Previews

Preview: London East Asia Film Festival.

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The BFI London Film Festival has just finished, and only a few days later, another film festival is set to begin in the capital tomorrow evening. This year marks the inaugural London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF), showcasing the best of new Japanese and Korean cinema specifically, many of which will be getting their UK premieres over the next week and a half.

Now, I’m a big connoisseur of Asian cinema, as some people may know – the height of Japanese horror between 1998-2003 with the likes of Ring, Dark Water and Pulse, which mastered a sense of slow-building atmosphere and psychological torment rather than the over-reliance on jump scares in Western cinema at the time (horror movies on this side of the world have since clearly taken influence from that period), piqued my interest in horror as a superior genre. Obviously Japanese cinema – not to mention that of Korea – goes much deeper, and in the years since I’ve gained an inherent appreciation of Asian culture. So this kind of specialist festival is something I’m highly interested in, though unfortunately I’ll only be able to attend over one weekend.

This inaugural festival is revolving around a retrospective of the career of Park Chan-wook, whose new film The Handmaiden will be getting another screening following its UK premiere at London Film Festival. Also happening – one of the film events I will be fortunate enough to attend – is a screening of the ‘Vengeance trilogy’: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and the world premiere of a brand new 4K edition of Lady Vengeance. Chan-wook is one of the best filmmakers to have emerged from South Korea, and certainly is among the more talented directors in world cinema today. They couldn’t have chosen a better artist around whom to build this festival.

Here’s the trailer. If you live in or around London, or are at all interested in East Asian cinema, you may want to keep an eye out for some of these new movies. Who knows, maybe one or two of them will even end up in my ‘Best of 2016’ list.

 

Previews

Preview: Get Out.

Now, this is a very interesting, potentially awkwardly hilarious and sinister horror movie due to be released in the US next February.

The directorial debut from actor/ writer Jordan Peele, Get Out has been described (in his own words) as “a horror movie, but with a satirical premise”. He’s also talked about the fascination he has with the combination of horror and comedy. This film certainly looks like it combines those genres well.

It’s a movie that clearly winks to the racial tensions prevalent in US society today; rather than tackling the issue with a high-minded serious attitude, it instead embraces the culture in which it resides, with exaggerated white characters whose racism is initially hidden but then emerges in dramatic fashion. Like all good satires, it appears to combine undertones of truth with a veil of comedy.

Daniel Kaluuya plays the central character and is typically, it seems, one of the few black actors in the film – though the fact that he is the central character, as a young black man, is already breaking established conventions of most Hollywood horror movies. Usually, after all, his kind of role is the one inhabited by a young white female who can easily evoke sympathy. Conversely, I look forward to observing the emotions triggered by Kaluuya’s character, and the film overall.

Admittedly the trailer for Get Out isn’t one of my favourites – as it gives away a little more than I’d like it to, but I trust the film will have a few more surprises up its sleeves upon release. Stylistically I like it, and it certainly sets up the premise of this movie in an intriguing way. We could be looking at one of the sleeper hits of next year, if this film lives up to its potential.

Film reviews

Under the Shadow.

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Under the Shadow is an internationally co-produced (UK/ Jordan/ Qatar) horror film that has been selected as the British entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Set in 1980s war-torn Tehran during the Iran-Iraq conflict, it follows levelheaded mother Shideh and daughter Dorsa as they become increasingly unsettled not only by the continuous air strikes on their city, but an apparent supernatural evil that resides in their apartment block…

The backdrop of Islamic culture immediately brings a fresh perspective to the film – as we’re so conditioned in the West to consider anything ‘supernatural’ to basically mean ‘demons and shit’. Here we see the Islamic equivalent, with Shideh and Dorsa haunted not by a demon, but by entities known as ‘Djinn’, who are said to “travel on the wind” and, while inhabiting an unseen realm, are capable of physical interaction.

Or not, as the case may be… Under the Shadow does not entirely reveal its hand in this respect. You’ll be left wondering (at least initially) whether anything supernatural is really going on, or whether it might in fact simply be a psychological trick; the result of a large amount of stress from the harsh war environment in which Shideh and her daughter are living.

