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.

FILM REVIEW: Seven Psychopaths (LFF 2012)

In the episode of The Simpsons ‘Saddlesore Galactica’, the character Comic Book Guy notes that the story (the Simpsons get a horse) is a retread of an earlier episode, to which Homer retorts to the effect of “Does anyone even care what this guy thinks?” Later on, Comic Book Guy wears a “Worst Episode Ever” T-shirt as the plot devolves into nonsense about jockeys being evil elves. However, by highlighting the deficiencies in the story, the writers are pre-emptively steeling themselves against inevitable criticism. Unfortunately the gambit does not pay off, and The Simpsons would just never be the same again.

Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths follows a screenwriter called Marty (Colin Farrell) suffering from writer’s block and struggling to gather his disparate ideas together for a screenplay called ‘Seven Psychopaths’. Do we all get what’s happening here? See, as great as In Bruges is overall, it is not without its flaws, and seemingly makes self-reflexive excuses for them (“Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf” sort of sums it up nicely). Seven Psychopaths, with its story-telling segments revealing the titular nutjobs destined for Marty’s work-in-progress that seep in and out of reality, feels like the work of a director who can’t even be bothered to apologise for its scattershot approach, papering over the cracks with claims of metatextuality. Greatness can be borne out of this frustration (see Barton Fink), but Seven Psychopaths comes off as a rather disjointed crime-caper-cum-Hollywood-satire the likes of which you’d thought dried up circa 1999. And what’s more, it knows you know it.

But, BUT, BUT! Amongst the mess there is a lot of very good stuff. The aforementioned psychopath backstory vignettes are impressive. By erring a little too close to real events they are borderline distasteful, and there is some genuinely shocking and bloody violence which jars with the goofy madcap comedy, but they make for interesting standalone tales amid the main narrative thrust – Marty’s dog-napper friends (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) have stolen the wrong person’s pooch, owned by crime lord Woody Harrelson. For all the jokiness about Harrelson’s missing mutt, it actually leads to some genuinely tense confrontations. And there’s one highly entertaining scene of Rockwell contributing an action-packed climax to the script, thereby anticipating but deliberately undercutting that of the film itself.

It also helps that McDonagh has assembled a quality cast, even if he seemingly doesn’t know what to do with most of them. Clearly In Bruges was enough of a calling card that you get a bunch of familiar faces in distractingly small roles. Of the main players though, Farrell is engaging, Walken is dependably dry and amusing, and Rockwell is practically in Zaphod Beeblebrox mode. Yet, the film’s overly cynical outlook and simultaneous desire to both unravel itself and tie itself up in knots means it is sorely lacking an emotional core. It comes close with Walken’s character, but not close enough amongst all the hubbub. In the end, it all feels a bit mean and nasty, but that’s probably the intended response in a “hey, isn’t Hollywood an awful place for making violence paltable?!” kinda way.

It’s still certainly worth a watch though – its plus points outweigh its negatives – but as far as sophomore efforts go, and despite being a sloppy mish-mash of the two, Seven Psychopaths is no Pulp Fiction and/or Adaptation.

Now, why was I talking about The Simpsons again?

FILM REVIEW: Fright Night

Let’s face it, vampires are pretty boring. Everyone’s got their own take on the standard nocturnal immortal undead blood-sucker mythos, but for such key players in the movie Monster Mash, they are very rarely scary. However, being that it’s played more for yuks and gags than genuine terror, Fright Night understands it is hardly going to keep you up at night, positioning itself closer in tone to Joe Dante’s underappreciated The ‘burbs and, of course, the original 1985 film, of which this is an effective update.

Teenager Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin)’s new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell) keeps to himself and only comes out at night – nothing too unusual when living in the suburbs of Las Vegas. However, when a friend goes missing, Charley’s former best buddy ‘Evil’ Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is convinced Jerry is in fact a vampire and tries to enlist a reluctant Charley to investigate. When the evidence becomes overwhelming, Charley goes to occult-inflected stage magician and self-proclaimed ‘vampire expert’ Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help.

From a purely technical level, Fright Night is something of a mess. I had unfortunately forgotten the film was to be presented in 3D, and wish the filmmakers had too. It’s left to some very silly ‘things thrown at the camera’ to try and explain why there’s any need for it at all. Coupled with some very poor CG, it all proves majorly distracting. A car chase sequence in particular is practically incomprehensible with a rotating camera, dodgy computer effects, and the added darkness of the 3D glasses to the night-time setting making it largely open to the reactions of the cast to work out what’s going on (a la this 2012 re-edit). And a question: is there some Adobe After Effects program where you can just copy and paste a pre-made ‘vampire turning to burnt ashes’ sequence? Because it seems it hasn’t really changed since Blade.

