LFF 2018: Shadow

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang

Written by Sarah Buddery

Known for his gorgeous visual storytelling, legendary director Zhang Yimou is back with his follow-up to the disappointing (albeit aesthetically beautiful) The Great Wall (2016), and thankfully back in more familiar territory now with Chinese-language film Shadow.

More akin to his most well-known films Hero and House of Flying Daggers as opposed to the aforementioned blockbuster, Shadow is a story steeped in mysterious Chinese history that sees the director return to his legendary best.

The ‘Shadow’ of the title refers to the mantle given to those who would impersonate and fight in the place of Chinese nobility and Commanders when they were unable to do so themselves. The film focuses on one such ‘Shadow’, Jing (Chao Deng), who pretends to be Commander Yu (also played by Deng), and his journey to reclaim their homeland.

What ensues is a visual feast for the eyes, Yimou choosing a striking monochrome colour-palette for his film, based on the tai chi symbol; commonly known as the yin and yang. Not only does this symbol provide the visual framework but it also forms part of the narrative device, and that helps this film to feel truly unique.

It is a little slow in the beginning, but much care is taken to establish the delicate political imbalances, and there’s some early moments of high tension as those around him start to suspect that the ‘Commander’ is an imposter. Of course, we know he is, but the majority of the characters don’t, and this makes for a tense and unsettling atmosphere way before the bloodshed.

When the violence does come, boy does it come, and Yimou shoots the beautifully choreographed fight scenes masterfully. The muted colour palette means the flashes of red blood are dramatic and impactful, making Shadow one of the most exquisitely brutal films you will see all year.

There’s some truly spectacular moments, as one would expect with a Yimou film, and this ensures that despite the predictability of the film’s plot, that it still stays with you afterwards. This film is truly striking from a visual standpoint, and narratively speaking it is one of the more accessible of Zhang Yimou’s films. Shadow marks a triumphant return to form for the Chinese director and is easily able to stand alongside his previous notable works.

Sarah’s Verdict:

4

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LFF 2018: If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo

UK Release Date: February 8th, 2019

Written by Sarah Buddery

Despite the on-stage debacle that threatened to overshadow the award itself, Barry Jenkins’ debut feature Moonlight took home the biggest prize at last year’s Oscars, beating the favourite La La Land to Best Picture. Handling the whole thing as admirably as someone could, director Barry Jenkins rode the wave of emotions on the night like a true professional and is ready to have all the attention on him once again with his second film If Beale Street Could Talk.

Where Moonlight was perhaps intentionally cold and distant, Beale Street instantly feels much warmer and likeable, but once again Jenkins delivers a palpable sense of intimacy with the characters that immediately hooks you and draws you into their world. Moonlight felt transcendent, almost hypnotic in places, and despite its slightly more conventional narrative structure, If Beale Street Could Talk is as equally compelling.  

Beale Street tells the story of young lovers, Tish (Layne) and Fonny (James). With Fonny behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish pregnant with his child, she desperately tries to prove his innocence so they can enjoy the family life they had always wanted together. Tish and Fonny deserve to go down as one of the best on-screen couples, certainly in recent memory, and watching them together is enough to make your heart soar. Jenkins’ camera focuses in on their eyes, their touch, and the small gestures, the considered silence and pauses speaking louder than words ever could.

Whilst their love story is at the heart of this film, it also has subtle thematic notions running through it that add even more weight. Its backdrop of racial tensions and discrimination, particularly in the attitude of white police officers towards black males, is something which is incredibly potent, but yet it never goes into preachy territory and never totally dominates over the characters and the narrative. Instead, it provides a background to these characters, and its relevance to today means that despite its period setting, we can instantly relate with them and their experiences.

The warmth and love of Beale Street positively radiates through the screen and there is wonderful tenderness to both Jenkins’ direction and his writing. Particularly in the scenes with Tish’s family which are wonderfully written and astutely observed.

Jenkins is undeniably an exciting filmmaker, and he succeeds in following up Moonlight by more than surpassing the unfairly high expectations placed upon him. It is unfair to compare the two films because they are so different, but Beale Street is undeniably more accessible and much easier watch. It doesn’t stray from some hard-hitting topics, and its ending is crushingly bittersweet, but watching this love story play out is a privilege. Awards success may just be beckoning his name once again…

Sarah’s Verdict:

4

LFF 2018: They Shall Not Grow Old

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by Sarah Buddery

Back in 2001, director Peter Jackson made huge technological advancements with his groundbreaking fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings. Similarly, his latest film, WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, breaks new ground from a technical aspect, albeit with a very different subject matter.

