I love, love, LOVED this slick exam heist from Thailand, ‘inspired by true events’, which had me gripped throughout.
A low-key, low-income, high-achieving school girl gets roped into helping the rich kids in her new, expensive school cheat in their exams. But it soon gets out of hand and what starts out as her secretly helping her cash-strapped father pay some of her school fees, unbeknownst to him, soon becomes big, dangerous business.
What follows is a mind-boggingly elaborate plan, with The Usual Suspects level of complexity, devised to fool teachers, parents and, eventually, the police. Fast-paced, clever and lots and lots of fun, underpinned by sterling performances from the young ensemble cast, Bad Genius has been, by far, one of my highlights of this year’s London Film Festival. If it wasn’t for Three Billboards, this would be my number one. As it’s unlikely to get a general release over here, I’ve already started trying to track down a copy on DVD.
Be sure to find a way to watch this one-of-kind original, before Hollywood surely kills its memory, via a bad remake.. (C’mon, who is looking forward to the remake of Toni Erdmann?…. Really?)
As always, I really enjoyed the BFI London Film Festival this year. The list of great films that I saw during the previews include: Filmworker, the wonderful documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man, Leon Vitali, who never truly got the recognition that he deserved; Rollerdreams– also a great documentary, this time about the history of the black roller-skaters in downtown LA, who made the area the tourist attraction that it is; and You Were Never Really There – the powerful thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as an unstable ex-veteran who now specialises in ‘finding’ people and gets more then he bargains for with his latest job. It had been a great couple of weeks. But I hadn’t quite had a ‘Toni Erdmann moment’ – that feeling that I was watching something really stand-out and just that little bit special, which I absolutely felt when I was crying with laughter during that film.
Beautifully written and directed by Martin McDonagh – the filmmaker behind the cult classic, In Bruges, as well as Seven Psychopaths – Three Billboards deserves to win all the awards (with Bad Genius coming a very close second, followed by the extraordinary I Am Not A Witch …).
Set in Missouri, America, as the title suggests, Frances McDormand plays Mildred, the seemingly hard-faced working class woman who will go to absolutely any lengths to pressure the local police into solving her daughter’s murder. Even if it alienates her son, her viscous ex-husband and most of the community. After seven months of silence from the police who are supposed to be investigating her daughter’s death, she takes drastic action to focus their minds. And boy, does she get their attention.
Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, the kind-hearted head of the local police department, full of good intentions but lacking in results, and as such Mildred’s main target. Sam Rockwell is Dixon, the child-like, pig-ignorant, racist cop under Willoughby’s command, who quickly and repeatedly justifies his reputation for brutality.
Extremely violent, coarse and heart-breaking, underpinned with brilliantly dark humour that will have you choking on your popcorn with laughter, and dialogue so razer-sharp that I can’t wait to get my hands on the script.
This kind of in-your-face film storytelling might not be for everyone. The racist language is close to the bone, demonstrating the backward attitude still prevalent in some parts of America. The N-word is bandied about a lot and when a black police chief arrives he calls the lazy officers a bunch of ‘crackers’ (a racial slur, originally used against poor white people). After a particularly shocking assault by Dixon, his mother can’t understand why he’s putting up with being chastised by a black police chief. He laments that: “It’s changed in the South”, to which she replies: “It shouldn’t have”. Personally, I think that, like it or not, the reality is that there are still many people who hold such attitudes. This film merely highlights their ignorance.
Packed with an amazing cast, putting in great performances, such as the aforementioned Woody Harrelson – who I always adore – and Peter Dinklage as feisty James, a small guy with a big heart who, unfortunately for him, has a crush on the one-track-minded Mildred. But it’s the absolutely outstanding performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell that will blow you away. Her portrayal of a devastated mother coping with the truly heinous crime committed against her daughter, with pure bloody-mindedness and steely determination, is totally and utterly convincing. As are her tiny moments of compassion and weakness, that we’re allowed to glimpse. While Sam is a tour de force as the shocking, but surprisingly-complex, Dixon.
I must admit, there’s an odd scene with a CGI’d deer, that didn’t quite work for me. But, hey, nothing’s perfect and even that can’t stop me absolutely loving Three Billboards!
