Review: Unsane, Dawson City: Frozen Time, The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales

Another collection of shorter reviews this week, re-capping the other films I saw as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. These are a bit late alright, but some are still very much worth checking out.

Unsane

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“Don’t mind if I do!”

Sawyer (Claire Foy) moves across the country to escape a stalker (Joshua Leonard), and struggles to create a new life for herself. After consulting a counselling service, she inadvertently signs up for commitment to a mental institution (for “observation”) and there must figure out whether her stalker is working for the hospital, or if she really is starting to lose her mind.

This was the surprise film of the festival, the last of several I had seen that day, and while I have no fatal criticisms of Unsane to venture, I do sort of wish that Grainne Humphreys might pick something a tad more light-hearted next time. Steven Soderbergh’s latest is well-acted, well-scripted and, as we’ll get into, uniquely shot, but it is as dark as you can get for a film festival really.

I mean how could it not be? Claire Foy’s heroine is largely a human punching bag throughout, from the smarmy boss bluntly coming onto her in the opening scene, all the way to the final confrontation between abuser and abused. The narrative trips along, veering between being a psychological horror and a more visceral experience, aided by an exceptional script that allows for brief moments of black humour in an otherwise vast morass of unease.

The film might have been better if it focused more fully on a “Is her stalker actually there or is she crazy?” angle, which it appeared to be going for early on, before doubts are dispelled in the second act. The first idea was just a tad more interesting than what Soderbergh eventually goes for, an plot-line of cat and mouse that eventually descends into a blood-soaked tedium. That’s not to take away from its exploration of gender power politics, as Sawyer routinely deals with a world where she is dehumanized and mistreated by men, even before she gets committed, and where that balance of power is as much a battleground as the hospital. And its role as a fictionalized expose of the shady nature of some mental institutions in America, committing otherwise healthy people in what is, essentially, an extortion of insurance companies, is also to be noted.

Foy is excellent, getting beyond the Queen Elizabeth role she is best known for, and not merely being a passive torture-pornish victim. Part of the “fun” of Unsane is seeing her trying to figure ways out of her predicament, and the films best acting moment comes as she confronts her stalker in an extended monologue where she questions his sexual experience and bluntly notes his obvious inadequacy. Leonard is a relative unknown, but can enjoy the dubious honour of playing a psychopathic stalker very well, while Jay Pharaoh and Juno Temple round off the other principals as very different inmates of the same asylum. An unexpected cameo from a major star in one sequence is a nice treat also, with Soderbergh connections paying dividends.

But beyond any of that, there is the films cinematography. Unsane was a surprise film in more ways than one, shot in secret using just an iPhone. As such, Unsane is a landmark experiment in utilizing the most modern of publicly available technology in making high-quality productions, and it passes the test: if it wasn’t pointed out to me, I wouldn’t even have twigged the filming method, beyond some slight graininess at times. The limited indoor sets of Unsane suit the camera and story being told, and Soderbergh uses both with skill, emphasizing minimalistic spaces and the darkness of a dark place. A unique aspect ratio and some occasionally mind-bending approaches to things like depth of field, add to the sense of a taut thriller. Unsane will presumably be a herald of more efforts to film movies in this manner, something that could spell a veritable sea-change in how the very basics of the industry work.

For that reason alone, Unsane is worth a look, with some serious trigger warnings attached. In an era of #metoo and #ibeleiveher, the films larger message of the continuing imbalance in the power held by genders, especially in terms of belief in claimed abuse, is to be noted as well. Soderbergh doesn’t really make bad films, and while Unsane probably can’t be considered in his top echelon, it is recommended.

Dawson City: Frozen Time

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No gold on the footpath.

In 1869, gold was discovered in a spot along the Klondike River, starting a rush of settlers to the region. Dawson City was founded to support the influx, a boom town of numerous entertainments, including several movie theatres. Over a hundred years later, a construction project unearths a trove of these old films, left buried in Dawson, which was at the very end of the reel-sharing line.

Bill Morrison’s documentary begins with a startlingly evocative phrase: “Film was born of an explosion”. It isn’t flowery metaphor for the artistic process, but rather a unique way of describing how the original method of creating moving pictures was accomplished using highly combustible materials, by-products of artillery and bombs. The nature of such materials is at the heart of Frozen Time’s focus, namely the remarkably well-preserved silent film reels that were unearthed by a digger looking to renovate an old building, the kind of things that caused more than one fire in the history of the titular settlement.

