FilmSpace at Edinburgh International Film Festival: The Art of Self-Defence; The Dead Don't Die; Yesterday

FilmSpace is at the 73rd Edinburgh Film Festival. Film critic Calum Cooper reviews a strange but thoroughly entertaining new Jesse Eisenberg film, a disappointing new offering from Jim Jarmusch, and a redundant but feel-good film from Danny Boyle.

The Art of Self-Defense – ★★★★★

The Art of Self-Defense feels like what would happen if Wes Anderson made a martial arts film. It’s got unique style and unconventional, arguably uncanny, execution. But it also has remarkable substance to aid its singular presentation, taking a simple premise and turning it into a cry against cyclical violence, and a much needed middle finger toward toxic masculinity.

Jesse Eisenberg is a lonely 35-year-old accountant named Casey Davies. A man who’s awkward, easily scared, and making uncomfortable peace with the mundanity of his life, he is badly mugged by a motorcycle gang while out buying dog food. Traumatised by the experience, he eventually joins a Karate Dojo run by the perplexing yet seemingly friendly Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Quickly rising through the ranks of the coloured belts, Casey is eventually confronted with questions of masculinity and what it really is, all explored in bizarre yet hilarious and insightful detail.

Serving as the debut for Riley Stearns, the film has this strange aura to itself, but I mean that in the best way. The dialogue and craftsmanship is unconventionally blunt and to the point. Written with astuteness, characters say what they think in straight forward fashion, especially if it demeans someone else, while the grainy, moody look of the film’s cinematography sturdily roots it within its setting of a world of perpetual darkness.

It creates an unusual tone that you wouldn’t expect from a film like this. Yet, it cleverly places us in a world in which ultimate masculinity (or “being the alpha” as it’s referred to) is constantly questioned and sought after. Sensei has a very specific vision of what masculinity is – one of strength and intimidation, under the guise of helping those hurt strive for their own physical potential. It’s a vision that Casey, despite being the antithesis of that vision, strives to achieve through karate. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that vision is seen as weaker or worse feminine – something that’s first pointed out by Casey’s name being gender neutral.

Through its absurd rituals, delightfully odd interactions, and brief, isolated moments of horrific brutality – whether played for shock or comedy – the film shows that striving for violence and turning insecure male mentalities towards ideas of dominant strength does nothing but create vicious cycles.

The film rejects these notions completely, mocking them relentlessly through its droll characters and wild, completely unpredictable story that features genuine intensity and apprehension. Eisenberg and Nivola work off of each other splendidly, creating a love hate dynamic between their fascinating characters that’s glorious to watch. Meanwhile Imogen Potts’ character Anna serves as a great foil to these characters and the flawed ideology they strive for, clearly being the most qualified fighter but overlooked due to her gender.

It’s ironically an anti-violence film, its title suggesting that violence should only be used for protection and not aggression. Through its absurd rituals, delightfully odd interactions, and brief, isolated moments of horrific brutality – whether played for shock or comedy – the film shows that striving for violence and turning insecure male mentalities towards ideas of dominant strength does nothing but create vicious cycles, cycles in which nobody learns anything and, in the case of Casey, start becoming the very thing they hate. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

These are difficult themes to tackle with sufficiently, but The Art of Self-Defense does so effortlessly. The fact that it addresses such serious ideas with so much visual style and a subdued sense of humour is a testament to Stearns’ talents. It’s an incredibly harsh film at times, but it’s consistently engaging through its layered characters, blunt presentation, and arguably morbid ability to entertain.

The Art of Self-Defense is up there with Eighth Grade and Booksmart as one of my favourites of 2019 so far. Smart and informative, yet also brutal and haunting, while still maintaining a sense of fun, it’s masterfully crafted and confidently staunch in its beliefs. Its films like this that will shape audience mentalities into ones of progression and thoughtfulness. It’s my belief and hope that The Art of Self-Defense will be among the films that do so for generations to come, simultaneously puzzling and amusing us in the process.

The Dead Don’t Die – ★★☆☆☆

Based on conversations I’ve had with my fellow film reviewers here in Edinburgh, I’m in danger of sounding like a broken record with my opinion here. Yet, I must confess that I was disappointed with The Dead Don’t Die. It’s the latest from Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker with a delightfully colourful filmography. Only Lovers Left Alive is visually euphoric, Broken Flowers is funny and bittersweet, and Paterson was one of 2016’s best films. But The Dead Don’t Die lacked the punch that those films did. I appreciate what it was trying to do, but it just didn’t click with me.

Reuniting cast members from many of Jarmusch’s previous films, the film has a premise that you’d normally find in a blockbuster. A local police force in the town of Centreville consists of Chief Cliff Robertson, and Officers Ronnie Peterson and Mindy Morrison (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevingy respectively). They are going about their day as usual, albeit unnerved due to an apparent shift in the Earth’s polarity that the news has been broadcasting. When villagers start being murdered and desecrated, they are unnerved further. When this eventually turns out to be zombies, the small group must band together to combat this sudden invasion. Also included in the cast is Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Carol Kane among others.

