Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 8

Bad Reputation, The Front Runner, Dogman, and Destroyer.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

Given the fact that I am fairly certain I used up the rest of my fortnight’s stockpile of superlatives in one day yesterday, you would be forgiven for thinking that I delayed my coverage of Bad Reputation (Grade: C-) in order to not bring down the rest of the day rather than because it got late and I needed to catch Sunday tubes to make it to The Front Runner.  But, yes, unfortunately Kevin Kerslake’s documentary about the life and times of trailblazing rock star Joan Jett is a complete misfire.  Kerslake and Joel Marcus (the latter of whom wrote and edited the film) have put together a rock-doc that’s utterly petrified of displaying even a single blemish on its subject’s face, ironically so concerned with avoiding giving Joan a bad reputation that the result is barely more illuminating than a cursory Wiki scroll.

Admittedly, part of the problem may be that I have been interested in Joan Jett from my teenage years, this bewitching punk figure gladly gate-crashing the testosterone-stenched Boy’s Club of rock and roll with a shredding guitar and as pure a couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude as one could have.  So, I already knew all the hits that this crowdpleasing – and it is crowdpleasing, it went over a treat with the audience of my public screening (which I am not ashamed to admit I chose as my screening method in the vain hope that Joan herself would make a Q&A appearance) – stub-article played faithfully in-time.  Joan’s first guitar, her run-ins with skeevy industry powerhouse Kim Fowley, the formation and disintegration of all-female rock band The Runaways, Jett’s solo career being rejected by 21 labels before they tried self-releasing, her vital co-signs to Riot Grrrl icon (and my personal hero) Kathleen Hanna, her status as an influential feminist and punk icon.

There isn’t an inherent problem with touching on these things, of course; not everyone is going to be me, coming to the film mentally carrying the biographies of The Runaways and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts in the back of their minds.  But what is a problem is how Bad Reputation ends up light on substance and details.  No stories behind the music, lip-service only paid to Joan’s upbringing, glossing over the unstable career trajectory she’s had over the years.  Neither the interviewees nor Joan herself (weirdly) have much insight into events or any new stories to tell, instead reverting to generic soundbites about how Joan could shred or how “if you told [her, she] couldn’t do something, then [she’s] gonna do it.”  The allegations by Lita Ford about Kim Fowley’s rape of her (and potential complicity of Jett and Runaways’ singer Cherrie Currie), discussions about Joan’s reticence to play in girl bands after The Runaways, and any deeper discussion about the often-deplorable Fowley (a Joss Whedon-style feminist if there ever was one) beyond his being a rebel who ripped Jett off are all conspicuous by their absence.

Again, none of that is an inherently bad thing, but combined with Bad Reputation‘s fast-moving surface-level approach to covering its subject’s history, it means the film runs out of steam by the hour mark and eventually resorts to just listing things that Joan’s done since the 80s for the last half-hour.  It pains me to compare the two, mainly because it goes against the ethos of the latter film and is what male critics like myself do with works by/about women all the time, but Bad Reputation especially suffers if one has seen Kathleen Hanna’s documentary, The Punk Singer.  It too was borderline hagiographic, but it did so as a counteractive for Hanna’s reputation, a cult figure vilified through her life by the establishment whose contributions to feminist culture were largely unsung.  And when The Punk Singer was finished stating Hanna’s bonafides, it shifted to her personal struggles with Lyme Disease for the last half hour.  Bad Reputation never makes that kind of switch, so Joan ends up worshipped blandly as an icon for 95 minutes but still remains unknown as a person when the credits roll.  She deserves better.

There was a time where I would have followed the directorial works of Jason Reitman to the ends of the earth.  Son of the famous Ivan Reitman, Jason carved out his own voice and path through the American independent film industry in the late 2000s and early 2010s with a string of fantastic dramedies that brilliantly examined the human condition and steered through difficult subject matter with aplomb.  Thank You for Smoking (his debut), Juno (his breakthrough), Up in the Air (the 2010 Awards Season bridesmaid that appeared to solidify his position), Young Adult (his re-team with Juno scribe Diablo Cody).  All these films are still at-least great to this day… but then 2014 happened.  In 2014, Reitman released a pair of films – the schmaltzy Stockholm Syndrome weepy Labor Day, and the moronic tech-hysteria ensemble drama Men, Women & Children – which were so godawful that dropping them back-to-back at opposite ends of the year felt tantamount to career suicide.  These movies weren’t just regular bad, they were bad enough to make one wonder if Jason Reitman hadn’t just been the recipient of an extreme amount of luck with his prior films that had now run dry.