This kind of ambiguity is present in a lot of my favourite horror films – the best ones from the past few years; The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch all shared the quality of not holding your hand to explain what exactly is going on. It helps the film ooze intelligence, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and it’s a quality worth treasuring.

Cheap jump scares are thankfully kept to a minimum (save for one scene in which its use is forgivable). Instead, the reliance is on slow-building atmosphere. While it may take longer than some viewers would like for the payoff to kick in as the film sets the scene and builds its characters, once it starts to arrive, the movie quickly gathers pace towards a nerve-wracking finale.

Straight up, this is one of the best films of the year – at least the smartest, something I can imagine informing the field of film study in years to come – and another home run for the horror genre. If you have the slightest interest in good storytelling, horror in particular, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch Under the Shadow.

10 / 10

Uncategorized

Quick (or not so quick) Update.

Here’s what I have planned for this blog in the near future, in case anyone thought I’d given up on it.

Video games: my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series is still ongoing. Next on my to-do list are two of the greatest horror video games of all time, and two of my favourite games in general: the original Silent Hill (1999) and its 2001 sequel. I figured it would be fitting to get both of these out – or at least one – by the end of the month, as we are in ‘Halloween’ month after all.

Speaking of which, around Halloween time last year, while I was making the case for why the horror genre is not only great but essential, I promised another film essay, focusing on The Babadook. Granted, I kind of slipped on this one, though it’s always been on the backburner, and hopefully I will also have it out by the end of October. Believe me, I’ve thought so much about this film – my top film of 2014 – that it won’t be too difficult getting a detailed analysis down in coherent words and clicking publish. I had in fact already started working on it around this time last year.

Looking back in my ‘film essay’ category I see that I haven’t in fact published one here since last July, which really is too long, especially considering I was going along at a pace of around one per month up until then. There are two others I have planned immediately following the next: Nightcrawler and Ex Machina, arguably two of the most overlooked films of the past couple of years, and certainly two of my absolute favourites, so I want to do them some justice.

Originally I had planned my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series to, like my plan for film essays, proceed along at a pace of around one per month. Obviously that hasn’t happened for various reasons – not that I’ve just been sitting around, rather I’ve had other things to focus on in the time being – so what I’m going to do with that is, at the very least, get out the two Silent Hill articles (because honestly writing about either of those is an almost limitless joy), then write up something about Final Fantasy VIII (1999), my favourite childhood game and one belonging to a series that frequently splits even its own fans. I’ll be making my case for why VIII, rather than its predecessor, was the peak of the series overall.

After those, I’ll assess whether it’s worth continuing ‘20 Years of PlayStation’ at all. In reality it will probably end with the year 2016 (as we will then technically be into 21 years and so on), and I’ll instead focus on more modern stuff again.

I’ve also been working on an article focusing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, after a year in which we’ve seen a few high profile cases of doping offences and accusations. That one doesn’t entirely follow the politically correct narrative – I think along the lines of allowing some PED’s to be used in a controlled manner, rather than banning everything outright – but I’m writing it mainly to shed some light on the stuff that people tend to overlook when it comes to ‘cheating’ (the blanket term for any offence) in sport.

Otherwise, there are four other prominent ideas for articles that I want to finish and publish here by the end of the year. Those are, first: a piece tackling the issue of review ethics and people who deride critics for any reason, from simply being a butt-hurt fan to those who accuse us of just being ‘haters’ who don’t know how to enjoy stuff.

I have a strong belief when it comes to critique; that it should not tell you what to think about a film, video game, or whatever the product/ service may be, but rather it should help you develop how you think about them. Reviews above all should inform the consumer – they’re not about telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy as if there’s some objective standard. Something I love may be something you hate, because everyone has different tastes; but the detail I give about that thing should be enough to tell you how you’re going to feel about it, independent of my own opinion.

Linked to this but worthy of its own article, I’m going to go into the impact that films, video games and books have each had on me personally in terms of my own development. Certain aspects of modern society actively discourage critical thinking and open-mindedness – in fact, I think it’s always been like this, but today’s culture of political correctness means we hear things like “you can’t say that” more than ever, especially on social media (my advice: whatever kind of person you are, it’s healthy to have less of that in your life).

