Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 10

Festival organisation cock-ups, Just Mercy, Bad Education (not that one), and Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.

At about 7:30pm on Wednesday 9th October, the 2019 BFI London Film Festival finally fell apart.  I’ve not exactly been hiding my feelings on the running of this year’s Festival in these posts across the past fortnight and frankly neither has pretty much anyone else I’ve talked to in-person down here, even again whilst we acknowledge the immense difficulty in putting something like this together that certainly none of us could do.  But Wednesday night was definitely where the curtain finally collapsed from its post to reveal that this year’s Festival had been held together with Pritt-Stick and child’s Batman plasters.  “Due to an external private event at VUE West End… there will be no access to the Mezzanine floor including the bar and toilet facilities on this level,” went the email.  Turns out that the BFI, in booking the VUE as the primary screening hub for Press & Industry folks at the Festival this year, had managed to clash with a one-day tech conference who had booked out the entire bottom two floors of screens and the upstairs bar and mezzanine for their thing presumably beforehand.  Queues for all screenings now took place downstairs and there was no official press area anywhere for us to sit in and work from.

In doing so, a sort of clarity washed over the various red flags which had popped up across the Festival until then.  These rumblings that the Picturehouse had refused to lease out their spaces for the Fest because the earlier dates meant that it clashed with pre-scheduled events, sending us to the ill-equipped VUE staff pulling well over 15 hour days to make it all work (as they informed me whilst chatting in-line today).  That bizarre scheduling decision with Greed and Knives Out on Wednesday.  The weird fact that P&I screenings severely decreased in the second week despite there being many heavy-hitters that were screened pre-Fest or intentionally clashed during the Fest not getting repeated (whilst others had multiple re-screenings on the same day).  The useless ticketing “not queue” queuing system.  This was a panic-organised Festival since most of the infrastructure which otherwise exists had been ripped out and so everyone is scrambling really, really badly to make it all work.

And then to add insult to injury, technical issues caused the lunchtime screening of Earthquake Bird (more on that tomorrow cos I’m still under embargo at time of writing) to be delayed by almost 40 minutes and the knock-on effect of cancelling the afternoon’s other P&I screenings, one of which (Incitement) had already been rescheduled as the Festival was getting under way, with no guarantee of setting up alternative screening dates for Incitement or Pablo Larraín’s big Gala picture Ema for those who missed the latter’s morning screening.  People were ready to riot throughout the entire day, and especially so once the cancellations came in since many now had an excess of free time with nowhere to spend it and just as many weren’t able to see any films that day, and the poor beleaguered volunteers who also didn’t really know what was going on were left holding the bag.  It’s all bush-league and it makes what is supposed to be Britain’s premiere film festival look like an amateur hour joke, as if everything else this country’s been doing recently hasn’t already been doing that.  Heaven help Leicester Square if any such calamity befalls The Irishman on Sunday.

Since the chaos of scheduling turned this into something of a break day with only one major film which, again, I’m under embargo for, let’s largely mop up some write-ups I’ve been putting off in an effort to temper the fact that my film intake slows to a crawl in the next three days.  First up, Just Mercy (Grade: B), the newest feature by Short Term 12 and newly-minted Marvel director Destin Daniel Cretton.  His 2013 debut feature caused an absolute storm when it dropped, announcing the writer-director as a major new voice in sensitively-handled social dramas and beginning Brie Larson’s deserved ascent to one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.  But in the years since, he’s struggled to maintain that momentum.  2017’s The Glass Castle was an immediately forgettable droopy glurge of a movie and Just Mercy sees him continue to sand down many of his edges in order to fit within the rigid confines of Oscar Bait, although Mercy is thankfully less gloopy than Castle was.

A biopic depicting pioneering activist attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) setting up his Equal Justice Initiative, designed to lobby for the rights and protections of Death Row inmates, in Monroe County, Alabama, we focus most specifically on Stevenson’s efforts to aid Walter McMillain (Jamie Foxx), who has been wrongfully imprisoned on Death Row for years for the alleged murder of a teenaged girl despite there being absolutely no substantial evidence to support such a narrative.  Instead, he seems very much to have been picked because the case hadn’t yet been solved and everybody needed a scapegoat; who better than the Black man who’d been caught cheating on his wife a year prior to the murder with a White woman?  Many of the residents of Monroe treat racism and racial equality as a thing that’s been and done, several people even direct Stevenson to visit the Harper Lee Museum as if the town’s enshrinement in a key piece of civil rights media absolves them of all sins past and present.  But they’ll happily revert back to the old field master ways of bullying and intimidation if it provides them a quick-fix solution to a more uncomfortable problem or if anyone starts rocking the boat, particularly out-of-towners.

