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: Doomsday Book (LFF 2012)

Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw The Devil, Arnie’s forthcoming The Last Stand) and Yim Pil-sung (Hansel & Gretel)’s long-in-the-offing anthology about the end of days arrives as an apocalyptic triptych that achieves a rare consistency in look and theme, but not so much in tone. The central story, Kim’s Heavenly Creature, breaks up the schlock of Yim’s opener Brave New World and the goofiness of his closer Happy Birthday, but still feels like an odd entity unto itself, perhaps much like its central character.

In this future, a robot repairman is called to assess a guide droid at a Buddhist temple that may or may not have achieved enlightenment. It’s certainly the only one of the three to convincingly deal with classic sci-fi themes: what it means to be human, artificial intelligence, playing God, etc. However, at the same time, it all means there’s nothing really here we haven’t seen before. Even the robot itself is practically a carbon copy of the Bjorkbots in Chris Cunningham’s video for ‘All is Full of Love’. It’s not a wholly po-faced philosophical tale (there’s a fun scene with a robo-dog, for instance), but, neat special effects aside, its attempts at profundity are at best well-worn, and at worst, hammy.

That’s not to say the first story is particularly original either. We’re talking a zombie outbreak, for pity’s sake. Nevertheless, Yim has enough fun with the concept to get a passing grade, managing to convincingly suggest a larger scale than its budget could clearly afford. Here, a case of dodgy beef is the cause, and a grisly montage showing its trip to the dinner plate is enough to put you off meat for a good while afterwards.

But probably the most entertaining of the three though is the one where the stakes are at their highest, as the final segment concerns a giant meteor hurtling towards Earth, en route to wipe out the human race. One family though are prepared, and retreat to an underground bunker, keeping tabs on the meteor’s trajectory through the last TV broadcasts (both Brave New World and Happy Birthday feature wonderful comedy snapshots of how the media are dealing with their respective crisis). However, they soon realise one of their number is responsible for the impending apocalypse – and only they have the power to stop it as the countdown nears zero. It’s certainly the silliest of the bunch, but charming and surprising with it too.

Doomsday Book is one of the stronger portmanteaus out there, and doesn’t suffer from the same mixed-bagginess that is often characteristic of the device. If Kim Ji-woon’s offering isn’t quite as satisfying or connected as the others that book-end it, all three are visually and technically impressive, and overall make for an interesting whole.

FILM REVIEW: Japan at the BFI London Film Festival 2012

L-R: The Samurai That Night, Key of Life, For Love’s Sake, Dreams For Sale

As mentioned in my previous post about the London Film Festival, film festivals are a great opportunity to see films unlikely to make it to these shores in either a theatrical or home distribution capacity. Aside from the likes of Third Window and Terracotta, few works from Japan get a release here, so it’s up to dedicated fests like Zipangu Fest or the likes of the LFF to showcase titles outside of the usual favourite samurai/horror/samurai-horror genres. Whether this is an issue over the quality of what is currently being produced or whether there just isn’t the market for it anymore is a hot topic, but based on the offerings at this year’s London Film Festival, I’m starting to wonder if it is more a case of the former than the latter. Of course, this is just a tiny portion of the country’s output, so let’s not make any wild generalisations here. But you expect a borderline level of quality to make it to LFF, and all four I saw had their problems, not one an out-and-out success. Usually this was a case of being overlong and not being able to fully exploit their set-up effectively. Maybe something to do that three out of the four were from writer-directors, perhaps unable to objectively pick apart their own narratives?

