So, here goes it: Part 1 of my three-part rundown of my 2017 London Film Festival experience. With 242 films on display, I didn’t quite get a chance to see everything – though I’m hoping to catch a few more on the Digital Viewing Library, so watch this space.
For now, though, notable omissions include Amant Double, Beach Rats, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Foxtrot, Happy End, Ingrid Goes West, Loveless (which won Best Film), On Chesil Beach, Redoubtable, and Thoroughbreds.
Lean On Pete
His feature follow-up to 2015’s 45 Years, Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete is ostensibly about the relationship between a sensitive fifteen year old, Charley (angular newcomer Charlie Plummer) and a rundown racehorse, the eponymous Pete. A less-than-perfect home-life – he lives in a cockroach-infested trailer with his single-father dad Ray (wild-man Travis Fimmel), a pot-bellied former prom-king gone to seed – leads Charley to escape to Portland Downs racetrack where he picks up an informal job helping out a Del (Steve Buscemi), an irascible trainer who has no compunction about sending under-performing nags down to Mexico. When tragedy strikes, Charley impulsively takes off across country to find his estranged Aunt Martha; hitting the road with Pete in tow. Based on the book by Will Vlautin, this coming-of-age story isn’t just some art-house Free Willy; in fact it’s not really about the horse at all, as becomes increasingly apparent. As Charley encounters a number of strangers and archetypes – a conflicted waitress, a seemingly altruistic indigent (Steve Zahn) – the film becomes a modern Midwestern Bildungsroman. If the film occasionally leads too hard into adversity, Haigh retains a commendable critical distance in depicting how empathy and innocence can endure in the face of hardship. The world keeps knocking Charley down, but he keeps wandering on towards a desperate hope; using the horse, however unknowingly, as his crutch.
Mudbound and Wonderstruck
Battle of the Sexes and The Meyerowitz Stories
Last Flag Flying
After the retro, slice-of-life blast that was Everybody Wants Some!!, Last Flag Flying finds director Richard Linklater in more conventional territory. Set in 2003, the film follows three Vietnam veterans – the soft-spoken, grief-rapt Doc (a buttoned-down, mustachioed Steve Carrell); the fun-loving Sal (a scruffy, garrulous Bryan Cranston); and hell-raiser-turned-preacher Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne, breathing dignity into a stuffed shirt) – who set out to bring home the body of Doc’s son, who was recently killed in Iraq. Despite the personality clash between the combative Sal and peaceable Mueller, the film doesn’t quite work as a run-of-the-mill, conflict-driven drama, but nor does it lend itself to Linklater’s usual laid-back, improvisational. Only a single riotous scene where the three men trade outrageous war stories with an accompanying young buck (J. Quinton Johnson) possesses his customary charm. Instead what we get is a commendable but slightly workmanlike meditation on patriotism, loss, and compromise. Coming from one of America’s most reliable auteurs, Last Flag Flying is disappointingly by-the-numbers.
Blade of the Immortal
The 100th film of Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, Blade of the Immortal is a cinematic home-run; especially compared to the last of his I saw (also at the London Film Festival). Where that seemed like gibberish – very much a case of inside baseball, or rather, inside Toei – this is the type of film-making feat any lay-person can get behind. A straight-forward supernatural Samurai movie, more in the vein of 13 Assassins, the film opens in sharp, moody, black-and-white before transitioning into rich, textured colour. Manji (J-Pop star Takuya Kimura), a freshly-made ronin, makes a last stand against a horde of enemies. He’s finally cut down, but not before slaying every single one of them. This isn’t the last landscape Manji will leave covered with corpses: hilltops littered like Christmas trees, a stream literally running red with blood. Unwillingly granted immortality by a cackling crone, through use of mystical blood-worms, a scarred Manji is living out a shack when, fifty years later, a spirited young orphan, Rin (Hana Sugiaski), arrives on his doorstep, seeking vengeance. Insofar as she reminds him of his sister who was killed, he disgruntedly agrees to become her bodyguard. In doing so, he agrees to take on Master Anotsu (the coolly self-assured Sota Fukushi) and his idiosyncratic band of followers. Over the course of 151 minutes, Manji confronts – and is confronted by – among others, a creep in a white-tasched Samurai helmet with corpse bags on his shoulders and the remorseful, naginata-wielding Makie (Erika Toda, in a purple Chun-Li style dress). Blade of the Immortal merges virtuoso, shaky-cam fight choreography – whip pans expertly pick out the key characters amid the nameless, expendable acolytes – with comedy by turns both gory and elegiac; like when an annoyed Manji has to recover his arm from a tree mid-fight. Miike is nothing if not a showman and Blade of the Immortal is one hell of a show.