Louis Theroux has a distinct style as a documentarian. He is the man who has access, who spends a great deal of time with his subjects and needles out insights and humour from their endless interactions. In making his first feature documentary Theroux has chosen a subject that forces him to change his strategy. You can say a lot of things about Scientology but nobody would ever call them accessible or open to being interviewed.
With no current member of the Church of Scientology to interview Theroux takes a large amount of inspiration from The Act of Killing and makes a different kind of documentary. Someone Theroux does have access to is Marty Rathbun; a defector from the Scientology who used to be one of the most powerful members of the Church. In between the types of conversations we have come to expect from a Louis Theroux documentary they settle into a Los Angeles studio, set up casting calls for the Church’s leader David Miscavige and celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise and Theroux gets Rathbun to direct re-enactments of his history with the church. The focus is not on the arguably outlandish claims of Scientology but on the training techniques they use and on claims of violent abuse made against Miscavige. Before too long Theroux does not need to go to the Scientologists as the Scientologists come to him in retaliation.
The switch in style helps demarcate this film from Theroux’s huge body of television work. There has been a deliberate choice to make something cinematic and as such the approach is that which could not be achieved on a television budget. The resulting film is funny and insightful but not as in-depth as other Scientology documentaries and not quite as personal or funny as traditional Theroux output. The lack of access to the Church means that we have to go without endless scenes of Theroux asking awkward questions of Scientologists and potentially getting a reaction no one else can get. We do get glimpses of what fun this might have been as he is confronted by a prominent Scientologist whilst filming on a public road near their studios but sadly this makes up the minority of the film when normally it would have been the film’s core.
It is these moments of confrontation and antagonisation that have brought Theroux a legion of loyal fans. We get to see him being perfectly reasonable and yet incredibly cheeky in the face of the unreasonable and the deluded. When Louis comes up against an immovable object he is precisely the right irresistible force than manages to goad them into dropping their facade and revealing any unpleasantness that might lie beneath.
I suppose my only complaint with My Scientology Movie is actually a big compliment. I just wanted more. I wanted more insight into the machinations of the church and I wanted more Louis Theroux. Granted Theroux was never going to make an in-depth historical documentary but I wish he had been able to gain access to more members to ask uncomfortable questions of. While the film was running I was laughing away and feeling deeply uncomfortable at the right moments but when it was finished I was disappointed. I didn’t want it to end as I hadn’t yet had my fill. I loved the film enough to resent it for having ended.
Louis Theroux remains a master of his craft and I cannot wait to see how his feature documentary career develops. Whatever gets me more Theroux makes me happy. This is not the definitive Scientology documentary but it is most definitely Louis Theroux’s and it is a fascinating and enjoyable ride.
Gonzalo (Álvaro Ogalla) has decided that he wants to officially leave the Catholic church having been baptised against his will as a child. His life as a whole is not in great shape as he lusts after his cousin and tutors his attractive neighbour’s son. In short Gonzalo is having an existential crisis, one that involves us frequently having to see his penis.
Co-written by Ogalla and three other writers The Apostate is most definitely a film. It looks like a film, it sounds like a film, and it runs to a full feature-length. Despite all this I found The Apostate completely impenetrable. I can’t even explain to you in any satisfying way just why I struggled so much with this film.
For whatever reason I simply never settled in and was instead left shuffling in my seat throughout both literally and figuratively. I found myself only interested in Gonzalo’s battle with the church but this quickly took a back seat to various other dramas in his life and a dream sequence or two that gave me no further insight or enjoyment.
The Apostate is probably not a bad film. It just 100% is not for me. I am happy to take the blame; maybe I was too tired, ill, or not paying enough attention. Whatever the reason I found myself sat watching The Apostate and feeling thoroughly bored.