However, director Craig Gillespie’s strength is in character, and thanks to an interesting cast, Fright Night delivers some fine performances. Yelchin, the best thing in Terminator: Salvation and an endearing Chekhov in the Star Trek reboot, is a likeable lead, ably supported by Imogen Poots and Toni Collette on girlfriend and mother duties respectively but with a lot more to them than their roles would suggest. It’s Farrell and Tennant in particular though who get the best roles, and both make the most of them.

Jerry is menacing and creepy, with a sly unsettling confidence that makes his exchanges with Charley snap and crackle. Farrell clearly has a good time toying with his prey, but it’s Tennant who gets the opportunity to really cut loose, and steal the scenes too, in his first big Hollywood role (and don’t give me that Harry Potter crap, he’s barely in that). Pitched as a cross between Criss Angel and Russell Brand, Peter Vincent is a drunken husk of a man, accounting for roughly 90% of the foul language and a fair chunk of the laughs too (particularly in his verbal sparring matches with his girlfriend/assistant). And while there’s little ostensibly in common with Roddy McDowall’s original version of the character, a late night horror movie TV show host, he certainly still provides the comic relief with a degree of heart and soul.

Though the script has its fair share of plot-holes and narrative leaps, it mostly works and feels surprisingly fresh despite its cultural baggage. It manages to surprise and subvert more than could be realistically expected, and the relationships between the main characters are well-drawn.

In the grand vampire horror film tradition, Fright Night is ultimately a footnote of a footnote, adding very little to what’s come before. But that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining romp despite its flaws – just avoid the 3D version.

7/10

FILM REVIEW: Horrible Bosses

When King of Kong director Seth Gordon discovered hot-sauce salesman/arcade cabinet megastar Billy Mitchell, he revealed to the world one of the greatest comedy villains of all time. Certainly, a bit of editing and squaring him against all-round super nice guy Steve Wiebe (who incidentally cameos here) embellished his Grinchiness, but in true ‘stranger than fiction’ fashion, you really couldn’t invent a better antagonist. And Horrible Bosses proves it.

Our three leads are your typical average joes and best buds for life who meet in a bar every night to drink brewskis and shoot the shit about how work sucks and just y’know hang out and stuff. Jason Bateman plays ‘the Jason Bateman role’ i.e. boring everyman with a bit of a nasty streak, Jason Sudiekis plays the (only in the movies) ‘ladies man’, and Charlie Day plays the ‘Zach Galifianakis was busy role’. It’s perhaps just as well for Day, as he’s the only one of the principals to leave much of an impact.

Each of them have problems with their superiors, be they mean, sex-obsessed, or incompetent, and so they decide, with disturbingly little encouragement, to bump them off. Yes, they’re all arseholes to an extent, making the lives of their employees miserable in different ways, but it’s hard to know who to root for when our three ‘heroes’ are themselves pretty horrible people. Kevin Spacey plays Buddy Ackerman from Swimming with Sharks (again), Jennifer Aniston plays the ‘horny dentist/teacher/best friend’s mom/etc role’, and Colin Farrell plays, as the posters call him, a “total sleazy tool”.

Thing is, Colin Farrell is peculiarly the most sympathetic of the six goodies/baddies. His actions can largely be attributed to his coke addiction, fuelled by his boss/father’s disappointment in him, who has instead effectively adopted the Sudiekis character as his heir to be. So when his father dies (what is it with Donald Sutherland recent run of popping up at the start of films only to be killed off shortly after?) and he becomes the boss, he embarks on a self-destructive course of revenge and greed to run his father’s company into the ground. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy, albeit focused on someone with a penchant for gaudy Oriental paraphernalia. And at least he isn’t trying to kill anyone. Strange too that he’s branded the sleazy one when it’s Sudiekis who spends the entire film acting like a creepy sex-pest, hitting on every skirt that comes his way and, unbelievably, scoring as much as James Bond manages in a typical 007 outing.

As with most modern American comedies, what follows eschews a tightly plotted narrative, witty zingy dialogue, or expertly played pratfalls in favour of CRAZY characters stumbling into CRAZY situations, followed by SHOUTING and SILLY VOICES. Plot holes and bizarre character motivations are par for the course (e.g. why all the recon missions and breaking into their bosses homes when they can get all their intel watching them at work?), so long as it gets you to an extended fit of everyone flapping their hands in panic, with much of it covered in the trailer anyway. In fact, the majority of the genuine laughs are courtesy of Jamie Foxx, with some perfect comic timing as their potential hitman for hire, and a few throwaway exchanges that hint at a smarter script lost amid the supposed big pay-offs and awkward race gags.

Beyond that, it’s fine forgettable fluff, buoyed along by the supporting cast and guest appearances, but for a film about plotting murder against your superiors, it’s strangely lightweight and inconsequential. For a darkly comic take on events spiralling out of control, there’s always Very Bad Things. For a work sucks/evil boss masterclass, there’s always Office Space. But if you are strangely desperate for a collection of disjointed mildly amusing set-pieces to pass the time, I guess there’s Horrible Bosses.

5/10