Film Review: Judy & Punch

Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch is an impressive fairy tale. Boasting a distinctive atmosphere and strong performances, the film is an engrossing watch. 

In the town of Seaside (which is nowhere near the sea), puppeteers Punch and Judy are trying to resurrect their marionette show for the rowdy, hotheaded locals…

Loosely based on the Punch & Judy show, writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’ debut is an ambitious combination of fairy tale, satire, and social commentary. The filmmaker combines these elements to create a most memorable picture. 

Judy & Punch functions on a number of levels. Satirical elements are strong throughout. Foulkes’ luxuriates in the darker side of traditional fairy tales. There is a question of the supernatural, yet Foulkes uses slight of hand, just like the magic show depicted. Furthermore, the film asks questions about the nature of violence and retribution. 

The narrative mirrors the marionette show itself, albeit with a much meatier core. Foulkes seems to have fun including various elements of the show whilst keeping focus on the central strand of Judy’s journey. The film is far more satisfying for eschewing a traditional revenge narrative. Instead, Foulkes offers something more thoughtful, whilst sending a clear message. 

The setting of Judy & Punch is wonderful, with the small English town reminiscent of earlier British horror. There is a pervading sense of macabre which is delightful. The darkness comes out in violence, but also in the peril of superstition. Foulkes offers a hopeful conclusion, whilst not neglecting darker aspects. 

Cinematography in the film is great. The opening tracking of the hooded figure into the show a wonderful introduction to both the setting and the tone. Elsewhere, lighting and colour is used very effectively. The film is visually appealing; with great costumes and set design. The visuals are wonderfully enhanced by the music, which combines a new score with established pieces. 

Casting in the film is superb. Mia Wasikowska is excellent as Judy, whilst Damon Herriman brings his strikingly intensity to Punch. Terry Norris and Tom Budge are great among the supporting cast.

Foulkes has delivered an original, creative, and compelling debut with Judy & Punch. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Judy & Punch is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019, and released in UK cinemas on 22nd November 2019.

Film Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

Director Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a reflective and at times touching drama. 

Writer Lloyd Vogel is assigned to complete a small profile on children’s television personality Fred Rogers for Esquire, a world away from his hard-hitting pieces. When he meets the beloved personality, Lloyd’s view slowly begins to shift…

It would be inaccurate to call A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood a Fred Rogers biopic. After all, he is not even the main character in the film. Rather Heller’s film, based on real events, focuses on the impact the beloved children’s personality had through the microcosm of a single person. 

Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster juxtapose the cynical writer against the earnest children’s personality. At its heart, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is about a person too cynical to believe anyone could be that good, and a person too good to let a person be that cynical. As the friendship progresses, barriers are broken down. Heller deals with these in a meditative fashion. The film ambles rather than scurries to its conclusion. 

The bookend device of an episode of the show is a very smart move from Heller. This gives a neat introduction to Rogers and his show, particularly for younger or international viewers who may less familiar with the character. It also solidifies that the story which will be told has a moral, just like in the television show. 

The script is good; characters have time to develop in a natural manner. The film is really only concerned with Rogers and Vogel, with the supporting characters not having a life beyond the two protagonists. The film has some genuinely touching moments, although it is not always as engaging as it could be. There are some good moments though, such as when Vogel believes he is part of the show. 

Tom Hanks is reliable as ever as Fred Rogers. He delivers his lines with such sincerity, it is hard not to be charmed. Matthew Rhys is also great as Lloyd Vogel. Chris Cooper stands out in a supporting role. Heller creates a sense of intimacy with her protagonists that suits the tone very well. 

Although the film lacks the pizazz of Heller’s previous feature Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood promotes the type of kindness and sincerely that is sorely needed right now. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019. 

Film Review: So You Think You Know How It Ends

The following short films are being screened as part of the When You Think You Know How It Ends programme at this year’s London Film Festival.

Be Still My Beating Heart

Ruth Paxton’s horror short Be Still My Beating Heart is atmospheric. The film is about a woman who is haunted by her work with dead bodies, and the illness of her sister. Writer-director Paxton mixes abject depictions with a quiet psychological terror. The sound design is great; it is a film without much dialogue so the sound goes a long way to give an indication of protagonist’s mindset. Maxine Peake is a reliable as ever in the lead role.

Nimic

The opening music leaves viewers in no doubt this is a Yorgos Lanthimos film. Nimic is about a cellist who has a chance encounter with a stranger on the subway. The film has a distinctive quality; there is a strong sense of uncanny. At twelve minutes long, Nimic does not waste time with explanation. The film is well cast; Daphné Patakia has an unnatural expression which fits perfectly. Matt Dillon’s jaded portrayal is also a good fit.