Two big-hitters I didn’t check out were Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪) – despite being a big fan of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, I expect it has a fair chance of getting a UK release – and Mika Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter (ヘルタースケルター) – as I wasn’t sure my brain could cope with the inevitable style over substance from the director of Sakuran straight after a Takashi Miike film. So here in greater detail are the ones I did see:

First, Masaaki Akahori’s The Samurai That Night (その夜の侍), and no, we’re not talking jidai-geki here. Kenichi’s wife is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Five years later, he plans to confront the man responsible, a loutish oaf who, despite having served time for the crime, shows no remorse and selfishly drifts through life. The film charts the three days leading up to the fifth year anniversary, establishing itself as a revenge thriller. However, come the second day, it starts to meander, and stretches its ideas too thin over its running time. When it should be building suspense up to an exciting climax, it prefers to just make both protagonist and antagonist even more two-dimensional, before falling apart into an unfocused melange of woolly motivation. It works as a study of pathetic men, incapable of breaking out of habits and dead-end lives, but not much else, particularly in its peculiar attempts at humour and hardly flattering portrayal of women.

Next up, Kenji Uchida’s Key of Life (鍵泥棒のメソッド), in which a professional ‘fixer’ for the criminal underworld slips on a bar of soap in a public bath and is knocked out cold, losing his memory. In the brouhaha, a suicidal actor in need of a change of fortune swaps locker keys with the unconscious tough, and finds himself with new clothes, a new car, and a wad of cash. Meanwhile, a lovelorn high-flying magazine editor has set herself a wedding date – trouble is there is currently no groom-to-be. On the look-out for a suitor, it’s not long before all their paths criss-cross and all manner of hijinks ensue. It’s a pretty standard set-up for a comedy of errors, involving switched identities, amnesia and self-imposed rom-com rules. Unoriginal it may be, but overall Key of Life is pretty funny. Much is down to Teruyuki Kagawa’s wonderful performance as the hardened gangster turned sensitive nobody, who is convincing and touching on both sides. It’s half an hour too long, plodding as plot machinations get in the way of character and jokes, but there are some good laughs to be had.

Day two, and For Love’s Sake (愛と誠). Takashi Miike’s high school musical of star-crossed lovers threatens at certain points to be an absolute hoot, but just doesn’t quite fulfil its potential. It’s 1972, and a well-to-do schoolgirl, Ai is in love with rough-and-tumble rogue Makoto, and so, using her father’s influence, requests his transfer to her elite school. However, he’s a tough nut to crack, and through songs and scrapes, she tries to win his heart while he goes about beating up anyone who comes in his way. The songs are nicely performed with endearingly naff choreography, but For Love’s Sake’s initial verve and vigour is unfortunately not sustained. It’s hard to really rag on about any deficiencies found in a Miike film considering how prolific he is, but apart from a few flashes of invention and trademark nuttiness, it feels like he is holding back a tad too much, resorting to fistfight after fistfight, and not enough, well, showtunes. Cheesy giggles when a character breaks into song aside, it’s not one of his memorable offerings.

And finally, Miwa Nishikawa’s Dreams For Sale (夢売るふたり). When their izakaya burns down in an accidental fire, a couple try to piece their lives back together.  After the husband’s one night stand leads to a sympathetic payout towards opening a new restaurant, they hit upon the idea where he will prey on desperate women in need of love and stability, swindle them for cash and then do a runner. But the success of the scheme has its own pitfalls. The ‘marriage fraud’ concept suggests a broad comedy (mildly reminiscent of The Producers if anything), but when played relatively straight amidst moments of genuine emotional drama, it’s unconvincing. There are interesting snapshots into the lives of the conned brides-to-be, but its attempts at depicting broader issues in society are hampered by not being able to buy into the story itself (despite this apparently being a real ‘thing’). There’s enough going on to keep it engaging, and Confessions’ Takako Matsu is a compelling and complex leading lady, but it sadly doesn’t quite add up.

London Film Festival 2012 – Your Handy Release Date Comparison Guide!