That’s why I think this is important. Art is vital for helping people think outside the confines of the masses; it’s why I value artistic integrity and freedom of expression so highly. Many people who have a single-minded approach to issues in life, on the other hand, don’t. I heard a statement recently that stuck with me: an open mind is a learning mind. Rarely has a truer statement been made throughout history.

My final two planned articles for the year have been an even longer time coming. They are: my Best Films of 2014, and Best Films of 2015.

Now, obviously I understand that most people who like to do this sort of thing prefer to do an ‘end of year’ list and leave it at that. It’s like a nice way to wrap up the year in film, but for me none of those lists are definitive. Not that I’m saying mine would be, though here’s the thing; I consider a film that comes out in 2014, regardless of where it first comes out, to be a 2014 film.

For example, a film released in the UK in, say, early 2015, yet features heavily in awards season, is undoubtedly a 2014 film (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, for instance) – because the Academy Awards reward the best films of the previous year. Said film will have been out in the US a few months before, but many of us living elsewhere would not have had a chance to see it yet, and it is therefore, by default, left off the list.

From my perspective, then, to make a list at the end of a calendar year would feel a little silly, bordering on dishonest, as the best films released in the UK that year would only represent around half – if that – of the year’s best films overall. I like world cinema; films from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. And usually it takes a year or so to catch up on films from those places as their releases gradually filter out across other regions. I prefer to include those in my lists, as I want the list to be as definitive and conclusive as possible.

The other thing to note is my dislike of limiting said lists to a ‘top ten’, again usually done for efficiency (I understand; critics are busy, and wrapping up a compact top ten list at the end of the year is simpler than the method I’m currently advocating). The ‘best’ films of a year may not be limited to just ten – or perhaps in an extremely dry year, there wouldn’t even be ten worthy of inclusion.

Now, most critics actually agree with this to an extent; hence why they do some ‘honourable mentions’ that don’t quite make the top ten. For me that’s curious (why name-drop if you’re not going to detail your reasons?) but again I sort of understand why one would – it saves time, and essentially a ‘top 10’ is more marketable than, say, a ‘top 13’. I have more flexibility in my personal schedule and don’t see why I would restrict myself in that way when I’m not required to.

So basically, my lists will feature the best films of each year, whether it’s 10, 12 or 15 movies long. The 2014 list is almost ready to go and realistically I hope to have that one posted here by the start of next month. 2015, hopefully by the end of the year, and as for my 2016 list, well, I’m thinking Summer 2017 at the earliest. The good thing is, as I’m about to hit another film festival – my second such event of the year – I’ll have a decent head start on a lot of the biggest films to feature in awards season coming up. I’ll probably be writing an article around Oscar time too that will give large hints as to the films I found most impressive over the past year.

One final thing… I plan to do brief film previews (yes I am capable of writing shorter pieces!) every Friday. This will give me an opportunity to look forward to some new movies that catch my eye – that won’t necessarily get the mainstream marketing treatment – and share it with you guys. I’m frequently finding new stuff to get excited about so there’ll be no shortage of things to write about here, and I figure it might be useful to have a category for which posts are regular and somewhat set in stone going forward. That way, one could turn up here every weekend and know they’re at least getting something new, even if I haven’t otherwise written anything of great existential meaning.

Speaking of existential meaning, I’m off to prepare for one of the best times of the year: London Film Festival.

Previews

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – preview.

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I’ll say it right now; there is an intriguing battle shaping up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year.

On one hand, the favourite (quite clearly, for a reason I’ll go on to detail); Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a musical about classical Hollywood and the kind of artistic work that the Academy usually goes for. On the other, an underdog, but almost certainly the film to win if Chazelle’s effort misses out: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Yes, that it shares its name with a certain other movie released in 1915 is intentional, as is the poignant choice to make it almost exactly 100 years after its namesake dominated headlines as the first mainstream American feature length film.

Now, anyone who follows the Academy Awards will know that this decision can be as much about politics as it is about finding the best film of the year. And anyone who paid attention to the controversy surrounding last year’s ceremony will also know that the issue of race has been a prevalent one for the Academy of late. In fact, it seems 2016 in general has been a year in which the issue of race has prominently reared its head, with cases of unbridled racism, perhaps naively thought conquered, regularly hitting headlines in the US and – to a lesser extent but let’s not deny the unfortunate side effects of ‘Brexit’ – in the UK as well.

