The third day of the festival served up dispirited meditations on grief; a lyrical, extraordinarily heartbreaking documentary; an entertaining-if-hollow sporting drama, and an absurdly goofy B-movie from Cambodia.
After Day Two‘s dreadful car-crash start and satisfactory follow-ups, Day Three picked up with some choice selections. This year definitely has a lot more lesser-known features sandwiched between the recognised, meaning the opportunity to take risks is always available. This happened twice on Day Three with two smaller films following a revered director’s latest and an LFF Gala.
The ever-prolific Richard Linklater returns to the LFF with his heartrending road movie Last Flag Flying (B+): a film that deals in the sudden loss of a family member in the United States Marine Corps, and the remorse of a past where a tragic accident separates a close friendship. In 2003, Larry – aka Doc (Steve Carell) – receives news that his son has been killed overseas in Baghdad. Alone, he seeks out his old Corpsmen with whom he spent time with in Vietnam to request their company as he takes his son’s body across state lines to be buried in his hometown: alcoholic, cocksure barkeep Sal (Bryan Cranston) and virtuous-yet-volatile Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). Carell continues to show how versatile an actor he is: Doc is a mournful, reserved man whose life has been deeply affected by repeated tragedies, and it’s hard to stem the build-up of tears each time Carell opens his mouth in pained sorrow. Cranston and Fishburne are also magnificent – both bestowing the film with some seriously needed humour as the bickering duo clash over their not-so-perfect past. Additionally J. Quinton Johnson, playing friend and co-Corpsman to Doc’s son, perfectly illustrates the pain of a friend’s death, and the forced masculinity drilled into him by edicts and doctrines from his Colonel.
It’s not all despondent, thankfully: it can be very funny too. Credibly set in 2003 without being flashy, the trio are finding partnership in their estrangement to the newly flourishing internet, clanging rap music, and – in a particularly funny detour – their purchase of state-of-the-art mobile phones. As is to be expected from Linklater, Last Flag Flying has a typically witty screenplay, rarely refusing to pull any punches, take for example, the specific, bigoted rhetoric that Sal adopts when talking about their participation in Vietnam, or the anger they all express toward a government that’s failing them at every turn. This is a film that doesn’t waver from dealing with American guilt and anti-war patriotism, nor does it try to skirt around the scathing commentary on the lies that fuel wars and the soldiers who die for them. Sometimes, this political stance does get muddied: shots of Saddam Hussein’s son’s deaths drawing parallels to Doc’s bereavement feels a little too broad, and it doesn’t help that the score is widely manipulative. These feel like calculated emotions towards Linklater’s end goal, but that does little to negate how poignant and delicate it is when its aim is true.
Next up was a film that I knew was going to be tough – a narration-less documentary focused on the many lives affected by terminal cancer in and around an Isle of Wight hospice. Island is essentially unreviewable. Punctuating the many ritualistic lives of these patients, their saintly nurses and family members are some starkly beautiful images of hazy passenger ferries coming in to dock; then contrasted with unsensational, unobtrusive moments of voyeurism within the hospice walls: including a static shot of a young father losing composure during a family party, or an unforgettable, stationary five minutes of an anguished old man’s final minutes. It’s unconscionably sad to see this in its matter-of-factness, and ofttimes I was looking everywhere but the screen, or doing so through clouded eyes. Echoes of Frederick Wiseman’s troubling Titicut Follies in its observational impartiality, and just as immeasurably upsetting, Island is an utterly devastating documentary that’s hard to recommend, and impossible to forget.
Though very well intentioned and superbly acted, I couldn’t ignore the sensation that Battle of the Sexes (B-) was far too ordinary and half-cooked than it should have been. Steve Carell (in his second, far more grandiose performance of the day) embodies showboating meathead Bobby Riggs: a man famous for his antagonistic chauvinism and tennis proficiency. On the other side of the battle is the forever delightful Emma Stone as Billie Jean King, a sporting superstar who fought for equality in a male-dominated sport, even in the face of ruin. The two have a chemistry that doubtlessly sparks whenever they’re set against each other, either during a press junket or on the court, but unfortunately, getting to these head-to-head wars of words and skill takes much too long, a drawn out preamble introducing both characters and the people in their lives. Even given the amount of time spent with these side characters – such as King’s team, or Riggs’ wife and sons – their affiliations are never wholly established, leaving each relationship feeling primitively undercooked. Where the film could have given us as many thrills in King and Riggs butting heads, there’s a lot of time spent with them separated, so it instead slips into a routine of quick-witted smack talking, rounded off with a fairly unstimulating final match. For a sporting match that’s one of the most important in history for gender equality, it left me feeling like this was an underdog tale of Riggs’s troubles more than Kings’ drive to be heard.
The day rounded itself off with as little seriousness as it possibly could have. Jailbreak (B-) – a Cambodian action thriller with aims to rejuvenate the kingdom’s genre – follows the basic format of its progenitors The Raid and Hard Boiled, but through an utterly berserk Looney-Tunes-on-bath-salts filter. There’s a huge amount of effort put in to give it its own quality – from the brand new fighting style (which I must be honest, I have no way of telling the difference between one style of punches and another), to its completely goofy, often accidental humour, there’s clearly a lot of love put in. It’s stupidly tongue-in-cheek, too, but sometimes that makes it encroach on Cannon Films territory, with stiff acting to rival Tommy Wiseau, but it’s just so darned charming in its scrappy, drab, and downright ugly prison corridor setting. The main draw here is the action, and there’s an honest-to-goodness brilliance in the crunchy choreography. When the punches actually land, they look like they’d leave a mark, and when they visibly miss their target, this adds to the underdog charm. The Raid successor this ain’t, but it’s a damned lot of fun, and a frankly winning stab at a genre mostly unheard of in Cambodia.
Today had its downs, though none of these were the films fault. Two of four devastated me to some degree (one which is going to have a lifetime effect), and the other two impressed in their aims while faltering at others. A successful day in most regards, though I’m still waiting for the film to which I can fully adore.