Reitman wisely disappeared for a few years following those bombs and has tried for a do-over with 2018, also releasing a pair of films at opposite ends of the year.  His first, Tully which reunited the Young Adult dream-team of himself, Cody, and star Charlize Theron, was by all accounts excellent (it skipped my cinema and I haven’t had the chance to catch up yet).  His second, The Front Runner (Grade: C) is decidedly not.  Fortunately for those of us still holding out hope for Reitman, it’s not aggressively terrible or bereft of good stuff.  But in telling the story of how Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) went from the unassailable front-runner likely guaranteed the White House in the 1988 election to a laughing stock pariah because he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, Reitman and his fellow screenwriters (Jay Carson and Matt Bai whose book the movie is based on) can’t decide on a tone, a target, or a focussed point, instead huffing and puffing in every direction in a way that leaves The Front Runner confused and weirdly out-of-step with the current socio-political landscape.

Fittingly given its subject, the movie starts well enough after the aborted prologue. The opening week of Hart’s candidacy has a very Aaron Sorkin-esque snap to proceedings.  All sharp-talking rhythmic exchanges focussed on the nuts-and-bolts interplay between politicians, the starry-eyed volunteers who put their lives on hold to help run the campaign, the ruthless campaign strategists trying to keep proceedings on-rails, and the journalists who need to balance cosying up to their subjects for access with their obligation to hold them accountable for their actions.  Hart, meanwhile, is shown to be a gifted orator and progressive liberal thinker – the kind that emphatically refutes the notion that the United States had anything to do with the collapse of the USSR, and proposes to reverse the damaging public-school funding cuts the Reagan administration made – that can inspire young voters effortlessly.  But his resolute focus on the issues and staunch avoidance of topics pertaining to his personal life slowly reveals an entitled man who wants to be able to have it both ways.  To promote progressive caring policies and ask Americans to hold themselves and their elected officials to higher standards… just so long as he is still able to do what, or rather who, he wants.  And Jackman is fantastic in the role, pulling off a better P.T. Barnum here than The Greatest Showman allowed him to do.

But as the campaign falls apart, dogged by the sex scandal that would not only bring down Hart’s campaign totally but also normalise the tabloid gossip manner of treating such scandals when reporting on politics in both the US and UK going forward, so too does Reitman’s film.  He, Carson and Bai know that they want to impart a message and spread some justified anger, but they just don’t seem to know where to aim their frustrations.  Are they angriest at Gary Hart, the great white hope against George Bush who selfishly violated the faith and trust of his supporters and those who stood to benefit the most from his policies by embarrassing himself irreparably and refusing to own up to his actions?  Are they angriest at the media for pouncing on the story, depicting the Washington Post and the Miami Herald as overly-cozy Boy’s Clubs willing to turn a blind eye until vultures want to opportunistically scratch a few more column inches for their careers or a candidate they’ve baselessly decided they don’t like comes along?  How they turned elections into, as Gary puts it in his closing speech, “athletic contests rather than political debates?”

Are they angriest at the women who entrapped Gary into making decisions his dick couldn’t ignore? That’s an especially troubling avenue to take but, since the film introduces Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) with her face intentionally hidden like a mythical temptress until a few scenes later when she calls up the Miami Herald looking for cash in exchange for her story, it’s one that The Front Runner goes for anyway.  But it also wants to call out these entrenched systems of power abuse by giving Donna a few monologues to explain herself and then make A Very Serious Point about the abuse that women who come forward with allegations of sexual impropriety (and much worse) receive from the media and others.  But also also maybe the whole thing was a conspiracy by the Bush campaign to honeytrap Hart and absolutely everyone was a fool for playing into their hands, as the bewildering last scene posits?

Reitman’s film is so desperate to say something worthwhile and make a timely point that it thrashes wildly in every direction and ends up saying nothing.  I’m not denying that the Gary Hart scandal and its aftermath were more complicated than “maybe Gary should not have had random sex whilst on the campaign trail,” but the way that The Front Runner goes about trying to unpack the controversy ends up (perhaps inadvertently) letting Hart off the hook way too much and blasting all members of the press, even those who expose such things for the greater good of the public knowledge, as disingenuous leeches.  Given that The Front Runner arrives in the eras of #MeToo and #FakeNews, and weeks after the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh (and his response to said) failed to stop him from ascending to the highest court position in North America, plus that little Trump-shaped devil lurking in the backs of all our minds when watching films like this… that makes Reitman’s film troublingly reactionary in all the wrong ways.  And it’s not even presented all that well, with underwritten female characters (Vera Farmiga is especially wasted as Hart’s beleaguered wife), simplistic points of view, and an eventual dissipation of energy.

