve just given there describes literally 95% of what you hear on the soundtrack of Enys Men, and every single bit of it is displayed as on-screen text in this afternoon’s SDH screening. Again: accessibility is awesome, more of it please. But personally, I found myself slouching in my seat so that the top of the head of the man in front of me covered up the bottom bit of the screen.

Mark Jenkin’s followup to Bait – which I never got around to seeing, but it’s on my list now – is another bit of eeriness shot on grainy 16mm film, albeit in colour this time. It’s got a nicely cyclical structure, following several days in the life of a volunteer (Mary Woodbine) living on a deserted Cornish island. Every day she goes out, gathers data about the wild flowers growing there, comes back to her cottage and writes up her findings. It’s a fairly mundane existence, and the film goes into a kind of loop running through her routine day after day. Except that for a deserted island, she does seem to encounter an awful lot of other people there.

Enys Men is heavy on atmosphere, light on dialogue, and it may take you a little while to get into its rhythm. It certainly did for me, as I thought it was going to drift into the usual folk horror cliches about how an unexplained bundle of twigs is the most terrifying thing in the world. But Jenkin’s smart enough to give you just enough connective tissue to help you interpret his images, while leaving enough gaps to ensure that your interpretation may not be the same as anyone else’s. The result is a film that doesn’t look like anything else I’ve seen – remember, I haven’t seen Bait yet – and though its soundtrack may fall back on [ENORMOUS NOTE RESONATES] a little too often for its own good, it’s absolutely a film to be seen on the big screen.

(Jenkin gives good Q&A too, with thoughtful and entertaining answers to the audience questions. He’s not even phased in the slightest when the on-screen speech-to-text transcription of an answer about Cornish islands being ‘full of tourists’ gets mangled into ‘full of terrorists’. “Same thing,” he says, shrugging. Give this man a Screen Talk!)

Crows Are White6.10pm: Crows Are White [official site]

Born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Ireland, living in LA, Ahsen Nadeem seems to be a bit confused about where his life is heading. As an LA resident, it seems par for the course that he heads to Japan to try to find answers in a monastery, and make a documentary while he's there. He’s trying to connect with a monk who’s undertaking a huge test of his faith, but instead he ends up with a much junior one: Ryushin, who likes ice cream, heavy metal music and the occasional beer on the sly. It means that Nadeem ends up with a friend, but doesn’t get very far finding a solution to his life problems – in particular, the secret he’s been keeping from his Muslim parents for some time.

We tend to book these films in September and then forget about them until the day of the screening, so I have an excuse for not knowing at the time whether this was a real documentary or not. It is, but by the end I was kind of wishing it wasn’t. The strand dealing with the day-to-day lives of the monks, and the way that Ryushin’s life doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else’s, is interesting enough. But it couldn’t be a straight documentary on that subject because of Nadeem’s cack-handed filming approach, which leads to him being thrown out of the monastery on at least two occasions.

Because it’s really just a documentary about Nadeem, and he’s terrible. Sure, part of the aim of the film is him admitting that, but it doesn’t entirely help. Narrated in that irritatingly conversational style where every line is pitched as a whimsical joke even when it’s not, the wheels start to come off the film as he reveals just how deep his deception goes. It all leads to an absolutely horrifying scene where he puts a camera on the faces of his mum and dad as he tells them about his secret. Whatever your thoughts are on their religious beliefs, there’s no denying that this is an absolutely dick move. Somehow, I think that if it had turned out the whole thing had been staged for the camera, I’d have been perfectly happy with it as a piece of drama, but this isn't something I want to see happen to real people.

The Origin8.45pm: The Origin [clip]

Every year, there's one film at the LFF whose box office performance is a total mystery - a nondescript production with no stars that sells out completely on the first day of booking, before even obsessives like me get a look at it, and it's impossible to work out why. Have the cast and crew bought all the tickets? Is there buzz from another festival that we haven't heard about yet? Inevitably, this just makes you all the more curious to see it, and we've been battling to pick up tickets for The Origin every couple of days since early September, until a couple of returns were finally released last week. Nevertheless, there are still a few empty seats around us in the Odeon, presumably press and industry types not picking up their freebies.

As opening captions to a film go, ’45,000 years ago’ is a pretty good one. A group of half a dozen cavepeople break away from their tribe, led by Adem (Chuku Modu). The plan is for them to sail to a new land and set up their home there. But new lands being new dangers, such as whatever it is that’s killing them off one by one. Unfortunately, the idea of a ‘Paleolithic horror movie’ looks better as a log line than an actual film.

Director Andrew Cumming has found some interestingly otherworldly locations in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, and then set up a surprisingly unengaging story in them. It feels like the film's been running for ages before the first member of the tribe is killed, but because Cumming spends all that time showing you what they do rather than who they are, when people start dying it's hard to care. For all the promise of the original idea, this is just a six-people-in-the-wilderness horror that could easily be set in modern times without any tweaking at all, except possibly for the ending.

Even the much-touted made-up Paleolithic language it uses – making this our fourth film of the day with subtitles – is a bit of a letdown, because those subtitles are still using modern sentence structures and ideas. (Possibly I’ve been spoiled by Alan Moore’s short story Hob’s Hog, which is set a mere six thousand years ago but uses an almost alien version of English.) You’d probably not object too much to The Origin if it turned up on a streaming service, and for all I know that’ll be where it ends up. But it wasn't worth all the effort we put into seeing it at a cinema.


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