So I think the Academy is set to find themselves in a rather awkward spot come January/ February time. Whichever of the above two contenders wins the top prize is likely to affect the narrative surrounding the decision, and that narrative is likely, once again, to be about race.

I said La La Land was the clear favourite. That is because I honestly believe it’s the one the Academy will choose if they are to choose honestly. Without asking themselves which one they ‘should’ choose. But there is a chance, with the racial undertones of the past year, that they will opt for Birth of a Nation, and for many people it would feel like a victory in more ways than one.

I’m of course saying this without having seen either of these films. They will both be screening at the BFI London Film Festival, which begins this evening with another racially charged movie: A United Kingdom, a British film directed by Amma Asante. When I first heard this film would open the festival, I immediately thought of how the UK had been split by Brexit in the Summer – and the title of the movie took on an almost ironic tone, as if it was pointing out to all of us that our United Kingdom was not, in fact, living up to its name in 2016.

A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (both of whom I’m sure will feature once again in the acting categories at the Oscars – Oyelowo may well get his win this year) tells the story of the real-life romance between Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a woman he met while touring in Britain and took back with him to Botswana as his bride. As one might imagine, it proved rather controversial on both sides, and with the racial tensions of today, this film may therefore be another dark horse to look out for in February.

Those are the main headliners of the festival, but not necessarily the films I am most looking forward to. From what I’ve read, heard and seen, this year’s lineup is incredibly strong, and there are quite a few on my list to check out in the coming days.

This includes new films from some of my favourite modern directors; Francois Ozon (with Frantz, a monochrome WW1-era romance), Korean director Park Chan-wook (most famous among Western audiences for 2003’s Oldboy) with new movie The Handmaiden, and Denis Villeneuve (whose next project is the Blade Runner sequel) with sci-fi Arrival starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

My most anticipated, though, is the new film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is making his return to the J-horror genre for the first time since 2001’s Pulse, with Creepy. Admittedly an uninspired title at first glance, and last year’s festival wasn’t exactly kind with its promised return to this genre (Hideo Nakata’s Ghost Theater was rather laughably bad and a far cry from his vintage work), but I still have high hopes for Kurosawa’s return. Pulse remains one of my all-time favourite horror movies and his films outside the genre have been almost as impressive.

Other films that have made my watch list include: Queen of Katwe, a biographical film about a Ugandan woman – Phiona Mutesi – who proves to be a chess prodigy and competes at the world championships; Graduation, for which Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu shared the Best Director award at Cannes; and Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart, the director of which (Olivier Assayas) shared that Best Director prize at Cannes with Mungiu. Also a few highly rated Australian films, including hard-hitting documentary Chasing Asylum (about Australia’s harsh immigration policies) and Goldstone, sequel to 2013’s underrated Western Mystery Road.

There are more, many more of course, but I’m going to leave the rest for the imagination right now. Hopefully I’ve adequately whetted your appetite for the festival. I’m pretty hyped about what awaits, a little tired already thinking how busy it’s going to be, and looking forward to the inevitable surprises beyond what I’ve highlighted here.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a memorable festival, and an interesting few months leading up to the Academy Awards next February. Enjoy the ride!

Film reviews

The Childhood of a Leader.

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This is a curious one. The Childhood of a Leader chronicles events in the life of a child destined to become a fascist dictator. Growing up in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in WW1 and partly revolving around the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, parallels to Hitler’s rise are obvious. It is clear, however, that this child is not Hitler and the film shouldn’t be thought of as biographical pertaining to any one particular fascist leader; rather, it is like an amalgamation of them.

It is nonetheless fascinating to see a story told from this perspective; a character study as such, showing the elements that mix in this child’s life to help form what he will become. Can we blame nature or nurture? Could his parents and those around him have affected his life differently, or was his future inevitable due to his inherent ego and controlling personality (both of which we see form during the film)?

This movie does not necessarily attempt to answer those questions, but it does give us food for thought on the issue. Newcomer Tom Sweet plays ‘the boy’, named Prescott, and this kid is good; one of the film’s main strengths, as his onscreen presence helps communicate a sense of foreboding unease. He always comes across as naturally charismatic and charming, with an unnerving confidence and piercing stare to go with it.

