FilmSpace at London International Film Festival: Mirai; Fahrenheit 11/9; Maya; Life Itself

Film Critic Calum Cooper is in London for the 62nd London Film Festival, bringing in more reviews. He ranks today’s films in descending order of quality, from Mamoru Hosoda’s newest, to Michael Moore’s new documentary on the Trump presidency, to Mia Hanson-Løve’s latest, and, last and least, Life Itself, which aims high but crashes spectacularly.

Mirai – ★★★★☆

After bringing his masterpiece Wolf Children to 2012’s London Film Festival, Mamoru Hosoda returns with his latest film, Mirai. The premise is adorable: Kun is a toddler whose parents have recently had a second child, his little sister Mirai (which is Japanese for future). Young and used to his parents’ attention, he quickly grows jealous of Mirai, convinced she stole his parents’ love from him. However, he soon discovers that the family garden has magical properties, allowing him to meet an older Mirai from the future, who has a lot to teach him about family.

Hosoda has recently become a parent, and so the film feels extremely personal. All of his films have been about relationships in one form or another, and this one examines Kun’s relationship with the concept of life and growing up, as well as his place within his family and its ancestral roots.

I was recently at an exhibition for Hosoda’s work, where storyboards of Mirai were shown, including the meticulous drawing that goes into each frame. It explodes into life on screen, absorbing us in its colours, its line work, and its ambitious movements. Throughout the film, Kun learns five important lessons concerning his sister, his parents, and conquering personal fears. Each is divided into an almost episodic format. The colours, locations, and even the animation changes up every time. It gives each lesson its own form of identity via sentimental revelations about his parents, but mostly through immersive, inventive imagery.

FILMSPACE AT LONDON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Roma; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Beautiful Boy; The Old Man and the Gun

This imagery can get dark at times. Kun has a fascination with trains (kind of like me when I was his age), and this is applied to many of the film’s key scenes and moments, particularly in the final act where they managed to make a train look incredibly sinister. There are darker moments beforehand, but the way the colours and insidious atmosphere of the scene contrast with earlier, brighter scenes could be a little overwhelming for some more sensitive younger audiences.

Thankfully it’s the masterful artistry and universalness that’s all encompassing. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Hosoda’s past work, many of us can relate to the premise. As Kun is at an age where he’s starting to think for himself, the sudden appearance of this strange new child seems more titanic. Then again, because of his age, the creativity on display feels even grander as well. There’s nothing quite like a child’s imagination, and the film fully realises this. For every scary or confusing moment, there’s a warm, funny or heartfelt moment. Both of which help to deliver the film’s themes on life to families who seek it out.

Mirai is a charming, stunningly animated, and deeply rich tale on the importance of family and inner fears. It may not be as wholesome as Wolf Children, but it’s an excellent film for kids, particularly those who may feel isolated after the birth of a new sibling. The best family films are the ones that offer more than mere cheap gags, and anime films like Mirai continue to showcase this in stellar fashion.

Fahrenheit 11/9 – ★★★☆☆

“How the fuck did this happen?”

Michael Moore asks this question about the 2016 American election and the resulting inception of the Trump presidency. It’s a question many of us asked ourselves at the time. Moore decides to go seeking answers in this enjoyable documentary, which can also be uncomfortably enlightening at times.

Reversing the numbers on a previous film of his about the Presidency of George Bush, to reflect the day Trump’s victory was announced, the film offers theories on how Trump was able to win an election that most thought he had no chance of winning. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Moore is an undeniable master of taking seemingly trivial pieces of information and stringing them together to form a convincing, well-educated argument. He does this marvellously here, revealing how, in his opinion, incidents like the corruption behind the Flint Water Crisis and the sabotaging of Bernie Sanders’ Democrat campaign laid the groundwork for Trump.

What’s also commendable is how even handed Moore is in his approach. As easy as it is to throw good or bad labels around, it’s fundamentally broken to do so. Moore recognises this. While he notes Russian tampering and general complacency towards Trump’s behaviour as being factors, he doesn’t shy away from putting democrats like Clinton, and even Obama to some extent, under the spotlight too, showing how some of their actions could have also played a role by dissuading their past supporters from voting at all, thus allowing the voices in favour of Trump and his policies to be heard louder.

It’s insightful on the one hand, but also terrifying on the other. Moore doesn’t simply settle for how Trump won. He goes on to show why he thinks Trump’s presidential actions have paved the way for a worse America, referencing the Parkland shooting and the family separation policy. Moore’s suggestion on how to fix this is to completely dismantle America’s original structure of politics in favour of the everyman rather than the wealthy elites like Trump and his sycophants.

You may agree with that sentiment, or you may not. Either way, Moore delivers his argument in astute convictions, keeping the material entertaining through arguably overblown demonstrations of protest, as well as witty writing and humorous editing of Trump’s speeches over various horrors.

The downside is that the film feels far more jumbled than his usual works. While his points do all come together in the end, he often dedicates large chunks of the film at a time to individual issues and incidents. As such, the documentary does threaten to lose focus at several points, making it feel like three different documentaries stuffed into one.

Moore does thankfully offer some glimmers of hope throughout. They come in the form of new people running for office to challenge certain viewpoints or uphold others, all for the sake of the American people. Who knows what the future will hold after the midterms, but at least Moore’s intelligent documentary will provide a source of entertainment until then.

