Although THE WILLOUGHBYS is adapted from a children’s book of the same name, the best reference for what to expert here is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. After all, both stories focus on a group of siblings with a knack for inventing who are forced to fend for themselves due to hardship. The key difference for the Willoughby children: Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and the Barnaby twins (Sean Cullen), is that their parents are still alive. They simply hate children.
The characterisation of Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) is a highlight of the film’s first act, and is certain to dissuade any notions of THE WILLOUGHBYS being ‘just for kids’. Their exaggerated cruelty is entertaining enough (poor Tim spends every night in the coal bin as punishment for asking for food), but the writers continue adding absurd flourishes to the pair to keep them from becoming one-note. My personal favourite of these is Mother’s obsession with knitting; Krakowski sounds increasingly exasperated each time she screams at the children for interrupting her creative process. Before you know it, she’s trimming Father’s moustache for extra yarn.
However, this is first and foremost the younger Willoughbys’ story, with a simple yet poignant goal of finally being part of a loving family. I was largely impressed by how fleshed-out and distinct the children feel, even in the types of jokes the writers choose to tell with them. For instance, the overly serious Tim is prone to pratfalls and slapstick, while the wonderfully weird Barnabys are a constant source of one-liners and jokes about eerie twin connections. Speaking of weird, the theme of the loving family goes in a vastly different direction than what audiences will likely expect, almost serving as a parody of traditional family-centric tales.
The film’s willingness to play with tradition is clear from its visuals, giving a jerky edge to its computer- generated animation to mimic the feel of stop motion. There are even elements designed to appear hand-crafted: rainbows, clouds and the children’s hair resemble wool, while close-up shots of dirigible from towards the end of the film almost had me convinced it was a scanned model. The colour palette is beautiful as well, usually opting for as many bright primary colours in a frame as possible but knowing when to restrain itself. Seriously, this might be the best-looking animated feature on Netflix.
In my opinion, the only aspect occasionally holding THE WILLOUGHBYS back is Jane. Somewhat ironically given she’s the middle child, Jane simply isn’t given much to do from the second act onwards, as the kids’ nanny Linda (Maya Rudolph) is introduced to take over the role of fun-loving free spirit. Don’t get me wrong, the film wouldn’t work without Linda, and Rudolph is easily the most talented and expressive voice actor in the cast. Unfortunately though, Jane is left simply going along for the ride.
Jane is also the only main character without any memorable lines aside from an extremely annoying motif of singing what she’s thinking. My guess is that the writers were trying to utilise Alessia Cara’s voice as much as possible, but it makes her sound too old for the character. This melody also never changes, and eventually becomes a full song which is also played over the credits. It’s quite melodramatic and out of place, especially in a film with such an absurdist streak.
Aside from this admittedly minor issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the visually and tonally distinct world THE WILLOUGHBYS crafts for itself. I get the feeling it’s going to age well and be remembered as a classic twist on a family story. Or, at least, a reminder that your family might not be so crazy after all.
One of my favourite films at last year’s French Film Festival was Dominque Rocher’s and beautifully made, melancholy zombie flick, The Night Eats the World, so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to watch this year’s French Film Festival undead offering, ZOMBI CHILD. On the plus side, it resides in the former of my two categories. It’s most certainly a thought-provoking and well considered film that, in the zombie genre, is about as far away from brain eating as you can get. On the downside, though, it's a bit of a ramshackle story that leaps, chaotically, back and forth in time as it tries to draw us in to two or three different aspects of a more ‘authentic’ zombie story that spans three generations but ultimately struggles to properly or coherently tell any of those stories in a satisfying way.
I say ‘authentic’ because ZOMBI CHILD is based on the supposed true zombie story about Haitian man Clairvius Narcisse, who was reportedly poisoned and buried by white colonists in 1962 and then exhumed and given a voodoo toxin that brought him partially but not fully back to life and, in this zombie state, was indentured into labour on a sugar plantation, only to escape and reveal his living self to his village and his family eighteen years after his assumed death. If this story sounds familiar, it might be because Wes Craven told it in his 1988 film version of Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman’s screen adaptation of ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow (It was Davis who discovered the Clairvius Narcisse story and brought it to the world).
