LFF 2015 – The Lobster

Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos returns with this darkly comic look at love, loneliness, and the horrors of dating. The Lobster opens with a shocking act that only really begins to make a semblance of sense as the film progresses. Somewhere in the countryside a crying woman drives out to a field and casually shoots a donkey in the head.

The Lobster is matter-of-fact about its weirdness. This deadpan approach grounds it in reality and makes it very funny. Lanthimos presents a world where single people are rounded up and herded into a bland-looking hotel overseen by its brutally offhand manager (Olivia Coleman) and given 45 days to find a suitable partner. If they fail they will be turned into the animal of their choice. David, played by an achingly vulnerable Colin Farrell, his good looks obscured by a paunch and a terrible moustache, fancies being a lobster. They live for a hundred years and are remarkably fertile. David arrives with a sheepdog, actually his older brother who was resident at the hotel a few years ago and couldn’t find a partner.

Days at the hotel are spent enduring social activities designed to bring couples together and attending workshops showing the inherent dangers of being alone. Among this group of misfits all identified by a single quirk that defines them are Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), the Limping Man (Ben Wishaw), Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), and Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). There are daily hunting trips into the forest where the ‘loners’ live. Outlaws who have escaped from society and live by a strict code that forbids them from showing any human affection. They are led by Lea Seydoux who runs the group like a terrorist organisation and aims to show couples they are delusional about their relationships. Among them is a shy woman (Rachel Weisz) who shares David’s short-sightedness and also functions as the narrator of this strange story.

Lanthimos satirises both singleness and coupledom as being equally awful in their different ways. The first half of The Lobster is hilarious but once the action moves away from the hotel and into the forest the tone darkens. Lanthimos remains true to main theme of the film though, the insurmountable distance between people, played for laughs at first, but as it progresses with its devastating final shot The Lobster becomes the bleakest film of the year.

LFF 2015 – Bone Tomahawk

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Entertaining Western-Horror mash-up in which two criminals who prey on sleeping travellers disturb a burial ground and bring down the retribution of a tribe of Native Americans (or so they assume) on the small town of Bright Hope. Purvis (David Arquette) wanders into town wearing the clothes of a man he killed, and ends up in the jailhouse with a bullet in his leg put there by the local lawman Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell). Young doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) and a young deputy stay behind after hours to treat the prisoner. In the morning the jailhouse is empty and a nearby stable boy is found dead murdered. Five horses have been taken. A small posse is formed by the sheriff including as a courtesy O’Dwyer’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) who is impaired by a horrific leg injury, deputy lawman ‘Chicory’ (Richard Jenkins), and John Brooder (Matthew Fox) a dandified killer with a devout hatred of Native Americans.

While the film’s leisurely running time of 2 hours plus could have been cut down somewhat by spending less time showing the group struggling to make their way through the desert Bone Tomahawk works very well. It’s not quite in the same league as the recent genre mash-up The Burrowers (2008, J.T. Petty) which put a horror spin on John Ford’s classic 1956 movie The Searchers and had a sense of loss that’s largely missing here, but writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s screenplay is beautifully written mixing ornate language with gallows humour. Bone Tomahawk should please fans of both genres. There are enough horrific scenes in here to please gore hounds, while the Western elements work just as well. The whole cast deliver exceptional performances though the stand-out is the deadpan Matthew Fox who’s funny and ultimately moving as the seemingly heartless killer Brooder, while for fans of 80s’ movies there are cameos from Sean Young and Michael Pare

LFF Connects – Guy Maddin

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Though I missed Guy Maddin’s new film The Forbidden Room, a collection of short films recreating the plots from movies which have long since been lost to history I did catch Maddin’s talk at the BFI in which he spoke about his work in Paris curating art installations, embracing developments in new technology, the psychological meaning of colours in Technicolor movies, and his love for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird). Also here are the filmmakers who make him cry. Douglas Sirk, Josef Von Sterberg, John Waters, and Ed Wood.

LFF 2015 – Being Evel

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I’m old enough to have one of those wind-up Evel Knievel motorcycle toys, but too young remember him as a performer. I didn’t even know what the guy actually looked like. Just the outfit. An Elvis in Vegas style white jumpsuit with the stars and stripes emblazoned across it. That’s probably for the best because Being Evel shows the man wearing that suit was kind of a dick. While you have to admire Knievel’s reckless endangerment of his own being to liven up the drab sports coverage offered by 70s sports channels there’s no getting away from the fact he was a narcissistic, money-orientated, womanising, violent bully. Born Robert Craig Knievel, he got the nickname ‘Evel’ because of his frequent run-ins with the law as a youngster, and he seems to have carried his mercenary instincts with him throughout his career.