I go to film screenings by myself a lot – especially if there’s a Q&A. As much as I love my mates, there’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for someone to come back to you, or to make up their mind about an event, only for it to sell out before you’ve been able to buy a ticket. Well, there is ONE thing more annoying…. It’s the friend who can’t help but talk throughout the film and/or the Q&A… Yes, I admit it. I’m that ‘square’, that really irritating person who just wants to “SSShuusssshhSSSHH….” everyone in the cinema, theatre, pub back-room… even some music gigs… If I can hear you above the artist’s voice or instrument, something’s wrong. And in the same way that some people can’t bear the sound of fingernails being scraped down a blackboard – something that doesn’t bother me in the slightest – the underlying rumbling of people’s whispers in an auditorium grates on me, massively… [OK, maybe the reason my friends take so long to come back to me is because they just don’t want to go places with me… I get it.]
Because I am so unsociable when I’m in THAT moment, I have absolutely no problem going to screenings on my own. I actually kinda like it. I’m happy to laugh heartily to myself at funny things. And it’s no more embarrassing to sob at sad things by myself than it is in front of my mates… So, I go along, get my fix, leave happy and, depending on the time of day or night, I can still meet friends afterwards, if I want to.
But, very occasionally, I see something so special that it spins me out and leaves me so excited – or outraged – that I can’t contain myself. And at those times, I wish I was with a mate.
Last night was one of those nights.
I was desperate to get a ticket to this preview – the trailer had me hooked and I couldn’t wait to see the film. I knew Jordan Peele was a good comedy writer-performer, from his Key and Peele work, but this looked next level. I didn’t want to raise my hopes up too much… Perhaps I’d already seen all of the best bits, in the trailer.. I needn’t have worried. It really was next level. A horror film, but by no means your run-of-the-mill kind.
Chris and Rose
A horror movie where the black character isn’t killed off pretty much straight away? Yes, we’d heard of such things but we never dared to dream that we would really see the day…. OK, I’m playing with you slightly there, but you get my point… Not only is this a mainstream horror film with a young black man in the lead, it’s an American horror movie written and directed by a brilliant/iconic/cult, black comic-writer-performer, starring a young, black British actor, and with the in-your-face-dealing of a subject of which we usually dare not speak…
Talented, black photographer, Chris – brilliantly played by Daniel Kaluuya – and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage – Allison Williams, who’s also great in this – are a modern couple living in the city and about to visit her parents together for the first time. When Chris asks if they know he’s black, Rose reassures him that it doesn’t matter that he’s the first black guy she’s dated, it won’t be a problem. She teasingly adds: “My dad would’ve voted for Obama a third time, if he could!”
Chris’ best mate, Rod – played with spot-on hilarity by LilRel Howery – tells him: “Let me give you some advice. Don’t go to a white girl’s house.” So far, so banter…
On the drive there, a bizarre road accident with a deer results in Rose defending a resigned-to-it Chris against a cop with racist undertones, later poutingly telling her boyfriend: “No-one messes with my man.” If he wasn’t already in love with her, then that would’ve been the moment he fell. But the encounter puts their jovial trip, and us, just that little bit on edge.
At the Armitage family’s huge country pile, Rose’s parents – hypnotherapist, Missy and neurosurgeon, Dean, played mesmerisingly by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford – welcome him with open arms, literally, declaring: “We’re huggers round here” and telling him to make himself at home. They make light of the odd behaviour exhibited by their black maid, Georgina, and their black groundskeeper, Walter, both of whom show absolutely no flicker of recognising the kinsmanship that Chris is trying to subtly convey to them in this very white world. Dean talks of how embarrassed he is that his only two members of staff are black – he knows how it must look. But he explains that they originally came to live there to look after his parents, and by the time the parents died, they were like family (“family”… as is often, earily repeated…) and he couldn’t bear to send them away. To add to the family fun, Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landrey Jones), shows up – clearly a loose cannon, but full of cute, embarrassing stories about his sister and kept strangely in line by their mum.
