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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #14: Call Jane, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, Till

Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Banks, Phyllis Nagy, Call Jane
Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth Banks in Call Jane

Studios may not be making mid-budget movies for adults much anymore, but never mind, the indies have them covered (and for far less money too). In Phyllis Nagy's last cinematic outing, 2015's Carol, she served as screenwriter but not director; in Call Jane, she serves as director, not writer, though Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi's script isn't exactly un-worthy of her dramatic talents. If it's not quite worthy of Nagy's best either, here at least is a movie content to tell a good story well, to tick all the necessary boxes in their predetermined order, with no surprises en route. By and large, it's a conventional, simplistic, thoroughly digestible light drama, adequately handsome to behold, and blessed with fine performances from a capable cast. Its politics are speciously neat, its soundtrack is marvellously curated, its style is smooth, and Nagy's directorial techniques are sensitive and unobtrusive.

So Call Jane slips down nicely indeed, but that may be its chief accomplishment. The movie's second and third acts are primarily occupied with scenes of, or related to, illegal abortions, and Nagy doesn't sanitize their content. Rather, she accentuates their emotive impact, subtly intensifying the atmosphere with perceptive touches - fixed camera angles, crisp isolated sounds, focus on faces and objects, a persistent tension between characters' moods and states of mind. Though nothing about this movie is outright bad, these sequences are its crowning glory, and mark this as a significant entry in the canon of abortion-themed movies. Otherwise, it's a movie of unfortunately little significance, but there's appeal in that too - the easy-watching, unadventurous, comforting vibe of the old studio mid-budget movie fills Call Jane from its first scene to its last. It serves a purpose, and it serves it well.

Guillermo del Toro, Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Guillermo del Toro hasn't once made a movie yet that isn't everything that Call Jane is not - graphic, ambitious, potentially polarizing. I find my own opinions polarized by Pinocchio, since this is a movie of such enormous ambition across so many fields of production and presentation that I was entranced one minute, irritated the next, amused one minute, bored the next. It's funny, frightening, affable, poignant, and so full of so much beauty and technical wonder it seems to spill out of the screen and into the space around you. But it's also distinctly misguided in a number of key qualities. It's quite fascinating to see del Toro map his trademark themes, obsessions and quirks - young people imperilled by adult concerns, death and rebirth, the exploitation of labour, flawed and complex icons, carnivals, fascism - onto an animated format, if only for the magnificence of that animation; otherwise, del Toro's work has never been far in style, tone, and aesthetic from what he and Mark Gustafson have here designed.

That's all part of the good of Pinocchio, and not even a very big part - there's something new to satisfy around every corner in this rambling, endlessly innovative episodic fantasy. It's bookended by sincere and profound emotion, recalling the children's movies of old, not their coddled modern descendants. That emotion is carried through the story, morphing from grief and pain to whatever is demanded of it next, be it terror, joy, anger, confusion, or contentedness, and always with utmost sincerity. It's also extremely funny from time to time, more than any other movie I've seen this year. But the bad of Pinocchio is also awaiting around every corner, and it too morphs from one form to another, sullying this movie in several ways in the process. The songs (who thought it was a good idea to make a new Pinocchio musical when we already have a perfect one?) are overly verbose and melodically disjointed. The multi-stranded story is constantly forced to reach dramatic conclusions too quickly, and individual strands are lost sight of as others are abruptly tied off. And the CGI animation just does not fit with the stop-motion - the whole climactic leviathan sequence is a flaming hot mess. Nevertheless, the movie is held up by its stronger attributes, which are classically exquisite del Toro - how he builds entire scenes and miniature moments out of his characters' psychologies, how he makes the materials of his own movie's making the diegetic materials of the movie itself, how he folds meaningful moral lessons into his story without ever resorting to hectoring. He's hit both my poles with Pinocchio, and I'm all the better for it.

Danielle Deadwyler, Till, Chinonye Chukwu
Danielle Deadwyler in Till

The opening scene of Chinonye Chukwu's Till is a quiet little corker - the camera looks up at Mamie Till while driving, as though placed where a gearstick might be. She sings along to the radio. The lyrics have a given meaning, from that which we can infer as yet. Their meaning chances, though, as the camera moves left, settling on a passenger we hadn't known was seated next to Mamie: her son, Emmett, known to her as Bobo. He sings along too, similarly joyous, though not with his eyes on the road as she does. He watches her, and the camera moves back right, settling again on Mamie, and the lyrics' meaning changes again. Chukwu takes a very ordinary moment in Till's script and extracts from it the maximum emotional and communicative capacity, a quality that she maintains throughout this movie. In less capable hands, this might easily have been a movie of one ordinary moment after another, and thus a wretched disservice to the extraordinary story it tells. Between Chukwu and her remarkable lead, Danielle Deadwyler, Till doesn't quite become an extraordinary movie, at least not as a whole, but it's certainly a good one, and it does boast some genuinely astonishing moments.

Every detail in Till, which is a bit too slick, a bit too tidy in its design and in the impact it strives to hold, is given some kind of prominence. It's overt in its every gesture, its every movement, its every idea, and that rather encumbers it at times. Opening scene aside, there's a nagging sense of oversimplification to its first act - the necessary details are described, then stressed, then underlined, and all other details stripped away, lest we forget that Mamie and Emmett had never spent so long apart, or that he was a Chicago city boy unfamiliar with rural Mississippi attitudes. But then Till enters a stretch where, indeed, there is only a tiny few necessary details to stress, since nothing else could possibly matter in a situation like the one Mamie faces after Emmett's murder. Chukwu achieves such astounding emotional intensity in these scenes that it shakes you - every glance, every word from this point on seems imbued with 5x the meaning it might otherwise have. I felt like exclaiming at these pixels on the screen in front of me, or jolting out of my chair and slapping that gargantuan vinyl panel. Deadwyler has an unenviable task: portraying a person in the deepest trenches of an unfathomable agony, and somehow she's completely up to it - it's one of the year's greatest performances, without a doubt. The movie itself, as a whole, isn't of quite the same standard, but for a time, at least, it is, and Deadwyler's partly to credit for that. She's great, the movie's good, and that's all fine by me.


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