Also, and this is unforgivable, he once held a gun to George Hamilton’s head. Who does that? Seriously? Who threatens the star of Zorro: The Gay Blade with a loaded firearm? Hamilton had hired John Milius to write a screenplay based on Knievel’s life, but the stunt rider took exception to Hamilton asking him to read it. Pity he didn’t try that manoeuvre on Milius who would probably pulled a much bigger gun and shot him in the face. That film, Evil Knievel (1971, Marvin J. Chomsky), was actually made and there are clips here which suggest it’s probably terrible. Knievel hated it, but as Hamilton wryly notes he appropriated lines from the film into his own act hyping up his stunts with macho Milius-style language.

Being Evel is a fairly perfunctory documentary mixing talking head interviews with archive footage. It’s a great snap-shot into the all-encompassing fame the 70s’ seems to have offered with the limited amount of media available to a mass audience. Though the film tries hard it can never convince that Knievel was anything more than a loud-mouthed obnoxious American show-off in the Donald Trump mould. It also raises difficult questions but never follows through on them; did Knievel have a death wish? Did people go to his events because they wanted to see him crash? Undeniably brave, although in a way that is almost entirely pointless, Evil Knievel was certainly one of a kind.

LFF 2015 – Ryuzo & the Seven Henchmen, Yakuza Apocalypse

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen

“What’s gone is gone, right?”

After his crowd-pleasing Zatoichi remake back in 2003 Takeshi Kitano’s output suggested a filmmaker struggling to find new stories to tell. Both Takeshis’ (2005) and Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007) felt like navel gazing with Kitano reflecting on back on his career, while his recent Yakuza movies Outrage (2010) and the sequel Beyond Outrage (2012) were tired rehashes of themes he’d already covered in his early films. Though ostensibly a Yakuza movie Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen sees Kitano returning to his comedy roots for a broadly comic farce about ageing.

(Tatsuya Fuji) is a quick tempered former Yakuza enforcer now living with his salaryman son’s family and something of an embarrassment to them. Frequently told to cover up his tattoos for fear of damaging their reputation in their nice neighbourhood Ryuzo ambles around with Tokyo with his best pal and former lieutenant (Masaomi Kondo) gambling in arcades or betting on what customers will order in fast-food restaurants.

After almost falling for a telephone scam organised by the young Keihin Rengo gang who run their criminal empire like it’s a corporate business, Ryuzo reunites the few remaining members of his old Yakuza clan. These include street con-artist Mokichi (Akira Nakao), Steve McQueen fan ’Mac’ (Toru Shinagawa), and ‘Stick’ Ichizo (Ben Hiura) who like Zatoichi carries a cane with a hidden blade. Later they’re joined by a kamikaze obsessed pilot (Akira Onodera) they meet at a protest rally.  

Kitano gets plenty of comic mileage out of a group of pensioners being violent but there’s an obnoxious lowbrow element of toilet humour present. Fuji (once the star of In the Realm of the Senses) is in great shape for a 74-year old and could easily have played this straight had Kitano opted for a more serious approach. Kitano turns up briefly as a cop who preferred the old days when you knew who the criminals were.

Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen might not quite be the return to form admirers of Kitano’s sublime 90s’ output (Scene at the Sea, Sonatine, Hana-Bi) are hoping for but it does at least suggest there might still be time for him to deliver a late career renaissance.

Yakuza Apocalypse

Another Japanese veteran with an erratic track record, Miike Takashi, also offered an atypical approach to the Yakuza genre. Yakuza Apocalypse is a chaotic gangster/horror movie mash-up featuring vampires, martial arts mayhem, and a supernaturally-powered ruthless killer in a giant frog costume. Personally I prefer Miike on more restrained form, (Audition & Hara-kiri) but Yakuza Apocalypse is good fun with some interesting ideas, vampirism as a metaphor for crime (civilians taste nicer), prisoners taught knitting to control their tempers, and a Yakuza refusing to get a clan tattoo because his skin is too sensitive.