Rose’s Parents, Missy and Dean
And so kicks off the weekend from hell. Full of some great twists, and one freaky garden party, with a star turn by Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out will keep you on the edge of your seat with both fear and laughter. I was gripped throughout.
The hand-out that the BFI gave us, describes this as a ‘nightmare spin on… Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. Obviously a great comparison but also a wonderful understatement.
Like Sydney Poitier’s character, Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris is nervous about meeting his girlfriend’s posh white parents. However, Get Out pushes the theme to the limits. It taps into a spoken/unspoken/conscious/unconscious, kinda primal fear… (yes, all of the above). A fear that has had good reason to grow over recent decades and perhaps, unknowingly, become ingrained into black people… In this film, those nightmare scenarios that black people secretly have in the back of their minds – whether consciously or unconsciously, but stemming from a history of repression and horrific abuse such as slavery and lynching – are brought to the fore. What’s going to happen to us when we submit ourselves, wander off without the rest of our clan, and make ourselves vulnerable?… In this psychological horror, Rose’s hypnotherapist mum, Missy, takes Chris to ‘the sunken place’ – a term used to refer to black people who are in denial about oppression (I’d never heard the expression before, but guessed that it must have a meaning, so looked it up)… And the only other black people we see are clearly not in their right mind.. A symbolic touch handled very cleverly by the comedian in Jordan Peele. The other scab that this film picks at, is the theory of white people’s obsession with possessing and controlling black people, black minds and black bodies. Seeing it played out here, by highly-respectable, rich white people, whilst referencing Obama, one can’t help but think about America’s racial problems, especially Trump and his cronies. Smiling assassins. On the face of it, spouting their Christian, moral high-ground, while doing what the hell they like and shafting the poor and the vulnerable while they do it… Sitting back and writing this review, I realise that it might all sound pretty deep and a bit heavy. And, it kinda is, really. I’m a black women, I’ve got LOADS of white friends – and godchildren – and I’ve never experienced anything but warmth from their families or from the parents of my white boyfriends. But inherently I still totally get the joking-not-joking context of Rod’s comment: “Let me give you some advice. Don’t go to a white girl’s house.” But what makes this film so brilliant, accessible and enjoyable is that all of those layers of meaning, whilst underpinning the story, are there to be unpicked later. If you want to. Because at its core it’s just a bloody good horror film and the themes are wrapped up in funny, clever, fantastically-scary storytelling. And acting. Such great acting from the entire outstanding cast.
I’ve already nodded to the totally brilliant Daniel Kaluuya, portraying the black person in all of us, as Chris; Allison Williams is perfect as Rose; funny man, LilRel Howery, as Rod; and Catherine Keener as Missy. The list of great cast long. But a special mention also needs to made of Betty Gabriel, as Georgina the maid – not just freaky but also slightly heartbreaking, as well as Marcus Henderson as the groundskeeper, Walter. And the film is worth watching for the sub-plot alone, where Rod tries to save Chris by going to the police, in a short but brilliant scene starring Erika Alexander, Jeronimo Spinx and Ian Casselberry as unconvinced detectives. It totally cracked me up.
Most of the time whilst watching this film, the tension was palpable in the auditorium. When it finished there was an immediate, spontaneous standing ovation and rapturous applause. And it wasn’t a Q&A. It was just a screening. So we were just clapping the screen. It was brilliant. And for Jordan Peele to successfully cover such delicate themes with humour, shows what a smart man and accomplished writer he is.
When it was over, I felt euphoric, like I’d just come off a rollercoaster. I gave my neighbours a huge grin. But, if my mates had been there, they would definitely have got a hug of joy… Reminding me that sometimes it IS good to go the cinema with your friends…
Erika Alexander, Jeronimo Spinx and Ian Casselberry, as detectives in Get Out
Update: 22nd March 2018: A year later, I’ve just got this on DVD and watched it again. I was absolutely buzzing with excitement as I lined up my glass of wine and my snacks, ready to press play. And, once again, it didn’t disappoint. And since watching it the first time, I’ve since found out that Jordan Peele’s wife is white. To me, that makes this brilliant film even more special. The best writing comes from a place of honesty and connection. Jordan wasn’t afraid to tap into difficult issues and not only did he do it with smarts and humour, he did it so well that he even won an Oscar for it! #BlackBoyMagic
One of the biggest failings of the US press in recent months, in the run up to their election and since Donald Trump’s shocking win, has been not only a failure to highlight when Donald Trump has been telling lies but to often repeat his comments verbatim, as if they were the truth. When Meryl Streep accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes on Sunday, 8th January 2017, she gave a passionate speech that called out Trump’s bullying behaviour, plus asked the press to hold power to account. She didn’t mention Donald Trump by name. She didn’t need to. Wonderfully powerful stuff from Ms Streep. We salute her.
