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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FILM REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods has had a torturous journey from concept to screen to say the least. That production wrapped in May 2009 only for its release to be shelved until April 2012 suggests an unloved bastard of a film, but the reality is far more complex. Its original release of 2010 was pushed to 2011 so it could be converted to 3D, but then that was dropped altogether when production company MGM filed for bankruptcy, and its only now that after Lionsgate swooped in and rescued it for release that director and co-writer Drew Goddard and producer and co-writer Joss Whedon’s comedy horror has become available for public consumption.

It’s heartening that now it’s out there in the ether, that not only is praise for it near unanimous, but seemingly everyone has gone to great lengths to keep their thoughts as free from spoilers as possible (and all equally understanding the inherent hypocrisy in writing about a film to explain why you shouldn’t read up about it before seeing it). So to add to this symphony of appreciation, here is my brief chorus, for The Cabin in the Woods is the most entertaining horror film since Drag Me To Hell.

And the reason your instant reaction is to gush your guts rather than spill the beans is not because there is some grand central twist. We’re not in Shyamalan rug-pulling final reel territory. Indeed, the very first scene (with the superb Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) should instantly signal that things are not what they seem. Nor is it a film that will necessarily lose its impact through multiple viewings once the surprises are known. Rather, the craft and consideration that has gone into making the plot machinations click so wonderfully should be experienced fresh and untainted.

The clichés Goddard and Whedon stick slavishly to – a group of stereotypical college kids on a weekend trip to some run-down backwoods holiday home – seem so tedious at first, I thought my mind was made up 20 minutes in. So far, so Tucker and Dale Vs Evil. But just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, another layer is revealed with expert timing and execution, and the scope of the story just gets ever wider and more interesting, building and building to an insane climax which will be talked about for years to come, mark my words.

If there are criticisms to be had, they’re minor. There is a murkiness to the night-time scenes where the action is barely comprehensible (it’s just as well the 3D conversion was dropped as it would have made half of the film impenetrably dark a la Fright Night). And having not really gotten into Buffy or Firefly, some of the trademark Whedon zingy dialogue left me a little cold (am I the only one who cringes every time they hear that “We have a Hulk” line in The Avengers trailer?).

But the joy of The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s meta but never ironic or overly cynical. The gags are broad enough in their frame of reference so as not to alienate the casual cinemagoer, but with enough nods to get fanboys and gorehounds all a flutter. It is clever but never tricksy. It breaks the rules, but never breaks its own rules. Even a title as generic as The Cabin in the Woods is as much a commentary on the film as the film’s own commentary on the film itself. I think.

As effective and hilarious a skewering of horror convention as Galaxy Quest was to Star Trek, or Starship Troopers was to macho jingoistic bullshit, the Evil Dead remake is going to have a very hard time seeming in any way relevant in its sizeable genre-busting wake.

The Cabin in the Woods is released on 13th April.