LFF 2017 Wrap-Up: From Blade of the Immortal to Three Billboards…

My film-watching this year has been spotty at best, but I was determined to make the most of the BFI London Film Festival rolling into town to get a head start on a bunch of films coming out in the next few months, in the hope I might be able to catch up on those I already missed in the meantime. Here’s a bunch of short thoughts on all the mostly excellent movies I watched.

Blade of the Immortal / The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike)

Though book-ended by spectacular multi-man sword-fights, Blade of the Immortal sags somewhat in its episodic middle, as our antihero (garbed in black-and-white, yet even the villains operate in shades of complex grey) encounters bossfight after bossfight, with gradually diminishing enthusiasm. The choppy construction and editing also leaves some head-scratching jumps in time and location that disrupts the flow. But it’s worth sticking through it for flashes of strange, bloody hilarity, and for a climax that has a body count around the 400 mark. No 13 Assassins, mind.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Lanthimos’ skilled skewering of social norms was deployed to brilliant effect in his English-language debut, but not even The Lobster could prepare you for the strange, dark avenues he takes us down in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s opening shot is a bold statement – this isn’t going to be pretty. But he manages to make the awkward and uncomfortable incredibly funny, though much of that will depend on whether you’re on the same wavelength (if you didn’t like The Lobster, this isn’t going to change a thing). The stilted dialogue, the removed camera, the matter-of-fact approach to disturbing scenarios, all present and correct. A game cast playing things deadly straight. As before, the best point of comparison would be a feature-length sketch from Chris Morris’ Jam.

It’s tense and disturbing and mysterious. I was grinning throughout.

The Florida Project / Close-Knit

Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami)

At first, the cheery plinky-plonk piano score that plagues 90% of cutesy-poo Japanese dramedies saw me brace for tedium, but Close-Knit proved me wrong. A delight and a surprise, sensitive, charming and funny that still manages to be quite frank and upfront about how far transgender acceptance has come, but also how far it has to go. As it is viewed through the eyes of a child (wonderfully played by Rinka Kakihara), it is simple and gently told, though just because it’s not a heavy “issues” drama doesn’t mean it shies away from anger and sadness – indeed, it makes those moments all the more emotionally powerful (a few moments had me verging on blubbing). That it generally plays things broad and safe shouldn’t be held against it, this has potential to be a crowd-pleaser that may in turn change perspectives of those who would not ordinarily seek out LGBT fare, including families and kids. It’s the kind of film that should be shown in schools, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The Florida Project (Sean Baker)

Moonee and Scooty: great rebel icons of cinema history.

They go on adventures. They get into all kinds of scrapes. They fly in the face of authority. They talk back to grown-ups. Particularly Willem Dafoe, who spends most of the film exasperated by everything and everyone, but his firmness comes from a place of kindness. He’s great.

It is all very very funny, and though there is a universality in its portrayal of childhood, it gives a snapshot of a world of which I’m unfamiliar that feels authentic without judgment, warm and uplifiting without shying away from the rough edges.

The bittiness of the kids’ escapades and encounters, and Halley’s “no fucks given” atittude, means that my patience and sympathies were somewhat tested by the end of it’s running time. There was clearly too much gold to keep from us, and it would’ve risked someone’s favourite line being cut, but a good 15-20 mins cut out would’ve kept the energy up and my enthusiasm for the characters and their situation in check.

But if you don’t come away from it feeling that Moonee is some kind of hero, then you’re dead inside.

You Were Never Really Here / The Shape of Water

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

A harrowing take on the hitman thriller, that has elements of Leon and A History of Violence, but is very much its own beast. Joaquin Phoenix dominates, a physical force to be reckoned with, but suicidally depressive, suffering deep mental trauma, scars internal and external. This is aggressive film-making – flashbacks tear through the present with a jolt, brutal violence leaves you wincing if you can even bear to look, and Jonny Greenwood’s pulsing, swirling, juddering score combine to create a real assault on the senses. Its lean running time is to its credit; any longer and it might be all too much to take. But boy howdy is it something.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro)

Once more, Del Toro invites us to take a swim through his myriad genre interests, but The Shape of Water is just the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less.

Though it does a decent job of marrying a modern fairy tale with Cold War intrigue, for all its visual magic wonder, it feels oddly hollow, Del Toro caught up in the aesthetic trappings, boo-hiss villains and sudden, bloody violence, but unable to really sell the central chemistry, no easy feat between a mute and man in a rubber suit, despite the best efforts of Sally Hawkins. It’s surprisingly stronger as a comedy than you might expect, and it embraces and accepts the weirdness of its tale.

Meanwhile, Michael Shannon plays the “Michael Shannon” role. Octavia Spencer plays the “Octavia Spencer” role. It’s Richard Jenkins who is the real reason to watch though – if the film’s heart is anywhere, it lies with him. Someone get that guy a merman to love.