In that respect, whilst the film does have many instances of open racism and the case against McMillian reeks of conscious racism, Just Mercy is more focussed on how general negligence can lead to unconscious racism.  From defence attorneys actively harming their clients’ cases, to police chiefs pressurising the most vulnerable into helping them construct easy narratives to fuck others over, to District Attorneys who are more focussed on winning rather than ensuring true justice, to judges slapping excessive punishments on suspects with a darker skin through such racially-coded justifications as “you look like you could’ve done it,” and of how the death penalty disproportionately targets minorities and completely dehumanises and degrades them at all turns.  The film is obviously a period piece, but even with a self-consciously hokey uplifting finale in which Stevenson narrates the moral of the film at a congressional hearing, the subtext of that unconscious racism allows the film to carry this slightly bitter aftertaste which prevents the movie from falling into the old “AND THEN RACISM WAS SOLVED FOREVER” trap.

Cretton and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham do, however, stick slavishly to formula.  There’s not a beat here that you won’t be able to time to the second and, as mentioned, it frequently threatens to run up against full-blown overly sentimental hokeyness.  But although it’s formulaic, Just Mercy is not ineffective.  In fact, the movie is ruthlessly efficient at extracting tears from one’s ducts on a frequent basis, most notably during an alternately powerful and chilling midpoint sequence where one of Stevenson’s clients is sent to the electric chair.  Even though their rougher edges have largely been removed over time, Cretton’s characters still have an eye for the detail which makes them come more alive than they may otherwise have seemed in the abstract, such as the bit players who populate Stevenson’s meetings with the rallying Black community or the stroke that’s left Tim Blake Nelson’s Ralph Meyers twitchy and difficult to communicate with.  He also directs much of the film with a procedural snap focussed heavily on the case, which keeps the film moving even as it results in the underserving and dropping of certain characters and events, most especially Brie Larson’s Ava Ansley and the threats against her and her family for working with Stevenson.

It’s also a strongly-acted movie across the board.  Jordan brings stoic resolve and a dogged pursuit of justice to Stevenson, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. continues his surprisingly quality acting career so far with a colourful turn as McMillian’s neighbour on Death Row, Anthony Ray Hinton.  But the standout is Jamie Foxx who hasn’t been this good since Django Unchained and maybe even ever.  He actually underplays the vast majority of the role, which is what allows his bursts of emotion to hit like straight rights to the gut, and the evolution of McMillian from cynical despair to something approaching genuine hope is a thing of beauty with his subtle facial performance during a key witness testimony surely making him a shoe-in for a deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination come Awards Season.  So, Just Mercy is Oscar Bait, but it’s extremely well made and genuinely moving Oscar Bait, a reminder that the descriptor doesn’t have to automatically mean a pejorative.

Flashing back even earlier, I entered my fortnight down here disappointed that I was likely to miss out on Cory Finley’s second feature.  Two years ago, I caught his debut Thoroughbreds here, having entered knowing pretty much nothing about the film, and was absolutely blown away by the immediately evident talent on display.  It was one of my favourite films of the Festival that year and, upon its release into general theatres in 2018, became my eighth favourite for all of the year, so I was extremely excited to see his new HBO-acquired film when it was added to the Festival line-up… only for it to screen pre-Festival, weeks before I could make it down, and have all of my public screening ballot requests shot down.  Prospects seemed dim, I resigned myself to missing out.  Except that after Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a few people I was chatting to mentioned that there was a screening in 30 mins which hadn’t sold out, whereupon I immediately jumped into the rush queue and scored myself a ticket to Bad Education (Grade: B+) at long last.

Finley’s newest is less deliriously off-beat and inscrutable than its predecessor, but is still very much preoccupied with sociopathic upper-middle class types in the New York area who hide behind the wealth and flimsy moral arguments when called out on their shit, believing that they are the heroes being done wrong.  Only this time, there’s no murder and the story being told is true.  In fact, it actually happened to screenwriter Mike Makowsky who was a student at Roslyn High School in Long Island when the scandal broke.  In 2002, the student newspaper of the #4 school in the county uncovered and published evidence that the private school’s faculty – including the absolute tops of the totem pole, District Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman capping off his unofficial trilogy of “sociopathic charlatan conmen who believe they’re the unimpeachable hero of their own stories” with easily his best turn in that niche) and his right-hand woman Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney drawing out that Long Island drawl for every last comic drop it’s got) – had been embezzling millions of dollars in school funds donated by the parents over multiple decades for their own financial and social standings.