Rain, Rain, Run Away

Set during a heatwave, Clémentine Carrié’s fifteen-minute film does not go anywhere of note. Rain, Rain, Run Away (Gronde Marmaille) is about two young children who decide to run away from home. Writer-director Carrié achieves an intimacy with her protagonists, but it takes a considerable amount of time for anything significant to occur. When it does, nothing particularly noteworthy follows. Rain, Rain, Run Away has good production values, however.

Roadkill

Leszek Mozga’s stop-motion short Roadkill is weird and wonderful. At eight minutes long, it is the shortest film in the When You Think You Know How It Ends programme. Writer-director Mozga subverts the roles of human and animal. In doing so, the film questions the idea of responsibility and guilt. There are some great edits, and a nervy conclusion make for a memorable and original film. 

What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon

Writer-director Jian Luo offers a strange film with What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon. The premise is bizarre; it offers a good hook. The first line of dialogue does not occur until a quarter of the way into the film. Luo chooses to tell the story visually up until this point. The film features some good imagery, such as the reflection in the vase. The symbolism does not translate to much depth however.

White Girl

Director Nadia Latif’s White Girl is immediately unnerving. A young girl wanders the streets late at night and encounters a range of individuals. The sound design works with Latif’s choice of shots to create an unsettling atmosphere. The thirteen-minute film is pervaded by a sense of mystery; viewers do not know whether to trust those around the girl, or the protagonist herself for half the film. When an incident occurs, motives become clearer and The film ends in a wonderfully gruesome fashion. White Girl is a good calling card for Latif; hopefully we will see more from her. 

Be Still My Beating Heart, Nimic, Rain, Rain, Run Away, Roadkill, What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon, and White Girl are being screened in the When You Think You Know How It Ends programme at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Waves

Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is tender, powerful, and finely executed. 

High school wrestler Tyler struggles with balancing practice, family life, and his relationship with his girlfriend. His sister Emily, meanwhile, struggles in the aftermath of a life-changing event…

Focusing on Tyler and his family as he faces pressure from all corners, Waves is a meditative drama. Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, the film tackles powerful themes within the confines of a teen-focused drama.

The narrative has a definite break, when the focus is pulled from one protagonist and on to another. The first segment feels like a complete film when it reaches its climax. As the second segment begins it is difficult to see where Shults will take his story. As the second part continues, it is absorbing. There is humour to be found in both parts, but the emphasis remains on drama. There are several emotional moments, and each of these is earned by the solid script, good character development, and the filmmaker’s considered direction. 

Camera work in Waves is frenetic to begin with; it does not stop moving for the opening scenes. The pace and range of movement slows in tandem with Tyler’s momentum. It acts almost as a mirror to Tyler’s drive; as aspects of his life spin out of control, the camera slows to meet his level. Later in the film, the camera is more laconic, matching the personality of Emily.

Colour is used to good effect in the film, underscoring the mood and energy at times. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a brilliant accompaniment to the on screen action. Performances in Waves are great all round. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is completely believable as Tyler. As his life spirals out of control, his frenzy is conveyed in a disconcerting fashion. Taylor Russell is also great; she has great chemistry with Lucas Hedges. Sterling K. Brown is a strong asset as their father.

Shults’ third film illustrates the filmmaker’s considerable skill and adeptness at storytelling. Waves is memorable viewing.

Waves is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019. 

Film Review: First Love

Takashi Miike’s First Love is an incredibly fun action movie. The veteran filmmaker has not lost his touch.

Leo is a young boxer who is given a life-changing diagnosis. He bumps into Monica, who is running from someone. The pair are unwittingly caught in a drug smuggling scheme involving the Yakuza, the Chinese, and the police…

Directed by Takashi Miike and written by Masa Nakamura, First Love is an action thriller with a number of elements at play. Miike opens on a number of different sequences which introduce the main players separately. With a number of different strands, there may be a concern that the narrative will be confusing. Miike quickly allays these fears by joining some of the strands up in a succinct manner.

First Love focuses on varying elements trying to track down a drug shipment, and the pair who unwittingly get caught in the middle of proceedings. Miike and Nakamura give the main characters enough development for viewers to invest in the story. The screenplay offers plenty of laughs; Miike knows the interplay between ultraviolence and comedy. With Leo and Monica plating things straight, it is up to Kase and the supporting characters to give the film its humour.