Fusing previously unseen archive footage from the Imperial War Museum, and interviews recorded by the BBC and IWM, Jackson has lovingly restored and colourised footage of the Great War to present a vivid, immersive and enthralling documentary, unlike anything you will have seen before.

Marking the centenary of the end of the conflict, this film is also a personal passion project for Jackson, dedicated to the memory of his Grandfather, one of the many who perished during World War I. Narrated by the real voices of those who fought in the war, and through technological wizardry, the flickering black and white images are presented in vivid yet grim technicolour to give an honest and unflinching take on life in the trenches. Working with lip-readers, Jackson has also provided voice and sound to the silent footage, and the result is simply breathtaking.

Beyond its unquestionable achievements in film and technology, They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds in bringing to life the stories which run the risk of being forgotten. The ghostly apparitions of the soldiers on screen, the narration of those who lived through it, and the grisly tales of lice, rats, trench foot and death combine to present a “warts and all” telling of history. This film feels important, yet has no sense of self-importance or condescension. The soldier’s accounts are honest, surprising in many ways, and there is the hope that this film will be viewed for many years to come so that their memory lives on.

The film feels vast in scope, yet also candid and intimate. It covers wide ground right from the outbreak of war, recruitment and training, through to Armistice Day, yet it also maintains the deeply personal stories and accounts from the real people who lived through it. It certainly doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war as well and there are some grisly images expertly juxtaposed with the smiling faces of the soldiers. The effect is undeniably harrowing.

Perhaps one of the most harrowing moments occurs towards the end, however, and it is when the soldiers describe what it was like to return home. Many felt relief, but few felt victorious, and indeed the majority felt that their life no longer had purpose now the war was over. It is a sobering and sombre moment and its moments like this that might just change your perspective as the war is remembered going forward.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a triumph of documentary filmmaking, an entirely unique experience and a fitting tribute to the men who served; both the ones who returned and the ones who sadly did not. In the words of the poem by Robert Laurence Binyon from which the film takes its title, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”.

Sarah’s Verdict:

5

LFF 2018: Wild Rose

Year: 2018
Directed by: Tom Harper
Starring: Julie Walters, Jessie Buckley, Sophie Okonedo

Written by Sarah Buddery

With A Star is Born tearing up the box office and its sights set on the big awards, Wild Rose is in many ways the UK’s answer to the Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga fronted film. Very much an underdog movie in more ways than one, Wild Rose’s story may be familiar – a small-town girl with big dreams – and whilst it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the aforementioned crowd-pleaser, it is a wondrous little film that deserves far more attention than it will likely get.

Rose-Lynn (Buckley) is a feisty Glaswegian single mum who, after her release from prison, takes up a cleaning job whilst dreaming of flying to Nashville and pursuing her dreams of being a Country singer. The juxtaposition of the gloomy Glasgow skies and the “bright lights” of Nashville perfectly represent the pull between her role as a mother, and her chance to do what she loves across the pond.

What is so wonderful about Wild Rose is that Rose-Lynn’s dreams are small, she doesn’t necessarily want mega-stardom, and in fact her dreams only really span as far as getting to Nashville and there is something so charming about this. She is also someone prepared to work hard to achieve her dream, and even when the shortcuts to success present themselves to her, she approaches things with a certain degree of humility. Country music for her is her passion, her life, her reason for existing, and she simply wants nothing more than to go to the place that birthed the genre of music she treasures.

In similar stories, a character like Rose-Lynn would run the risk of seeming shallow or one-note, but she is also a person who behaves rather selfishly at times, particularly when it comes to bringing up her children. This means we as the audience feel equally torn between her two lives, much as she does herself. Julie Walters, as Rose-Lynn’s mother, provides the voice of reason in many ways, and the grounding of the character in her home-town. Watching their relationship play out is so beautiful, and the final payoff feels well-earned. There is real earnestness to these characters; they feel fleshed out and genuine, and the excellent performances are to thank for this.

