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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LFF 2015: Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) ***

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Nothing grabs initial attention like a film about promiscuous young love, especially one set in ‘sexually uninhibited’ France – sunny Biarritz in the South West here. Even more so, one that toys with the term ‘gang bang’ in its full title.

Undeniably a confident debut from writer-director Eva Husson, who comes from a music video background, Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is not short on cinematic style. It also confidently explores modern aspects that affect sexual development too. It just does little else unique that French filmmakers haven’t already done with sexual exploration and coming-of-age themes in the past.

We are party to the downtime of several ‘bored’ suburban high-school teens who decide to create a private orgy club at one boy’s house while his mother is away on business. However, far from liberating them, youthful emotions get in the way, all publicised on social media, causing problems for some and divisions on a whole.

Husson favours the ‘voyeur’ camera style in much of her work, the setting for which is in the opening scene, seen through the eyes of one of the party – we find out whom later on. There is a softly lit, subdued tone to her cinematography, almost dreamlike, as well as an equally chilled pace that sets the scene for the players to relax and explore. Interestingly though, as reality sets in for the characters, this cinematic style becomes more ‘exposing’ and sharper focused. It’s this style verses the ‘ferocious’ pace of social media and pockets of tension that nicely play at odds but also compliment and move the plot forward.

In fact, the film’s threat is the invasion of modern-day communication methods in an otherwise idyllic innocence that the viewer is made to watch being unleashed. One such character stands as the moral compass, albeit on the sidelines to start with, until he too, through desire and opportunity, slips up – but does get to redeem himself. What is intriguing is watching the fallout and guessing the casualties from this social experiment.

The acting from a mainly debut cast is quite admirable, showing Husson’s skill at putting her ensemble at ease. There is even one to watch, Marilyn Lima, who looks like a modern-day Brigitte Bardot or Emmanuelle Béart and holds her own against the more established Daisy Broom of Girlhood (2014) and Leaving (2009) fame.

As is the case with a lot of newcomer talent, the film only stretches the imagination so far before lack of writing experience shows through – and once you have seen some teen experimentation, it does become tedious. Husson must see the action-reaction of her promiscuous teens through to the end, but Bang Gang does flag even with its controversial subject. Still, Husson has a powerful first vehicle to drive home with, if not as a critique of modern-day pressures on youth.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: The Brand New Testament ***

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Imagine Dad is actually God, but you don’t get on with him, or have his vision for the minions below. It’s time to write a brand New Testament to put things right. This is the highly entertaining premise behind filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s quirky new Belgian comedy, starring Catherine Deneuve among others.

God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is Belgian and a nasty piece of work. He runs our meagre existence from a rundown block of flats while living with his downtrodden wife (Yolande Moreau) – who’s actually a goddess – and rebellious young daughter Ea (Pili Groyne). To add to matters, his son, Jesus Christ, has gone and got himself crucified, though communicates still with Ea as a statute in her room.

Ea decides it’s time to set matters straight and stop her controlling, bigoted, vicious slob of a father from doing any more mischief or harm. She will find another six apostles to take the number to 18 – the number of players in her mother’s beloved sports game – while causing chaos on Dad’s computer. Ea ‘falls’ to Earth via her family washing machine to find an assortment of contenders; one a natural born killer, another a lonely woman (Deneuve) who falls in love with a gorilla.

The Brand New Testament has that vinaigrette-wash, subdued cinematic hue of Delicatessen (1991) in God’s apartment, combined with the cuteness of character of Amélie (2001) when little Ea is in frame, and the eccentricity of Mood Indigo (2013) for the sheer imaginative lunacy. It is your very typical Gallic comedy farce with delightfully touching moments of nuttiness. The trouble is, while bathing in its absurdity and religious analogy, it never feels like it really transcends to any great heights – to knock on the pearly gates, so to speak. Rather, it keeps you satisfactorily tittering along the way.

The film is part-divided up into chapters of the six new disciples, giving ample screen time and detail to each. This is done in the usual fashion of the character being introduced on camera first, before the narrator lays bare their situation. Far from breaking up continuity, this method keeps things intriguing and controlled, allowing the unique madness of each character’s situation to pour forth – while Ea watches on.

The acting cannot be faulted. It’s young Groyne as Ea who is tasked with linking the tale’s elements and keeping interest brewing – and she does this as effectively as she can. Poelvoorde is utterly vile as God, misogynistic and motor-mouthed and always deserving of his mortal punishments. Amélie’s Moreau does ‘half-baked’ exceptionally well – as ever. Deneuve is as poised and picture-perfect as usual, so it’s wonderfully amusing to witness this former aloof screen siren self-mock while in the arms of a horny primate.

