LFF 2017: Mudbound ****

This year’s BFI LFF was full of richly layered film-making that seemed poignantly relevant to current affairs, even though the story may have been set in another time and era. Perhaps we never learn our past mistakes?

One such example is writer-director Dee Rees’s Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, a beautifully rendered tale set in the Deep South about the impact of post-war America on the various communities. Not only does it explore racial tensions of the time, present-day unrest in Charlottesville, for example, makes us project latter-day opinions on the film’s events.

When two men – one white (Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan) and one black (Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson) – return home from World War II to work on a farm in Mississippi, they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to daily life after war. One belongs to a white family who own the land (the McAllans), and the other to family who, along with its descendants, works it (the Jacksons).

Nothing is taken for granted in Mudbound. No back story is left untold. Hence there are no plot holes to contend with. Rees fully fleshes out each character, as well as gives them an individual journey to embark on. Coupled with some fantastic casting/acting in Hedlund and Mitchell and Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan, this film offers a plethora of events and surface tensions to dissect and submerse in that parallel present-day tensions in America.

The storytelling is emotive in nature, as is to be expected. However, it is not drawn out for effect and exploitative in sentimentality. Events play out with real-time significance, with some of the most violent scenes very real indeed. In fact, Clarke’s McAllan brother, Henry, actually hits actor Hedlund for full effect in the brothers’ confrontation scene. The irony is there is also sensitivity invested in the characters and their story that Rees’ coaxes out on screen that is powerful in the mundane of moments.

Mudbound could fall into the clichéd Deep South screen story of racial divide but addresses all injustices using the most traumatic, humbling and leveling device: war.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Good Time ****

Robert Pattinson has come a long way from his Edward Cullen years in Twilight, having to carefully pick his roles as to throw off the vampire mantel. He has had some successes and some duds. However, with the Safdie BrothersGood Time, an urban thriller on speed, he may just have done it. Its edgy pace and sense of ‘in the moment’ fixes makes the actor’s underdog character Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas not just an exhilarating one to try and keep up with, but a complete change from the normally laid-back Pattinson.

After a botched bank robbery by brothers Connie and Nick (Benny Safdie), the latter gets caught and jailed. So begins the desperate 24-hour countdown by Connie to collect together bail money and stop his mentally-ill brother from being sent to Riker’s Island prison, where he knows Nick will not survive.

With its film noir nods, punctuated by psychedelic colour and energizing pop tracks, the Safdie Brothers take us on a journey through the underbelly of Queens – their home turf, with Connie as our unwilling guide. The gritty, hand-held production was often shot without filming permits – as is the Safdies’ ‘urban opera’ style, further complimenting the whole affair.

With elements of Taxi Driver to it – the Safdies are working with Scorsese on a new film, there is a pressure-cooker environment waiting to come to boil. Unlike the 1976’s cult classic, Good Time has moments of release, only for a split second, to show the idiocy/absurdity of certain events throughout.

At the heart is a criminal with a heart – thieves may not stick together, but brothers do. Pattinson’s casting is a clever choice by the Safdies, who have pluck unknowns from the street to act. Pattinson embodies Connie completely, including clinching the accent. That said there is a softer edge to his hardened exterior, allowing empathy with his plight to filter through at times.

This is in stark contrast with Queens native Buddy Duress, a real-life, reformed felon who the Safdie Brothers cast in their earlier film, Heaven Knows What (2014). Duress plays Ray this time, a pathetic small-time crook who knows how to get cash quick for Connie. The fact Pattinson is so convincing opposite Duress in their scenes is credit to the Brit’s complete transformation in this.

Good Time is a ride of the night, a pulsing, high-octane race against the main enemy – time. It may surprise some Pattinson’s fans, but it will certainly hold him in greater acting regard by everyone who sees this.