LFF 2015 – ‘High Rise’ & ‘Black Mass’

High Rise 

Back when they were originally designed high-rise buildings were supposed to be the future of urban living. Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel the high rise building becomes a metaphor for not only British society but the relationship between man and creator. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) (presumably named after R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist whose unusual methods in treating mental illness were highly controversial) is a newcomer to the building. Moving between the various floors, which are organised in terms of social hierarchy without ever being accepted by either group he seeks only to observe. Though set in an unnamed time period everything’s been retro-fitted to look like the 70s’ which stylises it too much and makes the film seem weirder than it should and therefore less believable when society eventually breaks down after a power failure paralyses the building. 

While the first half of High Rise is highly entertaining the film degenerates into an incoherent mess long before the end. What it does have going for it is an amazing cast. Hiddleston is melancholy and funny and can wear the hell out of a suit. Sienna Miller has quietly moved on from the tabloid nonsense that surrounded her and become the best British screen actress of her generation. Then there’s Luke Evans as a side-burned moustachioed rampaging alpha-male, James Purefoy as an upper-class bounder, and Keeley Hawes as a country house girl whose recreated her garden on the roof complete with a horse, Best of all nobody seems to have told Jeremy Irons he’s no longer playing Pope Alexander VI in The Borgias which means he’s awesome.

Black Mass

The trend for retro crime stories impersonating 1970s’ cinema continues with this true life tale of Boston crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger who ran the city with help from the FBI who paid him to inform on his rivals. Depp has impressive form when it comes to gangster films. Mike Newell’s tense and ultimately moving Donnie Brasco (1997) about an undercover FBI Agent and his close relationship with the mafia foot-soldiers he’s trying to bring to justice remains one of Depp’s finest movies, and he’s very good as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). Black Mass isn’t quite in their league. Although this has been hyped as a return to ‘proper’ acting for Depp after the fancy dress costumes and silly accents of the last decade or so the make-up for Whitey (dyed slicked-back receding hair, contact lenses) still makes him look like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Black Mass is gripping enough though and a vast improvement on Scott Cooper’s last film, the godawful Out of the Furnace (2013).

LFF 2015 – A Bigger Splash

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Inspired by Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider as a beautiful couple whose idyllic getaway on the French Riviera is interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative ex-boyfriend (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter (Jane Birkin), this beguiling remake relocates to the Sicilian island of Pantellerria. Rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her younger filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) are enjoying a quiet life in their beautiful Italian villa. Marianne is recovering from an operation to repair her damaged vocal chords and is unable to talk. Paul is pretty quiet so they happily spend their days lounging around in the sun and communicating through unspoken physical intimacy.

Their blissful solitude is ruined by her ex-Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arriving unexpectedly with his newly discovered daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson) and suddenly there’s a lot of talking at the villa. Most of it coming from Harry, a music industry spiv with an ability to zone in on what makes something work, whether it is a record he’s producing or the relationships between the people around him. There were hints Ralph Fiennes had a knack for comedy and all-out weirdness in his performance as an over-familiar butler in Bernard and Doris (2006, Bob Balaban), but with Monsieur Gustave H in Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson) and now this he’s transformed his reputation as a miserable stiff-upper lipped English Patient type.  

In the face of Fiennes manically engaging performance the rest of the cast have no choice but to show restraint. A long time collaborator with Guadagnino on several low budget short films and features culminating in the sublime I Am Love (2010), Swinton’s burnt-out Bowie-esque rock star is happy out of the limelight but still beguiled by Harry and there’s still a chance he might win her back. Schoenarts is great at strong silent types, uneasy in their own skin and he simmers quietly in the background. Johnson is the wild card thrown into the mix, and her passive aggressive behaviour and her unusual relationship with Harry unsettles both Marianne and Paul.

The early scenes in the film emphasise the beautiful landscape and the actors bodies as the camera lingers over their naked torsos. While the Mediterranean lifestyle led by the group certainly looks seductive, there are portents hinting at the darkness to come. A menacing-looking black whip snake moves across the villa’s patio, Fiennes tears the guts out of the fish he’s preparing for a meal, and at one point Penelope briefly goes missing by a rock pool echoing Monica Vitti’s fate in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960).

Some may find the shift in tone in the final act hard to reconcile especially as there’s an added element of farce thanks to the arrival of a police inspector whose incompetence is played for laughs. Even the weather turns melodramatic. The sky darkens and the film moves from bright warm colours to dull blues and greys. Rain lashes the island. I’m actually surprised given Pantellerria is volcanic they didn’t have the damned thing erupt. I appreciated the film’s ambiguous denouement though. It’s refusal to explain why certain characters behaved as they did or why they were even there. As with I Am Love the film deals with seemingly close relationships tearing apart and the effects are shattering.