Action in the film is intermittent. There are a number of sequences along the way, but Miike makes viewers wait until the finale for the pay off. The most memorable of the later fights are ones where humour is present amongst the violence. Given Miike’s previous films, some may hope for more from the fight choreography. Nevertheless, it is still a lot of fun. The finale of First Love obviously required a stunt beyond budget restrictions. Miike deals with this in an amusing way.

Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi give decent performances as Leo and Monica. Nao Ohmori is also good, and Shôta Sometani is a standout as Kase. His performance becomes more outlandish as the film progresses, yet it feels entirely in keeping with the style of the film.

First Love is another winner from Takashi Miike. The film is entertaining throughout.

First Love is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: The Juniper Tree

Nietzchka Keene’s 1990 debut The Juniper Tree is an atmospheric fantasy. Keene builds the film incredibly well to its dark conclusion. 

After their mother is killed for witchcraft, sisters Katla and Margit go searching for a new home. Katla entrances a shepherd and marries him, but his son is not keen on his new stepmother…

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Juniper Tree is a strange and sometimes macabre fantasy. The film is set in medieval Iceland; the landscape very much becomes part of the story. 

The narrative unfolds at an appropriate pace, with the two main strands developing in tandem. The discord between sister and Jónas grows, just as Margit’s visions become more prominent. The two strands intersect frequently, with Jónas’ dislike of his stepmother a cause of friction in his friendship with Margit. 

There is an otherworldly atmosphere to The Juniper Tree, which writer-director Nietzchka Keene has wonderfully generated. The isolation of the setting feeds into this. It is further emphasised by Keene’s choice of direction, and the frequent storytelling that occurs in the film. Witchcraft is at the centre of The Juniper Tree, yet the film is more nuanced than a persecuted women trope. There is a belief in the supernatural which effects all the characters. It is only in the final segment that the film takes a truly macabre turn, harking back to the roots of the fairytale. 

This 2019 restoration exhibits the beauty of Keene’s film. Shot in black and white, there are some really striking images in the film. Keene and cinematographer Randy Sellars use light and shadow in an effective manner. Some of the images have a photographic quality. The score In her first role, Björk is impressive. She has an innocence that imbues her character. Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir and Geirlaug Sunna Þormar are also decent. 

The Juniper Tree is a distinctive fantasy. Hopefully this recent restoration will reach the wider audience the film deserves.

The Juniper Tree is being screened as part of the Treasures programme at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019. 

Film Review: Deerskin (Le Daim)

Writer-director Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin (Le Daim) is absurd and entertaining. The film is a real treat.

Georges spends his savings on a fringed, deerskin jacket. Holed up in a country motel, Georges becomes obsessed with his jacket, and wants to be the only jacket-wearer in the world… 

Deerskin (Le Daim) offers an outlandish and intriguing premise. The idea that a jacket is controlling its owner is an amusing premise, and one that should hook viewers. As the film gets underway, it is interesting to see where Dupieux will run with this. 

The film combines humour with darkness in a very successful manner. Comedy is present throughout, with the humour turning darker as the narrative does. There are a lot of laughs to be had, with Dupieux makes even the violence a source of comedy. 

Running at 77 minutes, Dupieux tells his story in a succinct manner. At one point, it is unclear exactly how the filmmaker will conclude the story. Deerskin has legs to continue with its absurd story; some may feel it is a shame to end things when it does. Nevertheless, the finale is satisfying. The ending exemplifies the film’s excellent combination of comedy and the macabre. 

Depieux explicitly plays with the idea that films need a message. Using the overt device of Georges making a film, there are plenty of jokes about the protagonist’s lack of knowledge and Denise reading something into the footage. Jean Dujardin delivers a great performance as Georges. His deadpan delivery is essential, and Dujardin carries this off very well. Adèle Haenel provides good support as Denise, although it is very much the protagonist’s story. Music is used well throughout the film. 

Deerskin is a very entertaining watch. The film marries creativity and accessibility in an amusing package. 

Deerskin (Le Daim) is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Burning Cane


Writer-director Phillip Youmans’ Burning Cane is an assured debut from the young filmmaker. The haunting climate is galvanised by two strong leads.

In the sugar cane fields of rural Louisiana, Helen focuses on her faith in spite of a troubled pastor. Her son, meanwhile, struggles with his drinking problem…

Burning Cane commences with two lengthy monologues. The first, a story is particularly arresting. The two monologues go a long way in establishing the characters and the setting. Filmmaker Phillip Youmans tells his story with minimal conversation. Instead the film focuses on monologues which are mostly sermons or stories, and several scenes with minimal dialogue. Conversations become more important later in Burning Cane, as the film moves towards the final third. The narrative unfolds at a languid pace, with Youmans preferring to focus on characters over action. 