The Brand New Testament feels like a big box of frogs while breaking religious satirical taboo. It’s very liberating in fact. Even though the finale is a colourful, hallucinogenic one, there just seems to be a missing element to link the apostles’ scenarios with the concluding scenes. Thankfully, their chapters contain enough substance to mask this fact.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Reunion ***

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Those who struggled with popularity at school take note: The Reunion is Swedish writer-director-actor Anna Odell’s way of dealing with that dreaded ‘school reunion’, where everyone is meant to be grown up and bygones are bygones, conveniently forgotten to give an air of adult confidence and sophistication on one ‘you will have fun’ night.

The Reunion is a fictitious account of Anna the famous artist who doesn’t get an invite to her class reunion, then makes a film about what would have happened had she gone along. Consequently, she tries contacting her former classmates to confront them with her film and document their reactions.

Beginning with ‘the film’ of what happens and the harsh truth that Anna wants to get out on the dining table with certain ex-classmates who made her early life hell, The Reunion is a slow burner on an obvious collision course. It’s very cathartic in nature, a very honest piece of filmmaking to blow the fake adult encounters out of the water. How easily we forget past foibles, hey?

It also throws up a number of interesting (and poignant) questions, such as how one was ultimately treated early on by one’s peers, does impact the psyche later in life. The whole idea of being the underdog or bullied making you stronger is true to an extent, but not without fallout – just how different would Anna’s existence have been if she had been greater accepted?

Odell is quite captivating as the primary subject matter with her intriguing elf-like looks and air of control – it’s hard to imagine anyone taking offence at her. Such composure allows the others’ personalities to be better reflected against her cool exterior, to watch them deal with their impending predicament.

Odell’s film is like an addicts anonymous meeting, filmed with you very much present in the room, witnessing every squirm, retort and sideways glance. The film’s end result is shocking, so much so that you cannot wait for it to be shown to the real classmates. And it’s here that not all react in quite the satisfying way that you might expect them to. In fact, that’s part of the surprise for the viewer who might expect more drama. The finale of the overall film is a very diluted one, in fact, and seems to end with more of a fizzle, like an old firework, than a big bang of contentment. Odell seems to struggle to know how to deliver a conclusive strike against her tormentors.

The Reunion is almost theatrical in nature – staged without the melodramatics. It is, nevertheless, still a curious piece of filmmaking to muse over, not only because its subject is a universal one that many can relate to, but also just trying to decipher what its end message is, is the real head scratcher we are left with by Odell.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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West (Westen) ****

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The world may have forgotten life before ‘Reunification’ in October 1990, but the divisions are still there today, bubbling below the surface. Director Christian Schwochow’s film West (Westen) follows one young East German mother and child’s experience of making the dangerous journey to the West, long before Reunification was even considered a reality. West leaves you unsettle, using its microscopic focus on one family to intensify the paranoia felt at the time.

After the death of her Russian scientist partner in Moscow, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) finally decides to illegally cross Berlin’s East-West German border in the late 70s with her young son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) to forget her past and make a new future. After a humiliating examination, she arrives and gets shelter and food at West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center, but the problems she thought she had left behind begin to haunt her again, as suspicion of Stasi sympathy is rife and life in the promised West is not as straightforward as she thought it would be.

It’s clear why Triebel picked up Best Actress gongs at Montréal World Film Festival 2013 and the German Film Awards 2014. The East Berliner makes a compelling lead, strong in character and determination, but without making Nelly too hard-nosed that we don’t empathise with her as the paranoia and need to protect grows. We ultimately want closure for Nelly at the end of her journey to ‘freedom’, something that Heide Schwochow’s (the director’s mother) screenplay – based on Julia Franck’s novel ¬- leaves up to you to decide whether Nelly has achieved in the end.

Watching this film from a parent’s perspective is a raw and emotive experience, as the urge to seek a better life for your offspring is the obvious hook. Naturally, with the global migrant crisis, the film is very current too. The casting of young Göbel as Alexej gives director Schwochow’s film its much needed hope. The young actor evokes a naïve spirit in a pensive Alexej that sadly gets knocked towards the latter part as reality sets in and he begins to see the struggles his mother is facing.

