For the journalist, AFI Fest is a manic dash from film to reception and back. The remaining days of our time at the fest was similar.
Reception for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
One of several high-profile features in their Special Screenings series was Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, a look at the life of Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and her relationship with a younger man (Jamie Bell). The Old Hollywood feeling moved from the screen to after the feature when select press were invited to special post-screening reception at the famed Roosevelt theater with stars Annette Bening (and husband, Warren Beatty) and Jamie Bell. After welcoming everyone to “our party,” as Bening called it, the guests were treated to a special performance by Elvis Costello. Costello, playing alongside a pianist who played for Leonard Cohen, played three songs – including one for his upcoming Broadway show based on A Face in the Crowd. (It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by a party where Annette Bening, Warren Beatty and Elvis Costello are names you can drop.)
The first of two Hong Sang-soo films being screened at AFI – alongside Sang-soo’s The Day After – Claire’s Camera follows a high school teacher on vacation (Isabelle Huppert) and how she interacts with several Korean transplants, including a recently fired young woman (Min-hee Kim).
Claire’s Camera is a brief, hour-long look in how people perceive each other. Min-hee Kim, beautiful in her vulnerability, sets things in motion after her boss fires her for “seeming” dishonest. Certain words are repeated to instill further meaning – look out for chronic repetitions of “see” or “honest” – as the two words in certain pairs connote Sang-soo’s overall takeaway, though you often feel like the meaning is being hit over your head with Claire’s camera, but it opens up an interesting conversation. How does someone look, or our second-hand impressions of their actions, color how we believe they are as people?
The Cannes landscape is muted and unrecognizable to the uninitiated, leaving characters to aimlessly walk flat beaches and wide streets. The same street is seen multiple times – like a lazy dog sleeping in front of a restaurant, or a bookstore – and feels like a different location based on how characters interact with it.
Huppert and Kim are the two leads and do good work in spite possessing the bare bones of a character. Huppert can act in her sleep and her role as a schoolteacher whose camera compels the others to look inward isn’t revelatory. Kim is sweet, but it’s often hard to not see her as a punching bag because of her beauty – going back to Sang-soo’s point that we make assumptions based on appearance. Claire’s Camera is a passable film, but it’s brevity leaves the message stark and characters murky.
Directed, written, produced and starring Noel Wells, Mr. Roosevelt has a familiar indie plotline. Wells plays Emily, a wannabe actress who can’t seem to get her career off the ground. She’s told to return to her Austin hometown in order to bury the cat, of whom the title is derived, she once shared with her ex-boyfriend.
Mr. Roosevelt is indie with a capital “I”. Similar to Garden State, Mr. Roosevelt deals with a selfish person who returns to their roots to discover things weren’t perfect. The film is twee at times with its tear-downs of hipsters.
Wells keeps Mr. Roosevelt light and breezy. Her character is no different from Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen. Emily has a dream that we’re never sure she’s actually good at – the opening scene allows Wells to showcase her comedy, best seen in her work on Saturday Night Live; she has casual relationships and believes Eric’s life is terrible without her. All of this should make the character insufferable and yet Wells is so cute that it’s hard not to be beguiled by her.
Thune and Lower could have been written as hokey villains, but they’re the most mature and interesting characters in the picture. Wells’ script is clearest when it’s looking at the concessions we make between our dreams and responsibility, and Thune is a dependable presence. Lower, with a smile and look reminiscent of Rebecca Hall creates enough empathy that you can see where she’s overstepping her bounds yet simultaneously doing something good. The highlight is Daniella Pineda as Jen, a waitress Emily befriends during her time in Austin. Pineda brings a ray of sunshine and grit to the film. She is crass, funny and spontaneous, with an IDGAF attitude that would make anyone want to be around her. Jen, like Emily, wants to follow her creative side and is fine with a life lived in communal housing. Jen is the ultimate hybrid of what Emily and Eric want from life, she just lives it better.
Mr. Roosevelt is a satisfying debut for Noel Wells as a director and screenwriter. The film’s indie roots show, and that might turn off audiences looking for something more mainstream and/or less cutesy. Pineda rips the spotlight away from everyone.