Whilst working in the toy floor of a New York department store in the 1950s Therese (Rooney Mara) finds herself bewitched by Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older woman on the verge of divorce who is shopping for her daughter’s Christmas present. Both feeling an unspoken attraction to one another they form a friendship, one that starts with lunches and drives but culminates with the two taking a long road trip together. On the road Carol tries to maintain her poise as her divorce and custody battle wages on at home and the younger Therese tries to define herself beyond her temporary job and the boyfriend that she does not love. Amidst the women’s internal struggles is the ever more potent issue; that of their growing feelings for one another and whether either will ever confess to or act upon them.
Carol is a deeply romantic film. Every little detail harkens back to a more romantic age but one in which this particular romance would have been taboo. The expectations for women as a whole in the 1950s were very different to now and for lesbians even more so. This is evident in the hesitation with which the two women reveal their feelings even to themselves let alone each other. Carol in particular is a woman who hides behind a public face. She is never one to appear flustered while Therese’s face gives away her every inner thoughts whether she realises it or not. The combination of the two, an uncertain young woman and her confident older pairing, is utterly mesmerising to watch. Carol is clearly in control and it is easy to see why Therese looks up to her as both a role model and a romantic partner.
Todd Haynes has directed this love story in a way that can only be described as romantic. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy has adapted Patricia Highsmith’s with a sparing use of dialogue and as such Haynes has accentuated the connection between the women with careful close-ups of hands, eyes, and mouths. We see every shy glance and tentative touch, we see as Therese admires Carol’s strong femininity and the way Carol watches Therese in return. There is an incredible intimacy to most scenes even when the two women are simply sitting across from one another sipping coffee.
The book has made the transition to the screen without damage. Therese is now a passionate photographer, think Vivian Maier, rather than set designer which is well suited to cinematic storytelling and allows Haynes to literally show us Carol through her eyes. The film also allows for scenes without Therese to show Carol’s interactions with Abby (Sarah Paulson). I welcome this controversial move as it softens Carol somewhat who often came across as cold in the original, fantastic novel and gives her a rounder character. All the better to see why Therese fell so hard for her.
In conclusion Carol is a beautiful troubled love story. A timeless piece of cinema as beautiful as it is moving.
Carol screens again at the festival on 17th October but is sold out.
In a world much like our own being single has become tantamount to a crime. Anyone finding themselves unattached through divorce, death, or simply unsuccessful dating must go to The Hotel. There they have 45 days to find a partner, essentially someone who shares one distinct trait with them, or be transformed into an animal of their choice. The Hotel is run by Olivia Colman who gives lectures on why being in a couple is a good things and how it might prevent you from dying or being raped. The message here is clear; if you are single you might as well not be human.
Out in the forests hides an outcast group who cannot live in polite society anymore. This group is known as the Loners and are led by a militant Léa Seydoux. In this group being in a couple is the ultimate betrayal and even kissing or flirting are punished violently. Independence is the only valuable attribute and each Loner is even expected to dig their own grave in case they die. Running away to join the Loners is your only alternative if your time runs out at the Hotel and you want to keep your human face.
Our guide through this peculiar world is David (Colin Farrell) who reluctantly checks into The Hotel at the start of the film with his dog-shaped brother in tow. He has 45 days to find himself someone with a matching distinguishing feature or he will find himself transformed into a lobster; the logical form to choose for his post-human years. Inside the hotel he is joined by a limping man (Ben Whishaw), a woman who has nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly), a woman who loves biscuits (Ashley Jensen), and a heartless woman (Angeliki Papoulia). All of them, barring perhaps the heartless woman, are desperate to find whatever passes for love in this world. Meanwhile out in the woods the likes of Michael Smiley and Rachel Weisz do their best to be friendly but not flirty and evade capture from The Hotel’s residents. The cast is crammed with a fine selection of British actors and it is a great endorsement that director Yorgos Lanthimos chose to make this film in the UK rather than the US.
