Quick takes from the now-wrapped 61st London Film Festival.
Blade of the Immortal
Legendary filmmaker Takashi Miike’s 100th film — and he’s only been working since the early 1990s — is an interminable samurai gorefest. And not in a good way. Based on the manga series by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal is the tale of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a swordsman in shogunate Japan who, you guessed it, cannot die after an 800-year-old witch feeds him “blood worms,” drawing him back from a nasty death, in the wake of a gruesome battle. (Why does she save/curse him? No one seems to know.) Fifty years later, he takes up the revenge cause of young Rin (Hana Sugisaki: When Marnie Was There), orphaned when samurai of a lawless dojo attacked her family. She reminds him of his dead sister (Sugisaki plays the sister too), the lawless dojo must be stopped, and so the film is off on what will be a monotonous series of gory, bloody sword battles, most of which end up resulting in veritable piles of severed limbs. Sometimes it’s accidentally funny in a Monty Python–esque way (“Your arm’s off!” “’Tis a scratch!”). Mostly it’s overly convoluted while also failing to deviate from its one emotional and tonal note, a sort of gray resignation that takes no fun in over-the-top vengeance. There’s never any escalation or complication to the story — it’s just one fight after another — and the stakes are really low, because Manji literally cannot die or be seriously injured. It all might be tolerable as a 90-minute flick; at 2 hours 20 minutes, it’s inexcusable.
Murder in Hollywood! Paranoid movie star Heather (Zoë Kravitz: The Lego Batman Movie) — “I feel like there are so many crazy people mad at me right now” — borrows a gun from her personal assistant/best friend Jill (Lola Kirke: American Made), for protection… but then Heather turns up dead, shot with that very weapon. With an LAPD detective (John Cho: Star Trek Beyond) on her case, Jill must investigate on her own to clear her name. Could the killer be Heather’s ex (Reeve Carney: The Tempest), himself a celeb? Could it be Heather’s K-pop-singer new squeeze (Greta Lee: Sisters)? Or maybe a crazed fan or an overly aggressive paparazzo? American writer-director Aaron Katz’s fifth feature is a slice of mumblecore noir meets cozy mystery (cozy: think Nancy Drew, not Clarice Starling), deployed with a supersleek neon-drenched flair and a smart feminist vibe. This is a gorgeous film to look at, and a provocative one to ponder, fueled as it is by bitchy Hollywood power-play etiquette — “I know you and I hate each other,” Heather’s agent (Michelle Forbes: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) tells Jill, “but I actually kinda like you” — that is itself a factor in the constant on-edgeness of women in an industry dominated by appearances and preying on vulnerability. As a mystery, though… “If I’m writing it,” a screenwriter pal (Nelson Franklin: Battle of the Sexes) of Jill’s says, contemplating the suspects, “it’s obviously [redacted].” Her reply? “You know this is real life, right?” Except Gemini is itself a movie! It may be “real life” to rush through its resolution to the mystery and cut itself off abruptly, just as it seems about to give us a bit of an accounting of its enigmas. But that’s not as wholly satisfying as it might be.
A man, chopping down a tree. A big tree, and it’s just him, on his own, with a simple axe. It is a massive job, and a slow one. We remain with him and his task for a long time, and it’s beautifully mesmerizing. Later, he builds earthen ovens for the piled-up logs, and burns them. What is he doing? Gradually, his chore is revealed: he is making charcoal. This is only the beginning of what will become an odyssey, or so it is presented by French documentarian Emmanuel Gras, as the man, Kabwita Kasongo — a farmer in rural Democratic Republic of the Congo — transports his wares to the city to sell them. Gorgeously enveloping, Makala (“charcoal” in Swahili) is not a traditional documentary, more an anthropological document that nevertheless feels like a fictional narrative. And one with mythic overtones, as well, of hard work in aid of a hoped-for better life (he wants to raise enough money to build a house for his wife and children, where he can plant fruit trees). Kasongo’s labor becomes positively Sisyphean as he pushes a bicycle overladen with strapped-on bags of charcoal along dusty roads — yes, sometimes uphill! — for days before reaching his market. Gras’s intimate approach to his story so deeply invests us in Kasongo’s perspective that the inevitable setbacks are heartbreaking, or enraging; oh, the casually haggling of the cityfolk over his charcoal, when we know how much sweat and muscle went into it! Winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes’ Critics Week earlier this year, this is a simple, lovely film, an extraordinary ode to a working man and a stunning peek into a life unlike anything most of us will ever know.
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