4/ 5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: The Killing of a Sacred Deer *****

It is becoming increasingly difficult to describe a Yorgos Lanthimos film to the uninitiated. The Greek writer-director first came to international attention with his odd but endearing dystopian drama, The Lobster, about people having a limited time to pair off in a hotel, before being turned into an animal of their choice. Two years on, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is equally perverse, though chillingly more sinister in nature. It also reunites Lanthimos with actor Colin Farrell who is enjoying a career-defining change with such misfit characters – and lots more facial hair.

Farrell is Steven Murphy, a successful heart surgeon married to medic Anna (Nicole Kidman). They have two children. Steven is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice in his family, after taking a strange young man called Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing.

The story plays heavily on the supernatural, the fear of the unknown. It is quite clinical in its approach, from the wide vistas of the hospital to the equally lofty rooms at Murphy’s home. What makes the status quo even more absurd and detached from reality is Lanthimos’ curious script, co-written with Efthymis Filippou. Through the terse (sometimes shocking), banal chitchat – think the unfiltered subconscious having a voice – comes a wealth of emotion from the characters. They seem cold and aloof at the start, but actually, as disaster comes ever closer, there is more urgency and feeling in their rapport.

Farrell and Kidman are compelling as a screen couple – subsequently going on to film The Beguiled after this. However, credit goes to Keoghan whose ‘immortal’ Martin is the most fascinating character overall. Keoghan begins by making him vulnerable and inquisitive, until something unknown penetrates Steven’s closeted and privileged lifestyle. Then it is too late. This is a superior supernatural thriller, utterly unique in execution – even the roaming camera has a mind of its own.

5/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: Breathe ****

The ‘based on a true story’ mantra either triggers interest or groans – the latter from cynics crying “Oscar baiting”. However, some tales deserve a little more credit and attention, and Breathe is one such story. The sentimentality is kept firmly in check by debut director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) who works here with long-time friend and producer Jonathan Cavendish to deliver a truly inspirational and surprisingly upbeat drama about Cavendish’s parents.

Beginning in the 1950s, dashing, active, fun-loving Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) is struck down by polio while living in Africa with his pregnant wife, Diana (Claire Foy), and is paralysed from the neck down for the rest of his life. Struggling to accept being bed-bound in hospital, Robin becomes depressed, and begs Diana to get him out. So begins an extraordinary life journey that defies the medical profession. When the couple’s friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) invents a wheelchair with built-in breathing apparatus this allows Robin to live – and even travel.

Breathe avoids failing into cliché on the whole. It has some very funny and uplifting moments, once Robin leaves the confines of the hospital. There is a wonder at what the character will achieve next that prevents the narrative from being bogged down by mawkishness. The central performances from Garfield and Foy are illuminating. The pair has a natural screen rapport that extenuates the bubbly moments of joy and wonderment at the Cavendish’s achievements, while focuses our attention on the more serious aspects. Serkis’ care with the source material is such that by the time the inevitable arrives, the viewer is not emotionally drained and actually celebrates the good that has come out of Robin’s situation.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: Mutafukaz ****

Japanese anime has always been pop culture’s anarchic social commentary on current affairs, but equally troubling for its sexualizing imagery of young girls. Its fantastical themes, vibrant characters and whirl of colour are still compelling for most.

Mutafukaz, the new Franco-Japanese collaboration by directors Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume ‘Run’ Renard shown at this year’s London Film Festival suddenly makes anime more relevant and accessible to a wider audience. With its nods to the likes of Ren and Stimpy, Grand Theft Auto, Leon and even Men in Black, Mutafukaz uses such references cleverly to address modern-day social issues, ranging from austerity and multiculturalism to state intervention in a highly energetic and entertaining way.

The story’s lead character is pizza-delivery boy called Angelino, one of many deadbeats living in Dark Meat City (D.M.C.), along with flat mate, best buddy Vinz who has a skull head that’s always flaming. In life in D.M.C. will always be “Desperate, Miserable and Crap” – the boys just need to break away from all the ugliness and the cockroaches.

