Monday 16 October 2017

London Film Festival Despatch #2: Blade Of The Immortal, 120 Beats Per Minute, and Battle Of The Sexes

Ton up: Blood Of The Immortal marks Takashi Miike's 100th film

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

120 Beats Per Minute WWWW is writer/director Robin Campillo's semi-autobiographical third feature, and the follow-up to his 2013 movie Eastern Boys. The powerful and compelling docu-drama is set in the early 1990s, amongst the activists of Act Up-Paris, a direct action group dedicated to combating the spread of AIDS. Their methods are non-violent but extreme, whether its drenching in fake blood the offices of a pharma company dragging its feet over the trial of a new drug, or invading a school in the middle of lessons to hand out pamphlets containing safe sex advice. Most of the characters to whom we're introduced are HIV-positive, so there is an urgent reason for their no-nonsense approach – they are, quite simply, running out of time to affect real change.

The opening scene set at one of the group's rather formal meetings is so naturalistic it took me a couple of minutes to catch on that I wasn't watching a documentary. In fact, it was only when I recognised Adèle Haenel, from Les Combattants and The Unknown Girl, did I realise these were actors, and very impressive ones at that. The fact it all rings so true, that you can feel its grit under your fingernails, is crucial to 120 BPM's success. Campillo begins with a large cast, more or less getting the same amount of screen time, before focusing in, more and more, on just two – Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who has developed AIDS, and his lover Nathan (Arnaud Valois). As the group continues its activities, we see the former – a passionate, abrasive young man – start to fade away, in painful increments, as the disease takes hold of him. Culled directly from Campillo's own experiences as a self-confessed Act Up militant in the '90s, Sean's decline is heartbreaking, the writer/director's treatment of it impressively tender and loaded with empathy. He never loses sight of the fact his characters are people first and not just the victims of a disease. They have lives, in which they dance, drink and love, argue, fall out and make up. 

Despite sickness and death being two of the film's main themes, 120 Beats Per Minute is an uplifting piece of work. The comradeship the activists share is truly inspiring and their determination to set the agenda on the treatment of AIDS and its victims was crucial at a time when government (in France and elsewhere) was failing to act decisively, whilst paying lip service to homophobes. Act Up helped shake things up and Campillo's wonderful film is the tribute it deserves.

Class Act: Campillo's 120 BPM is powerful and compelling

Michel Hazanavicius's Redoubtable WWW isn't at all what you'd expect from a biopic of Jean-Luc Godard, the grandaddy of modern French cinema. Rather than serious, sombre and reverential, The Artist writer/director goes seriously off-message – in fact, this is frequently cheeky, mocking, and iconoclastic. Set during the Paris uprisings of 1967, it catches the left-wing director (played by Louis Garrel) at a key juncture, as he high-handedly declares "Fin de Cinéma", and vows in future to make films that don't rely on traditional means of production, distribution or exhibition. As well as railing against the ruling class and bickering with students, Godard woos and marries young actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), the star of his most recent film, a largely plotless but bitingly satirical piece, called La Chinoise, in which she plays a Maoist student (Redoubtable is loosely based on the late Wiazemsky's autobiography). This Godard is like the Woody Allen of Stardust Memories; fans tell him how much they love his "early, funny" movies, but there's also a touch of Basil Fawlty about him, his pomposity and hypocrisy skewered to hilarious effect (the sitcom feel even extends to a running gag in which Godard keeps breaking his glasses). However, this is far from a hatchet job. Underneath the caustic jabs, it's clear Hazanavicius has enormous affection for his subject's work, with various nods and winks to Godard's films peppered throughout, including a lovely recreation of Vivre Sa Vie's Joan Of Arc scene. That said, you don't need to be a Godard expert to enjoy Redoubtable – its smart script, fine performances and surprisingly evocative recreation of time and place see to that.

The God-father: Redoubtable takes aim at Jean-Luc

Legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike's 100th film (yes, really) is a flawed but entertaining adaptation of Hiroaki Samura's Blade Of The Immortal WW, a long-running manga which ceased publication in 2012 after 19 years. As the title implies, Blade tells the tale of a mighty samurai – Manji (Takuya Kimura) – cursed by a witch to walk the Earth forever. He takes pity on a young girl, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), and vows to be her instrument of vengeance against Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi) and his band of master swordsmen, who murdered her father. The opening sequence – filmed in moody black and white as Manji "dies" before receiving his curse – is truly electrifying, but, due to its extended running time and repetitive action sequences, Blade sags somewhat in the middle. However much you love well-choreographed, ultra-violent sword fights, with high body counts and lopped-off limbs, there comes a point where you just think, "Any chance Manji could do something else for a bit – maybe a spot of shopping or some gardening?" Thankfully, Miike pulls it all together in time for an impressively over-the-top grand finale, featuring Manji, Rin, Anotsu, and a few of the colourful supporting characters we've met along the way.

Slice of life: Blade is packed with sword-fighting action

Oscar-winner Emma Stone plays tennis legend Billie Jean King in the light but likeable comedy-drama Battle Of The Sexes WW. Set in the early 1970s and based on real events, it sees King duking it out with her sport's ruling body for prize-money parity with male players. She and other rebel female stars set up their own tour in opposition to the authorities but proceedings take a turn for the pantomimic when ageing former men's No.1 Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) challenges King to a match. Riggs is a huckster, gambler and showman, selling himself as the ultimate "male chauvinist pig" to shift tickets and put his fading career back on the map. After he cruises to victory against women's champ Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King agrees to take him on. Carrell is perfectly cast as the roguish Riggs but his rivalry with King is only a sideshow to this movie's wider preoccupations: the fight for women's rights (the tennis world provides a microcosm of what was going on in wider US society at the time, including Roe vs Wade) and married King's struggle to come to terms with her attraction to another woman (Andrea Riseborough's Marilyn). The frothiness of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's delivery, nor the circus-like tennis finale, detract from the serious issues under the microscope here, while Stone lends King a quiet but palpable strength.

Love match: Battle Of The Sexes explores King's sexuality

Five years after Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza finally lands another film role worthy of her talents, in black comedy Ingrid Goes West WW½. Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, mentally fragile and desperately lonely, following the death of her mother. After being left $60,000 in her mum's will, she moves to Venice Beach aiming to make friends with glamorously ghastly Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), whose pretentious and vainglorious Instagram page she obsessively follows. A Single White Female situation quickly develops as Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, but the arrival of Taylor's equally wretched brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) puts a big fat fly in the ointment as he discovers Ingrid's multitude of deceptions. Matt Spicer's feature debut treats Ingrid's mental health issues with just enough due care and attention to avoid serious criticism but sometimes you're unsure whether you're meant to be laughing with Ingrid or at her, and the humiliating depths plumbed by her stalkerish behaviour. Plaza, who has a refreshing unpredictability and air of danger about her, could have had the part of Ingrid written for her so perfectly does it fit, while Olsen delights in sticking a metaphorical boot into California's army of boho beach blondies. Part character study, part biting satire, Ingrid Goes West asks some pretty tough questions about social media and the detrimental effect it can have on the self esteem of vulnerable people. 

California scheming: Aubrey Plaza has plans to make a new friend

Despatch #3 will include reviews of The Shape Of Water, Happy End, and Downsizing. Your Week In Film will return next Monday (October 23).

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