In Bonello’s version of the story, we see the death, part-resurrection and enslavement of Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) before jumping forward to the present day where Narcisse’s granddaughter Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) has just enrolled in a strange kind of girls’ boarding school that exists only for the daughters of recipients of the Legion of Honour. Melissa befriends Fanny (Louise Labeque) who is lovesick for her estranged boyfriend Pedro (Sayyid Le Alami). Fanny invites Melissa to join her clique of fellow students and in the process of initiation, Melissa reveals the story of her grandfather and the prevalence of voodoo in her family. Fanny because obsessed with this idea especially as it relates to her relationship with Pedro. These three stories; the Narcisse Story, the Melissa story and the Fanny story play out for the remainder of the film but not in a way that coalesces into something that is more than the sum of its parts. Quite the opposite, in fact. And although each of these stories is quite fascinating in its own right, none of them ever feel (to me at least) like they are successfully resolved for the audience.
Nevertheless, the performances are uniformly strong, especially from the young women, and there’s a really clear style to each of the settings in which the stories are told. In particular, the style of the Clairvius Narcisse story is particularly effective in its sunbleached imagery and the shambling zombies cutting cane in the sugar fields have a visual and kinetic resonance with those original zombies in George Romero’s 1968 game changer Night of the Living Dead.
ZOMBI CHILD never really achieves a level of horror (and it’s not clear that this is its aim at all) but it does have a foreboding feel in the ritualistic school scenes, a frenzied hallucinogenic feel in the voodoo sequences with Fanny and a genuinely creepy almost doco feel in the ‘sixties’ footage of Narcisse and his fellow slave zombies. Perhaps it’s this; the strength of its style and performances that accentuate how much its storytelling falls short of its potential and makes this movie ultimately disappointing.
In the present, Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is retired and struggling to connect with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Through extensive flashbacks, he’s shown to have grown up poor in Taiwan, broadly dreaming of migrating to America for a better life but lacking the means to do so. The young Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) ultimately chooses to marry Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) so that her father will pay for their trip despite feeling no emotional connection with her, and having recently been reunited with his childhood sweetheart.
TIGERTAIL spends much of its runtime in the period immediately before and after Pin-Jui’s emigration, showing past actions to explain his epiphanies later in life. This approach leads to an unexpected but intriguing critique of single-mindedly pursuing one’s goals, particularly through the film’s portrayal of Zhenzhen’s aimlessness in America. While her husband goes to work every day, Zhenzhen visits the laundromat with increasingly smaller loads so that she’ll another reason to leave their apartment soon. The scene in which she admits this to the only friend she’s made in America is heartbreaking; Li laughs quietly when delivering the line but is seemingly on the verge of tears.
Casting the protagonist as oblivious and selfish is a risky choice, though Yang makes clever use of the alternating timelines to prevent Pin-Jui from becoming outright loathsome. Scenes of him coldly rejecting Zhenzhen’s dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher are followed by Angela calling him out for not knowing anything about her. These moments technically take place decades apart, but showing them together feels gratifying.
Tzi Ma and Hong-Chi Lee also make Pin-Jui a consistently engaging presence even when the viewer is no longer rooting for him. Lee expertly conveys the subtle shift in his feelings for Zhenzhen from awkwardness to resentment; he barely raises his voice during arguments and literally tries not to face her. Meanwhile, Ma’s stoicism is the perfect canvas for suggesting a man no longer as sure of himself, one willing to take advice from his now ex-wife. Once again, cutting between these contrasting versions of the character is smart, allowing Yang to both reveal the flaws in this conception of the American Dream and propose a solution (which I won’t spoil).
The only confusing aspect of TIGERTAIL is how much it rushes the present-day storyline. This leads to a number of issues, from clunky and expositional dialogue, to poor blocking and editing. For instance, one emotionally charged conversation between Pin-Jui and Angela is interrupted by him turning away from her and walking a few steps, pausing to deliver a few lines, and return to his original position in a matter of seconds. Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the most natural-looking take available. Furthermore, I don’t know why Yang devotes so much time to an extended opening sequence of Pin-Jui’s childhood at his grandparents’ rice field. It doesn’t connect to any other part of the story and would be disposable if it weren’t for its beautiful cinematography (a consistent quality of the scenes filmed in Taiwan).