Jessie Buckley as Rose-Lynn is simply revelatory. Her big voice and commanding presence seem to come out of nowhere but yet are also totally believable; her talent coming as naturally to her as breathing. She is head-to-toe “country”, but rather than appearing as if a caricature, there is an innocent quality to her that makes her so endearing. Buckley toes that line between brash and humble so beautifully, and we as the audience feel fully invested in her from the moment the film starts. Julie Walters is an absolute treasure, and as the dependable matriarch, she carries much of the film’s weight and emotion.

Wild Rose is a rapturous, crowd-pleaser of a film with toe-tapping songs and a star-making performance from Jessie Buckley, supported by the always dependable Walters. It might be a little cheesy and predictable in places, but it is a pure and spirited film that will make your heart soar and encourage you to always dream big. A truly underrated musical gem of a movie.

SARAH’S VERDICT:

4

LFF 2018: Wildlife

Year: 2018
Directed by: Paul Dano
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Bill Camp, Ed Oxenbould

Written by Sarah Buddery

Arguably one of the most underrated actors out there, Paul Dano brings his directorial debut to LFF, also competing in the First Feature category. Known for choosing diverse and interesting roles, Dano equally brings a unique perspective to the family drama in the exceptionally beautiful Wildlife.

Initially painting the picture of idyllic family life, Wildlife is a slow burning film that gradually and carefully peels back the layers as the cracks begin to show, and the initial muted pastel colour palette eventually giving way to something richer and darker alongside this.

We view the story through the eyes of teenager Joe (exceptionally played by relative newcomer Ed Oxenbould), as his mother Jeanette (Mulligan) and Jerry (Gyllenhaal) start to drift apart from each other. This is a bold and deliberate move on Dano’s part to tell the story in this way, and indeed it is the innocence of Joe that helps make this story so captivating. Both Jeanette and Jerry visibly change throughout the course of the film, and when viewed through Joe’s eyes, we see his subtle change as well as he grows and becomes self-sufficient.

Wildlife is a devastating portrait of a fractured family unit, and the exquisitely crafted characters are written and played with such a richness. Mulligan, in particular, is absolutely sensational. There is a wonderful subtlety to her reactions, and indeed across all of the performances in this film, it is perhaps the silence and the moments of lingering pause that speak louder than anything else. It is so much a film about the things left unsaid, and there is a beautiful quietness to the writing of Dano and Zoe Kazan, and Dano’s tender direction.

This is an accomplished debut from Dano, and it takes great boldness and courage to keep things this paired back and simple, whilst still showing a great eye and visual flair. Wildlife is quietly devastating, tonally melancholic and truly beautiful in its depiction of brokenness. The directorial career of Paul Dano will undoubtedly be watched with as much interest as his acting career following this.

SARAH’S VERDICT:

4

LFF 2018: Green Book

Year: 2018
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini, Mahershala Ali

Written by Sarah Buddery

To the surprise of everyone (who was able to avoid social media at least!) the surprise film at London Film Festival this year was Green Book; the Peter Farrelly (Yes, a Farrelly brother) directed film based on the true story of musician Don Shirley.

With the leading roles played by two actors synonymous with awards success – Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen – those in the know were already expecting great things from this film, and to those who perhaps were less aware, this film did indeed turn out to be a surprise in more ways than one.

Anchored by two fantastic leading performances, Green Book is a heartfelt, charming, and endlessly watchable film about friendship, differences, race, music, and family. A possibly strange comparison to make but it comes across as a slightly higher calibre Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Ali and Mortensen having a natural “odd couple” friendship, and with the plot focused towards making it home in time for the Holidays evoking the spirit of the aforementioned 1987 comedy classic.

What Green Book has that gives it the edge, however, is much greater thematic richness, and whilst on the surface level it is an odd couple-road movie, the issues of race and identity are also explored in beautiful ways. Don Shirley (Ali) is an enigmatic character, but behind the outward displays of wealth is a man whose music is considered “too white” to those of his shared heritage, and the colour of his skin is something which still leads to him being openly discriminated against. The “green book” of the title refers to the guide that Mortensen’s driver to Shirley, Tony, is handed, which provides guidance on appropriate hotels and restaurants that Shirley would be welcomed into.

