Sep 24, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Tiger Girl

Dir: Jakob Lass
Maggy (Maria Dragus) has recently failed her exam to join the Police but, while she’s waiting to take it again in six months, she’s enrolled on a course to become a security guard. On the first day of her course, Maggy goes out in the evening and is harassed at a subway station on the way home. Tiger (Ella Rumpf) comes to Maggy’s rescue, beating up her attackers. This begins a fast friendship, which begins to lead Maggy down a path of increasing rebelliousness and violence until Tiger is concerned that she’s created a monster.

The brochure blurb on Tiger Girl makes a big play of Tiger as an anti-capitalist and the film as political. I went into it expecting the film to dig into these ideas, into the conflict between political violence and simple lashing out - a sort of Edukators with fight scenes. Unfortunately these themes are more present in the LFF booklet than they are in the film itself.

Tiger does occasionally mention that she only attacks people with power, only steals from the rich, but this reads like self-justification for her mugging people or lashing out violently. That would be interesting if the film gave any indication of making her confront this hypocrisy, but it fails to engage with this even as Maggy becomes ever more randomly violent, to Tiger’s disapproval.

In Raw, Ella Rumpf showed that she has an interesting, edgy, presence about her. Sadly, Tiger Girl doesn’t demand much of her aside from that. The writing is ultimately shallow and we never learn much about Tiger. Rumpf can still hold the camera with a look, and dominates scenes even when outnumbered, useful in a third act scene when she goes to pay off a big time dealer her friends have fallen in with. 

If Rumpf convinces at least with her presence, the same can’t really be said of Maria Dragus, who was so good in Graduation. Dragus always seems like she’s acting, both in the early scenes as she excels in her security course and increasingly so as she drifts ever further into criminality. This is appropriate enough as Tiger goads Maggy into her first acts of rebellion (renaming her ‘Vanilla’), but the sense of both Dragus and Maggy playing a part doesn’t go away. If this is supposed to suggest that Maggy is looking for a sense of belonging and, not finding it, trying to play the role, that’s another theme the screenplay never makes convincing.

The screenplay drags out its various strands in thoroughly expected ways, trying to play off the irony of Maggy’s infatuation with Tiger’s way of life set against her initial ambition to be a cop. It’s entirely obvious where this is going to end up, just as it is obvious how Tiger and Maggy’s friendship will fracture.

Jakob Lass directs competently, if not particularly interestingly. There are a handful of striking images here (the jewelled masks in the still above, for instance) but while the violence is reasonably well shot it seldom has much charge to it. Had the film given more emphasis to the politics we’re apparently supposed to take from it then the violence might have had an interesting moral ambiguity about it, but without that dimension it just becomes a deadening series of confrontations.

On the whole, this is a disappointing film. It wastes two actors with obvious raw talent and a screenplay that has some ideas, but neglects to explore them in any way that would either inform the characters or prove thought provoking for viewers.

Sep 21, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Princess Cyd

Dir: Stephen Cone
Princess Cyd is writer/director Stephen Cone's eighth feature in as many years, but you'd be forgiven for not knowing that, because the two of his films that have come out in the UK have had only low key streaming releases, Black Box through Amazon and Henry Gamble's Birthday Party through Netflix. Earlier this year I was shown Henry Gamble's Birthday Party and instantly marked Cone as a director to watch for his witty dialogue, ability as an actor's director and knack for creating believable characters and relationships. If there's any justice, Princess Cyd will serve as Cone's breakout moment.

The minimal story finds 16 year old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) going to stay in Chicago for a couple of weeks with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a well known writer. While she's there, Cyd meets Katie (Malic White) and begins a casual relationship. From an initially wary start, we see Cyd and Miranda's relationship grow and both of them grow a bit through it.

Much of Princess Cyd unfolds through conversation. This is perhaps Cone's greatest strength as a writer; the character's voices are distinct as are the ways that each character relates to all the others and it's the differences in these relationships and therefore in the flow of conversation that makes it so engaging. We see this best in the evolution of how Cyd and Miranda talk. Initially Cyd is a bit reticent saying, almost as the first thing she tells her author aunt, that she doesn't read. This gives way to lighter moments as they begin to relate more, and later to a tense and frank conversation after a get together at Miranda's house, when Cyd suggests that if her Aunt had sex rather than cake she might be happier. This scene is some of Cone's best writing of the whole film, with an angry Miranda visibly trying to get her point across without saying something she might regret, but which is clearly what she'd like to say if Cyd were a few years older. This is also the moment when Rebecca Spence's performance is at its best. There has been a sense throughout of her feeling out how to relate to her niece and, alongside the other notes in this scene, she gives Miranda a barely disguised sense of disappointment that perhaps she hasn't yet worked it out as well or as completely as she thought.

The evolution of Cyd and Miranda's relationship and the ways they rub off on each other is one of the film's strongest threads. Through Miranda (and perhaps through wanting to impress Katie, who does read), Cyd finds a greater connection to her aunt's work, while Miranda is somewhat lightened by Cyd, doing things she hasn't done and thinking about things she hasn't considered for some time. This is woven through the relationship between Miranda and Anthony, Cyd sees an energy between them and encourages it to both of them, but Cone smartly refuses to make it that simple or to put a bow on it by the end of the film. It's an intelligently written thread that emphasises the differences in how people think and their priorities at 16 and at 40.
The film is set in the summer, and this comes through in the visuals, which show a suburban Chicago far from the crime ridden image we're often given of it in the news. This is probably to do with the circles Cyd finds herself in, but it also suggests that sense of her enjoying a new place and, in Katie, new people. Scenes of Cyd lying out in Miranda's garden to sunbathe or the time she spends with Katie have that feel of the long days of summer that seem to stretch out in front of us in our school holidays. This is very much the feel of the scenes leading up to and at Miranda's party. Cyd borrows an outfit – a tuxedo – from Katie to attend, and you get the sense of her finding a new comfort in her skin and with her aunt and her friends. One very nice moment has Cyd asking a lesbian couple about the fact that they both used to be married to men, and ends up in her saying to them “I like... everything”, something you get the sense she's vocalising, perhaps even to herself, for the first time in that moment.