Yorgos Lanthimos has brought his distinctly dry humour to his first English-language feature. As you can presumably tell from what I have described the film forms a scathing satire on the modern world of dating and selecting a partner out of desperation based on the most trivial of compatibility criteria. Every line spoken in the film in done so in a completely deadpan manner making the more absurd dialogue seem sane and turning mundane conversation surreal. I got the distinct feeling that Lanthimos has looked at the world, found it ridiculous, and wants to show us the insanity he sees.
The Lobster is an incredibly funny and smart film. It takes the norms of our societal rituals and expectations and blows them up to be seen for the madness that they really are. The film has a lot of clever ideas and humorous moments and is a pleasure to watch but struggles when trying to thread a plot through all the metaphor. This being a film about love it can’t resist having a love story rear its ugly head. The romance in question is sweet but the insistence on deadpan delivery dampens any emotions. That said the muted nature of the romance adds to the general mood and message of the film so is far from out of place.
The Lobster will provide you plenty of chuckles and a few wry knowing smiles and is a unique confection from one of our most creative modern filmmakers. Once you’re in sync with the film’s unique rhythm you’ll be lost in its world.
Lobster screens at the festival again on the 15th October but sadly has sold out. Luckily it is released on the 16th anyway so not to worry.
In a French community obsessed with country and western a teenage girl runs of with her Islamic boyfriend. In a haze of suspicious and xenophobia the girl’s father (François Damiens) fears the worst and embarks on fruitless trips across numerous countries with his son Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) in tow in search of the missing young woman. As the years pass Kid becomes disillusioned with the hunt and stay at home leaving his father to pursue his sister alone.
This first chapter of the film comes across as a decent thriller with a desperate father on the hunt for his daughter. I was expecting some conspiracy to be uncovered and for the father to come out victorious in a manner that would make Liam Neeson proud. This does not happen. Instead this section of the film comes to an abrupt end and we jump forward a few more years.
Now our focus is on Kid who is working for what I assume was an aid agency in Asia. Here Kid quite literally stumbles across the path of John C. Reilly playing some kind of evangelical human trafficker. Naturally Reilly’s American wanderer thinks he might know where Kid’s sister might be and so the two embark on an adventure across the desert and into a rough urban landscape. After some dramatic moments we head back to France and jump forward a few years. Again.
Having had the thriller and the action adventure Cowboys ends with a shorter chapter more along the lines of an emotional drama. One that neatly brings the story to a close and ties together loose threads in a neat, not necessarily satisfactory bow. With that the film is done. The plot of the film having chopped and changed numerous times we finally reach some sort of conclusion.
Each of the three chunks of the film are well made with tonally appropriate direction and fine acting but the three sections don’t sit well when sat flush against each other. The tone of the film kept changing which made for a jarring experience and no individual chapter got the proper resolution they deserved; as soon as something got interesting it would abruptly stop so we could move a few more years down the line.
Cowboys is by no means a terrible experience but is too uneven to be a great watch.
Cowboys screens the festival on the 15th and 16th October and tickets are still available online.
Alan Bennett brings his award winning play to the big screen. The play and film in question are a comedy drama about Alan Bennett himself (Alex Jennings) and the van-dwelling lady (Maggie Smith) who took up residence on his driveway in the 1970s and stayed for over a decade. Despite what the title might suggest, and with this being a Bennett production, Alan Bennett is very much the lead character. Alan provides narration not just as a voiceover but as the character onscreen talking to a secondary version of himself. If you’re going to put yourself in your film why not put yourself in their twice? As such your enjoyment of The Lady in the Van is very much limited to how much you enjoy Alan Bennett, or at least Jennings’ interpretation of him.
You will also need a large tolerance for Maggie Smith playing a cantankerous old woman as she features almost as heavily as the faux Bennett. Thankfully I have a high Bennett threshold and find Smith to be the only bearable element of Downton Abbey so could cope with everything that The Lady in the Van had to offer. I’m not suggesting the film is an ordeal but know that some people cannot tolerate certain representations.
