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A fresh reboot of i-Flicks - the same stuff, but more of it in bite-sized chunks. Plus, what I'm writing and enjoying reading on other sites. Now Showing: The 2016 London Film Festival.

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LFF film review: Goosebumps Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 18 October 2015 08:14

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan
Showtimes: 12.45, 18th


If you didn't grow up reading Goosebumps, R L Stine's kid-friendly horror stories, you'll have heard of them. The novels have sold thousands upon thousands of copies worldwide, creeping young teens out of their adolescent skins for years. It's perhaps a surprise, then, that it's taken so long for someone to make a full-blown, big-budget movie based on the franchise - the 12A-ready premise and built-in audience of young fans and nostalgic 90s kids make it a reliable hit. Even more surprising, though, is the approach the film takes.


Rather than adapt a single short story, the script puts all of Stine's monsters on the screen at once, as they unite to attack the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware - a place where Jack (Minnette) and his mum (Ryan) have just moved. Soon, he finds himself intrigued by the mysterious neighbour next door (Black), not least because of his daughter, Hanna (Rush).


You can hear the predictable romance coming a mile off, but it's fortunately drowned out by the noise of the spooky spectacle waiting to burst onto the screen. Director Rob Letterman lines up creature after creature with childlike glee, using top-notch effects to bring the monster mash to life with a playful peril that captures the experience of reading the books. The tone may be lighter, but care is taken to mount an impressive variety of ghouls and giggles: sinister garden gnomes wield mini-pickaxes, abominable snowmen tear down buildings, while Slappy the ventriloquist dummy runs around shouting bad puns at anyone who will listen.


The love for the material is most apparent in the script's over-arching narrative, which (not unlike The Pagemaster and Inkheart) places a welcome emphasis on the power of reading and imagination. As much as this is a money-maker for publishers Scholastic, there's a commendable chance that it could inspire youngsters not only to buy a book but also pick up a pen and start scribbling themselves.


For a film that values writing so highly, though, it's a shame that male screenwriters Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski fail so miserably when it comes to penning a female character. The cast are all good, from Black's hammy recluse to Minnette's likeable lead, but Odeya Rush is wasted in a role so two-dimensional it barely makes it off the page. Jillian Bell gets to be brave and funny as Jack's quirky aunt, Lorraine, but compared to her, Hannah feels like a non-entity. For pure entertaining chills, though, Goosebumps is a lot of fun and sure to drum fear into the hearts of kids of all ages.


 
LFF film review: Desierto Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 18 October 2015 06:58

Director: Jonas Cuaron
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Showtimes: 13.00, 18th


After co-writing Gravity, Jonas Cuaron brings us back down to Earth with a loud bump with Desierto. A film about Mexican immigrants trying to survive being hunted down on the US border, it couldn't seem more different to the Oscar-winning sci-fi, but the two have a surprising amount in common.


On the one hand, they're both survival thrillers. Where Sandra Bullock's astronaut finds herself facing the challenge of staying alive in space, Desierto's threat is the hostile desert, in which Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) and others try to escape the sights of a sniper rifle in the hands of a right-wing American (Dean Morgan). But both prove Cuaron's knack for combining genre flicks with heavier themes: here, the real villain is the intolerance of other people.


If it sounds heavy-handed, that's the secret to Desierto's brilliance: you're never hit over the head with its pro-immigration stance. You're simply left to run with it from the barrel of a gun. Yet that stripped-down simplicity makes the movie even more relevant: as news headlines remind us every day, the battle between migrants and natives is happening all over the world, which means that Desierto could almost be taking place anywhere.


Morgan and Bernal embrace that bare-bones approach with physical performances that carry a surprising emotional weight; Bernal's panicked face, desperate to avoid death, is immediately engaging, while Morgan swaggers about like John Wayne in an anti-Western, accompanied by a vicious dog. As the widescreen landscape, a frontier so idolised by the golden age of US cinema, turns into an unwelcome barrier, Cuaron's immersive sound design and sweltering atmosphere make for an oppressive watch. The result is viscerally exciting and pulsatingly political. It may not be as high-profile as Gravity, but Desierto is every bit as gripping.