Nevertheless, TIGERTAIL offers a nuanced, distinct and memorable view of immigrant family life and demonstrates Yang’s success should by no means be limited to TV. His thoughtful script, keen grasp of themes and gorgeous choice of setting undeniably outweigh the film’s flaws, and hopefully this is just the start of wider mainstream recognition.
This remarkable collection of imagery intercut with selected concert footage and other clips of Aznavour at work and play is much more than a documentary about the life of the internationally adored singer; it’s an opportunity to understand something of how significant his Armenian heritage was and to look at a key period of his life through his own eyes. There’s a kind of poetry or lyricism to these visuals, especially as presented with the laconic narration written by Domenico and spoken by Romain Duris, and the saturated colour of that sixties film stock is simply beautiful to watch.
Aznavour may have been celebrated all over the world as a popular singer, but he was also a songwriter, an actor, a diplomat, a political activist and, of course, a globe-trotter who hung out with what the Sixties liked to refer to as the Jet-Set. There’s plenty of screen time for Aznavour to visit exotic locations from Japan to Africa, from New York to Montmartre and to hang out with his friends, Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Charles Trenet, Brigitte Bardot and more, but there’s also great moments with French New Wave film director, Francois Truffaut on the set of their 1960 collaboration Shoot The Piano Player.
In approaching this project, di Domenico admitted that that it’s not at all common to begin working on a film where you have the footage but don’t have the story. One of the strengths of this doco is di Domenico’s ability to get out the way of Aznavour’s cinematography and let that imagery create the story for us. In selecting and assembling the material, it seems that di Domenico has taken a light touch in where he intrudes with other footage (concerts and the like) and, most importantly, how unobtrusive the voice-over narration is.
Of course, like any ‘amateur’ film (if one dare refer to Aznavour as an ‘amateur’) there is the added authentic feel that comes with the happenstance of hand-held camera work: no planned or pre-mediated framing or tracking shots here, but that only adds to the informality of the film that allows to feel like we’re ‘inside’ rather than on the outside looking in. And there’s an added bonus too; if you take the time to look past the famous faces to the backgrounds and the crowds that fill out the film, you’ll be rewarded with the fashions and vehicles and cityscapes of eras gone by. At only 75 minutes, this is a delight that’s over too quickly, but what we get in those fleeting moments of an icon’s ‘home movies’ is a rare and enjoyable insight like no other.
THE PLATFORM’s premise is rich with details. The film is set entirely within a vertical prison with one cell per floor, and two inmates per cell. Each pair of inmates is randomly assigned a new floor at the beginning of the month. Food is distributed via the titular platform, which stops for two minutes per day on each floor. If there’s no food left when the platform reaches your floor, too bad. Thankfully, it feels much less like an exposition dump in practice.
I was thoroughly impressed with the concise worldbuilding on display throughout THE PLATFORM, even within the opening minutes. The audience is thrown into the action and introduced to protagonist Goreng (Ivan Massagué) and his cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) on floor 48. This first meeting isn’t simply used to summarise how the prison operates, but establishes an eerie tone which never lets up. While the men discover their vastly different backgrounds (one of them is actually there voluntarily), the camera subtly raises questions and heightens the sense of dread. A wide shot reveals the claustrophobic, dank space the two men will share. Peering down the void in the centre of each cell provides a terrifying sense of scale as tiny figures slowly fade to black. That is, a traditionally creepy aesthetic paired with a looming fear of the unknown, which is as good as horror films get.
Given the sets are so confined, it’s unsurprising that the script focuses on filling the space with intriguing characters and scenarios. The contrast between Goreng and Trimagasi is particularly engaging; the former has just begun his sentence while the latter is approaching release, effectively assuming the role of an unwanted mentor. Massagué and Eguileor are each perfectly calibrated, allowing their early moments of camaraderie such as reading and exercising together to feel genuine. However, when things get desperate the actors turn on a dime. Eguileor channels the smiling, delusional menace of Norman Bates to transform his character into an unambiguous villain. Simultaneously, Massagué imbues Goreng with the ferocity of a wounded animal, leaving the audience primed for their impending showdown.
