La La Land – LFF Review

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Writer and director Damien Chazelle must really love jazz. His second feature Whiplash had jazz by the trumpet-load and his latest is a musical romance about a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. A musical in this day and age? What will they think of next?

The film opens on a big sweeping musical number. The camera floats around rows of cars in a traffic jam as their occupants burst out and join one another in song. There are bright colours, tightly choreographed dance moves, and even a band hidden in the back of a lorry. This is one big love song to old school musicals and a statement of intent for what is to follow. The opening number misleads in some ways as it raises expectations for a traditional musical plot that La La Land isn’t happy to settle for.

From that opening we meet our two protagonists: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is that very same jazz musician; a man so in love with the genre he dreams of opening his own jazz joint one day. His love interest is Mia (Emma Stone), a desperately auditioning actress and part time barista who sleeps at night under a giant portrait of Katharine Hepburn. They both have big dreams that nobody else believes in and from the moment they meet the only people who can deny their chemistry is themselves. What follows is an incredibly charming romance replete with songs and dance numbers. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers but work with what they have and sing gently rather than belting out showstoppers. Their dance moves are impeccable and my mind kept wandering back to memories of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt dancing in a bank. The role of the well-rounded movie star is alive and well with this pairing.

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Like all romance it isn’t all song and dance. As their relationship progresses Mia and Sebastian find themselves compromising on their dreams in order to be with each other. As the fairy tale starts to fade so do the songs and La La Land evolves from being a mere musical into something deeper. It it here that the film takes a risk as the razzmatazz is replaced with mundanity and doubt. For a period we are not in the colourful wonderland that opening song promised us but somewhere a lot less fun to be. I started to doubt the film at this point and thought it had gone off course; a valid try but not a triumph.

But then… Wow! That final section! The film pulls the rug from under you and throws all your emotions at you at once. In his last masterstroke Chazelle brings the whole film together with a flourish. What seemed to be a mistake became a necessity and La La Land, while not the film I thought it was, cemented itself as a modern musical classic. I’m still humming along now as I type.

For someone brought up on The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this was just what I needed.

The Handmaiden – LFF Review

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Park Chan-wook is back! End of review.

For his next trick the South Korean cinematic force of nature is tackling source material closer to these British shores. The acclaimed director of the Vengeance trilogy, and more recently Thirst and Stoker, has adapted Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith for the big screen and in doing so moved the narrative from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A con man (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to work as the handmaiden to a young heiress (Kim Min-hee) in the hopes of convincing her to marry the con artist rather than her own uncle (Cho Jin-woong) to whom she is betrothed. Once wed the heiress will be confined to an insane asylum and the two criminal elements will split the spoils. That’s the plan at least…

As anyone familiar with Fingersmith will know there is more than one twist in this tale and Chan-wook stays true to the twisting nature of the original if not the entire plot. Where the two diverge is yours to discover. With his adaptation Chan-wook has created a dark fable of lust, betrayal, and a dark humour that flows beneath everything else. Whether creating a scene of extreme torture or sapphic indulgence to rival Blue is the Warmest Colour, Chan-wook never loses a charming sense of fun and as such the sex and violence never feels exploitative. As to whether the erotic scenes suffer from the male gaze is something for someone with different eyes to mine to judge.

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That said the film is undeniably on the side of the female characters as it takes its point of view of events from the heiress and pickpocket, while all the male characters are varying degrees of vile and misogynistic. Twisty plot aside The Handmaiden is about two women finding solace in one another as they struggle to fight the oppression of the men in their lives; men who value their penises above all else. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call The Handmaiden a feminist film but it villianises men as much as it objectifies the women. Two wrongs make a right. Right guys? Excuse me while I wring my hands for loving this film.

Kim Min-hee, last seen in Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, brings complex layers to an elegant woman with a myriad of secrets bubbling underneath, and dares us to judge a character based on first impressions alone. As for Kim Tae-ri; what a debut! Having never done a feature before she tackles a joint lead role which is challenging not just emotionally but physically. “Brave” performance tropes aside the role of the pickpocket/handmaiden requires physical comedy chops alongside the dramatic demands. The whole film rests on these two woman and they are what makes the film work so well.

Overall Chan-wook has made a gorgeous film that is a real treat to watch. Everything from the cast, to the production design, to the subtitles in two colours to help you discern what language is being spoken, everything has been meticulously put together. Some might say that the film is too long at almost two and a half hours but when you’re loving a film this much why would you want it to end?

Beautiful, funny, sexy, and dark. Perfect.