The Front Runner is not terrible, not in the way that past Reitman misfires have been indefensibly terrible.  But it does bring that attempted comeback to a screeching halt.  Why watch this when Weiner still exists and is still brilliant, after all?

Also falling on the disappointment end of the spectrum, although not as majorly, was Karyn Kusama’s noir Destroyer (Grade: B-).  When I say noir, I mean bad cops, worse criminals, a case gone horribly wrong, and the desperate but ultimately futile search for redemption, encased in a crushing atmosphere of borderline despair.  A near-unrecognisable Nicole Kidman plays LAPD Detective Erin Bell who, as a rookie seventeen years earlier, was placed undercover as part of an FBI sting operation on a Californian gang that eventually ended with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan) whom she developed genuine romantic feelings for, dead, all of the gang members getting away with several million dollars, and her left standing to deal with the trauma.  Which she hasn’t been doing, at all.  A barely-functioning alcoholic, she’s spent a lifetime alienating everyone around her, including her 16-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), stewing in a pot of rage and, from what we hear from other characters, being a pretty terrible cop.  But then, out of the blue, the gang’s leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), shows back up in town and his mere presence sets Erin off on a single-minded pursuit of vengeance.

Another part of old-fashioned noirs that Destroyer borrows from is its insistence on taking its time.  Destroyer is not a hurry to get anywhere, parcelling out its backstory in drips and drabs, requiring both its protagonist and the viewer to take the back roads in order to reach the destination.  There are lengthy detours devoted to the hazing of one of the group’s more emotionally vulnerable members (Zach Villa) when Erin was undercover, Bradley Whitford continues his recent career shift into playing slimy bad guys for a spell, and there are more scenes of Nicole Kidman stumbling around in a drunken stupor than than you can shake a stick out.  And since the film is almost exactly two entire hours long, it can really start to drag at many a point.  Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi take all this time to tell a very simple story but don’t actually have enough substantive content to earn that runtime.  Destroyer is not a film lacking for characters, but none of them save for Erin are all that developed aside from what presence their actor or actress could bring to the role, mostly content to hit the easy sleazeball notes in various different permutations – the tone is set pretty early on when Erin is forced to give a handjob to a lead in order to find out where one of Silas’ former associates is located.

That’s a major problem since the emotional crux of the film and Erin’s character is dependent on her former relationships with Chris and Silas, neither of which receive as much screen time or depth as they really should’ve.  It’s ponderous in a way that it never manages to earn.  Too much of the screenplay feels like the male writers went “find + replace” on a boilerplate antihero cop script, the kind that still clog up Prestige TV schedules even today, for any male pronouns with female pronouns.  I’m reminded way too much of the “Featuring a Strong Female Lead” sketch from The Break with Michelle Wolf and the “Gritty BAFTA” sketch from The Kevin Bishop Show the more that I think about Destroyer sans its two aces in the hole.  But, man, what aces in the hole.  The first is the fact that the eternally underrated Karyn Kusama is behind the camera, riding high off of 2015’s gripping The Invitation and applying that same crushing sense of atmosphere and menace to Destroyer.  A bank heist gone sideways real bad and subsequent foot chase at the halfway mark are absolutely thrilling, and she makes every single burst of violence wince-inducing and visceral.  Her cinematographer Julie Kirkwood is also an invaluable asset, too, dredging up an LA that really does seem to just suck one’s soul right out of their body the longer one remains immersed in it.

As for ace #2?  That would be Nicole Kidman and you have no idea just how happy I am to FINALLY see her be good again in a good movie!  In fact, not just good, sensational.  In the present-day scenes, especially, Kidman is borderline unrecognisable, an emaciated, pale ghost of a human being, a glance at whom can instantly tell you that this is somebody who has been hurting deep down for decades and refused to take the steps required to fix that.  When she stares at people in anger, which happens a lot, the potency of those stares could melt steel beams, they broadcast hate-waves directly to the very core of one’s soul.  When she flies off the handle and violently attacks people, which happens a lot, she’s genuinely scary not because she’s capable – as is befitting a gritty noir flick, this is not a movie where anonymous asshats on YouTube comments are going to complain about a frail woman unrealistically beating the shit out of men twice her size because of a secret feminist agenda on the part of the filmmakers – but because they are the desperate lashings of a woman who has given up on herself so completely that it’s like she wants somebody to murder her.  If there was a soul in Erin, it’s long gone, and that’s what makes Kidman’s dramatic turn (both physically and emotionally) work so well: it’s not soulless, but there’s absence of the soul where even she doesn’t know how to make it come back.