Prescott shows impressive intelligence and alarming insightfulness for a boy his age; something he does not entirely share with either of his parents, one of whom is a caring mother wanting to be her son’s main influence, the other an overbearing father too busy and/ or unwilling to spend time with his son. The former is played by French actress Bérénice Bejo, best known for her role as Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Irish actor Liam Cunningham, whom many people may recognise from Game of Thrones, plays Prescott’s father.

One of the most immediately striking things about the film is its score by Scott Walker. Fast, aggressive, and intimidating, this soundtrack will be one of your lasting memories of the experience, as it captures the stark urgency and dread of what awaits in Prescott’s future. Though the film’s described as a ‘historical mystery drama’, one would be forgiven for thinking its score more in line with horror; and fittingly so, as we’re dealing with a horrific – if not overtly – overall theme.

Subtly touched upon, in one scene in particular, is the treatment of Germany in the immediate aftermath of WW1. It’s hinted that this harsh, bordering on arrogant tone from representatives of the rest of Europe (one of whom is Prescott’s father) towards their defeated foe influenced what Prescott was to become; a parallel to Hitler’s rise and the factors that led to WW2.

Debut director Brady Corbet has appeared as an actor in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (the 2007 version) and a selection of other films over the past decade, as well as appearing in American TV shows such as 24 and Law & Order; so this is an experienced hand in front of the camera if not behind it. For a first feature, The Childhood of a Leader is certainly an impressive feat; winning Best Debut and Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Rounding out the core cast is Stacy Martin, a young actress most recently seen in Tale of Tales, whose stock has been gradually rising since appearing alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac; and Robert Pattinson, whose role here is a considerable departure from previous projects. Pattinson, while initially seeming only a supporting actor with not much to do, has a vital role in the film’s final scene that justifies his ‘big name’ presence.

In the end this film may bring accusations of pretentiousness – it does not explain everything nor wrap up the narrative with a neat resolution – but the ideas that Corbet communicates are something to be admired. These and a thumping, unforgettable soundtrack carry The Childhood of a Leader along at a good pace. Ultimately, it’s hard not to appreciate the experience.

8 / 10

Film reviews

The Commune.

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Fresh off last year’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg somewhat returns to his roots with The Commune.

This is a guy who, along with Lars von Trier, co-founded the Dogme 95 movement that aimed to simplify the rules of film production and take back creative control from movie studios. The Commune feels like it would fit right in at the peak of the movement in the late 90’s.

It has a simple premise: a small family, living in a house larger than they can manage, decides to start interviewing people to come and live with them in what will become a ‘commune’.

What begins as a light-hearted suggestion soon becomes a way of life, with numerous eccentric characters joining them. How the group interacts starts equally light-hearted, entertaining and hilarious, but as they become closer, literally forming one big family, we see emotions running high.

At the centre of it all are the original occupants; husband Erik and wife Anna, played by Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm respectively, along with daughter Freja (Martha Hansen). We see early on that the couple isn’t entirely in sync; moving others into the house is originally Anna’s idea, while Erik instead desires to be closer to his wife, something that becomes more difficult when the house is full. They grow more distant, and the journey their respective characters go on over the course of the movie is fascinating in itself. Dyrholm deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at Berlin Film Festival for her performance as Anna, who gradually unravels as the film goes on.

The group dynamic is adeptly used to examine social issues; the unique living arrangement gradually highlighting both how easy it is to lose individuality and conversely how frustrating it can be to pursue personal desires in a setting where they may not be accepted. How much are people willing to put up with to accommodate others? How to convey brutal honesty when so many ears are listening? These are questions posed by Vinterberg, clearly intended to have a wider reach than the walls of the house in which they originate, and the film is an enjoyable ride in such experienced hands. You can often tell the cast is having as much fun as we are.

The Commune was considered (though ultimately not selected) for Danish submission to the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars – the third time one of Vinterberg’s films has been in contention after Festen/ The Celebration (1998; also wasn’t nominated) and The Hunt (2012; made the final selection). Fans of the director or anyone looking to enjoy one of the more eccentric European movies of the year won’t be disappointed.

8 / 10