Nocturnal Animals, The Last Laugh, Don’t Think Twice, and The Man From Mo’Wax.
Since last Sunday, I’ve taken to wearing my press badge whenever I’m out of the house I’m staying in in London. Before I even step out of the door first thing in a morning, I throw the pass on around my neck and it stays there for the entire remainder of the day, until I get back to the house and start writing. Even when I don’t need it on, if I’m just wandering around London killing time or attending screenings that I’ve paid money for, I still keep it hanging. It brings me a kind of comfort, that I am making the absolute most of this experience whilst I have the chance to do so. This fortnight has been the greatest – it really, really has – and I haven’t felt anything less than happy the entire time I’ve been here, on this trip. And as I sat down in the Picturehouse Central café after definitely not watching a film that I am absolutely not under embargo for and so can’t talk about for the time being, that was the only thought that ran through my head: this has just been the greatest.
I can tell you that I definitely won’t miss the ridiculous sleep schedules, though. Ploughing through a massive 18 hour day on less than 6 hours sleep is kind of a pain, I won’t lie, but at least that kind of schedule allowed me to be disappointed by Nocturnal Animals (Grade: C+) a good month before I would have been in general cinemas. The long-awaited film follow-up to A Single Man by fashion designer Tom Ford, and an adaptation of the novel Tony and Susan, the film supposedly follows highly-disillusioned art gallery designer Susan (Amy Adams) in a loveless relationship with her second husband Walker (Armie Hammer), slowly going broke, growing to despise her artistry, and is also currently suffering from severe insomnia. One night, she receives a package from her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she has not spoken to in the nearly two decades following their divorce. Edward has finally finished the novel he always wanted to write and has sent Susan the first manuscript. He’s also named it after an in-joke between the pair, dedicated it to her, the characters in the story are heavily reminiscent of Edward (named Tony in the manuscript), herself (represented by Isla Fisher), and her daughter, and very nasty things happen to the lot of them.
Nocturnal Animals, basically, is an endless drumroll for a crescendo that never fully arrives. In theory, the movie is two separate stories that are meant to keep converging and intersecting in ways that tell us more about the two characters, but the overlap turns out to be relatively minimal. In reality, the movie is two films taking turns to play out across two hours, and the supposed subtext and character study elements in the second story don’t manifest themselves enough. What instead happens is that you’re watching this B-grade gritty thriller that is clearly meant to be an examination of regretful male impotence, and then every 15 minutes the film will cut to a shot of an absolutely wasted Amy Adams staring pensively into the middle distance. If you’re lucky, the film might even throw in a flashback to Susan and Edward’s relationship to add some kind of actual context to proceedings.
There’s just no real indicator of what Ford (who also wrote the script) is trying to say with these sequences, outside of the immediately obvious theme of how creative types throw themselves into their work and that those who know the author and what to look for can become understandably troubled by what they experience as a result. Otherwise, the film is so deliberately opaque and meticulously designed that any deeper meaning or reason for being or message that Ford is trying to convey was utterly lost on me. Kind of like most fashion for me, come to think of it. He clearly thinks he’s saying something profound or meaningful given the way he directs these sequences, but I’ll be buggered if I can tell you what those are.
That said, Nocturnal Animals isn’t a waste. The manuscript sequences are quite entertaining, and its inciting incident is genuinely gripping in a way that kind of makes me wish that Tom Ford had just made a straightforward thriller, or actually delivered the psychological thriller he initially promises, rather than the unwieldy hodgepodge he’s crafted. The film looks absolutely stunning, of course; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey having clearly pored over every single image in a concerted effort to ensure that each and every single shot could be slid into a fashion catalogue and fit right in. There are also a great pair of performances from Michael Shannon, as a rule-adjacent West Texas Detective that is exactly as perfect a fit for him as you would expect, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as a slimy redneck psychopath – and from whom another good performance has been LONG overdue. Mostly, though, I’m just disappointed by how empty I found the film to be. There may be substance here, but it’s all been scrubbed away by the relentless need for style, and I’m left wondering if there was actually any substance in the first place. If you want to make a nasty, gritty thriller, just make a nasty, gritty thriller. Own that; don’t detract from it by trying to be something you’re clearly not.