 
LFF film review: The Witch Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   

Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

Never trust a goat. That could arguably be the moral of the story in The Witch, which sees a Christian family head into the forest to live a more devout life in 17th century New England.


Alas, God, or another power, seems to have other plans and, sure enough, things take a turn for the dark. Their crops wither, their religious conviction falters and a baby goes missing - taken, it seems, by the witch of the woods. The glimpses we get of this mysterious figure are certainly disturbing, but the film's terrifying power lies in the lengthy periods where nothing is seen at all.


Director Robert Eggers mounts an atmosphere of pure horror through chilling visuals, a haunting score and a palpable sense of unease. It's made all the more effective by the film's use of language: our characters speak in a gloriously antiquated fashion, giving events the feel of history more than horror: the period detail is scarily realistic, which allows the script to sell its scares with a serious face. The Exorcist? No, this is more like watching a B-side to The Crucible.


Ineson and Dickie are excellent as the fraying married couple, one as intense as the other is desperate, and the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy (as eldest daughter, Thomasin) wields her coming-of-age as a supernatural force in its own right. All the while, the youngest kids dance about the farm and sing to "Black Philip", their goat, who may or may not be the devil. Is satan really working against them? Is this wintry landscape simply too harsh for humans to survive? And is it their determined, dogmatic dad's fault?


Between the children's hokey games and the mounting hysteria lies the spellbinding effect of stories and faith, where what you believe can be as damning as it is liberating. Across 90 slow yet beautiful, minutes, The Witch slips under your skin and leaves you squirming in discomfort. A genuinely creepy horror.


 
LFF film review: Black Mass Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 October 2015 18:33

Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton
Showtimes: 19.15, 11th / 11.30, 12th / 21.00, 16th


Who doesn't love a heavy-hitting crime drama? Scott Cooper clearly does, switching from Crazy Heart to this Boston tale of corruption. His folk drama featured two fantastic turns from Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell and he draws two similarly gripping turns from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton.


Depp plays the notorious gangster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, a part that could seem similar to his role in Public Enemies, were it not for Depp's transformed appearance. Looking more like a vampiric Christopher Walken than a drug dealer, he sports his slicked hair and blue contacts with a chilling stare that speaks volumes about his ruthlessness. Edgerton, meanwhile, proves himself one of the best character actors around with another generous performance as John Connolly, an FBI agent who works with Bulger to bring down the Mafia - only to unwittingly strengthen his childhood friend's grip on the local crime scene.


Edgerton's is the more interesting character - his increasingly gelled hair visibly rising as his moral integrity sinks - but Cooper's film keeps trying to make Bulger its lead. The result is a unfocused landscape of lowlives, albeit one that grips because each actor's role is so well performed. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, who is unnecessarily cast as Jimmy's political brother, Billy, brings clout to his bit part. Stitched together with superb editing, from title years and voice over testimonies to give an air of inevitable downfall to beautiful crossover fades that see cars driving on rivers and cities filling up faces, Black Mass ultimately loses weight by being over-stuffed, but this saga still carries an impressive heft.

 
LFF film review: Office (3D) Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 October 2015 17:22

Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Sylvia Chang, Chow Yun Fat, Eason Chan, Tang Wei
Showtimes: 20.45, 16th / 12.00, 17th


Is there a more exciting phrase in the English language than "a Johnnie To musical"? The director's eye for martial arts choreography makes him a perfect match for the glitz of Broadway.


Office does exactly what it says on the tin: the entire spectacle is based around the day-to-day goings-on in a workplace. The workplace in question? Jones & Sunn, a billion-dollar financial giant, which is just about to find itself on the wrong end of the financial crisis. There's CEO Chang (Sylvia Chang), who enjoys pushing other people's buttons more than those on her computer. There's David, who's desperate to climb up the company ladder and into her lap. There are bright young things Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yeuting), both eager to make their marks in the world - and, overseeing it all, Chairman Ho (Chow Yun Fat - who else?), who is also nursing a wife in a coma.


