Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 11

Earthquake Bird, Judy & Punch, and Pink Wall.

Wind the clock back to Thursday lunchtime, once again.  After the day’s first screenings, a whole mess of journalists and Industry folks formed another one of the now-standard chaotic not-lines in hopes of getting into the second embargoed screening for Wash Westmoreland’s new Netflix movie.  I was mentally weighing up whether or not I could be arsed with having to make a ten-minute dash to Embankment as soon as the screening finished to pick up the approved public screening ticket I had for The Dude in Me, or whether I would blow it off to watch the afternoon re-screening of Pablo Larraín’s Ema which would not require lots of sprinting that my calves and ankles despise me for.  Turned out that this decision would be made for me as technical issues in the screen delayed the start of the Netflix movie by over thirty-minutes and, as a knock-on event of that plus the previously-discussed fact that most of the VUE had been leased for one-day to a clashing prior engagement, the third block of press screenings were cancelled outright.

One may infer from this series of events and foiled plans that my opinion on Earthquake Bird (Grade: D+) is so sour thanks to it not being a film worthy of such outside calamities making it the only really major film I saw all-day.  Not so.  Earthquake Bird presents many reasons all of its own for one to be so sour, chief amongst them being that this adaptation of Susanna Jones’s 2001 debut novel is a miserably self-serious slog.  Alicia Vikander – who, fucking hell, cannot have somebody resuscitate her dying career fast enough, please – plays Lucy Fry, a Swedish ex-pat to Japan working as a translator.  Her simple, reserved, quiet life supposedly haunted by the spectre of death gets thrown into disarray by the arrival of two very different people.  The first is Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), an extremely handsome yet mysterious photographer for whom Lucy develops a somewhat reciprocated infatuation.  The second is boisterous free-spirited American Lily (Riley Keough) who has recently moved to Japan and starts ingratiating herself into Lily’s life.  All three have secrets they’re not telling each other, really extremely obvious secrets you will have guessed within the first 20 minutes because you have probably seen literally any erotic drama before, and over the course of an excruciating near-two hours those extremely obvious answers will very slowly make themselves known.

The biggest problem with Earthquake Bird seems like it’s less of a critique based in observable fact and more like I’m marking the film down for personal preference, but many of the film’s flaws would have been mitigated had this pulsating tumour that looks like a personal issue been addressed.  It needed to be way trashier.  As in: literally any degree of trashy.  Bird’s plot slides easily into the lineage of steamy guilty trash in films like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, a tale of sexual desire and deception, of bodies and parts rather than minds and wholes, of paranoia and evasion rather than trust and honesty.  Yet both Westmoreland’s screenplay and direction are absolutely petrified of breaking their extremely detached, sparse, emotionally reserved default states, refusing to escalate proceedings at all from their initial meditative and unspecifically moody tone.

The results are far less intriguing, an uneasy sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop – not helped by the curious decision to structure the film around Lucy being interrogated by the police over Lily’s disappearance, a structural choice which barely comes up after it’s been introduced and adds nothing to the narrative besides a truly stupid fakeout near the end – and way more “WHEN ARE THEY GONNA GET TO THE FIREWORKS FACTORY?!”  Which would be fine if there were substance to all of this measured stasis.  But despite all three of our leads giving various slightly off performances, the trio are all super-vapid bores to spend any extended length of time in the company of with exactly one twist each which are guessable within minutes despite the age for which their reveals are dragged out, and Westmoreland doesn’t meaningfully explore his themes much at all.  Even the period early-90s Japan setting doesn’t add anything to the story, merely the same “foreigner trying to escape baggage but feels even more isolated in foreign land” fetishistic short-hand that was better executed in Lost in Translation.