There is also the heart-felt addition of a ‘surrogate’ father figure in fellow defector Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer) who is presented as a mysterious character with a dubious past and a possible threat to the mother and son. Ironically, he still provides the male protection Alexej needs that he can’t even guarantee for himself. This is where the story is at its strongest, in that we know little back story about all those that mother and son encounter, hence we are forever waiting for an unpleasant reveal, right up until the credits roll. This might frustrate some, but it’s West’s core strength – even Nelly’s past has a question mark beside it.

Although Jacky Ido’s secret service agent character John Bird is obviously there to hunt out Stasi and communist sympathisers among the refugees, his back story is equally sketchy and his reliability questionable. Like the other characters, we play a game of trying to figure out whether he is friend or foe for mother and child. However, Bird could have been further developed and less one-dimensional as merely ‘the face of the Allied Security Services’ in this.

West is an intense watch, perpetuated by the hand-held and urgent camerawork at moments. It relies on its strong characters to build the atmosphere and our imagination to fill in the deliberate gaps in their back stories. It certainly portrays the Schwochows’ personal input into getting the characters’ emotion just right – not too sentimental or too abstract to understand. In the end, the significance of the plight of the refugee is the overall impression that lingers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Mood Indigo ***

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If incredibly imagination alone were the key to a successful film, then writer-director Michel Gondry’s L’écume des jours or Mood Indigo would be a guaranteed box-office smash. It’s like an animated delicacy that ignites the creative juices with every scene, beautifully crafted to help tell a delicate story of loss. However, as much as fans of Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, La science des rêves) will revel in his trademark surrealism and visual effects once more, the storyline is a little lacking in substance and doesn’t appear to translate as well from Boris Vian’s heart-felt 1947 novel about losing a great love (translated as Froth on the Daydream and Foam of the Daze).

Wealthy, inventive bachelor Colin (Romain Duris) has everything he has ever asked for and is financially comfortable. What he doesn’t have is someone to share it with – until he meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou) at a friend’s party and they fall in love. Everything is peachy until the couple marry and go away on honeymoon. The first night Chloé contracts an unusual illness overnight – caused by a flower growing in her lungs. Their idyll is rudely broken as Colin endeavours to find a cure before it’s too late while trying to avoid financial ruin.

Gondry sets the scene and the appetite for some zany antics perfectly, with the animation quenching the senses and thrilling all who take it in. His cast of Duris and the ever-delightful ‘dolly-like’ Tautou are made for his films, both never failing to deliver here. In fact, the show-stealing character is Omar Sy as Colin’s right-hand-man, Nicolas, who pulls the whole narrative together when it veers off on an indulgent Gondry tangent.

In terms of wackiness that always goes hand in hand with a touching sensitivity to the characters’ mood moment, one of the most memorable scenes is Colin taking Chloé on a ‘cloud capsule ride’ over an apparent building site on their first date. It’s sheer brilliance of quirky imagination as they take in their surroundings (and each other).

However, as the ‘illness’ of the growing flower progresses – that appears to be a metaphor for lung cancer, the story seems to subside, as if getting lost in the enveloping darkness that the production takes. Whether there is not enough relationship development to begin with to really get a sense of how deep Colin and Chloé’s love for each other is, or the written word just gets lost in translation as the creativity takes over, who knows, but we feel the depressed pet mouse’s gloom at what should be a momentous time.

Still, there is always the hilariously funny dance move that involves bandy legs and arms to enjoy and the introduction of the ‘pianocktail’ that would make a grand central party piece, though whether there is enough to entice anyone who is not a Gondry fan to pay to see Mood Indigo on the big screen is debatable, however creative he gets and charming Duris and Tautou are.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: We Are The Best! *****

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There is an instant vitality and endearing quality to Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson’s new coming-of-age drama Vi är bäst! (We Are The Best!) that gradually warms from within. It’s not just the experimental buzz of youth and the promise of reliving your memories through the voice of punk music, but being placed in a privileged position as a viewer to re-experience those key moments when adulthood beckons. Moodysson’s colourful production offers just that, inviting us into the personal lives of three young girls growing up at an exciting and pivotal age, a clash of innocence and anarchy at play.

It’s Stockholm in the 1980s and punk is not quite dead. 13-year-old punk music lovers Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) decide to form a band when a prank at a local youth centre escalates – the trouble is neither of them can play an instrument. They call upon the string-plucking talents of loner Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a good Christian girl who is befriended by them and asked to join the band. As their music develops, so too, do their relationships blossoming on the brink of adulthood, complete with the difficult choices of such a tender age that could threaten their tight bond and their band’s future.