The line-up for the 56th BFI London Film Festival was announced today, and as movie journalists across the land enthusiastically digested its contents, there was only one thing I had in mind, something the critics and bloggers often ignore, especially peculiar given that this festival is very much a public event. No, it’s not which films had the most buzz, or were going to be awards front-runners, or had previously garnered press attention and accolades at earlier fests in the year. Rather, as a regular Joe Punter, my question was simple: which films have the furthest gap in between their LFF screening and their currently scheduled release date?

Of course, the issue of what purpose film festivals have at all is a big and juicy one for another time, but in my position, its just a chance to see films months before they officially come out so I can act all smug and be a know-it-all, or to pick more obscure, often foreign language, titles that may not even see another screening on these shores again. Why anyone would pay top dollar to see a film that is not only guaranteed a UK release, but will be out in most cinemas across the country mere days afterwards strikes me as desperate wannabe showboating (this cropped up in my preview last year re: We Need To Talk About Kevin). Oh sure, I’ll be refreshing that ticket booking page trying to snag a Surprise Film ticket in the hope that it will be The Master (LFF: 20 Oct, UK: 9 Nov, 20 Days Difference) just like everybody else, but in some cases, no matter how excited you might be or how desperate you are to “walk the red carpet”, it’s really not worth it.

So here’s my quick rundown of those films screening at the LFF which already have confirmed UK release dates according to Launching Films in numerical order of difference in days between their initial LFF screening date and their general release (so you can get an idea of which ones may be worth seeking out and what your patience threshold might be) – please pick me up any errors, date or arithmetic wise! Of course, there’ll be those which will inevitably get a release date very close to their festival debut in the meantime (e.g. Seven Psychopaths), but these are ones you should maybe avoid splashing the cash on/reconsider losing any sleep over if you can’t get tickets. Basically, anything released in 2013 is worth a shot if you want to be REALLY ahead of the curve. Whether these films end up being any good is another thing…

6 Days Difference

Ginger and Rosa (LFF: 13 Oct, UK: 19 Oct)

7 Days Difference

Frankenweenie 3D (LFF: 10 Oct, UK: 17 Oct) <– and it’s also being shown in 30 cinemas nationwide

Beasts of the Southern Wild (LFF: 12 Oct UK: 19 Oct)

15 Days Difference

Room 237 (LFF: 11 Oct, UK: 26 Oct)

16 Days Difference

Sister (LFF: 12 Oct, UK: 26 Oct)

20 Days Difference

Rust and Bone (LFF: 13 Oct, UK: 2 Nov)

22 Days Difference

The Sapphires (LFF: 15 Oct, UK: 2 Nov)

23 Days Difference

Keep The Lights On (LFF: 16 Oct, UK: 2 Nov)

29 Days Difference

Argo (LFF: 17 Oct, UK: 9 Nov)

35 Days Difference

Lawrence of Arabia Re-Release (LFF: 20 Oct, UK: 16 Nov)

36 Days Difference

Amour (LFF: 11 Oct, UK: 16 Nov)

40 Days Difference

Great Expectations (LFF: 21 Oct, UK: 30 Nov)

41 Days Difference

Sightseers (LFF: 20 Oct, UK: 30 Nov)

43 Days Difference

End of Watch (LFF: 11 Oct, UK: 23 Nov)

50 Days Difference

The Hunt (LFF: 11 Oct, UK: 30 Nov)

Laurence Anyways (LFF: 11 Oct, UK: 30 Nov)

54 Days Difference

I, Anna (LFF: 14 Oct, UK: 7 Dec)

57 Days Difference

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Re-Release (LFF: 18 Oct, UK: 14 Dec)

81 Days Difference

Quartet (LFF: 15 Oct, UK: 4 Jan)

94 Days Difference

The Sessions (LFF: 16 Oct, UK: 18 Jan)

108 Days Difference

Hyde Park on Hudson (LFF: 16 Oct, UK: 1 Feb)

116 Days Difference

No (LFF: 15 Oct, UK: 8 Feb)

164 Days Difference!

In The House (LFF: 16 Oct, UK: 29 Mar)

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.