On his rounds one day absent-minded Angelino is transfixed by a stunning, mysterious girl walking past, causing in him crashing his scooter. First putting it down to concussion, he begins noticing menacing monster-like shapes, while mean-looking men in black are after him, resulting in him and Vinz going on the run.

Creator Renard has come a long way from the Sundance short of the same name. With the help of veteran animator Nishimi they have given birth to genuine animated characters, each with curious personalities. The feature-length run-time of 90 minutes has helped with this, giving an actual sense of Angelino and Vinz’s daily troubles, but amplified by strong, purposeful voiceovers from actors Tay Lee and Mark Ryan Haltom respectively.

While having an ever-present sense of urgency and paranoia, the pace slows at times, so we can take a breath and marvel at the creativity, illustrating the mood of the moment. Take Angelino’s Pied Piper-esque skill with their resident cockroaches, rendering something revolting rather alluring to watch.

Die-hard anime fans still get their dose of gravity-defying moves, graphic gore, juvenile reactions and blatant sexism. However, scenes such as the shoot-outs in the ghetto are injected with Shakespearean prose (and graffiti) and stage choreography, all in splendid 2D render. With such hard-hitting issues at play, grinding down our protagonists, empathy for each multiplies, reaffirming our commitment to seeing them succeed.

This addictive sense of survival and rebirth, coupled with the bigger mystery – who are the alien beings and why do they want Angelino – adds many intriguing layers to a 2D production, while the characters bombard us with thoughts and opinions in their wake.

Mutafukaz becomes not just a coming-of-age journey for our animated heroes, but one for the anime newcomer, quite possibly igniting a newfound love of the art and bringing the fantasy down with a thud to a palpable street-level understanding.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Sicilian Ghost Story ****

If Salvo wasn’t enough of a powerhouse debut to shine a light on the murky world of the mafia, award-winning film-makers and co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza have a new offering, Sicilian Ghost Story. This is more of a coming-of-age love story and more expertly layered. It still retains that mystical, almost supernatural quality that the pair alludes to. It also has one of the most shockingly brutally but captivating scenes witnessed in a long time.

Based on the real-life Italian crime story of the abduction and subsequent murder of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, son of a Mafioso turned police informant, the story follows classmate Luna’s (exciting newcomer Julia Jedlikowska) lovelorn quest to get to the bottom of what happened to Giuseppe (newcomer Gaetano Fernandez). Her determination absorbs her adolescent years. Her obsession is of great concern to her parents, particularly her strict mother who wants to keep off the authorities – and mafia’s – radar.

Set in the idyllic Sicilian countryside the film has a mesmerizing, innocent, dream-like quality to it from the start – much like a ‘Sicilian Twilight’, where young love can flourish away from harsh realities. It is this false sense of security that flows into a greater estuary of foreboding caused by an evil entity that is very much part of the local culture and fabric of the landscape. There is even a scene where with question the true existence of a building. However, when the menace proves too great for our young leads, the film-makers allow their characters a supernatural ‘retreat’, where youth can achieve anything and solve all problems adults seemingly can’t or won’t.

What keeps the whole beautifully crafted affair grounded is the stone-cold reality of Giuseppe’s demise, played out as imprisonment scenes of varying brutality and psychological abuse. This finally climaxes in the powerful ‘cleansing’ scene, truly repulsive (and stomach churning) as it is beguiling to watch nature taking its course. This scene runs for quite some time to ensure the full impact hits home.

At the same time, the film-makers are not caught up portraying the morose, allowing moments of reflection and ‘escapism’ to blend all the emotions felt whilst watching. Indeed, out of despair a young adult life is born, so the film has a surprising upbeat quality to it, even after the ugliness of the crime grip-hold in this region lingers on.

It is this clever blending of truth and fiction that allows Grassadonia and Piazza to tackle the narrative’s horrors while keeping us entranced and guessing. This leaves us with some sense of optimism that good can prevail over something ongoing and sinister. Sicilian Ghost Story just triumphs in this, both technically and artistically.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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