At least it all looks extremely nice.  Sure, not a whole lot happens in those aesthetically gorgeous shots, but the film has a stunning visual style with moody shadows, deep blues and fantastic landscape and landmark shots, all of which is what you get when you shell out for Chung Chung-hoon as your cinematographer.  Of course, in doing so, Earthquake Bird largely ends up just reminding me of Chung-hoon’s collaborations with Park Chan-wook, a director and writer who may have leaned into the sexual lust and seedier uncurrent of the story he’s working from rather than being strangely sexless and too fixated on the surface-level to attempt any dive into its guts.  Westmoreland’s take seems paralysed by the idea of taking this material anything less than deadly serious but also doesn’t particularly want to put in the work required to earn that self-seriousness.  Instead, it’s content to settle for being a prime “Alt-Tab” movie like Bright, except that Bright at least had shiny objects and loud noises that might remind prospective viewers of there being something to alt-tab back to.

Earthquake Bird was an extremely boring movie, granted, but it was also an active disappointment of a thing for how badly it was wasting proven talents on such a nothing of a project, refusing to go full-bore into the trashy fun that coursed through its DNA.  Similarly, Judy & Punch (Grade: B-) ultimately ends up disappointing by refusing to go full-bore during its climax in a manner which crystallises a few red flags leading up to then, but that’s mainly because the film bolts so thoroughly out of the gates in a true “where the FUCK did this come from?!” manner that its eventual sputtering out hurts all the more.  Still, there’s a lot here to enjoy about actress Mirrah Foulkes’ debut turn as writer-director even as it limps to the finish line.  A gender revision and slightly-meta updating of the old misogynistic Punch & Judy puppet show in which Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) are a husband-and-wife travelling puppetry show who, having fallen on hard times due to Punch’s predilection for the booze, return to Judy’s hometown of Seaside (not actually by the sea) with their infant son to rebuild their collapsing marriage and highly-popular show – which, yes, is the plot of Punch & Judy and, yes, whose events start to bleed over into their world.

Within this metatextual telling, Foulkes places the blatant misogyny of the puppet show on full display.  In the parallels it has with Punch and Judy’s actual relationship, with Judy as the true talent holding everything together whilst Punch is the drunken egotistical and quick-to-enrage fuckup who attempts to dodge responsibility at every turn.  In how works of art such as the old puppet show enable male artists who probably wouldn’t consider themselves misogynists to indulge and exacerbate their behaviour under the bullshit excuses of artistry and giving the people what they want – Punch tersely rebuffs Judy’s concerns that their last performance went particularly overboard on the violence by stating, “they wanted to see it smashy and punchy, so I gave them something smashy and punchy.”  And in how said works of art reflect larger societal systems of hatred and oppression, with the town of Seaside being rotten to the core with persecuted hatred towards women, regular stonings and hangings under accusations of witchcraft, and a general mob rule that the efforts of the newly-installed constable (Benedict Hardie) are ill-equipped to stave off.

Despite calling constant attention to the hateful undercurrents of the tale, Foulkes has still crafted a delicious darkly fun film, capable of playing into the extremely dark comedy of the original text at times rather than merely raking it over the coals.  The film looks utterly stunning, with a real 1600s gothic vibe aided by Josephine Ford’s production design and Stefan Duscio’s sumptuous cinematography that’s grimy and grim in all the best ways, not to mention the score by François Tétaz which is also befittingly excellent, balancing a playful swing with an ominous reminder that a reckoning is coming.  Damon Herriman, meanwhile, makes for a brilliantly loathsome Punch, oscillating between varying shades of pathetic and repulsive which sees the character constantly sink to new lows whilst not becoming such a horror to be around that the film devolves into a drag.

That last part is important, however, because it also underscores where Judy & Punch ultimately trips up and, unlike Judy herself, fails to stick the landing.  Punch ends up dominating the vast majority of the film, not just in terms of screen time but also when it comes to character arcs and sheer force of personality.  By contrast, Mia Wasikowska’s Judy doesn’t have a whole lot to do, particularly after a brutal beating thought to leave her dead ships her off to an all-female outcast society in the woods about a third of the way through where she is left to mostly convey a changing emotional state through wordless montage whilst Punch gets scene after scene and dialogue after dialogue of desperate villainy.  For much of the runtime, I was willing to let this slide since I was under the impression that I was watching, in the underlying fundamentals, an Outback revenge Western and the eventual boiling over would send cathartic blood and viscera everywhere in a way which justified Judy’s more muted characterisation.  After all, in such a genre the protagonist doesn’t need to be the most dramatically interesting since they are often a mere vessel for the more bombastic bad guys to receive their comeuppance, and if there was any set of characters who deserved a visceral comeuppance it was Punch and the town he hates to call home…

