Film reviews, LFF 2016

Moonlight.

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On paper, Moonlight is a film that faced an uphill battle from the start. This film, perhaps more than any other this year, breaks conventions, and not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to tell its story. That story, and the tiny cast of characters we meet along the way, have helped Moonlight deservedly become one of the favourites for February’s Best Picture race at the Oscars on a relatively small $5 million budget and reportedly tight shooting schedule.

In reality, Moonlight is made a success precisely because it didn’t face an uphill battle when it came to its production crew. Director Barry Jenkins and his small, exclusively black cast give their all to tell a story often left untold in media and literature; that of a young black man, growing up in a rough neighborhood with an addict for a mother and surrounded by drug dealers, who discovers he’s gay. The latter part of that premise is what’s new here, but the rest of it shouldn’t be disregarded – this doesn’t come across as a heavy-handed social justice movie. On the contrary, its themes and ideas are there to complement its story, rather than force an agenda down your throat.

Central to this character-driven plot is Chiron, played over the course of the film by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as the story is split into three acts spanning childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Naomie Harris, brilliant as ever, plays his drug-addicted mother in a role for which she deserves recognition in Best Actress categories during awards season, while Mahershala Ali gives a similarly outstanding performance as crack dealer Juan, who becomes a father figure to Chiron in the first act.

One of the things I loved about this film was that it takes an issue often associated with ‘social justice’ and ‘political correctness’ – homosexuality – and puts it in an environment where those terms are alien; a community where common slang still involves words like faggot being thrown around liberally. In Moonlight the issue of homosexuality is real; it’s an intrinsic part of Chiron’s life, yet one he struggles to comprehend and doesn’t feel able to engage with openly or inwardly. It’s a world away from Facebook and Twitter, where everyone is bravely typing behind their computer screens, telling people they don’t know what they can or can’t say. For me, only through a film like Moonlight, which portrays the harsh realities that kids in certain communities face growing up, can an issue like this truly be engaged with in a helpful manner.

Anyone concerned about having to sit through uncomfortable sex scenes needn’t worry – this is certainly no Blue is the Warmest Colour. Essentially it’s a story about what’s left undone, what’s left unsaid in Chiron’s life; he himself is clearly an introvert who struggles to articulate his feelings at the best of times, having grown up without a father, and a mother who, when she wasn’t taking drugs, spent her time prostituting herself in order to pay for them. There is little here to offend anyone who appreciates good storytelling within its contextual setting.

Should Moonlight steal a few headlines in the early months of next year during awards season, there may be some who’ll try to claim it’s merely a reaction to last year’s “whitewashing” controversy, with its exclusively black cast. I hope I have communicated here that to do so would be a disservice to this film. It’s one of my favourite movies of the year, and the acting is some of the best I’ve seen this year. Whatever Moonlight wins in February, it has earned on merit – not because of some online social justice movement.

10 / 10

Film reviews

Tokyo Godfathers.

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“Being able to speak freely… is the lifeblood of love.”

If I could pick a single quote from Tokyo Godfathers – a 2003 Japanese anime set during the Christmas season – that best sums up its plot and central themes, it would be the one above. It helped to instantly shoot this film up to rank as one of my favourite Christmas movies when I watched it at a screening a few days ago.

One must understand that while this film shares the same heart as many seasonal favourites – displaying love, friendship and family – it is not one that feels it must pander to PC culture in order to portray its message. As a result it’s likely to offend anyone who prefers to spend Christmas pretending the world is lovely and inoffensive, who perhaps is happiest surrounded by people who agree with them and tell them how right they are about everything. One of the main characters is a man who identifies as a woman; who is casually and persistently called ‘faggot’ by a close friend, the second of the three characters around whom this film revolves.

They are homeless, and we’re first introduced to them at a carol service, which they’re attending merely to get the hot food on offer after the sermon. Soon afterwards they encounter an abandoned child, and the plot following on from this involves the three misfits attempting to care for the baby while finding its way home.

Each of the three – Hana, Gin and runaway girl Miyuki – have had family troubles that led to their current predicaments; over the course of the story these are revealed partly via flashbacks, alongside a series of coincidences (yes, merely pleasant coincidences) through which they are eventually offered redemption.

Strewn throughout the narrative is this sense of how important it is to communicate freely with those closest to us; and how feeling unable to do that can lead to an eventual breakdown in the relationship. This includes, of course, being able to speak freely with each other even when the end result is offence. The message resonated with me personally, and one can’t accuse it of lacking the heart I mentioned before; the idea of a strong family unit is absolutely at the centre of this movie, though it is portrayed in an unconventional manner. These three homeless characters, along with the baby they are forced into caring for, are, in their own way, a dysfunctional yet strangely lovable family.

The animation is also beautiful, with a snow-filled environment helping the film fit right in with the Christmas season. I won’t claim this is a movie for everyone – but for those who find themselves growing tired and cynical of the same sentimental, inoffensive films showing during this time of year, you may find it beyond refreshing. Otherwise, it deserves consideration among the absolute best Christmas movies to have been released in recent years.

10 / 10

Previews

Preview: The Wailing.