The young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is a popular trope, particularly in the horror genre where Repulsion and Carrie have utilized sexuality as a manifestation of supernatural powers. Joachim Trier’s Carrie-esque Thelma is a riveting exploration of the telekinetic horror film for 2017, with a melancholy critique of religious oppression.
Eili Harboe’s Thelma is a meek young woman out on her own for the first time. Her parents are overprotective, but that’s to be expected. But when Thelma finds herself attracted to a female schoolmate it brings to the surface old wounds, and the belief that there might be something wrong with her.
Brian De Palma’s adaptation is Trier’s immediate reference, but where that feature elicits screams from Carrie’s maturation (and possesses an opening scene leering in its horror), Thelma analyzes where the independent spirit of a person takes over. Harboe’s pixie face is front and center, and the changes she’s undergoing transform her entire being. The actress stands at the edge of a precipice and when she finally jumps it’s liberating. Watch how Harboe expresses herself after she conjures up a curse word against God, it’s like a small child. The problem is her parents – aren’t they source of all our problems? Dear mom and dad are very Christian, so Thelma’s sexuality is terrifying to her, not just because she’s attracted to someone for the first time (a girl, no less), but it goes against everything she’s been taught.
The telekinesis acts like a disability as opposed to a supernatural benefit. Thelma has horrific convulsions preceding them, and their uncontrollable nature demonstrates the disadvantages of wish fulfillment. Scenes that could be played up for horror – like the disappearance of a small child – are sad for all parties, both because of the uncontrollable nature of them, and the sadness that comes from knowing nothing can be done.
To say anymore about Thelma would be to undo what makes the film so compelling. Thelma is a movie about relationships, with a female character whose coming of age is horrifying, yet builds from a relatable place. Come for the weirdness, but stay for the heart.
No one sets out to sit through a bad movie and the pain’s even worse when you know the movie should be right up your alley. Such is the case with Corey Finley’s Thoroughbreds, a film that compares itself to Heathers – a high watermark in my book – but seems to miss what made that film a classic.
Amanda and Lily (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, respectively) were once best friends, but after Amanda slaughtered her prize horse the two have drifted apart. Brought back together for SAT prep, they quickly hatch a plan to rid Lily of her domineering stepfather.
Thoroughbreds think it’s Heathers meets American Psycho, and though it takes the quippy dialogue from those films it fails to invest them into a story with significant weight. It’s unclear whether this is meant to play as a straightforward depiction of white privilege – and in this day who wants that on the screen when you can turn on the news – or a satire of it. If it’s the latter, the script writes its characters like a bad joke: “a sociopath and a wannabe socialite meet in a bar…” The script gives us no help into these characters relationships short of Amanda and Lily were once friendly, and that’s it. There’s hardly any traveling beyond Lily’s house, leaving a claustrophobic world that seemingly just contains them. Thoroughbreds wants to be Brechtian, but only knows the term.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy spit there lines out with cold affect, comfortable with Finley’s dialogue. Cooke is emotionless and straightforward, which is needed for Amanda’s character, but there’s no proper context or analysis of how she creates her own hell. She’s akin to those people in high school who talk about their hatred of “bourgeois conformists,” but fail to see they are one. Taylor-Joy takes a cue from Lindsay Lohan circa-Mean Girls, acting like the bubbly overachiever when she’s really an entitled brat. Her goal is evident from her first interactions with her step-father, played with sufficient menace by Paul Sparks, but, again, it’s more the scheming of a five-year-old than anything else. The biggest waste is Anton Yelchin as Tim. In his final feature, Yelchin plays a drug dealer and felon blackmailed to help the girl. He comes and goes so frequently that it’s hard to get a bead on his character at all, short of patsy.
And before you say, “but that’s the point,” I know that. Finley’s takeaway is so overt and surface-level that anyone can interpret what he’s saying immediately. And, strangely enough, I should have liked it. The problem is the entire endeavour feels so amateur and basic. Cooke and Taylor-Joy are fun to watch, but this is far from Heavenly Creature. Thoroughbreds gets hobbled before it even runs the race.