The main theme of the film is the disruptive effect of alcoholism, on both the sufferer and the ones around them. Youmans focuses on how the disease impacts within the context of the setting; the small community, rural life, the reliance on religion all play a pivotal part. As Burning Cane reaches its climax, there is a particularly striking sequence with its overlaying of the preaching with distressing scenes accentuates the contrast between the fractured family and the confidence of the church. 

The film features lots of handheld camera.  This results in a sense of intimacy with the family. There are some very naturalistic scenes in the home; our presence as viewers feels like an intrusion at times. The only drawback of the reliance on a moving camera is some uneven lighting. The film is underlit on several occasions. Performances come across as authentic throughout. Karen Kaia Livers’ delivery is a particular highlight, whilst Wendell Pierce is a commanding force as Reverend Tillman.

Phillip Youmans takes an impartial approach to his characters, choosing to depict without judgement. Burning Cane is a promising showcase for the talents of Youmans.

Burning Cane is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Sid & Judy

On the fiftieth anniversary of Judy Garland’s death, director Stephen Kijak has created a timely and engrossing documentary with Sid & Judy.

In 1950, film producer Sid Luft met Hollywood star Judy Garland. Garland had just parted ways with MGM, the company which had made her a star, and controlled her every move…

Sid & Judy begins at a later point in Garland’s career before going back. It is a good device, welcoming the audience in at a troubled point before pulling back. The film gives viewers a history of Garland’s career up to the point she meets Sid Luft. As his memoirs continue, Luft waxes lyrical on the current as well as Garland’s past. 

The documentary combines film clips, audio recordings, interview footage, archive photographs and Luft’s memoirs to paint a picture of Garland’s life and her career in Hollywood and beyond. Director Kijak constantly mixes these elements to make Sid & Judy feel like a comprehensive portrait of the star, as well as her marriage to Luft. 

The star of Sid & Judy undoubtedly is Luft’s memoirs. These are descriptive and beautifully written, painting a evocative picture of Garland and the couple’s relationship. Narration by Jon Hamm is perfectly pitched. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also well cast voicing Garland. 

The film indicates how aspects of Garland’s childhood and family life could have influenced her later decisions and troubles. Of course, this is subjective. After all, it is Luft’s memoirs for the most part which tell the story. Nevertheless the yarn that is spun is compelling viewing. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how Luft himself dealt with Garland’s addiction. The film details the struggles that Luft faced as he attempted to get her clean, and also the toll her addiction took place on their marriage. The personal insight here is most fascinating. 

Sid & Judy effectively conveys Garland’s magnetism, and does not shy away from depicting the star’s personal struggles. A very entertaining documentary. 

Sid & Judy is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Burning Night (Breve Miragem De Sol)

Director Eryk Rocha’s second feature Burning Night (Breve Miragem De Sol) is a slow-burn drama. The film is observant, even if it is not always engaging.

Paulo is a taxi driver in Rio trying to earn enough money to support his son, who lives with his ex-wife. As he picks up fares at night, Paulo sees the chaotic nature of the city…

From the opening shot of Rocha’s film, the one thing that is immediately conveyed is a sense of artificiality. The lights flashing on the steering wheel and the synthetic tunnel suggest a sense of unnaturalness that does not dissipate. 

Burning Night returns time and again to the lack of intimacy, even in close quarters. The first voices we hear are over the radio system, and the first passengers we see talk over and around protagonist Paulo. As he throws them out, one comments that he is there to serve them. The relationship here is not one of respect, or of parity. 

Narrative reveals a little about Paulo’s personal like, following the end of his initial shift. Director and co-writer Rocha gives us exposition through snippets of radio news, it is a succinct way of giving viewers a picture of the wider context. As the narrative progresses, Paulo is party to the very private conversations of his passengers. 

It is not until amongst a third of the way in that he has his first face-to-face conversation on a personal level. It is pointed that the persona who engages him is a nurse; Rocha makes the distinction in attitude between the wealthier patrons of the city. The narrative only really makes a progression at the half-way mark. The footage of the city has a dream-like quality. Yet the lack of narrative substance means that the film is not really that engaging.

Given the nature of the space, it is unsurprising that Rocha uses plenty of close ups. Burning Night focuses not only on Paulo’s face, but his hands as he handles money, even in wider settings. Rocha wishes to create an intimacy with the character, a contrast to the lack of intimacy he has with most of the people he encounters. The viewer observes Paulo rather than seeing things from his point of view. 

Burning Night offers a picture of a city in perpetual change. It is a shame that aspects hinted at are not woven closely into the narrative.

Burning Night (Breve Miragem De Sol) is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.