It’s been a long time since Western audiences were treated to a genuinely unsettling Asian horror movie – a quality many films from that region shared in the early 2000’s.

Korean film The Wailing looks like it could be the new one to watch out for. I will be attending a screening on the 30th December, and it is in fact one of my most anticipated of the year; mainly for the reason mentioned above. I have a great appreciation of Asian cinema, but truly top quality Asian film releases have felt few and far between over the past few years.

The plot revolves around an investigation into a series of mysterious killings and illnesses. Japanese-Korean tensions are hinted at, and the overall run-time stands at a glorious 156 minutes (while that may put some viewers off, for me a longer film suits this genre).

If you miss it – or have already missed it – on the big screen, you won’t have long to wait to check it out. The Wailing will be available in the UK on DVD January 30th.

Film reviews, LFF 2016

Paterson.

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Paterson is quite simply a film about the day-to-day life of a working man, and the normal everyday trials – from walking the dog to mild disagreements with the wife – that the average working class man goes through. No more, no less.

Adam Driver plays the title character, who drives a blue bus around the small American town of Paterson. In his spare time he likes writing poetry; not particularly good poetry, but one can admire the quiet passion he pours into it. His wife is also an artistic type with dreams of being a fashion designer; again, she has little talent, yet unlike her husband, who keeps his feet firmly on the ground, her head often appears to be in the clouds. You can tell he loves her, though. Most evenings he enjoys walking his dog down the road towards the local pub, where he ties her up outside, while he goes in for a beer.

This is Paterson, the latest directorial effort from Jim Jarmusch following Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). And while all that may sound rather dull and monotonous to some, it turned out to be one of my favourite films of the year.

There’s something undeniably comforting about watching this movie from the comfort of a cinema seat. Whether it’ll retain that same sense of easy comfort from a seat in one’s front room while watching on a smaller screen remains to be seen – but I’d wager the experience won’t be too different. Driver inhabits the role of Paterson (who, yes, shares his name with the small town in which he lives and works) with such ease, instantly bringing the audience alongside him to share in his humble life experiences. I dare you not to like him, and grow to enjoy spending time with this character as if he were a close friend.

Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani plays his wife Laura, who brings a similarly likable if somewhat quirky quality to the film. Of course, one can’t talk about Paterson’s cast without also mentioning arguably its star player, Nellie, who plays the couple’s dog and won the Palm Dog Award for best canine performance at Cannes earlier this year.

My favourite scene involves a conversation Paterson has with an unnamed Asian man (played by Masatoshi Nagase) on a park bench towards the film’s conclusion; this serves as the closest thing this movie has to a payoff, following the closest thing it has to a crisis point in the story. Needless to say, neither are pulse-inducing by modern cinematic standards. But, particularly in this day and age, Paterson feels like that rare breed of film everyone could do with seeing a little more of.

9 / 10

Film reviews

Your Name.

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Your Name is one of those films that I feel deserves a bigger international audience than it will get (being a feature-length Japanese ‘anime’). Within a genre known for its rather fantastical concepts, this film still manages to stand out.

One might think a Japanese animated movie – the hand-drawn animation here is gorgeous – in the vein of Your Name would inevitably struggle to reach a wide audience… This isn’t necessarily true, especially in its native homeland, but admittedly there are story elements and themes at work here that anyone who isn’t accustomed to the genre may struggle to take seriously.

It involves Mitsuha and Taki, a pair of teenagers, one of whom lives in the centre of Tokyo and the other in a small village on the outskirts, waking up one morning and realising they’ve… well, kind of switched bodies. Cue a number of entertaining scenarios, including Taki’s typically teenage boy fascination with the breasts he discovers on Mitsuha’s body.

As weird and even slightly creepy as it may sound, this fits right in with the crazy world of anime. It’s not all lighthearted and cheesy either; there are points in the story that are serious and emotional. Your Name, essentially, is an unconventional romance, one that feels like such a breath of fresh air in the face of the usual fare offered by mainstream cinema. Taki and Mitsuha find themselves becoming attached to each other’s lifestyles to the point that when their switching suddenly stops, they grieve for its loss. The film then changes tone again as Taki becomes determined to find the girl with whom he had been inexplicably switching for weeks, only to discover towards the final third of the story that they have a chance to prevent catastrophe in an approaching natural disaster.

Yes, the whole thing is a little flustered, but the building tension in the film’s climactic scenes feels more real than in most other movies released this year. As a result, this is one of the year’s best, and certainly a strong contender for 2016’s best animated film. Director Makoto Shinkai also wrote the novel from which he adapted the screenplay for this film; uniquely novel and film were released within two months of each other in Japan earlier this year (the novel in June; this film in August).

Naturally one should approach the film taking into consideration their own feelings on anime. While I wouldn’t call myself the biggest ‘fan’ (a term I dislike at the best of times), I’m certainly open to enjoying it. In this case Your Name’s animation is beautifully drawn (it’s one of the most beautiful movies of the year), and the plot is also one of this year’s most original. Definitely worth checking out on Blu-ray if you missed its recent limited run in UK cinemas.

9 / 10