Ghost Stories / Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson)

A successful transition from stage to screen, that manages to capture some of the energy of live performance and theatrical craft with its intense atmosphere and strong performances. In some ways a throwback to the horror anthologies of yesteryear, though it’s certainly more of a complete piece than just a smattering of unrelated shorts like so many recent takes on the format. There are loud noises and shocks and jump scares to appeal to the Friday night popcorn crowd, as well as some lovely silly humour to break the tension just a touch, but the lasting impression it leaves you with is its haunting imagery and ideas that are hard to shake.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

McDonagh’s best film yet, with all the offensive dialogue you’ve come to expect (this is Trigger Warning: The Movie, folks), but more rounded, textured and emotionally rich than before. There’s a maturity and a sense of purpose here, just with lots of fruity, laugh out loud lines layered on top. You believe the characters, their behaviour, their actions (depiction isn’t endorsement, remember), and you get caught up in the machinations of small town America the way you would one of them “slice of life” podcasts you get these days.

Goes without saying Frances McDormand is top-tier, and this is further proof that Sam Rockwell is maybe the best actor working today to still not receive a major acting award nomination (correct me if I’m wrong), but the film is stuffed with good turns all round. Pretty dang great.

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LFF 2015 Wrap-Up: The Lobster, The Assassin, Anomalisa, The Boy and The Beast

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival has long been and gone, but I’ve finally gotten round to doing a quick wrap-up of all the films I saw. Admittedly, I only managed to see four out of a line-up of hundreds but they are all worth talking about, and three of them are waiting to be released in the UK.

The Lobster

THE LOBSTER

My most anticipated film of the festival (and also the one that was released right after its LFF screenings) also ended up being my favourite. Billed as an unconventional love story from Dogtooth and Alps director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster depicts a world in which singletons are taken to a remote hotel where they must find a partner within 45 days or face being turned into an animal. Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, like the best sci-fi (or alternate near-future semi-dystopia or wherever/whenever the setting might be), it has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though his first film in the English language, Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast, lead Colin Farrell especially good playing our sadsack ‘hero’. It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

The Assassin

THE ASSASSIN

Winner of the Best Director prize for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the Cannes Film Festival and topping Sight and Sound’s Critics Poll as the best film of 2015, The Assassin comes already heavily garlanded. But it’s a case of cinematic Emperor’s New Clothes if there ever was one. Critics may fool you with words like transfixing, captivating, or imaginative to describe the film. But what they really mean is that it is empty, dull and plays around with its aspect ratio a bit. It’s possible to have a beautiful film that also manages to captivate with its story and character, but The Assassin is deliberately vague on both counts for seemingly no reason other than perhaps to make snobby arthouse audiences feel like they are watching a proper film rather than something as trifling as a simple ‘martial arts movie’. And what action is here is incredibly brief, a rush of fast edits that amount to very little, simply there to punctuate the tedium and keep you from dropping off to sleep. The bulk of the film involves people in pretty clothes walking into nicely decorated rooms and telling other people what is happening, who then sit there and think about it for a bit, and then onto the next scene. And yes, there are some rather gorgeous shots, but nothing more breath-taking than any desktop backgrounds that come pre-loaded onto a new laptop. If you don’t find yourself checking your watch repeatedly throughout, you’re either lying or not wearing a watch.

Anomalisa

ANOMALISA

The LFF Surprise Film is always a hot ticket and a bit of a treat (though the list of past entries is an eclectic bunch all right). And out of all the potential offerings, Anomalisa was the one I hoped for after hearing great things coming out of its other festival appearances. And lo and behold, so it was. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. And it’s not just a gimmick, rather the animation serves many functions, story, character and humour, creating a distancing effect while simultaneously making you invest more as you find humanity in something not quite real without a living, breathing human being entering the picture and spoiling everything, much as with Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day, for example, makes you care deeply for a stick man. Here though the 3D printed models offer greater detail but also a deliberate sense of the uncanny, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained (not unlike The Lobster, set largely in the confines of a hotel, the unnatural atmosphere of which Anomalisa perfectly captures), but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. And yet, how it ranks amongst the likes of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York is hard to say. Upon initial viewing, it didn’t quite make the same impact on my heart, gut and mind as those films. I liked it a lot, but perhaps the second time, when its aims are clearer, it will connect more. Still, for any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

The Boy and The Beast

THE BOY AND THE BEAST

With The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda has become maybe the best working anime director currently in the business. His latest is as thrilling and beautiful on a technical and emotional level as one has come to expect, though suffers from a few too many standard anime narrative conventions and character beats to be considered one of his best. A young street urchin finds a passage to a world of anthropomorphised animal creatures and is taken under the wing of a grumpy bear who reluctantly decides to train him as an apprentice so that he then may challenge for rule of the domain. There is an enjoyable antagonism between the two; even when there is the risk of their relationship sliding into sentimentality, the film holds off from letting them become too fond of one another, so when those emotional payoffs come, it feels earned and genuine. And it means you get more entertaining scenes of them getting on each other’s nerves. It does however lose its way during the inevitable segment in which they go their separate ways, a return to the human world and a forced love-interest perhaps adding an extra dimension to the characters but offering very little that’s engaging. It adds a fair chunk to the run time too, bringing a lively buoyant fantasy up to that point to a halt. But for the most part, whether through its entertaining mismatched-buddy comedy or its spectacular action set-pieces, The Boy and the Beast still has much to offer.