Darkly comic and enchanting, Indivisible (or, “Indivisibli”, in Italian) is the story of beautiful Siamese twin sisters, Dasy and Viola. Joined at the hip, they are exploited by their money-hungry parents who use their disability and angelic singing voices as a novelty crowd-pleaser, raking in money by shamelessly touring them around their Italian city of Naples to perform at local events.
Two sides of the same coin, the girl’s shared capillaries lead to shared sensations – such as one feeling sick when the other eats too many pastries. However, they have decidedly different personalities as well as different ambitions as they turn 18 years old. Janis Joplin-obsessed Dasy, dreams of travelling to Los Angeles, like her idol, and of having friends and of one day making love. Viola, on the other hand, doesn’t like the thought of change and is worried that, if emancipated, Dasy would leave her alone with their parents.
One day they meet a doctor who lambastes their parents, pointing out that the girls don’t share any organs and therefore could have been separated years ago. The possibilities excite Dasy and scare Viola. However, together, they set out to defy their parents and to finally take control of their own lives, encountering some harsh life lessons on the way.
The twins are played with wonderful nuance by real life sisters, Angela and Marianna Fontana, supported brilliantly by distinct, on-point performances from Massimiliano Rossi as the shameless, gambling-addicted father, Peppe; Antonia Truppo as the constantly weed-smoking mother, Titti; and Peppe Servillo as the sleazy local priest.
Antonia Truppo, as Titti, the mother
The beautiful Naples coastline and a marvellous colour palette, juxtaposed with a heavy industrial presence and some stark wasteland, provide a surreal backdrop to the film. Heighted in some scenes to take you to an almost dream-like state, this is a very sweet, sisterly-love story, which examines what it means to be independent. Written by Nicola Guaglianone, Barbara Petronio and Edoardo De Angelis and directed by Edoardo De Angelis, the wonderfully-measured performances by the sisters will make you both laugh and cry.
Indivisible is a refreshingly different dark comedy. And if your heart-strings aren’t pulled by the end, you really need to get yourself checked out at the doctor.
Moonlight is a cleverly-conceived, beautifully-executed, complex and unexpected film. It follows Chiron – a black kid growing up in Miami, during the 1980s – through three key and very distinct phases of his life: from young boy, through teenage years, to manhood. Set against a powerful musical soundscape and at-times-captivating landscape, a subtle metaphorical language helps connect the three periods and Chiron’s relationships.
An outsider, who is routinely bullied for being awkward and different, with a junkie mother and an absent father, Chiron spends most of his life trying to just disappear. Guidance and some respite from life comes in the unlikely form of the local drug dealer, Juan (played in a wonderfully understated way by Mahershala Ali) who relates to his background and takes him under his wing. He tries to teach Chiron the importance of finding and being true to yourself, in your own time. But Chiron is swept away by the current of his life, constantly scared of drowning and barely able to catch his breath for long enough to be able to take stock and make a considered decision about the direction he actually wants to swim in.
Despite some extreme violence, Moonlight is a surprisingly sensitive and insightful film. It looks at the impact of addiction, in an unexpected way, whilst also boldly addressing the stigma surrounding homosexuality – a seriously under-addressed issue in black films.
Touching. Poignant. Beautiful. Violent. Heartbreaking. Throughout most of the film, you just want to crawl into the screen and hug Chiron, to make it all better. Although, there was one particular part at which I wanted to stand up and applaud him.