Having most definitely not spent the three hours between Nocturnal Animals and our next film watching a totally different film that I can’t talk about yet, my day eventually led me back into the realm of public screenings, which I’m now relying on for the rest of the festival. The Last Laugh (Grade: C+) was the first of three for the day and attempts to tackle the burning question that surrounds comedy ever more nowadays: should comedians make fun of tragic events? Specifically, The Last Laugh attempts to discuss that question in relation to The Holocaust, one of human history’s greatest atrocities and still a taboo subject to this day, for the most part, when it comes to humour and jokes. Is it OK to make light of The Holocaust? The Last Laugh comes at this from a variety of angles, particularly through questioning whether Comedy can help people work through trauma and eventually heal thanks to it, as depicted through a Holocaust survivor who likes cracking really dark jokes about her experience.
All of the usual arguments in this debate are brought up and examined. Whether jokes about taboo subjects re-enforce negative stereotypes even if they’re being done with kind intentions, as illustrated by Jack Benny’s “your money or your life” skit re-enforcing the stereotype of the cheap Jew. How much time needs to pass before such material becomes acceptable fodder. Whether only certain groups of people are allowed to make certain jokes. How different people can find certain jokes and portrayals to be wildly different in terms of respectfulness or offensiveness based on their subjective beliefs. Everybody’s personal “line” and whether they’re capable of finding comedy in situations that other comedians can. And, of course, the old standby of “if you’re gonna go there, the joke had better be a riot.” Each is backed up by relevant clips and analysis, and the result is a very comprehensive look at this more-relevant-than-ever issue.
Where it all falls down is in two key areas, the first being the film’s half-assed attempt at trying to remain objective and not pick a side. Despite attempting to remain neutral, by sheer force of number on the part of the comedians and the way the footage is edited and ordered, the film can’t help but come down on the side of those wanting to preserve their rights to make taboo gags. I’m not knocking the film for coming down on their side, hell I mostly agree, but I am knocking it for clearly wanting to remain objective but doing such a terrible job at trying to be so. For two: in a documentary about offensive comedy, 90% of the contributors to the talking-heads are men, and all of them are White, so unchallenged issues of privilege come into play as a result. To be fair, the film is explicitly primarily in relation to The Holocaust rather than offensive comedy at large, but given the social and cultural landscape that The Last Laugh has been released in, for it to be about taboo comedy and not feature a single person of colour and maybe just four women in your interview list feels incredibly out-of-step with the current world and recklessly irresponsible as a result.
The evening brought about the second of the films I had bought a ticket for prior to the festival, in the shape of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (Grade: B), which I guess you could say was one of my absolute most anticipated films of the festival. Set in New York, as many indie dramedies usually are, the film follows The Commune, a highly respected but struggling improv comedy troupe founded by the 37 year-old Miles (Birbiglia). Its current incarnation includes the slowly-embittering Miles, obvious breakout talent Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and his girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the aging Bill (Chris Gethard), aspiring graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), and the parent-reliant Lindsay (Tami Sagher). About twice a week, they perform a super-cheap sold-out improv show at Improv America, and the rest of the time they live together, work menial low-paying jobs to get by, and gather around every weekend to watch Weekend Live, an American comedy institution that likes to poach talent from The Commune at every opportunity.
The group begins to fracture once Weekend Live comes a-knocking once more, offering Jack and Sam audition spots, at the same time as their beloved Improv America is being shut down, Bill’s dad gets into a serious accident, and Miles becomes more and more bitter for being passed up by Weekend Live. After all, “why wouldn’t the show want to hire the guy who taught most of their recent hires everything they know?” he reasons. Don’t Think Twice pivots on this, on that heartbreaking moment where you realise that the artistic or creative lifestyle you desperately want may not be achievable after all. Do you try and keep up that optimism, putting forward strong writing packets and hoping that your big break is still just around the corner? Do you turn incredibly bitter towards your friends as they achieve the success that eludes you, especially if you think they don’t deserve it? Or do you deliberately screw up your opportunity out of that anxiety of change, of wanting to try and preserve your life as it is now despite all the tides fighting back and winning against you?