There are, amongst the sweet moments of coming of age, moments of darkness; that tense moment with Miranda, a call from Katie in a moment of crisis and the always present undertone of the family tragedy that Cyd survived when she was six, accentuated by the fact that she's staying in her late mother's old bedroom. Jessie Pinnick is outstanding throughout as Cyd, there's little sense that she's acting, except perhaps early in the party scene, before she settles in with the new people around her. The chemistry between Pinnick and Malic White as Katie also feels entirely unforced, we buy them as fast friends and the evolution of their relationship. There is a sense, as Cyd's stay is just two weeks, of the whole film as a series of stolen moments, that's never more true than in her relationship with Katie, particularly an early scene when a film crew mistakes Katie for a boy and asks her and Cyd to slow dance in the background of their shot. 

Like many of the best coming of age films, Princess Cyd is ultimately an ellpsis. We don't know where Cyd and Katie will end up, if Cyd will go back to Chicago for college or, beyond a closer relationship with her aunt, the lasting impact of these two weeks. Growing up is a process, and Princess Cyd is about a brief moment in it, one it captures beautifully. 

Sep 20, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Mini-Reviews 1

So Help Me God
Dir: Jean Libon, Yves Hinant
The true crime documentary is going through a particularly interesting period right now, with series like Making A Murderer and The Keepers and films as straightforward as Amanda Knox or as formally interesting as Casting JonBenet. So Help Me God doesn't break any new ground in the way it's made, but it does show most of us a job within the justice system we're not familiar with, through a highly engaging and interesting woman.

Anne Gurwez is a Belgian investigating magistrate, a job that seems to be somewhere between detective and prosecutor and carries a great deal of influence on how people are dealt with within the Belgian system. The film follows her over the course of several months, as her day to day work on current cases coincides with the reinvestigation of a 20 year old double murder.

Gurwez herself is the best reason to give So Help Me God a look. She seems like she takes a nuanced approach to her work; tough but good humoured, able to be talked round to giving someone a chance if she likes them, but sharp tongued if she detects any hint of bullshit and deadly serious when the situation demands it. This mix often provokes some amusing juxtapositions of the gruesomeness of some of her work and the matter of fact and generally good humoured way she approaches it (see the scene where a body is exhumed in the cold case).

There are many memorable moments here, some are quite light, like the scene in which a dominatrix accused of theft amuses Gurwez by discussing some of the strangest requests her clients have made, but others are much darker and heavier. The film hits hardest in the investigation of a horrifying infanticide, which is immediately followed by a coldly matter of fact confession by the child's mother, who tells a story that suggests insanity in the calmest and most measured tones. It's a truly disturbing scene that nothing else in the film comes close to matching.

Overall, this is a pretty conventional film made engaging by an unconventional personality at its centre and some compelling stories, it's perhaps more suited to the BBC's Storyville than a cinema, but it's well worth a watch if you're interested in true crime.

Dir: Jamie Thraves
Aiden Gillen is one of those actors who can make everything he's in a little bit better. Especially as he's got into middle age, he's become one of those actors who always disappears into a character, and that is the jumping off point for Pickups, which Gillen co-wrote with director Jamie Thraves.

Gillen plays Aiden, an Irish actor who is well known enough to get recognised regularly, but not George Clooney famous. He's recently divorced and preparing to make a new film, in which he's going deep into preparation to play a serial killer. It seems, however, that he may have got a bit too far into this character.

The premise of Pickups (the title referring both to casual sex and to additional shooting after a film's main production) isn't wildly original; a mid-life crisis coinciding with an actor going too deep into a role, but it should provide ample room for an actor like Gillen to get his teeth into a starring role (he's in practically every frame of the film). Unfortunately, I found the film meandering and lacking much insight. Narration frequently tells us what Aiden is thinking at any given moment, which it doesn't need to do, Gillen is a god enough actor to show us without our needing to be told most of what the voiceover says. Even with this though, everything is on the surface. The disconnect between Aiden's real life – the daughter he hasn't seen for some time back in Ireland – and his work on this character is interesting in concept, but the screenplay doesn't say much that's especially new or insightful about either side of that divide. 

The overarching story never coheres into anything terribly interesting, so what we end up with is more a series of vignettes. Some are interesting enough, interactions with fans often throw up an amusing moment, but even when we're supposed to be unnerved because he's too deep in the character, this doesn't feel like it bleeds over into these interactions. Only one vignette really stuck in my mind, a brief moment with Antonia Campbell Hughes as an actress friend of Aiden's, who he suggests should have a part in the film. It's the one moment that chills the blood.

It's interesting to see Gillen play a character whose experiences seem so close to his own, but because of that it disappointing that Pickups doesn't feel more insightful. Ultimately if you want to see a version of an actor blurring the line between life and acting I'd suggest seeking out the underseen I Love A Man In Uniform before this.