The plot is relatively simple. When Alan moves into a house in Camden he is soon introduced to Miss Shepherd, an elderly lady who lives in a van which she moves around outside each residence as the mood takes her. Seeking to ease his conscious more than anything else Alan reluctantly allows her to park her van on his driveway. Initially this is supposed to be a short term solution but neither ever see fit to change the arrangement. As he provides a modicum of care this this stranger he struggles with his mother’s declining health as she slowly loses her faculties back in Alan’s hometown. Much as Alan does not want to equate the two women he frequently finds them occupying the same brain space.
Bennett has written this story numerous times before, Smith has played the same character previously both on stage and on the radio, and director Nicholas Hytner worked with them both on the theatre production. Alex Jennings is the only new element in this project and he tackles the role of Alan by capturing his essence without coming across as a mere imitation. Smith is clearly very comfortable in the role, and in her van, and takes great relish in delivering endless witty lines whilst wearing a night dress and surrounded by filth, all with a degree of pathos thrown in. Meanwhile Bennett and Hytner have successfully managed to expand the existing material to create a film that does not feel like a play. Often play adaptations could easily be imagined on stage but The Lady in the Van feels distinctly cinematic, not least because so much of it takes place outside rather than in a single room.
The Lady in the Van is a fun little oddity exploring loneliness, community, and codependency. Bennett writes himself with a witty self deprecation and Maggie Smith brings the kind of energy her fans have come to expect. If either Bennett or Smith are outside your comfort zone then steer clear otherwise you’re going to enjoy this one.
Korean director Hong Sang-soo (or Sang-soo Hong) makes a very specific type of film. When sitting down to watch his latest film I did so not expecting to see something wildly different but to see what new spin he has put on his usual formula. I will write more about my favourite Korean director (we all have one) another today but for now let’s assess Right Now, Wrong Then using my Hong Sang-soo checklist (patent pending).
- ✅ – A director as a main character
- ✅ – A long scene of heavy drinking
- ✅ – A male character with a large, but fragile, ego
- ✅ – Handwritten title cards
- ✅ – Dialogue scenes above all else
- ✅ – A camera that zooms and pans rather than cutting to new angles
- ✅ – A day repeated to show an alternative iteration of events
Check, check, check, and check. This is possibly the most Hong Sang-soo film so far!
In Right Now, Wrong Then we see a famous film director (Jae-yeong Jeong) and an aspiring painter (Min-hee Kim) as they meet, spend the day together, and pass the evening getting foolishly drunk. We see their day from start to finish and then, at the film’s halfway mark, we start over again seeing the day once more but with slight differences. The second time round not too much has changed, much of the dialogue is intact and the camera has often only moved a few feet, but the way the characters act, and how they deliver their lines, is tweaked enough to give the second day a completely different feeling.
What Sang-soo does best is to create whole three-dimensional characters, put them together in a scene and just let them talk. In doing so he lets all drama, comedy, and emotion arise from the simple act of human interaction with no editing, special effects, or artifice getting in the way.
Min-hee Kim and Jae-yeong Jeong are a winningly mismatched pair who are equally strong and sensitive dependant on how the person they are with is treating them. By seeing them in two alternative versions of the same day we get to see multiple sides of their character’s personalities which are performed with seemingly effortless ease.
A charming film about humans and how a slight change in mood can affect your fortunes Right Now, Wrong Then gives everything we’ve come to accept from Hong Sang-soo.
In a small Swedish town Jennifer (Fatime Azemi) accuses her friend and classmate Alexander (John Risto) of rape. In a cruel development the close-knit community decide en masse to believe the accused over the victim. Over almost two hours of slow building tension life gets worse and worse for Jennifer as everyone turns against her and her family; everyone including the local priest and her supposed best friends.
The issue raised here is an important and topical one and not a subject that should be taken lightly. That said Flocking was so bleak, so unrelenting that it simply became unpleasant to watch. The only sympathetic character in the whole piece is Jennifer and so watching the film involves spending a lot of time with people you despise. Jennifer is repeatedly punished for being the victim of rape and at no point receives an iota of sympathy.