…and that catharsis never quite arrives.  Blood does get poetically spilled, but the endgame that Foulkes’ often meandering middle third had been building up to elects to take the speechifying high-road and consequently Judy & Punch feels like a rather exquisite case of blue-balling.  It reduces Judy, supposedly the centre of what is meant to be a feminist revision of a misogynistic masculine tale which stretches back centuries, to a symbolic gesture rather than a developed and interesting person in her own right, and in doing so it lets the collective misogyny of the town and the complicity of many of its own women off the hook with a mild slap on the wrist.  Tellingly, it is not Judy who gets the final scene of a movie in which she is supposed to win for once, but Punch, still hammily flinging his full-force of personality everywhere for anyone who will listen as he had done for the entire film up until then.  I did have a highly enjoyable time with Judy & Punch, but the gradual stalling out of the movie after its first 40 minutes is impossible to ignore and it’s frustrating to watch what should be a truly great film end up hobbling itself to a mere “basically fine.”

Don’t fret, though, dear reader, for I did actually fully enjoy something across these past two days!  Although the Earthquake Bird screw-up meant that I was unable to see the frankly-unbelievable-sounding Dude in Me, its late-start and the subsequent cancellation of Ema did force my hand into finally catching Pink Wall (Grade: B+), the feature writer-director debut of actor Tom Cullen – lot of those running about the line-up this year, makes me ask a few questions.  Heavily inspired (by his own admission) by the works of John Cassavetes and Joe Swanberg, Cullen’s debut is a semi-improvised series of Polaroids charting six years in the relationship between the driven, headstrong and occasionally insensitive Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) and the free-wheeling, jokey and fearful Leon (Jay Duplass finally getting the kind of big showcase Indie dramedy acting role his brother Mark has dozens of already) from its weed-heavy optimistic glow in Year One to the bitter broken shards left at its collapse in Year Six.

It may seem, on paper, more like a showy formal exercise than a movie capable of skilfully breaking hearts, and I imagine alarm bells probably ring for you when I mention that each segment is shot on a different type of film and an accompanying shift in aspect ratio with earlier years having a warmth and nostalgic glow that’s turned cold and harsh in the latter days.  And although Pink Wall is proudly an actors movie, one whose strength and power rests heavily on its two leads even before taking into account the semi-improvised nature of events – Cullen explained in the post-screening Q&A that he only fully-scripted the final vignette, the rest of the narrative was shaped through various improvised takes of a non-specific outline for each scene with each take bringing new fixed beats and reference points to build around – Cullen, Maslany and Duplass do put together a genuinely affecting character study with wider resonance.  I was particularly moved by Jenna and Leon’s propensity for using humour and jokes as a deflection and defence mechanism to get out of difficult conversations and arguments, kicking that can down the road until there is no more road left.

Jenna and Leon both constantly deflect from or full-on ignore the warning signs in their relationship, their mutual inability to healthily give and take, failing to be honest about their own fear (Leon) or formidability (Jenna) until too much damage has been done in a completely believable and natural manner.  Maslany and Duplass deserve all the credit in the world for making that central relationship feel so lived-in and affecting within such a short span of time (the movie only lasts about 80 minutes).  She having a standout sequence when dealing with a conflicted emotional response to Leon’s failing efforts to surprise her in Year Five, whilst he does some subtle but extremely effective work as a silent non-participant in a dinner conversation with Jenna’s friends in Year Two (his eyes truly speaking a thousand words).  Pink Wall may be rather self-consciously formal and resultantly not quite as powerful as a slightly longer and slightly more developed film would have been, but it is a damn-strong first effort nonetheless with a fantastic central pair of performances which announces Cullen as a real talent to watch behind the camera just as much as when he’s in front of one.

Tomorrow: Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s effort to singlehandedly keep the tissue industry in business for another six months, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, whilst Takashi Miike brings movie #103, First Love, to these shores.

Callie Petch is not the mess in your purse.

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