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BFI London Film Festival 2023

Shortcomings


In a way, Shortcomings was the perfect film to open up the London Film Festival this year. More often than not, deciding what to see in this context is based on minimal information. It might be a screenshot, a brief synopsis or just a director’s name. Sometimes, if we’re honest, it’s the run time. In this case, it was precisely that. Its direct opponent was Steve McQueen’s 4-hour epic documentary Occupied City.


Sometimes the choice is made before we even get that far, because a loved one is involved in a film that’s screening. That’s exactly where Shortcomings begins. Ben (Justin H. Min) has been dragged along to see “Just the Beginning” at an Asian film festival - a film that his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), is presented as being the auteur behind. The big problem for Ben is that it isn’t very good, and as an aspiring filmmaker himself, he isn’t planning to hide his disdain for it.


There are shades of High Fidelity and Don Jon in that Ben is, essentially, a flawed asshole who’s forced to learn the error of his ways through his romantic relationships. He’s arrogant, dismissive and selfish, but it’s all a front that he uses to hide his low self-esteem. While we’re encouraged repeatedly to see Ben’s flaws, his redeeming feature is that he’s just about interesting enough to carry some insightful conversations about minority representation in film, and the fetishisation of different cultures. Those who missed the hype for Everything Everywhere All at Once might find themselves nodding along to some of his less egregious monologues.


There are elements that could have been more subtle - at one point we’re literally told by Ben’s friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), exactly what conclusions we’re supposed to be drawing about him - but Shortcomings has a self-awareness that narrowly makes that okay. The butt of a lot of the humour throughout is the film itself, and it’s difficult not to be charmed by a romcom that has no intention to be taken any more seriously than we want to take it.


Shortcomings won’t be remembered as a classic, nor will it gain any kind of cult status, but that’s okay. There’s space in the world, and certainly at film festivals, for smaller films that just plan to make us smile for a while. That’s all we need from this one, and it’s all it gives us.


★★★☆☆


The Sweet East


For want of a better word, there’s something really nice in the opening act of The Sweet East. It starts with some old home-videoesque grainy footage of a young couple behaving exactly like a young couple. They’re a bit awkward around one another, but they’re full of dreams and aspirations that they aren’t shy about. There’s an air of hope which only grows when we follow them, along with their classmates, to the White House on a school trip. We learn about how it deliberately faces west to look towards the rest of the country from its eastern position, and it’s all very promising. It feels as if we’re about to get a modern bildungsroman about the forgotten neighbourhoods that lie east of the White House. Brilliant.


Then it all falls apart in spectacular fashion.


The cinematography, the locations, the actors, everything from a technical point of view is very good. What isn’t, is its bizarre narrative. Lillian (Talia Ryder) is the protagonist at the centre of it all, but she just isn’t at all adept at protagonising. She just aimlessly wanders from one absurd event to another, without any influence as to what’s going on.


The problem as well, is that these absurd events aren’t given the gravity that they warrant at all. There’s neo-Nazis, a religious cult, and themes of abuse in Hollywood, but Lillian is just present for it all. She never seems all that bothered by what she’s being drawn into, and it’s hard to gauge how we should feel about it because of that. There are sequences during the neo-Nazi segment that feel as if she’s just happy enough to be there because she shows such little interest in it that the assumption becomes that it must be a familiar environment.


The problem doesn’t seem to be Talia Ryder’s interpretation of the material, though. It’s just written in such a flimsy manner that it’s impossible to latch onto anything. Even with such extreme contextual elements.


It does feel as if it’s trying to achieve something akin to an anti-Forrest Gump effect. Where Forrest Gump told the story of the USA by hanging all of its history on one otherwise unremarkable man, The Sweet East seems to be attempting to show its country’s present and future flaws by putting Lillian through them all. That’s a brilliant concept, but its execution doesn’t really land. It only ever leads to melancholy, and while that’s an interesting piece of commentary, it’s an incomplete conclusion without any opposition.


★★☆☆☆


The Killer


The Killer’s tagline is “Execution is everything”. I can only assume that someone on the marketing team at Netflix thought as much of it as I did.


The idea of David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker teaming up as a filmmaking duo for the first time since Seven is, obviously, a promising one. Factor in that it’s clearly some kind of crime effort from its title alone and the promise only grows. At its worst, it’s reasonable to expect some really well-made genre pulp. Unfortunately, it falls short of that and into the realm of low-substance crime porn.


The first twenty minutes or so are, to be fair, quite intriguing. We’re left alone with The Killer himself, played by Michael Fassbender in his first film since X-Men: Dark Phoenix. In the four years since, Fassbender has been making a modest name for himself in the motorsports world with two 24 Hours of Le Mans races to his name. The endurance required for such a race would have been good training, because if David Fincher’s reputation as the king of the retake is to be believed, this must have been one tedious sequence to act.