As grim event follows grim even the film never changes pace or allows for light relief. Instead we have those two hours of slow building tension; tension that builds to nothing and is never released. When the credits appeared out of nowhere I felt almost cheated. Where was my catharsis? Or perhaps this is the entire point? Am I complaining about feeling the very thing I was supposed to/.
Director Beata Gårdeler undoubtedly has style and the film is a great example of how unjust societies reactions to a rape accusation can be but Flocking practically punishes its audience for watching. I struggle to recommend or condemn this film; it is an admirable film but you will find no enjoyment here.
“Calm and civilised and charming” is how Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) describes her hometown in Ireland after returning for a visit from Brooklyn but she could have easily have been describing the very film she was in. Brooklyn is a beautiful and sentimental film set in the 1950s when Eilis moves from Ireland to start a new life in Brooklyn. At first she struggles with being so far from home but eventually love and a career start to blossom and Brooklyn feels more and more like home. Upon returning home for a visit for a few months Eilis becomes conflicted and must decide where her home, and her heart, truly lie.
All sounds delightful doesn’t it?
What Brooklyn captures well is the feeling of moving far away from home to a more exciting place that is initially much more lonely. Saoirse Ronan is a sympathetic lead, and refreshingly Irish for a change, and easily gets the audience on her side and rooting for her in the big city. Helping her out in Brooklyn are Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters in relatively small roles but both exuding the warmth they so naturally bring to the screen. I almost shed a tear as she sat crying over letters from home. It was all very moving, beautifully shot, and winningly acted.
The film as a whole was very sumptuous to look at. It felt like watching an advert for some indulgent premium confectionery. This is all very pleasing to the eyes but had the effect of removing me somewhat from the emotional side of the film. There are some pivotal relationships involving Eilis but I could not buy into them fully. The golden sheen of the film smoothed out any real intimacy between those involved. The climax of the film involves Eilis making a choice but the outcome felt inconsequential as I was not invested in either option.
Brooklyn is calm and civilised and charming. It is easy to get swept up in its chocolate box charms but I defy you to truly get invested in any of the romance. Saoirse Ronan is a strong actor and capably leads the film but the limitations in Nick Hornby’s script hold her back.
Good but not great Brooklyn is the kind of film the whole family can watch on a cold autumn evening.
Brooklyn airs on the 12th, 13th, and 14th October and tickets are still available to buy.
Black Mass tells of the career in crime of Boston’s James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) whom he corrupts, and various other individuals who help him out or get in his way. The cast is filled with names and those names are all fully bewigged and giving their best Boston accent. Performances are generally good, the period detail is on point, and events unfold as the events unfolded.
I did not enjoy it.
Watching Black Mass was a relatively empty experience. Over the course of two hours so much happened and yet so little seemed to matter. Numerous characters were introduced only to be killed after a scene or simply forgotten about. The criminal elements were constantly discussing details of crimes or people that needing killing in a way that had no impact on the plot and so were not remotely interesting. In fact I don’t think there really was a plot. Whitey was a bad man and that’s about it.
The good guys are mostly in the background despite being portrayed by the likes of Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott. Black Mass took no great interest in the mechanics of their investigation preferring to simply get across the fact that they were vaguely interested in arresting Whitey and leaving it at that. Without anyone to root for I was just left resenting most of the people onscreen and eventually the screen itself.
And the women? What women? I counted at best three female actors in what could be considered major parts; Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson, and Julianne Nicholson. Of these three, two are forgotten about and never given an actual ending while the third is added to the body count after just two scenes.
Black Mass is a continuous cycle of murder, money, talking, murder, money, and talking with a sprinkling of Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother sticking out like a sore thumb. The events of the film may well be true but they are not presented in a remotely interesting way. Violence and crime without context are can be incredibly dull.
Expect some buzz around the performances but don’t believe the hype. There is nothing new to see here and your time could be better spent elsewhere.
Black Mass screens at the festival on the 11th, 12th and 16th October and a few tickets can still be found online.