A United Kingdom – LFF Review

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In a beige-tinted past familiar to viewers of the classic British period drama, Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) falls in love with white Londoner Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) causing unrest in England, Botswana and everywhere in-between. Amma Asante follows up Belle with another period drama about love, racism, and the power of one to conquer the other. Sadly this film is not as successful as her previous.

David Oyelowo gives a convincing performance as the king-in-waiting torn between the woman he loves and the country he was born to rule. It is easy to see what drew him to the role as the film provides numerous grandstanding speeches as the music swells and the camera pulls into his face. Oyelowo carefully balances the monologues and the more tender moments to create a character I could sympathise with despite his alien predicament.

On the other side of the romantic pairing is Rosamund Pike playing the overlooked sister of the overlooked sister from Downton Abbey (Laura Carmichael) and the daughter of Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character from Goodnight Sweetheart. I kid you not. Pike has a character I find harder to like; wearing an unwavering expression of worry and an air of white privilege. Knowing the strength that Pike can bring to a role it was hard to watch her play a more simpering part, though she does rally by the end.

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Sadly when Pike and Oyelowo were together on-screen I felt no love between them. Their initial romance in London is rushed, and jarringly edited, so reason they are willing to cause so much political unrest never comes across. In fact the whole London segment at the start of the film, despite featuring my beloved Greenwich, is televisual and unconvincing. It is only on reaching Botswana that the film finally gets its cinematic legs. Some moments near the start of the film teeter close to parody as emotional proclamations are made in landmark locations between two characters we barely know, and who hardly know each other, and with two great actors performing below par. I breathed a sigh of relief when the film escaped the confines of London to the vistas of Botswana. Finally the camera could move.

For whatever the reason the film falters at the start and then struggles to catch up for the rest of its running time. The true story at its core might be worth telling but without a well-developed romance to justify it there’s a limit to how engaged an audience can get.

I was expecting a love story but the result was a dispassionate film with some decent performances but no real spark.

BFI London Film Festival 2016

London Film Festival 2016

This site thrives on one 12 day event that occurs every year in October; the BFI London Film Festival. The festival is now in its 60th year and we are in our 7th year of covering the film bonanza in as much detail as we can without actually losing our minds. Each year the films get better and better, I see more and more films, and I get less and less sleep.

On Thursday the line-up for this year’s event was announced and I have gone through the various strands and pulled out a film for each that really has me excited. As for my overall list of films I want to see… I am currently trying to get that down to double digits.

Galas - Free Fire

Free Fire

The Gala films tend to be the hardest tickets to get your hands on but are also the most likely to get a cinema release so I advise you look elsewhere for gems at the festival. That aside I am desperate to catch this year’s closing film Free Fire as it unites the fearless Brie Larson with revolutionary Ben Wheatley. I’ve seen three Larson films (1, 2, 3) and two of Wheatley’s (1, 2) at previous festivals and cannot wait to get my eyeballs on this bloody, funny, and no doubt dazzling action comedy from a filmmaker like no other. Amy Jump has written a 1970s American crime drama shot just outside Brighton which looks as farcical as it does violent. Bring it on.

Love - The Son of Joseph

The Son of Joseph

Back in 2011 we found ourselves very briefly delving into a surreal and stylised world of Portuguese cinema. The film that ended this baffling cinematic education was The Portuguese Nun. I’m almost certain that we enjoyed it. That film’s director, Eugène Green, is back with a French film about a young man searching for his father. I guarantee that this will be a unique film that will be either tedious, hilarious, or a delirious mixture of both.

Debate - Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog is the only documentarian that has both appeared as a baddie in Jack Reacher and as an estate agent in Parks and Recreation. So great is the caricature surrounding Herzog sometimes I forget that he is actually a skilled filmmaker who is not afraid to offer up his opinion and produces works of lyrical beauty. His latest is an exploration of our connected world; looking at how the internet has affected our real world personal relationships. Apparently it includes the line, “Can your dishwasher fall in love with your refrigerator?”. Sold.

Laugh - Lost in Paris

Lost in Paris

My favourite film of 2012 was a strange Belgian comedy called The Fairy which starred a limber comedic duo like nothing I had seen before. In their latest they play a couple who find one another in Paris and go on a series of absurd adventures. Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel thrive on genuinely funny physical comedy that relies on flexibility, ingenuity, and impeccable timing. I will not be missing this.

Dare - The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook has brought us Korean classics including Thirst and The Vengeance Trilogy before impressing with his English language triumphs Stoker and Snowpiercer. Now he has taken the English novel Fingersmith back to his native South Korea to create an erotic and stylish period thriller that apparently involves some amazing wallpaper. No other director can wring so much tension from so little so I can only imagine what he does with this saucy source material.