The cast through themselves into the fray with gusto, juggling the script's elegant balance of romance, inter-cubicle gossip, greed and ruin. The songs, though, are a little too one-note to fully jazz up proceedings: between the gentle piano ballads, it doesn't help that the lyrics, due to translation from Cantonese to English, end up somewhere between literal and poetic (one tender scene about dreams and hopes discusses the concept through metaphors involving wind and pigs).


But that challenging idiosyncrasy is a snug fit for what is an undeniably snazzily-dressed number. The set design is some of the most stunning of recent years (Wong Kar Wai's regular collaborator, William Chang, deserves an Oscar): the whole production takes place inside a warehouse of pipes and glass, an angular world that fuses the artifice of modern finance and unfaithful relationships with a beautiful sheen. Indeed, To's camera is the real star of the show, swooshing behind a gigantic timepiece in the middle of the stereoscopic stage. The actors cavort up and down stairs, their clothes gradually moving from the monochrome of office attire to colourful ball gowns and lingerie of the night. All the while, the absurd clock ticks over everyone's professional and private lives. The music may not earn a promotion into your list of favourite musicals, but Office is a show-stopping achievement. Spreadsheets have rarely seemed glamorous.

 
LFF film review: Dheepan Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 October 2015 16:56

Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby
Showtimes: 18.30, 16th 14.15, 17th


Immigration has never been a more pressing issue for the world at large, but it's something that has always been a part of civilisation: the need for the booming human population to move elsewhere, whether by necessity or desire, and make a new life. Jacques Audiard's Dheepan explores the issue, but never in the way that you expect.


The film follows a family who relocate from Sri Lanka to Paris, where they must learn to fit in with the unwelcome locals. The twist? They're not a family at all: one's a Tamil Tiger (Dheepan - Antonythasan Jesuthasan) and the other can't speak a word of French (Yalini - Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Both are strangers, including their daughter (Claudine Vinasithamby). Shacking up in a shed on a housing estate, they're surrounded, respectively, by gangsters in the neighbouring block and bullies at school - hardly the escape they hoped for when fleeing the Sri Lankan Civil War.


The ensuing tangle of human relationships carries all the unpredictable mess of real life, from the challenge of sorting mail in a foreign language (Dheepan is a caretaker for the estate) to the haunting memory of being a soldier. There's even time for unplanned bonding with a gentle hoodlum.


Audiard has a knack for empathising with outsiders. Here, his film is full of them. "We're not from here," the French kid tells Yalini of their callous attitude towards drug-dealing. "That stops us giving a shit." She replies in her own tongue; a meaningful conversation in which neither can grasp the full meaning of what they're saying.


As the family struggle to connect with each other, things boldly wander from romance to violence and back again. Between Jesuthasan's shell-shocked, intimidating male to Srinivasan's heartbreakingly loyal wife (a scene-stealing study in silent nods, smiles and shrugs), the convincing result means we do give a shit; like the makeshift family unit itself, we're never allowed to settle in one genre for long.


 
LFF film review: The Boy and the Beast Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 October 2015 16:37

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Cast: Kumiko Asô, Rikî Furankî, Suzu Hirose
Showtimes: 18.15, 16th / 15.15, 17th


A little over a year ago, Studio Ghibli announced that it was shutting its doors, possibly for good. Who would make animations to enchant audiences the world over now? While Ireland's Tomm Moore continues to make a convincing case with the mesmerising Song of the Sea, he's got competition: Mamoru Hosoda, director of Wolf Children, whose latest is a thrilling tale of friendship and fighting.


The tale follows Ren, a young boy who finds himself alone when his mother passes away, years after his dad left. But we're first introduced to the kingdom of Jutengai, a parallel world full of beasts. There, the contest is fierce to become the new Lord. The challengers? The honourable Iozen and the towering Kumatetsu. There's only one catch: the latter needs an apprentice.


