Friday, September 22, 2017

BAD GENIUS - BFI London Film Festival 2017

BAD GENIUS is a superb thriller and social criticism of the high pressure and corrupt elite education in Thailand.  On one level, it can be watched in the same way as one would watch a heist movie like OCEAN'S ELEVEN - there's a caper, obstructions, high stakes, and a thrilling pay off.  This is all handled with a slick and impressive visual style.  But the more satisfying way to read the film is as a criticism of the class divide in Thailand, and how the rich always get to exploit the poor, and get away with it too.

As the movie opens we see our heroine Lynn join a prestigious Thai private school on a full scholarship. She's befriending by Grace and Pat - two academically stupid but cunning rich kids who persuade her to help them cheat on their exams, at first out of friendship, and then as a more general money-making exercise.  At first, Lynn is wide eyed as she realises how corrupt the education system is. Rich parents but the school equipment to get their kids good grades, and flagrantly bribe Lynn to attend the same university as their kids so that the scamming can continue beyond school. In such an environment why shouldn't she make money and game the system too? This all culminates in a giant scam that sees Lynn and her at first reluctant fellow scholarship student Bank travel to Sydney to take an international academic test and then send the results back to their Thai clients. And this is where the film reaches its brilliant best - both in terms of ratcheting up the tension of the heist - and posing really tough questions of social justice. To say more would be to spoil it, but I think this is a tremendous film in that its both truly exciting and profound.  Kudos to all involved. 

BAD GENIUS has a running time of 130 minutes and opened in South East Asia earlier this year.  It is playing the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and there are tickets available for all screenings. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

9 FINGERS - BFI London Film Festival 2017 Preview

9 FINGERS is a stylish, self-conscious and fascinating movie but one that ultimately fails to cohere.  It's a fun idea but stretched too far.  As the film opens, our protagonist Magloire (Paul Hamy) is standing in a moodily lit train station. The mood is one of film noir meets Indiana Jones. Shot in black and white, 9 FINGERS features a lot of men smoking, wearing macs, with pencil moustaches.  It's like the bad guys in Tin Tin got a movie.   The action kicks off as Magloire is chased from the station by the police, is given a bunch of money by a mysterious stranger, and then gets taken up by a gang of criminals led by the charismatic leader Kurtz (Damien Bonnard - DUNKIRK).  There's a hold up and a MacGuffin like plan to somehow get some polonium, and before we know it we're stuck in a claustrophobic freighter with Pascal Greggory's philosophising gang member, discussing the disappearance of Kurtz, the mysterious "9 Fingers" and a never-ending journey to Nowhereland. 

How much you enjoy this film will depend on how far you are willing to let yourself be enveloped by Simon Roca's beautiful cinematography and the darkly comic existential non sequiturs.  I could easily see how the entire exercise could grate on viewers impatient for an actual point to the film.  I found myself oscillating between the two, at once admiring the film's beauty, it's love of genre cinema, and it's wit while also become more and more frustrated about where if anywhere it was going. This is clearly a film for people with a sense of mischief and a tolerance for meandering subversive homage. 

9 FINGERS has a running time of 99 minutes.  The film played Locarno 2017 where FJ Ossang won Best Director.  It is playing the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and there are still tickets available for all three screenings. 

THE CAKEMAKER - BFI London Film Festival 2017 Preview

Ofir Raul Graizer's THE CAKEMAKER is an anaemic relationship drama that never recovers from Tim Kalkof's opaque central performance as the eponymous baker.  His character, Thomas, is in a loving relationship with a married Israeli man, Orun, who dies in a car crash.  This prompts our almost silent hero to go to Jerusalem and insinuate himself into the life of his ex-lover's widow Anat (Sarah Adler).  His baking is so good it draws crowds, but puts Anat's Kosher license at risk.  And soon she finds herself falling in love with him. 

When the film works best it's in its ambiguities.  Does Thomas return her advances because he was always bisexual and is actually attracted to her, or is he gay but somehow wants to feel close to his ex-lover?  How much does Orun's mother know about his and Thomas' relationship? And just how will Anat and Thomas' relationship resolve itself.  I love that the writer-director doesn't feel the need to overburden us with clear-cut answers. But there's also a criticism to be made in this cool detachment. First, that the love affair between Orun and Thomas is shown in such a bland way - as if the director is embarrassed at showing a homosexual relationship on screen.  Second, that the protagonist remains so unknowable that one's left leaving the cinema frustrated at the lack of emotional entry point to his story.

This film reminded me a lot of Hong Khaou's LILTING.  That film starred Ben Whishaw as the grieving lover of a closeted man. Except this time, instead of befriending his ex-wife, he befriends his prejudiced mother. The contrast is striking - both films were sensitive and delicate, but Whishaw's exceptional performance took us right into the heart of grief.  This is what THE CAKEMAKER so clearly missed. 