Moodysson takes partner Coco Moodysson’s comic novel and really fleshes out the three characters, giving them real emotion, challenges and ‘normal’ complex family backgrounds. We get to know Bobo and Klara in particular, skulking around in overgrown woolly jumpers and each sporting individual statement hairdos, long before the real transformation is awakened by their music. Their enthusiasm and determination to be different in an androgynous fashion is infectious and ultimately fun to watch, then we are helpless to witness the harrowing ride when adulthood is less than kind.

All three young actresses excel in their roles, totally natural in front of the camera that it’s quite unbelievable they make their debut here. Grosin is like a smaller version of Rooney Mara in the making, an exciting firecracker of talent to watch burn brighter, and Barkhammar and LeMoyne have equally rosy futures, thanks to some great casting.

The story weaves in relevant social issues without being glaringly obvious or preachy, so complimenting the anti-system roots of punk. What’s further refreshing is how passionate these kids are about their music from the start, so the initial comical situation we find this budding musical enlightenment in – affluent, (but screw-up, as is always the case with Scandi dramas) suburban Sweden – soon feels very poignant and fitting. It’s the perfect setting for something exciting and fresh to emerge. The punk music in the film is background noise really, a brief lesson in Scandi punk, but it’s the ‘we hate sport’ song the girls pen from a local perspective that sticks for anyone who hated gym at school – or even school itself.

Rightfully so, We Are The Best! title aptly suits Moodysson’s charming and winning journey into adulthood, accompanied by a music style that encourages a venting of mixed emotions, as well as the chance to continuously strive for better, and seek fulfilment through musical change.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Jeune et Jolie ***

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French Screenwriter-director François Ozon returns to BFI LFF 2013 with another coming-of-age film, this time with subjective comedic value. Palme d’Or nominated Jeune et Jolie is one of sexual discovery of a young seventeen-year-old girl, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who deals with her newfound womanhood in a rather extreme fashion. This is perhaps no surprise to diehard Ozon fans, but it does stretch the film’s credibility of events.

Isabelle willingly loses her virginity to an older boy while on holiday in the South of France with her family. This new awakening leads her to try prostitution on returning home to Paris, unbeknown to her family and college friends. She forms a close relationship with one of her clients, Georges (Johan Leysen), but things take a tragic turn after one hotel meeting, the results of which unravel her hidden secret.

What is perhaps most perplexing and not necessarily fully explained is why a young girl would go from an unsatisfying first sexual encounter – generally the norm for most – to high-class escort? Ozon’s link here is questionable, and there is no apparent catalyst for this to be the case. Added to which, stunning Isabelle’s home life seems happy and healthy, living a middle-class existence in an affluent part of Paris. Perhaps Ozon is suggesting not only a developing free will at this crucial age, but also questioning what true ‘fulfilment’ is, as those who have it all never seem satisfied? This is still tentative and pure speculation on this reviewer’s part.

Jeune et Jolie is the classic father-daughter relationship scenario French film-making is notoriously expert at. The younger female drawn to age and wisdom is the stuff of fantasy for mature males, and with Vacth’s beauty and mystique to admire, and Isabelle’s chosen profession that could make such a beautiful creature accessible to older men, Ozon panders to that illusion. It is nothing groundbreaking in this respect. Coupled with her rebellious nature, Isabelle is a figure of curious awe, the likes of which we try to fathom, hence further feeding the need to understand why she chooses the path she does. There is also an intriguing nod to the influences of modern mobile technology that allows for self-reinvention and living a double life.

Ozon gets some subtle and intelligent performances from his lead and the rest of his cast, with Frédéric Pierrot as Patrick, Isabelle’s step-father, in another LFF 2013 offering, again very similar to his The Returned TV character, Jérôme. Model Vacth is a vision, quietly confident in her first lead performance and keeping Isabelle an enigma, as she is an average, mischievous teen pushing boundaries. There is something openly experimental about the whole affair as Ozon toys with engrained morals and ‘the norm’. In fact, some might cynically say Isabelle is very entrepreneurial in times of austerity…

Jeune et Jolie is another Ozon challenge to societal norms, as with his other work. However, although intriguing, there is a lack of initial continuity to Isabelle’s behaviour, and the absence of more obvious satirical humour to this film leaves the status quo strangely hanging. Still, it is a solid performance from Vacth who could have been a serious Ana contender for the forthcoming Fifty Shades of Grey, in terms of looks and independent spirit. Nevertheless, Vacth makes an impressive lead entry into a blossoming film career, with Ozon’s pedigree and direction fully in her favour, allowing her to shine. Perhaps it’s time for old Ozon muse Romola Garai to step aside?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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