London Film Festival 2011 – “This I Gotta See!”

The London Film Festival line-up was revealed last week, and BFI members across the country have been stroking their chins and eagerly circling their choice selections in the vague hope they might be successful getting tickets for every single one they want to see. This is just an overview of the 10 films I’ve circled with my SPECIAL BIG PEN, plus a few others that piqued my interest. Oh, and I left out We Need To Talk About Kevin because that’s like released a couple of days later, and if you can’t wait that long and want to pay an overpriced festival ticket cost to see it, you’re a mug (so too have I highlighted confirmed release dates where applicable so you can make up your own mind).

In alphabetical odour:

Alps

The latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, who last gave us the devastatingly brilliant Dogtooth, promises more unsettling description-defying weirdness.

The Artist

I love the OSS 117 films primarily because of Jean Dujardin, who successfully manages to pull off hilarious, charismatic and stupid all at the same time. So it tickled me to see him take the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in The Artist, probably the most loved film of the festival. Looks damn near perfect.

Carnage

Yes, it’s bad man Polanski, and yes, it’s just four people talking in a room (as you may expect from its stage origins), but when those four people are Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, expect some thespy sparks to fly. Looks like fun at least.

A Dangerous Method

Cronenberg. Mortensen. Fassbender. Cassel. Okay, so we do have K.K. thrown into the mix, but she can up her game when she wants to. Early word isn’t as thrillingly optimistic as the pedigree would suggest, but it’s still a combination that’s hard to resist (10th Feb)

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Experiencing something of a resurgence in international recognition after 13 Assassins (despite still being one of the most prolific directors around today), Takashi Miike’s 3D samurai movie remake features a Ryuichi Sakamoto score and looks like a classy piece of work – even if it’s just filler until we get his Phoenix Wright (!) adaptation.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

New Werner Herzog, especially documentarian Herzog, is always something to get excited about, and while this focus on life on death row may seem on the surface like nothing that Louis Theroux hasn’t covered already, you can count on Herzog to provide his own idiosyncratic take on the subject.

Let the Bullets Fly

The highest-grossing film in Chinese history is something of which we should all take notice, being that it is fast becoming one of the most important territories in terms of both film consumers and producers. But beyond that, it looks the business, with guns, gags and Chow Yun-Fat.

Shame

Those wishing to go on a Fassbender-bender are in luck with his Venice Film Festival-award winning performance as a sex addict in his new collaboration with Hunger director Steve McQueen. Though Hunger didn’t necessarily bowl me over quite as I expected it to do, I have high hopes for this (13th Jan)

Surprise Film

It’s always a gamble. 2007 and 2008 saw No Country For Old Men and The Wrestler, then when I finally bothered in 2009, I got Capitalism: A Love Story. Looking at the release calendar, there aren’t actually a lot of films beyond the LFF I’m desperate to see, but it’s worth a shot just to get overjoyed/angry about.

Take Shelter

Michael Shannon does ‘unhinged’ better than anybody at the moment, and the concept (man starts to have visions of an impending disaster) has the potential for some serious hinge AND bracket disruption. (11th Nov)

The others…

The Awakening – Dominic West and Rebecca Hall investigate bumps in the night in this period ghost story…The Other Devil’s Backbone? (11th Nov)

Coriolanus – Ralph Fiennes both calls and takes shots as director and star of this contemporary warzone update of Shakespeare’s play with the most Beavis and Butthead-baiting title. (20th Jan)

50/50 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads a pretty great cast in what promises to be the most hilarious cancer comedy of the season. (25th Nov)

I Wish (Kiseki) – Hirokazu Kore-eda (best known for Still Walking and Nobody Knows, but Air Doll‘s my favourite) returns with another tale of family matters.

Last Screening – everyone loves a film about cinema, and everyone loves a film about psychos, so mixing the two together, in this French offering about a projectionist cum murderer, should at least be entertaining.

Tales of the Night – it’s the Family Gala, so expect pushy parents forcing their children to go, pretending their kids aren’t into Beyblade or Digimon or whatever’s popular nowadays. But this fairytale anthology piece uses 3D to recreate a beautiful shadow puppet aesthetic, so I’ll let it slide.

This Must Be The Place – Sean Penn goes a bit kooky as a washed-up goth-tinged rock-star on a trip across the States to visit his dying father, plus added David Byrne on co-soundtrack duties.

Wild Bill – of all the smaller Brit-flicks on offer, the combination of Son of Rambow star Will Poulter and Babyface himself Dexter Fletcher writing and directing is an interesting one, even if it’s nothing original.