The secondary characters are similarly intense and mostly well-written, though not always fully utilised. For instance, fellow inmate Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) originally worked for the administration behind the prison but chose to commit herself to change the system. Although this is admittedly the catalyst for most of THE PLATFORM’s second half, it’s mostly through Goreng’s reaction to her beliefs rather than her character changing. Yet not only is Imoguiri’s motivation wasted, her screen time is usurped by Goreng’s new cellmate Baharat (Emilio Buale Coka), the obnoxious exception to what I said before about this film’s characters being well-written. Buale plays him as a loud, easily manipulated zealot with no backstory who vaguely wants to escape and send a vague message to the administration. At their nadir, these qualities combine to give us a grown man obsessed with preserving a panna cotta from the platform to prove the inmates aren’t total gluttons, complete with an overacted catchphrase (“the panna cotta!”).
Baharat is indicative of THE PLATFORM’s greatest weakness: it’s unclear exactly what it’s trying to say. To be clear, there are plenty of ruminations on how ‘the system’ and humanity need to change, which certainly suggest the film wants to do more than simply tell a fun horror story. I don’t believe having a profound message is necessary, especially for genre films, so this normally wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately though, the second act is stuffed with overly long sequences depicting Goreng’s internal moral debates that are too vague to be insightful and slow the action to a crawl. While it’s a relatively small criticism, I couldn’t help but notice this section of the film felt like a letdown. Overall, THE PLATFORM is still remarkably well-executed horror that I feel any thrill seeker needs to check out. Just make sure any squeamish viewers have left the room first!
The film depicts the day-to-day operations of the Roubaix police department through the eyes of new recruit Louis (Antoine Reinartz) and his older, stoic commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem). Zem is pitch- perfect in what’s already a captivating and well-written role, managing to convey that Daoud has seen it all without coming across as smug or resting on his laurels. This is particularly clear during OH MERCY!’s interrogation scenes, where Zem keeps the pressure applied even as his hunches appear more and more likely to be true. Here, Daoud simmers with rage, revealing the cracks in his calm exterior, leaving the audience in anticipation to see whether the perp will give in before he erupts. He’s truly the archetypal crime genre protagonist, complete with a sombre yet ambiguous backstory about a broken family that’s practically begging to be explored in a follow-up.
From the second half onwards, director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin dedicates an increasing amount of focus to Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), two roommates who become suspects in a murder case Daoud investigates. Although it’s a somewhat jarring shift (more on that below), Seydoux and Forestier are more than up to the challenge, bringing serious emotional heft as the pair’s backstories and complex, symbiotic friendship are revealed. I found them to be equally captivating for different reasons: Forestier is certainly showier; the fear in her voice alone during questioning strikes a balance between relatable and suspicious, casting her as someone who knows more than they’re letting on. By contrast, Claude is icy and calculating, wanting to avoid the investigation for fear that her relationship with her young son could become further strained. Seydoux is wonderful opposite both Forestier and Zem, using long pauses and an unflinching gaze to punctuate her early scenes and subtly disarm her co-stars.
Despite its strong leads, I found OH MERCY!’s structure confusing and misguided, preventing it from leaving a stronger impression. Simply put, there is no discernible reason why the writers divided the story between cases in such a linear fashion. There are no overarching thematic threads, nor does it feel like a cinema verite-esque attempt to realistically portray the case by case nature of police work. Given the Claude and Marie case dominates the latter half and ending, I can’t imagine why it wasn’t the entire premise of the film, or at least foreshadowed from the beginning. Similarly, the first case shown (a burn victim supposedly attacked by jihadists) is interesting, but Daoud quickly solves it and it’s just as swiftly forgotten. Once again, these ideas could’ve stood out with more breathing room, and it’s a shame for them to go to waste.
OH MERCY! is above all an acting showcase, with a trio of dynamic performances sure to command the viewer’s attention. Even though its structure feels like a failed experiment, I suspect crime buffs might relish the opportunity to unravel several cases at once. I’m not sure I’ll come back to this film any time soon, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for what its leads do next.