It’s impossible not to be envious of a cast like this, and they all work well off one another. The playful interactions accompanied by the witticisms only Jarmusch could craft, and actors with the calibre of Murray, Driver or Swinton could translate, are very vibrant at their best. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be found among this sea of talent, and each actor feels like they own a piece of the film, getting at least a few minutes to thrive on screen. The scene stealer however is Swinton as a samurai Scotswoman who also owns a funeral home. I almost wish we could have a whole movie dedicated to her character.

Via this slowness, conversations start to go in circles, scenes feel repetitious, and emotions one would likely feel should the Earth’s polarity reverse or corpses resurrect feel somewhat restrained to the point of indifference.

Unfortunately, the film seems to be biting off far more than it can chew. It carries a slow burning feel which I can only assume was made to accompany the slow meticulousness of the zombies themselves. Yet I feel this choice is counterproductive to the film as a whole. Via this slowness, conversations start to go in circles, scenes feel repetitious, and emotions one would likely feel should the Earth’s polarity reverse or corpses resurrect feel somewhat restrained to the point of indifference. There is shock, but a lack of it. A sense of disconnection can sometimes be productive depending on the film. But here I feel like it removes the sense of urgency or empathy within, taking a setup that should be scary or funny and unintentionally making us apathetic towards it. The film becomes a real drag in the process.

The ensemble cast is impressive, and, like I said, they all get their moments. But there’s also so many of them that it becomes difficult to maintain focus on what the film is doing or trying to say. The most interesting thing about many of these characters is unfortunately who is playing them, and when one starts seeing the actor in place of the role then you’ve lost the illusion of story. They say snappy things and occasionally do amusing things, offering bursts of entertainment. But the style of which it is executed feels so lacking in willpower that you yourself have trouble mustering up any yourself. A lack of engagement overpowers any moment of intriguing commentary or humour that the film sometimes offers.

Perhaps in my greenness as a film reviewer there is something I am overlooking, but I came away feeling let down by The Dead Don’t Die. Had it focused more on the police officers as a unit and less on the community as a whole, the film could’ve been much funnier and much more engaging in regards to the themes it wishes to share. But as it is, it’s the cinematic equivalent to ordering a pizza with too many toppings. You can’t get through all of it, and you find yourself suddenly getting sleepy.

Yesterday – ★★★☆☆

Yesterday has a cute premise that I imagine many of us visionaries have entertained the idea of. What if we woke up one day and a creator we really admired ceased to exist? What if we still remembered their work despite that? Would we use that to our advantage and reintroduce them into the world, thus taking the credit and potential fame for ourselves?

Aspiring singer songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself in this very situation in Danny Boyle’s latest film. After years of trying and failing to sell his music, his only support being his manager and secret admirer Ellie (Lily James), he’s ready to give up. During a planet-wide blackout, Jack is hit by a bus. Once he wakes up he discovers that he is the only one who remembers The Beatles. The band has ceased to exist, but he still recalls their songs. Seeing an opportunity Jack suddenly begins garnering fame by repackaging The Beatles’ songs as his own, and we follow the film from there.

I was on board with Yesterday for the majority of its runtime, and as a whole came to appreciate it. It’s more typically conventional than Danny Boyle’s more distinctive films. It’s certainly no Trainspotting or 127 Hours. But its aim is to be a feel-good film that evokes charmed responses. While it may not do so in a particularly stellar way, I do think it succeeds at that.

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The interactions of the characters and the ways it plays with its idea in its first half are big factors in this. It takes its time to establish its characters and what makes them worthy of your time, with Patel and James bringing such humanistic senses of joy and worry that you find yourself attached to them quickly. Granted Lily James can do no wrong, but you nonetheless believe in their relationship, and Jack’s stubborn wish to be successful. His renditions of Beatles’ songs are created with heart and affection towards their original incarnations, and the comedy that arises from the potential fallout of Jack’s inner guilt is also a lot of fun, including a nightmare sequence that involves meeting James Cordon, which I can certainly sympathise with.

The film sadly begins losing momentum the further into the story we get. Its invigorating idea starts being traded in for a bare-boned love story that feels as calculated as Jack’s re-jigging of his favourite songs. You want to support it because you like these characters, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling uncharacteristically stale for a Boyle film. Furthermore the incorporation of a greedy manager (who, to be fair, is played in enjoyably snide fashion by Kate McKinnon) and themes of corporation versus creator sinks the film deeper into the realms of redundant storytelling.

Nevertheless, it carries a sense of charm that’s hard to shake off. As clichéd as it eventually gets, there are still some clever inversions that celebrate the meaning of true art, like the songs of The Beatles, such as a scene in a hotel room between Jack and two strangers. There’s pleasure in stardom and success, but the true pleasure is creating and sharing something immortal in its power and ability to evoke feeling. That is something this film champions through its characters and story. It may not paint its canvas in an especially unique way, but that doesn’t mean the art on display isn’t worth indulging in.

Yesterday is by no means Boyle’s best work. I can understand why someone wouldn’t like it. But it’s got plenty of heart, charm, and laughs to spare if one goes in with the right mentality. If you can survive the more mechanical aspects of its delivery, then I think it has just enough sweet sentiment to make for at least one viewing.

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