I think Destroyer is a film that I more appreciate than fully like, primarily down to those aforementioned pacing issues and a screenplay that isn’t nearly as deep or developed as it likes to think it is.  But Kidman is utterly spectacular in the central role, the kind of tour-de-force performance that transcends its rather naked attempts to bag her an Oscar by still being an actual performance if you strip away the physical transformation, and Kusama continues to restate her directorial abilities after her unjust exile from the American film landscape.  Maybe bump that grade up another notch if you’re less cantankerous and running on fumes than I am when you get the chance to watch the film.

Still, my Sunday wasn’t all disappointments and mediocrity.  I got the chance to see Matteo Garrone’s Dogman (Grade: B+) and, despite it being midday and my operating on barely six hours of sleep – which has been a troublesome recipe for my attempts to stay engaged with certain films through no fault of their own across the Festival, believe me – I was utterly gripped from start to finish.  Garrone’s latest is an intense and frequently painful-to-watch abuse drama centred around one of the year’s best performances by Marcello Fonte.  He plays Marcello, a dog groomer and occasional vet who lives a largely peaceful and content life in a poor and sparsely-populated Italian town.  He’s known and well-liked by all the other business owners, a doting father to his young daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria) whom he shares custody over, and feels a kind of kinship with dogs both in his care and in general.  In a way, Marcello is rather like a small dog: affable, sweet-faced, and craving everyone’s love and respect whilst trying to stay away from any trouble that may disturb that order.

Unfortunately, trouble finds Marcello in the shape of local thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce).  In order to earn some extra money, since Dogman (his shop) sees enough business to get by but not much more, Marcello also deals small-time amounts of cocaine and Simone is a reckless addict to the stuff.  He’s forceful, imposing, extremely ill-tempered, vindictive and, when he becomes so much of a thorn in everyone’s side that the rest of the business owners – who effectively operate like a closed-off mafia group – decide to try a permanent solution to the problem, surprisingly difficult to kill.  He is, to simplify, a bully.  Someone who uses his size and strength to pick on and break those obviously weaker than him for the powerful thrill it gives him before discarding his victims from his mind entirely once their use has dried up.  So, naturally, Simone gloms on to Marcello, his one source of cocaine since he’s in to the town’s other dealers for large sums of cash he has no intention of paying back, and proceeds to take full advantage of Marcello’s goodness and timid nature.

Dogman is a simple film, one that rides its thematic hook – what do you think happens when a mad dog backs a little dog into a corner and won’t stop poking – for all that it’s worth.  But where I docked a film like Styx points for being too one-note and unsubtle in its thematic work, Dogman turns that simplicity into an asset of focus and surprising depth.  Fonte is a big, big reason for that, of course.  He’s just so earnest and well-intentioned, so inherently likeable and sweet, so charming with eyes that can express exuberance and intimate that he’s been through some stuff in the time before the film starts (Simone has been imposing on Marcello for a while).  I could feel the rest of my audience’s collective hearts sink when it’s revealed that he deals coke because we knew that it’s antithetical to a man with the personality of Marcello and wanted him to break free from that cycle.  That’s crucial because it informs the tension of the film when things turn especially grim and sour later on, of wanting to see Marcello fight back and assert himself but knowing that he just can’t do so and what the consequences would be if he tried.

Garrone divides the film pretty neatly into two distinct halves, building up to an act (although it’s more accurate to describe it as an inaction) whose consequences ripple throughout the entire close-knit community, and he brings that intensity to the boil with true care and precision.  Through his direction, the screenplay (credited to four writers including Garrone himself), and the performances of Fonte and Pesce (not meaning to discredit the latter’s contribution), events gradually but naturally reach a point of no return and resultant reckoning that nonetheless lacks any true catharsis.  The scars of abuse don’t simply fade away, nor do the large-scale consequences on the abused’s life.  In fact, it can leave one alone with nobody else around to comfort or explain themselves to, as in the devastating pair of final shots – something this year’s Festival has been providing an abundance of to date.  Even if the actual confrontation can take things a touch too far in both staging and thematic tying-together, kind of like Xavier Legrand’s Custody did (which I saw at last year’s Festival), it doesn’t detract from Dogman as a whole, not when the rest of the film is this assured and perfectly-pitched.

Also, because I know some of you will ask, there are plenty of Good Boys and Good Girls in this too.  Doesn’t exactly counteract the emotional wringer of the film, though.

Tomorrow: Timur Bekmambetov takes his own shot at the ScreenLife genre he’s shepherding with journalist thriller Profile, Southend’s battle-rap scene gets the cinematic treatment in VS., and we check in with competition entries Holiday and The Day I Lost My Shadow.

Callie Petch thinks they’ll walk outside and buy a rainbow smile.

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