The parallels to current-events and recent socio-political scandals should likely be obvious, but Finley and Makowsky don’t ever come close to overplaying their hand in that department.  In fact, they’re both resolutely focussed on telling this specific story, investing far more attention on character work and flawlessly replicating the period both aesthetically and in movie feel, trusting that anyone watching already knows that this kind of criminality not only has more modern descendants but is actively encouraged by the uniquely American form of capitalism.  Our main viewpoint into Roslyn High comes from Dr. Tassone, although Blockers standout Geraldine Viswanathan as a composite stand-in for the school paper’s team of reporters acts as our surrogate, which enables Makowsky to structure the film as a gradually-tightening noose narrative.  Stripping away the public face of Tassone – on the surface a model Superintendent, the kind who goes the extra mile to memorise every last face, name and at least one fact about someone, who carves out special time to aid less-able students, and puts everything into making his school the best it could possibly be – to reveal the self-absorbed hypocrite underneath and how all of his qualities and charm can switch in an instant to something much darker.

But one also gets the sense that Makowsky still harbours an affection for the man who shaped much of his education, even if said affection stems from such a bitter betrayal of trust.  A lot of other screenwriters may have penned Tassone as a straightforward villainous sociopath, but Makowsky digs into the inherent contradictions in the man, his moments of weakness and vulnerability that make him more human and resultantly allow Jackman an opportunity to really sink his teeth into the role.  Finley, for his part, teases out the inherent dark comedy in the story, gaining so many laughs from the off-kilter rhythm of his and Louise Ford’s editing and the delivery of the dialogue, plus the offbeat manner in which he stages certain scenes – a key example being found in the montage where Pam’s doofus son leaves the paper trail that sets about their downfall – all without diminishing the serious and selfish breach of trust at the tale’s centre.  One last title card carries the perfect balance of humorous detail and disgusting indictment of the entire rotten system which fostered such behaviour to put a bow on the whole thing.

It’s less unpredictable than Thoroughbreds and could probably have done with some tightening up in the epilogue, seeming to end roughly three different times before it finally cuts to those aforementioned title cards, but Bad Education puts Finley at 2 for 2 so far in his career.  This man is a real talent, whilst Makowsky displays a fire and vigour not seen before in his previous screenplays, and whilst I am gutted that its being sent straight-to-Sky in the UK thanks to their HBO deal, I must say it’s pleasing that I’ll finally see a movie with the “A Sky Cinema Original” tag and not have it be utter dogshit.  I hope to see Finley back here again in another two years to, with any luck, go 3 for 3.

As for one of the movies I did actually see today, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Grade: C) is a BBC Four music documentary.  That’s both a description and a criticism; Birth of the Cool comes to us in part as a co-production between BBC Music and PBS’ American Masters imprint, and also would be far more at home being watched as part of those television stations’ programming line-up rather than as a movie commercially-released on its own right.  Director Stanley Nelson dryly and chronologically retells the story of the jazz pioneer’s life, from his early childhood, to his time juggling studies at Julliard with nights at the frenetic 52nd Street jazz clubs, to his breakthrough Kind of Blue record, growing social awareness, multiple crippling drug dependencies, the infrequent abuse of his various wives, Bitches Brew, his death by stroke in 1991, and absolutely everything in between with interviews from historians, relatives and associates, a smorgasbord of archival footage, plus narration provided by Davis’s “own words,” vocalised in-film by Carl Lumbly doing an impression of his distinctive gravelly rasp.

The picture painted is one which is often valorising, heavily fixated on the music at the expense of his non-drug-related scandals – my friend Kelechi noted that the voices of women connected to Davis are frequently marginalised throughout the documentary, even if they were highly important to him, and that includes tossing-off Davis’s physical abuse in one brief segment before moving on.  It may be extremely exhaustive in its coverage and very accessible for this relative neophyte to both Davis and jazz in general, but it still doesn’t say all that much beyond “Miles Davis was a musical genius and also somewhat troubled but have you heard that music?!”  And Nelson’s editing choices – handled by Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia and Natasha Mottola – are disappointingly boilerplate and lifeless for such a restless and daring musician, saving his most interesting editing instead for rapid-fire free-association cuts on the rare date title card to set the scene.  Admittedly, if I stumbled upon Birth of the Cool on BBC Four one night, I’d probably rate it something closer to a B- since it goes down easy and made me want to pick up some Miles Davis records.  But as its own standalone thing at one of the world’s biggest film festivals?  No, this doesn’t cut the mustard.  I expect more.

Tomorrow: Alicia Vikander and a Susanna Jones novel get lost in translation in Earthquake Bird, and Mia Wasikowska helps re-envision the old Punch & Judy puppet show in Judy & Punch.

Callie Petch don’t leave them all by themselves.

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