All this is related to us by burning embers, who fly around the screen, reassembling their scorches into people, buildings and places - a dazzling prologue to an equally beautiful 120 minutes, which swoops, swings swords and throws whales into crowded streets with colourful imagination. There are no prizes for guessing what happens when Ren and Kumatetsu cross paths, but their tale of paternal figure and young role model is impressively complex, taking time to acknowledge both Ren's real dad (something that a lesser family flick would overlook) and the fantasy universe's detailed mythology. The result packs in emotion and action galore: think How to Train Your Samurai Dragon, or Free Willy (So That You Can Punch Him in the Face). And yet there's still time to pause for a brief romantic subplot featuring Our Little Sister's Suzu Hirose, some classic literature and a welcome reminder that education is a key part of growing up and becoming strong.


Epic battles, heart-warming feelings and the merits of using libraries? The Boy and the Beast has everything you could want. The future of animation in a post-Ghibli world just got a little brighter.


 
LFF film review: Victoria Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 October 2015 16:08

Director: Sebastian Schipper
Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
Showtimes: 18.10, 16th / 12.10, 17th


There's nothing more impressive than a film with a really long take. From Scorsese's Goodfellas and Kubrick's Paths of Glory to Welles' A Touch of Evil and Antonioni's The Passenger. Béla Tarr has a lot to answer for. But even he would be gob-smacked by Sebastian Schipper's film, Victoria, which unfolds in real time - in one continuous shot. For two hours.


The film follows the eponymous girl (Laia Costa), who finds her holiday in Berlin hijacked when she bumps into Sonne (Lau) and friends one evening. The pair get to know each other quietly, bonding with all the loosely-performed realism of Richard Linklater - then things take a twist for the dramatic.


Schipper's decision to shoot everything in one go is less bold and more outrageously bonkers, but it's breathtaking to witness. After all, even Hitchcock's Rope had to fake it. And he didn't even leave the living room. Victoria, on the other hand, goes everywhere, from clubs to rooftops to car parks to other people's living rooms. The genre shifts too, from romance to heist to drug-fuelled partying - a tornado of unpredictable twists.


That pacing helps disguise the slightly far-fetched plot, which escalates surprisingly quickly, but we also connect with the characters through the verisimilitude; we experience what they experience and, like Victoria, can only get to know the others based on that. Exposition, drama, violent; it all happens at the speed it does in real life.


And yet Schipper is also confident to allow that momentum to vary: the soft first act includes, amazingly, a piano solo by Victoria, which Costa would have played without an error live on camera, before going on to perform everything else for another 90 minutes. In the aftermath of that beautiful sequence, Victoria's frustration, anger and fear are even more astonishing to witness. They don't even pause to go to the bathroom. Thrilling, funny and all kinds of epic, Victoria is a relentless tour de force that doesn't let up. In your face, Bela Tarr.


 
LFF film review: My Scientology Movie Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 15 October 2015 18:32

Director: John Dower
Cast: Louis Theroux

Scientology. A religious movement that manipulates and humiliates its subjects in secret. Louis Theroux. A journalist who, arguably, does the same. The pairing of the two, then, is a mouth-watering prospect. Who better to expose the bizarre sham beneath the respectable surface?


One possible answer to that came earlier this year, when Oscar-winning Alex Gibney directed his own investigation into Scientology, Going Clear. My Scientology Movie could well suffer from being number two in this non-fiction race, but if Gibney's comprehensive takedown is thorough and objective, Theroux's delights in taking a more subjective, creative route.


The endearingly ramshackle film begins with Theroux - despite warnings from his followers on Twitter - popping over to Los Angeles to record the documentary. Of course, he's refused access to the church and its members. And so, with no Tom Cruise to talk to and no way to interview David Miscavige, the elusive head of the movement, he comes up with an innovative solution: he holds auditions to cast actors to play them instead.


That process is partly overseen by Marty Rathbun, former second-in-command to Miscavige, who departed the church in 2005 - something that left him blacklisted by the movement and harassed by its current members. He's considered bitter and unreliable by the church. In other words, the perfect subject for Theroux to toy with.


The always-likeable journalist bumbles along with his typically assuming presence, but it's clear that he's got another agenda in mind - and it's fascinating to see him at work, deflecting and playing innocent at every strange twist and dark turn. Within moments of him arriving on US soil, the presenter finds himself stalked by church representatives trying to intimidate him, a familiar sight for anyone who's seen a Scientology programme or film before, but one that becomes wonderfully farcical when exposed to Louis' comic light. As they bring along their own cameraman to film him and warn him off "private" property, he trades close-ups until they end up running away - hounded by his polite apologies and invitations to stay.