Initially, Tony is seen as quite prejudiced and it is his journey throughout this film is an incredibly interesting one. Both characters in fact have arcs that are incredibly different, yet they tie so beautifully together in tandem, with a certain musicality that seems fitting for the subject matter. Tony is a tough guy, a family man, but also a man who fails to see a world much beyond his locale. Don, on the other hand, is well travelled, but also incredibly closed off to those around him. He gives off the air of someone who doesn’t want to open up to people and would much prefer to keep himself to himself.

Of course with a film like this there is some degree of predictability. We know the characters are going to see some growth and change throughout the course of the film, barriers will be broken down, and they’ll emerge on the other side as changed men. However, despite all of that, Green Book remains incredibly charming throughout. There is a bounce and an exuberance to the film, with a natural chemistry between the two leads. It really is impossible not to fall in love with this film.

Mahershala Ali, building on his incredible performance in Moonlight, gives probably the best performance of his career so far. There is such preciseness to his movements and facial expressions, and it takes a great deal of skill to make a character which initially seems so cold, to be instantly likeable. Viggo Mortensen is transformative in the role of Tony, fully embracing the brashness and larger than life persona of the character he is playing, and it is simply a joy to watch the two of them together.

Bolstered by incredible performances, wonderful chemistry, and thematic richness, Green Book is one of the best feel-good films you will see all year. It’ll warm your heart and help you to see the goodness and joy there is in the world. And frankly, that’s something we all need right now.

SARAH’S VERDICT:

4-5

LFF 2018: Beautiful Boy

Year: 2018
Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carrell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan

Written by Dave Curtis

Just imagine being a parent to a child that is a drug addict. Beautiful Boy shows meth addiction and its recovery through the eyes of writer David Sheff (Steve Carrell), who watches his talented son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) as he struggles with his addiction. This is adapted from David & Nic Sheff’s memoirs and their real-life experiences.

Beautiful Boy does the hard job and shows the true horror of drug addiction, not only the damage it does to the user but also to their family and friends. It is hard to watch Nic’s plight. This isn’t just a film about taking drugs and the recovery which leads to a happy ending, this is the long and unflinching portrait of addiction.

This is a story of two sides – first Nic’s life with drugs, and the second is his father David’s and his attempts in trying to save his firstborn. The theme is set right from the first scene. David is asking advice about meth addiction and how can he help his son. The tone has been set.

Chalamet continues to show his talents (he really does remind me of a young Leonardo DiCaprio) and is the heartbeat of the picture. His slow and desperate fall is not only subtle but it also shows the respect to those that have been through it in real life. He is never over the top, showing he has done some research into the role. In less prepared hands this could have been a disaster. Steve Carrell offers strong support in yet another serious role. He does his best work when he has minimal dialogue. A terrific scene in a café (a location that means a lot to them both) offers the chance for the film to show its true colours and really show how good the two leads are. Nic clearly high on drugs is begging his Dad for money, and David can longer bring himself to help his son. It is truly heart-breaking.

It is a shame to report the supporting cast don’t have a lot to work with. David’s ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and his current wife Karen (Maura Tierney) characters are barely developed. Karen just paints and Vicki gets angry on the phone. That’s it.

Director Felix Van Groeningen has made of a few missteps. Some the editing feels a little rushed, and the timeline is littered with flashbacks and it gets a bit confusing of when its meant to be. It doesn’t help that Steve Carrell never ages. There are also a few pointless scenes, including a shower scene which is particularly odd and out of place. It is uncomfortably long. There are also issues with some scenes which feel like overly long montages with the music turned up to 11.

Sadly the film itself doesn’t match up to the two lead actors’ performances. Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet match each other every step of the way. Beautiful Boy is as heart-breaking as it is uplifting. It may not reach the heights it wants but thanks to the chemistry of the two leads it is worth a watch.

DAVE’S VERDICT:

3

 

LFF 2018: Arctic

Year: 2018
Directed by: Joe Penna
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir

Screening at LFF: 11th, 12th, & 17th October
General UK Release: TBA

Written by Sarah Buddery

Tucked away towards the back of the LFF programme, you’ll often find some of the best off-the-radar hidden gems, and Arctic is one of those films. The first feature from director Joe Penna would perhaps go entirely unnoticed were it not for the fact that it stars Mads Mikkelsen.

We meet Overgård (Mikkelsen), seemingly the only survivor of a plane crash in the arctic tundra. Unclear how long he has been stranded for, we see him embarking on a strict routine to survive the harsh environment; catching fish and desperately attempting to send out a radio signal. When a helicopter appears, hope of rescue soon turns into an even tougher battle for survival as he attempts to save the critically injured co-pilot (Smáradóttir), similarly the only survivor of her accident.