It’s a very bittersweet film, funny due to our cast of characters being semi-professional funny people, but mostly dramatic as the group very slowly and very painfully splinters apart. As a result, I honestly feel like this film was done a disservice by watching it with a sold-out crowd, who all seemed to think they were watching a straightforward comedy and laughed uproariously at any cutting remark regardless of how hurtful it was and loudly winced every time the drama got too heavy. I feel that my viewing experience didn’t allow me to fully appreciate the film, snobbish as that is to say, and drew more attention that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have paid to the film’s minor flaws. The ensemble is all well-performed and lived-in but certain characters get noticeably underserved by the script, and the blatant Saturday Night Live swipes are too self-conscious and loudly inside-baseball, seemingly born out of genuine sourness on the part of Birbiglia.
But Don’t Think Twice is worth watching purely on the back of an absolutely sensational Gillian Jacobs. Jacobs is a brilliant comic talent, as anybody who watched Community will be able to tell you, but she’s asked to carry the bulk of the film’s drama and pulls off that task masterfully. Sam began as a super-fan of The Commune before being asked to join, and their slow disintegration causes her to start self-destructing out of a desire to try and preserve this perfect little status-quo she currently has. To Sam, improv is not a stepping stone to Weekend Live or some alleged higher-form of comedy, improv is the best that things can get and that desire to remain locked in her comfort zone is quietly devastating to watch. Jacobs absolutely nails her work here, especially during a heartbreaking final improv scene, and her performance will touch the hearts of anybody who has tried in vain to keep their group of friends together or has committed intentional or unintentional self-sabotage in their creative careers for whatever reason.
Since press screenings wrapped up for good today, leading to there being no reason to get up super early the next morning, I chose to stay out on this Friday evening and catch a second evening movie for once, with my press-ticket-approved screening of The Man From Mo’Wax (Grade: B+). A warts-and-all documentary about James Lavelle, the founder of the highly-influential Mo’Wax Records label and co-head of the group UNKLE. And when I say “warts-and-all,” for once, I do mean warts-and-all. This is the kind of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption documentary that really does properly lay into its subject during its middle-stretch. I’m not talking about a documentary that goes “yeah, he could be an asshole during this period, but the man was a genius so it was all good,” I mean this is a film that unrepentantly looks at the man that James Lavelle was after Psyence Fiction dropped and goes, “no, this guy was an A-grade ASSHOLE and there was no excusing it.”
That’s actually really exhilarating to watch, and the film going so all-in on this period makes the two sections either side of it much stronger as a result. Lavelle starts off as a youthful visionary, a misfit drawn to hip-hop thanks to it sounding “otherworldy,” with the drive, ambition, and raw unvarnished skill that led to him dropping out of college and founding Mo’Wax at just 18 years of age. But that youthful nature quickly ends up enabling all of his worst impulses once he and the label become famous, leading to him burning professional and personal bridges through rampant assholery, letting his attention drift away from being a label boss, and trying misguidedly to become a musician and songwriter in his own right as the primary creative force of UNKLE, epitomised by the film’s reveal of just when exactly the vast majority of these “present day” interviews are taking place – a quietly brilliant reveal so masterfully done I was on the verge of standing up and applauding at the sleight-of-hand being pulled off.
Spending so much time on James driving himself further into a hole is what makes the epiphany of his behaviour and his eventual curation of 2014’s Meltdown Festival act as a genuine act of personal redemption. The film doesn’t pretend that it’s some kind of massive world-beating success that shows everyone just how wrong they were to write James Lavelle off, and it doesn’t pretend that this lets him off for how much of a massive dick he could be throughout the 2000s, and that’s what makes James’ minor redemption work gangbusters. It would have been so easy for director Matthew Jones and editor Alec Rossiter to betray all of the hard work of their film’s previous hour to give James an unambiguous happy ending, and their refusal to do so is what makes The Man From Mo’Wax a real find. Even viewers with no interest or prior knowledge of Mo’Wax, UNKLE, or even Trip-Hop can find something in this focussed and super entertaining documentary about a youthful visionary being undone by success and eventually beginning to turn themselves back around again.
Tomorrow: Things become far less set in stone as I start braving the Rush Queues in order to make up my schedule on the fly.
Callie Petch got this sinking feeling they sank with the tulip.