Maya – ★★☆☆☆

I feel bad giving Maya this rating as it has a lot of talent behind it, and the idea is one I’m on board with. Directed by Mia Hanson-Løve, we meet war journalist Gabriel (Roman Kolinka). He has recently returned home after being abducted in Syria. Feeling unable to reintegrate into society again, he returns to his childhood home in India, a failing hotel now owned by his godfather Monty (Pathy Aiyar), where he meets Monty’s daughter Maya (Aarshi Banerjee). They start to grow closer due to their outlooks on life and history, and Gabriel starts to find himself again through her companionship.

This is a touching idea for a story that could’ve worked really well if the script had only been as strong as its premise.

Hanson-Løve’s ambition here is to be nothing but respected. Kidnapping and death is an unfortunate possibility with any kind of war journalism, more so than ever with threats and murders being captured on film by the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Using it as a conflict within the main character is a strong concept, as you can truly explore the character’s psyche and attempts to fill their inner void after such a harrowing ordeal.

The film does do this to some extent. Gabriel returns to his roots to find answers, full of confusion and guilt, as a colleague of his remains a hostage. He’s hoping doing so will clear his head. And in some ways it does. The film’s most picturesque moments are whenever Gabriel or another character ride their bikes through the Indian scenery, Helene Louvart’s cinematography beautifully capturing the lush colours, rich culture, and gorgeous landscapes of the country. However, Gabriel also begins to find meaning again via a romance with Maya.

And this is where the film started to lose it for me. I found the romance between Gabriel and Maya to be pretty generic. It moved along at conveyer belt speed, using the clichés you’d expect such as age and Gabriel’s past and occupation as the main sources of drama. It felt as though we’d wondered into a different film as Gabriel’s ordeal felt all but forgotten during these scenes, particularly since it was spliced together by awkward editing at the worst of times.

It also didn’t help that after leaving Paris, most of the film is delivered in English, and it’s noticeably weaker under this language. I believe it was down to how the script was written in fairness, but the English dialogue, and even the acting, seemed very stilted and wooden compared to that of whenever the film was spoken and acted in French. I imagine they were trying to create some sense of realism, which I respect, but it made the already redundant second half feel all the less natural. As the minutes went by, I slowly started to lose interest until I was forgetting scenes as soon as they’d happened.

Maybe I missed something, but I found Maya to be bland and sadly unmemorable. It has some good ideas and wonderful cinematography, yet it doesn’t do them enough justice, putting them to the side in favour of a typical romance. Some viewers may get a lot out of it, particularly since it was made by a predominantly female crew (something I really admire). But I was unfortunately disappointed overall.

Life Itself – ★☆☆☆☆

Life Itself (not to be mistaken for the supremely better Roger Ebert documentary of the same name), is the first real stinker I’ve come across at the London Film Festival. And what a hefty poo it is. Not because it’s badly made or acted. But because it’s tragically misguided in its ambitions, on top of being badly made.

Divided into five ‘chapters’, the film interweaves several stories at once, gathering a talented collection of actors in the process but providing them with little substance. Essentially, there’s this incident involving a couple, Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde), and how what happened to them affected numerous different people, including themselves, their child, and a Spanish family whose story we learn about midway through. The film is trying to show how one thing can impact several lives for better and for worse. This isn’t a bad idea, and there are occasional bursts of appeal scattered about. But the execution is hopelessly barbaric.

I say this as the film clearly thinks its audience is stupid. It ostentatiously insists on spelling out its themes over and over again. Even though anyone who’s seen a rom com knows exactly what the lesson is by the twenty minute mark. There’s a particularly awful scene where Olivia Wilde discusses her thesis on unreliable narrators that literally dictates the entire message of the film. I’d usually say it’s a sore thumb of a scene, but the movie, through its whisy-washy narration and bland, faceless characters, insists on making several more ‘dramatic’ speeches by various characters, all of which are mere regurgitations of what was already said.

This predictability extends to the plot as well. Despite its hodgepodge of walking orators and multiple geographical locations, it takes the low road every time. It trades in potentially interesting drama (such as with the Spanish family) for forced whimsy, actively and repeatedly spelling out people’s emotions and inner turmoil (which undermines otherwise decent performances), and sweetening the deal by delivering comedy that’s either 1) not funny, or 2) awkwardly tasteless. This includes a conversation where a grandmother tells her daughter-in-law that she’s glad her parents are dead so she can be the only grandmother.

Isn’t that just charming?

The only sensation I felt reminded me of a time when I drank too much Jägermeister and puked.

Yet, despite how big, and arguably ambitious, its goals are, I could’ve told you where it was all going. I know this because I successfully predicted the ultimate outcome by the halfway point. And it’s not one of those predictions where you’d like it to happen. It’s the kind where you think to yourself, “wouldn’t it be cheap if they did that”, only to watch it unfold right in front of you. I’m sorry, but how can a film that thinks it’s so deep be this shallow?

What were the filmmakers thinking? What did they expect would happen by rubbing our noses in its obvious messages, under the pretentious guise of enlightenment? That strategy may work for a lachrymose individual, but whether your audience is a room of seasoned critics at a festival or casual moviegoers at a cinema, most of us can see through this façade.

Moviegoers are not idiots, and critics are generally not snobs. We want to laugh. We want to cry. We want to enjoy what creative new minds have to offer. Our words are wind but your craft is immortal. However, when your story is this mechanical, and you patronisingly tell us over and over what the blatant themes are, as if we’re too gormless to comprehend them, the only thing your film will be immortalised as is a joke.

Some of you may disagree with me and see Life Itself as a heartfelt, sensational experience. It’s your right to think so. No one can fault you for an opinion. But the only sensation I felt reminded me of a time when I drank too much Jägermeister and puked.

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