The Killer is preparing for a long-range kill, from a vantage point in what appears to be a mostly abandoned office block in Paris. His target will come into his view at some point soon, and when they do he has to be prepared both mentally and physically. So he sits cross-legged for long periods, engages in low-impact exercises such as push-ups, and verbally reiterates the steps he needs to take to be successful in his task. Fassbender meticulously does nothing for a while, essentially, but we get all the information we need on his character through an extended, moody voiceover. It sounds like Dexter because it basically is.


Dexter, but for hire, really. The kill goes wrong and this sets into motion a revenge trail of sorts when his employers, or customers in a way, need to remove any connection between him and them. But the Killer is so devoid of any kind of reasonable human emotion that it’s impossible to care about his case for having been treated wrongly. He’s also nowhere near as attentive as he’s presented to be, so it’s hard to know what to even take from The Killer at all. One such example is when he lays down a sheet of newspaper to protect a carpet from the blood that’s rushing from a victim’s head. Unless the newspaper was laminated beforehand, which it wasn’t, you’d think he’d be aware that it isn’t the ideal material for this job. Except in this world it apparently is, and it does its job without any error or repercussions.


Okay, a bit of creative freedom with how liquid-repellant a sheet of newspaper could possibly be isn’t the biggest sin in cinema history. Truth be told, it isn’t the biggest sin in this film either. But it is emblematic of a bigger problem, and that’s that The Killer tries so hard to be so serious and realistic that it just highlights its own flaws as a result.


★★☆☆☆


Bonus Track


When director Julia Jackman was invterviewed on the red carpet for the world premiere of Bonus Track, she spoke about how important it was to her make a film showcasing gay joy. It’s a noble aim - there arent’t many examples of films that depict gay love without a tinge of sadness and regret to it. Gay love is usually presented as something that’s existentially linked to pain and suffering.


In that context and to that end, Bonus Track is a charming and worthwhile film. It follows George (Joe Anders) during the pinnacle of his awkward teenage years. He’s about to leave school and he’s completely disinterested in everything except for the dream that he might become a superstar musician one day. Max (Samuel Paul Small) is the famous son of two musicians that George is a fan of, who has conveniently ended up as a new kid at his school following their high profile divorce.


The two hit it off, more or less out of nowhere and in quite an unlikely fashion, and it’s all quite nice despite its faults. Otherwise, though, its faults are very difficult to ignore.


All we know about George is that he wants to be a musician, and all we know about Max is that his parents are musicians. Everyuthing they do, and everything that happens to them, is driven by those key points about their characters. But we never learn about what any of it means to either them, and there isn’t any depth to who they are as people as a result of those key points. As big a fan of music George is, he only listens to one song in the entire film. That’s about as deep as it gets.


★★☆☆☆


I Am Sirat


I Am Sirat was introduced at the BFI by its titular star, Sirat Taneja, and its director, Deepa Mehta. One of the most touching moments so far of this year’s London Film Festival was hearing Sirat’s drive to make a documentary about her experience as a trans woman in Delhi. She more or less said that her hope was that people would see it and like it, and if they did then her mum might hear about it, and if she did then she might learn to accept her.


With such a beautiful intent behind it, I Am Sirat can’t fail to tell a story that’s worthwhile and with heart. It truly is a collaboration between Sirat and Deepa, with both of them filming segments themselves to make a complete film that’s entirely shot on smartphones. The distinction is a clever one too, with Sirat’s footage coming in a vertical aspect ratio and Deepa’s in a horizontal. 


A lot of Sirat’s story is told through her journey of self-discovery by the way of Instagram reels. It lends some meaning to her footage being shot vertically, and we get to see a version of Sirat who never knew she would end up in a documentary about herself. There’s a raw authenticity that comes with it, and that adds so much substance to an already rich film. 


The only problem is that so many reels are used throughout. It’s rare that we go from one scene to another without one of Sirat’s reels being inserted almost as a transition. It becomes repetitive, and loses its initial effect. Instead of feeling like we’ve been invited to see a part of Sirat that exists outside of the realms of this film, it starts to feel like we’re being taken away from it. A particular example is when Sirat tells the story of a past relationship and how it all ended in heartbreaking (and transphobic) fashion, we aren’t allowed the space necessary to process the story she’s told us because the film cuts straight into a lip sync video. 


Nevertheless, it would take a cold heart not to be impacted by Sirat’s story. Her courage in leading the life that she feels she’s supposed to lead is as inspirational as its effects on her life are devastating. Even the fact that the whole film is shot on smartphones is a small spotlight on just how little we need from a technical point of view to make films nowadays. Those two aspects come together to create the most worthwhile of messages - that we can all be what we should be, as long as we’re willing to work out how.


★★★☆☆

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