Though difficult to watch at times, this is a must-see film, with brilliantly-measured performances from all three Chirons – Alex R Hibbert, who plays Chiron as a child; Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron as a teenager; and Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as a young man – as well as Chiron’s friend, Kevin, played by Jaden Piner (the child), Jharell Jerome (the teenager) and André Holland (the young adult). Special mention must also go to Janelle Monáe, as Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, and Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s mum, Paula.
Directed by Barry Jenkins, who also co-wrote it with Tarell McCraney, with cinematography that moves you effortlessly between intimate or more dream-like states, to urgency or violence, Moonlight will have you gripped throughout and become one of your standout movies of the year.
Satire has always had an extremely important role to play, in keeping a check on society. Back in the day – way, way before South Park – there were court jesters, employed not merely to entertain but also as comedic “truth tellers”, in the privileged position of being allowed to mock anyone, including the King, to ensure a level of moral restraint. Straddling my university years and beyond, from 1984 – 1996, we had Spitting Image, the piss-taking scourge of public figures, from politicians to popstars. And in the late 70s/early 80s, Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys-Jones did this sketch for Not The Nine O’Clock News, called Constable Savage…
Constable Savage, Not The Nine O’Clock [click to watch]
Who could have known that Atkinson and Griff Rhys-Jones would turn out to be such soothsayers?!
PC Savage – worryingly, he’s a real London police officer [click to watch the full video on a Facebook page]
As it ‘turned out’, it was a case of mistaken identity. The motorist was completely innocent and has now made a formal complaint against PC Savage. With a social media storm kicked off, due to this circulating video, the Metropolitan Police was forced into immediate action and (the) Savage is now on restricted duties, pending an investigation.
However, to add to concerns, on the 19th September, 4Front Media published a second video starring PC Savage, which demonstrates that he has form for stopping black men on Suspicion of Going About Their Business (my technical term, not his…). 24-year-old Kyle Adair-Whyte was pushing his broken down motorbike when he got stopped by PC Savage…
PC Savage: Repeat Offender [click to watch]
At 9 minutes, I realise this last video is a bit long (but it’s worth watching for Adair-Whyte’s very fair and balanced account and perspective). If you take the time to watch to the end, you’ll see and understand the frustration often felt by black men in this country. Just because some black men commit crime, doesn’t mean they all do. Can you imagine the outcry if white middle class men got regularly stopped and searched for cocaine, just because white middle class men are known to do it. Or if every MP got stopped for poppers, just because…. well, I’m sure you get my point…
In the video, Adair-Whyte, who works AND studies, says: “You’ve seen a black guy in a jacket pushing a bike that’s slightly broken and you’ve immediately assumed that he’s a criminal… He thinks he has the right to assault me and accuse me of being a thief…which is unfair.”
At the end of the film, Adair-Whyte adds that police need to: “Think twice because you never know the kind of effects your actions are going to have on people and on the community….It’s a constant barrage.. You don’t understand that what you’re doing is detrimental, to the whole of society… You’re police officers and that’s supposed to mean something in this country. You’re supposed to set a benchmark, a standard. And it’s failing.”
Finally, Adair-Whyte explains that: “It makes me feel really bad about myself. I’m trying, I’m working, I’m doing progressive things… To have to stand at the side of the road while five officers take the piss out of me, it makes me think what’s the point.”
My friend, Lara, said of the 30+ year old ‘Constable Savage‘ comedy sketch: “It’s uncanny! How fucked up is the world, how can we have gone so backwards for this to be representative of today’s reality?!”
And I can only agree. The one slither of silver lining is that our police officers don’t carry guns like the trigger-happy Americans. Or the Savages of this world would be trying to justify bloodshed, instead of broken windscreens. However, rest assured that the mental wounds inflicted by officers like Savage run deep.
Set in Ireland, this very dry comedy sees ‘Mad’ Mary McArdle released from a six-month prison stretch and returned to the home she shares with her Mum and Nan, days before she’s due to be Maid of Honour at her best friend, Charlene’s, wedding.