Arctic is a stripped back survival story, executed to perfection. The arctic backdrop provides the harshest of settings, and the limited cast does a stunning job of demonstrating the very best example of human endurance, facing the insurmountable odds in order to survive. This paired back approach and naturalistic style ensures that film manages to neatly avoid survival movie clichés and contrivances, and this is admirably handled by director Joe Penna.

The dialogue is almost as sparse as the landscape itself, and huge credit goes to the one man show that is Mads Mikkelsen for his deeply resonating performance. His co-star is incapacitated for the entirety of the film, and he carries the weight of the film expertly, saying so much by saying so little and emoting the impossibility of their journey with perfect subtlety and physicality. From the opening frame to the closing moments, we are invested in this character and that is essential in making a film this dialogue-light work. Mikkelsen’s performance is every bit as committed as Leonardo DiCaprio’s in ‘The Revenant’ but sadly, the former is unlikely to get the same awards attention.

At times quiet and meditative, this film explores the very human need for interaction, and the frankly superhuman way a body can endure conditions and situations beyond comprehension. At other times it is thrilling, with some genuine moments of shock and tension that will have you on the edge of your seat. In what will simply be dubbed as the 127 Hours moment (although admittedly nowhere near as graphic), you’ll find yourself wincing and there’s plenty more uncomfortable moments like this scattered throughout.

With breath-taking scenery and a story that will leave you utterly breathless, Arctic may very well be one of the sleeper hits of the festival. With a stunning central performance from Mads Mikkelsen, a captivatingly stripped-back narrative, and accomplished direction, Arctic is a film well worth seeking out.

Sarah’s Rating:

4-5

The Arctic is available in cinemas and on digital HD early 2019

LFF 2018: The Breaker Upperers

Year: 2018
Directed by: Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek
Starring: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celina Pacquola 

Screening at LFF: 11th, 12th, & 15th October
General UK Release: TBA

Written by Sarah Buddery 

New Zealand has been providing us with some of the best off-beat comedy for years now. First the comedy-folk stylings of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ (aka Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement), and more recently Taika Waititi; the kiwi director who went from indie to the big-time, recently directing ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.

The Breaker Upperers‘, from dynamic directing, writing, and acting duo Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, is definitely cut from the same cloth, and fans of Waititi’s off-kilter and quirky comedy will find themselves comfortably at home in the company of Mel and Jen, the so-called ‘Breaker Upperers’ of the film’s title. Mel (Sami) and Jen (van Beek) run a business in which they assist people in ending their relationships through scenarios ranging from ‘the other woman’ to ‘missing person’.

With characters that are equal parts abhorrent and charming, and treading the fine-line between witless and witty, ‘The Breaker Upperers‘ is heart-warming, rambunctious, whip-smart and utterly delightful. At a pacey 80-something minutes, it absolutely zips along. Sami and van Beek have believable and endearing chemistry and their genuine friendship is something which provides a constant grounding for the various hijinks along the way.

Perhaps the most “Waititi-esque” thing about this film is the side characters, who manage to almost steal the show. The hapless Jordan (played by James Rolleston, who also featured in Waititi’s ‘Boy‘) delivers one of the funniest lines of any film this year whilst in the car with his mother and Mel, and the feisty Ana Scotney as Sepa absolutely shines in every scene she has. Familiar faces also crop up with Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Rima Te Wiata cutting a caricatural figure as Jen’s coke-sniffing mother, and the aforementioned Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement playing a Tinder date (genuinely he is credited as that).

This is, however, Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek’s show; the powerhouse pairing acting, writing and the directing the hell out of this film. Its commentary on expectations of women, particularly in relationships is wonderfully well observed, and the delivery and execution of the comedy is played to perfection. These are certainly two to watch, and it would be great to see them break out of the indie circuit like Waititi.

‘The Breaker Upperers’ is a little gem of a movie, outrageous yet endearing, hilarious yet heart-warming, and with some star-making performances. As with any comedy, it might not tick all the boxes for everyone, and in fact, the jokes sometimes wear a little on the thin side heading towards the final act, but fans of the ‘Conchords’, and of course Waititi will find much to love here.

SARAH’S RATING:

4