The film itself is part history lesson, and part love-letter to the trove of material it wants to showcase. In many ways, it is the history lesson part of proceedings that I found a bit more interesting as Morrison, seen only in early sections, uses subtitles, period film-making and photography, as well as occasional interjections from modern-day residents of Dawson City, to document the beginnings of the Klondike gold rush, the marathon journey would-be prospectors made to the region, and the highs and lows of Dawson City’s existence, a boom-and-bust (or maybe “build-and-burn”?) kind of place, so far away from the centre of the world that it was the last stop on the film reel distribution line (often getting films three to five years after their initial premieres elsewhere).

Some of the best known stars of the time got their starts there, and even the Trump family fortune owes much to Dawson (guess what industry?). These sections give you a sense of the enthusiasm, hope, occasional ingenuity and desperation of the prospector type, and how the meagre existence most of them were able to ground out meant there were plenty of calls for cheap entertainment.

The silent films shown aren’t actually as fascinating. Morrison overuses some of his material (one strange montage shows characters opening doors in multiple films, though I’m not sure what kind of point it was trying to make) and the choice of accompanying music is repetitive and morose, sucking me right out of the unfolding narrative on multiple occasions. Morrison, known for other silent-film showcases with an emphasis on death or decay, frequently attempts to show the silent films as if they contain ghosts here to hypnotise the audience. The opportunity isn’t really taken to discuss what the kind of films these people liked said about them, or about the era in which they lived.

In the end, the story of how Dawson City came to be is interesting, but not really enough to hold your interest for an hour and a half. The unveiling of old silent movies from that first great era of movie-making is interesting, but not enough to really hold your interest for an hour and a half. Combined together, the end result is a film that isn’t really clear if it wants to make a solid point, be seen as an abstract exercise, or neither of the two. That opening line though. Recommended, though with some caveats.

Le Grand Mechant Renard Et Autres Contes (The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales)

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Very scary.

The Honeysuckle Acting Troupe of assorted farmyard and wild animals presents its three story show: “A Baby To Deliver”, where a pig, a rabbit and a duck try to get a newborn to her family when the stork is injured; “The Big Bad Fox”, where an unlucky fox is tasked with raising three chicks; and “The Perfect Christmas”, where the pig, rabbit and fox find themselves on an unlikely adventure to replace Santa.

A French animated collection we took in on the last day of the festival, Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s effort provided a suitably light-hearted diversion before the more serious business of the day (see above). Simple old-school animated style, talking animals, a splash of traditional fairy-tales and a sometimes incisive critique of the tropes of farming life, and you have something that will make the kids laugh and charm the older crowd.

“A Baby To Deliver” opens proceedings with an Arab-esque tale of a figure who can’t escape the bad luck that haunts him, as the well-to-do pig is tasked with stork-duties, and must then tolerate, obfuscate and otherwise deal with the brain-dead efforts to help from the rabbit and duck. A succession of well-drawn escapades results, from an unlikely attempt to operate a car to a sojourn on an aircraft headed to China. One can’t help but sympathise with Mr Pig, a generally good-natured fellow just trying to do the right thing, in the face of the worlds repeated efforts to smack him in the face.

“The Big Bad Fox” is a play on the more traditional wolf tale, where the local fox, a would-be antagonist on a par with his wolf patron, has to raise three chicks with the eventual intention of having them for dinner: this is easily the best of the three stories, as we are presented with a multitude of excellent set-pieces. The chicks, raised to think they are foxes, go around threatening to kill and eat other chicks; their actual mother organises a chicken vigilante group to replace the lazy guard dog; and the wolf waiting to eat the chicks is left wondering just why the fox seems to be getting so attached to them. The narrative is predictable and the ending inevitable, but it was a nice mix of child-friendly jokes and some darker material.

“The Perfect Christmas” was a tad out of place in a February screening, but I suppose we can forgive ADIFF that. We’re back to the pig, the rabbit and the duck in this one, trying to make sure the yuletide festivities aren’t cancelled by helping the figure of Pere Noel out, but the story is really a rather well-presented lesson on the benefits of letting go of the ones you have reasonability for, and letting them make, and learn from, their own mistakes. Poor Mr Pig is delightfully frazzled by the apparent necessity of always having to save the rabbit and duck from their own stupidity, and in “The Perfect Christmas”, he and we learn it might be best to just let them off from time to time.

Presented within the framing device of a travelling troupe of actors, The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales abounds with subtly included wisdom, varying from the importance of being true to one’s own nature to the necessity of learning to get along in difficult circumstances. It is an excellent little example of French animation, sure to appeal to audiences of all ages, and all nationalities, with little in the way of translation decay. Recommended.

 (All images are copyright of Bleeker Street, Fingerprint Releasing, 20th Century Fox, Kino Lorber, Cineteca Bologna and StudioCanal).

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