THE CAKEMAKER has a running time of 104 minutes. It played Berlin 2017. It is also playing the BFI London Film Festival 2017 where it's nominated for the Sutherland Award for First Feature.  There are tickets available for all three screenings. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Andrea Luka Zimmerman's documentary about Vietnam veteran turned TV personality Bo Gritz is a deeply dissatisfying and disorganised work that fails to truly get under the skin of its subject.  In the film-maker's defense, that may because Bo is a clever construct - a fantastic and mythical character designed to appeal to the worst of America's macho militaristic culture. The facts are that Gritz was a soldier in Vietnam who killed hundreds of people, using questionable methods, trained the mujahideen in Nevada, accused the US government of selling drugs in SE Asia, and played conciliator with a white supremacist, even offering up a Nazi salute. It's also a fact that some of this must haunt him because he recently tried and failed to commit suicide.  This picture of an ethically questionable and mentally fraught individual is however masked by the Bo Gritz avatar which is a man of derring do. He cons Clint Eastwood and William Shatner into giving him money to rescue US POWs left behind in Vietnam, but fails to rescue them, because they probably didn't exist. That doesn't matter of course, because he sells this tale to a movie studio for RAMBO II, a movie so at odds with the sensitive alienation and mental fracture of FIRST BLOOD as to be unrecognisable.  You get the feeling that Bo is so open with the media, and this doc, because part of him loves the attention. He even went for a presidential run, and seemed to revel in a kind of messianic status. 

So Bo Gritz is indeed a fitting subject for a doc, not least for what he tells us about american society - what it values and what it chooses to forget. But sadly, this documentary never really puts Bo on the hook for his past, his lies or his Nazi salute.  And it doesn't clearly show you what footage you're watching or where in his life we are.  Even worse, Andrew Luka Zimmerman uses a technique brought to prominence by Joshua Oppenheimer, of having a war criminal re-enact his atrocities. This feels like a cheap imitation and doesn't serve any purpose as Bo won't go emotionally deep enough on screen to have any kind of meaningful reaction.  The result is, then, a documentary where it feels like the subject is playing the director, and it's deeply frustrating. 

ERASE AND FORGET has a running time of 90 minutes.  The film played Berlin 2017 and will play the BFI London Film Festival. 

ABU: FATHER - BFI London Film Festival 2017 Preview

Arshad Khan's biographical documentary is fascinating and beautifully constructed. Using a mixture of family photos and home videos intercut with animation, clips from Western and Bollywood films, he creates a compelling and authentic collage of life in 1980s Pakistan and then as an immigrant in Canada.  His childhood seems impressively liberal - he dances with his siblings to Western music.  But he knows he's different, and when dressed by his sisters in girls' clothes he is molested. Later, his father becomes increasingly religious and thus disturbed by his son's homosexuality. He tries proselytising in the car in Canada, and then confronts his son and asks him to get psychological help - equating homosexuality with alcoholism - something that can be recovered from.  But at least Arshad is out of the closet, working as an airline steward, and discovering the gay subculture.  9-11 proves to the tipping point, as for so many others.  His parents become even more extremely religious and he becomes politicised. This is where I found the documentary to be the most fascinating - because it takes us into tv clips of radical preachers that we might not otherwise see and shows the impact on a previously liberal family.  The mother who used to dance to Pakeezah songs in her living room now refuses to leave the house without the permission of her husband, and thinks her son is belligerently refusing to be straight.  They make pilgrimages and there is a kind of rapprochement between father and son, but ultimately this is a story about failed connections and irreconcilable differences. Arshad's articulate sister posits a theory that when immigrants fail to find an easy entrance to a different society then can fall back on religion because it's a place of belonging and easy answers.  In this discussion of why assimilation fails, and why liberal humanist values do not translate, this documentary moves from being a personal journal to of universal and urgent relevance today.  In that, it makes a superb viewing partner to the equally provocative and interesting AZMAISH: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE SUBCONTINENT - also playing at this year's festival.

ABU has a running time of 80 minutes. The film is playing the BFI London Film Festival 2017. There are tickets available for both screenings.

PRINCESS CYD - BFI London Film Festival 2017 Preview

Stephen Cone's PRINCESS CYD is a slow paced and quietly beautiful love story on two levels. The protagonist is a 16 year old survivor of an unexplained childhood tragedy that killed her mother. Years later her struggling father sends Cyd to Chicago to stay with her aunt for a few weeks in her mother's old family home.  At first they have nothing in common.  The aunt, Miranda, is a famous author who lives by her intellect and is introspective. By contrast, Cyd is uninterested in books and mostly wants to sunbathe and flirt with a girl, Katie, from the local coffee shop.  Cyd's criticism of her aunt's lifetime result in a plea for tolerance, and soon time and slow adjustments do their work.  In the end, the movie becomes a love story between Cyd and Katie, but also between Cyd and her Aunt - who forge a strong familial tie as important as the fledgling love affair. All three women end up stronger and happier for their connection, and the young girls finally appreciate the power of the written word to transform lives, just as the aunt appreciates the joy of living in the moment.  

The performances are good across the board and the rest of the production workmanlike.  But I have to say that I struggled with the film, especially in its first two thirds. It felt too slow, too dull, too obvious.  The movie went exactly where I thought it would and the epiphanies were as predicted. The weirdest part is that you never really feel that Cyd or her aunt are living in the aftermath of a family tragedy. And when the writer introduces a pretty shady and dangerous plot involving Katie, it also feels like it has no consequences. Overall, this movie has some worthwhile aspects to it, but is ultimately a pretty dull watch.

PRINCESS CYD is playing the BFI London Film Festival 2017.  There are tickets available for both screenings.  It will be released on the internet in the USA on December 5th.