Instead of a warm welcome from the childhood friend she adores and the night on the town that she was desperately looking forward, Mary finds that things have drastically changed. Charlene is no longer her lairy, track-suited side-kick. Instead she’s become a fully-polished and fully-evolved Bridezilla. When the long-awaited celebration of her freedom never arrives and Mary gradually realises that her best mate is embarrassed of her, she determines to prove that she’s as good as everyone else by finding herself a +1 for the wedding. However, her lack of social skills, insecurities, bad temper and quick tongue derail her attempts to navigate the complexities of dating. And when she’s faced with some uncomfortable truths she’s forced to re-evaluate what and who she really wants from her life and find a place for herself in the new social set up that she’s returned to.
Written by Colin and Darren Thornton and directed by Darren Thornton, this great comedy has some wonderful female roles, brilliantly cast, and played by women who handle the dialogue superbly. As well as a star turn by Seána Kerslake, as Mad Mary herself, it includes Barbara Brennan as the miserable Nan, delivering some beautifully-cutting lines.
It’s with good reason that this documentary is described as The Film The Australian Government Doesn’t Want You To See. It’s a heart-breaking, anger-inducing look at the Australian government’s tough immigration policy – which completely flouts the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention that Australia signed up to, agreeing to accept refugees fleeing persecution.
Since as early as 2001, successive Australian PMs and ministers have taken a brutally-hard line, making it clear that refugees are not welcome and developing a strategy to stop the arrival of boats.
As of July 2013 this has been mercilessly reinforced by a blanket policy blocking any boats from landing in Australia. Print and television ads drive home the point, telling refugees that they will NOT reach Australia. Instead, they are rerouted to off-shore ‘indefinite detention’ centres on the remote Republic of Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, both in the middle of the pacific ocean. At the time of filming, there were 2,175 asylum seekers and refugees housed there. And the policy is not one of care for these poor people, who are fleeing war and persecution, but of deterrent. The aim is to ensure that living conditions are so bad the refugees warn others from their homelands not to come.
The film opens with the voice of an asylum seeker, explaining that he’d heard Australia was a safe country. A calm country, without war. And a place that respected refugees and immigrants. How wrong he was.
The film features interviews with junior support staff, social workers, mental health officials and a senior security guard (who has been threatened for speaking out), as well as lots of covertly-filmed footage, as cameras and journalists aren’t allowed in the Nauru or Manus centres.
We see first hand that the centres are manned by staff who are completely ill-equipped to deal with the situation – many of those interviewed on camera were young people, ranging from students to factory workers, who had answered an ad of the Salvation Army’s Facebook page and signed up to what they thought would be an exotic adventure. Literally a few days later, they found themselves dumped in the middle of Nauru, with no training and tasked with stopping the desperate refugees from self-harming. To add to the tension, physical, mental and/or sexual abuse by the security guards is rife. At least one inmate was murdered by security guards and locals, plus numerous inmates have killed themselves or tried. The centres are wretched, with inadequate shelter, insufficient clothing and unsanitary conditions. And with ‘indefinite detention’ offering no end in sight – so worse than a prison sentence, mentally – it is said to take about six weeks to break the refugees, before they lose hope. Unsurprisingly, those that aren’t already traumatised from whatever experience they were escaping from in their homeland, are likely to soon develop mental health issues.
The Australian Government’s Campaign Poster
One of the worrying aspects – and there are so many to choose from – is the number of children detained on these islands. Australia is the only country in the world to keep children in ‘indefinite detention centres’. Not only do they suffer from gravely inadequate learning, playing and personal development facilities, they may now also have parents who are deteriorating and thus unable to support or protect them. The sexualised behaviours of even some of the youngest ones points to the abuse that is taking place.
Yet, despite the number of sexual assaults reported – without any investigations – from 1st July 2015, whistle-blowers now face two years in jail. This includes nurses, doctors and social workers, as well as reports on sexual abuse.
In September 2015, after a damning report into these off-shore centres, the Australian government agreed to a one-off intake 12,000 Syrian refugees. On the very same day, Australia began more airstrikes on Syria.
Watch this and weep. Weep for those poor asylum seekers and refugees. Most of all, weep for humanity and some people’s ability to not only let things like this happen but to try to justify them. But do watch this if you get the chance. There’s really no excuse for us turning a blind eye to the atrocities going on around us and in Chasing Asylum, Academy Award-winning director-producer Eva Orner opens our eyes wide to what’s going on.