Thrill - City of Tiny Lights

City of Tiny Lights

A crime thriller set in contemporary London starring Riz Ahmed and Billie Piper. This leapt out at me having watched Billie Piper give a career defining performance in Yerma at the Young Vic last week and feeling the need to double-check that she really is the incredible actress I saw that night. With a plotline involving a radical mosque, multiculturalism, and commercial development City of Tiny Lights sounds like a ripe and topical slice of modern noir set in the city I love.

Cult - The Void

The Void

There are numerous horrors I am keen to lose my composure to at the festival but the one that I keep coming back to is this throwback from Canada. Said to include the influence of John Carpenter and classic practical effects along with knowing nods to frighteners of the past The Void looks to be the perfect way for me to lose a few nights’ sleep.

Journey - Two Lovers and a Bear

Two Lovers and a Bear

Starring two of the most underrated and talented young actors working today, Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany, Two Lovers and a Bear brings us magical realism in the Arctic. The two titular lovers are trying to overcome their childhoods in a remote and isolated town. Presumably a bear shows up at some point too.

Sonic - London Town

London Town

Imagine a time of social, political, and racial unrest under a Tory Prime Minister. Now stop thinking about last month and throw your mind back to 1979. Representing the festival strand dedicated to music we have a British comedy drama following a young teenager struggling with family life after his mother leaves the family home. What will help him get through this troubled time? Punk of course!

Family - Phantom Boy

Phantom Boy

At a film festival there are no BBFC certificates and as such there is no guarantee that the animated film you have chosen to see will not feature graphic sexual content. Thankfully the festival has the Family strand which is the only safe place for the young or prudish. Leo is a sick boy trapped in hospital who discovers he can leave his body and fly around like a phantom. A surreal animation about a new type of superhero.

Experimentia - Have You Seen My Movie

Have You Seen My Movie?

I am wary of the Experimenta strand as the films veer away from narrative cinema and towards pure art. For a novice like me this can be a challenging experience and writing about it is almost impossible. I get an abusive email roughly once every six months from one artist whose work I didn’t enjoy back in 2013. A film my brain might be able to comprehend is Have You Seen My Movie? which consists of a two-hour montage of scenes from other films that either feature people going to the cinema or in the act of making film themselves. How can this last for so long? Will it be enjoyable or tedious? This is the joy of Experimenta; you have to take the plunge and risk being proven wrong.

Treasures - Born in Flames

Born in Flames

Truly embracing the risk I am even tempted by a film that straddles both the Experimenta strand and the Treasures collection. In the latter group are older films that have been remastered or simply need to be revisited, perhaps having gained greater relevance since their initial release. This example is a slice of 80s feminist science fiction in which women never gained equality with men and so turn to violent revolution to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Anyone mocking SJWs online might want to watch their step.

The festival runs 5th – 16 October 2016 and tickets go on sale 8th September for BFI members and 15th September for everyone else.

Valley of Love – Film Review

Valley of Love

Gérard (Gérard Depardieu) and Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) are a long divorced couple sent from their native France to California’s Death Valley by their son’s suicide note. He has asked them to spend the week together and put together a precise schedule for them to follow. Forced together after years apart the couple reminisce about their son and their marriage while an unsettling undercurrent runs through each scene.

The couple are visibly uncomfortable. Not only is the intense Californian heat almost too much to bear they are forced to confront their past and in what ways they might have let their son down. All the while spending time together with someone they chose to divorces decades before. Depardieu and Huppert are seasoned pros and tackle the low-key drama with aplomb. It is easy to believe there’s a real history between them and their conversation is filled with a relatable blend of tenderness and bitterness. If Valley of Love were just this, two great actors performing against a beautiful backdrop, then I would have loved the film. Sadly there was another element at play that muddied the waters.

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That unsettling undercurrent I mentioned earlier grew throughout the film and bloomed from a subtle element into something a little distracting. How do I phrase this? There was a hint of the other to the film; an exploration of the idea that death may not be the end. My issue is actually not that this idea was included in the film but that it wasn’t delved into a little deeper. As an emotional drama the film was complete but as the supernatural element felt unfinished and unsatisfying.

Again let me stress that my frustrations do not come from the performances. Everything about the two leads is authentic, heartbreaking, and subtle. Guillaume Nicloux as a director is also praiseworthy as he gives the actors room to perform whilst capturing the majestic landscape that lay behind them. Where my issues lie are with Nicloux’s script. Whilst excellent at the human element it fails to follow through on the unnecessary additional of otherworldly influences.

It could have been perfect but instead was sullied by a bold idea half executed.

Valley of Love is in UK cinemas now.