The auditions, meanwhile, serve not just as a way to give an idea of what's going on inside the church leaders's minds, or even a witty parody of the movement's own attempts at Hollywood productions, but to nudge Marty back into the headspace he occupied a decade ago. As drills and rituals - loomed over by Andrew Perez's terrifyingly violent interpretation of Miscavige - cut increasingly close to the bone, we see their lingering effect on Marty, even though they're not real. The result is a smartly self-aware demonstration of the brain-washing power of make-believe. You can't ask for a better study of Scientology than that. A masterful piece of non-fiction filmmaking, My Scientology Movie is hugely entertaining and extremely troubling viewing.


 
LFF film review: Brooklyn Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Wednesday, 14 October 2015 20:19

Director: John Cowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent


How do you build a life in a new country? That's the question facing Eilis (Ronan) in Brooklyn - until it's replaced by another, equally tough question: what if you then realise you could have an equally perfect life back where you came from?


Nick Hornby adapts Colm Toibin's novel for the screen with typical wit and heart, creating a story that manages to be full of both cheerful hope and painful nostalgia. Saoirse Ronan shines in the lead, the excellent make-up and costume team making her as plain and blank as possible in the vibrant, colourful New York scene. Her face, which so subtly shifts between emotions, is perfect for the conflicted part - ably matched by Emory Cohen's swoonsome suitor, who never feels less than certain about his feelings. You suspect he's only one smile away from heartthrob stardom.


Cohen is as charming as Domhnall Gleeson's boy back in Ireland is polite - between Star Wars and Ex Machina, Gleeson is on roll right now - while Julie Walters' hilariously uptight landlady helps to juggle the cheerful and sad mood.


It's the understanding of what makes a home, though, that gives Brooklyn its old-fashioned, moving magic. John Crowley shoots the tranquility of Wexford with a twinkle in his lens, but it's the gradual assembling of clothes, cosmetics, work colleagues and confidence that convinces; the attention to period detail (the film, curiously, wasn't shot in Brooklyn at all, but in Montreal) becomes an intrinsic part of character and plot development: as Eilis looks more and more American, her journey becomes more and more engaging. The result is a funny and unabashedly sentimental tale of belonging and starting over.


 
LFF film review: Our Little Sister Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 13 October 2015 18:49
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Cast: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose


We live in an age where divorce and broken families are far from uncommon. Between old partners and new kids acquired through marriage, it's easy to imagine these lives as episodes from EastEnders, full of bickering and bad table manners. Not so, if you live in a Hirokazu Koreeda movie. Our Little Sister follows the surprise union of three sisters with the hitherto unknown fourth child of their father: Suzu, conceived with another mother. You'd expect shouting matches and melodrama to fill the screen, but the Japanese director's eye for human relationships has never been more tender.


Koreeda, whose last film - Like Father, Like Son - also screened at the London Film Festival, is a master of everyday detail, the kind of filmmaker who doesn't wallow in the kitchen sink so much as run a bath in it and enjoy playing with the bubbles and scouring pad. In his hands, even the most mundane of activities can become uplifting. For Suzu, that routine is crucial to her slow assimilation into the family unit - in between going to school, running late and dressing up for business, the group (played with easy chemistry between the girls) always find time for communal dinners, which look as delightful as the bond they represent.


All this takes place in the shadow of grief and uncertainty over what their father was like - combined with the appearance of a mother from the past, Hirokazu quietly draws the lines between each character's memory and perspective of the loved ones around them - but the script (based on the manga Umimachi Diary) allows that to inform their behaviour, rather than be the driving force of events. The most dramatic things that occur are one sister wearing another's blouse, or Suzu struggling to stomach the plum wine. The response? They promise to make non-alcoholic version for her - a simple gesture, but one that carries with it a substantial element of love. The result completes a series of films about parenthood, absence and inheritance, but is so lightly handled it could almost blow away in the breeze like a cherry blossom. Marvellous.


 
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