While We’re Young

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Noah Baumbach (or Noah Bumbag as I like to call him) has gone a lot more mainstream with his latest film, which follows the wonderful Frances Ha. He’s still got his finger on the hipster button, but here his foot is firmly on the irony pedal. 

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are married without children and living a sort of in-between life –  great apartment, beautiful furniture and no ties but with no real focus. They’re both in their late 40s, at that age where you’re too old to be young and too young to be old. In your head you’re still 20-something, but in reality you look like schoolteachers on prom night.

When they meet actual 20-something hipsters Jamie (a perfectly cast Adam Driver) and Darby (underused Amanda Seyfried), they strike up a friendship that suggests all is not lost. Suddenly they’re out rollerblading, hip hop dancing and hanging out with the cool kidz. The culture clash prompts some gentle humour – not least the fact that all the things the older couple have replaced with hi-tech gizmos have been replaced in the younger household with the things they threw out on the first place. Hipsters, eh?

Complicating the mix is the fact that Josh and Jamie are both documentary film makers. Josh had one big hit and has spent eight years trying to follow it. Jamie is just starting out and appears to be keen to learn from his new mentor. But recapturing your youth isn’t as easy as wearing a silly hat, and when Jamie’s true intentions are revealed, things get messy.

Overall it’s an enjoyable look at middle age and rivalry with Stiller on good form, but for me it got a bit windy towards the end, particularly when the couples head off for a mountain retreat with some sort of hippy shaman. There’s a bit of a cheesy ending too which felt a bit tacked on.

In the main, though it’s not as whip-smart as Baumbach’s earlier films, While We’re Young is still very watchable and will definitely make you laugh, no matter what your age. (Also a bit of amusing casting in here for anyone who watches Million Dollar Listing New York.)

 

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Force Majeure

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A perfect-looking family of four go skiing in the French Alps – it looks like the ideal break, beautiful hotel, gorgeous slopes, everyone getting along. Then one morning, during breakfast, an avalanche crashes towards them. It’s a spectacular, terrifying moment. In that split second, is your first thought to save your family or yourself (and your smartphone)?

In Force Majeure, director Ruben Östlund asks that question of Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and opens up a fair avalanche of family and gender politics. It’s no spoiler to reveal that as disaster threatens, it’s Tomas that reaches for his phone and legs it while Ebba clutches at their children. It’s a shocking and blackly comic moment that changes everything.

Once the danger is past, it’s time for the emotional fallout. Tomas’s children can barely look at him, and Ebba takes a more combative role as he tries to deny his actions in the hope that the confusion around the moment might save him. He knows he’s at fault, but there’s a part of him that can’t really acknowledge that. And there’s also a big part of him that resents it.

Both Östlund’s direction and all the performances here are very controlled, giving the film an air of quietness belied by the emotions coursing underneath the surface. There’s a definite sense that all is muffled, as if the snow was hiding everything – which makes the occasional outbursts from Tomas all the more shocking.There’s a superb scene where he’s at a bar with his hairy best friend Mats. You watch as they’re built up from invisible older men to hot sex gods, then brought back to earth again. What does make a man – is it that heroic nature or is it being attractive to women?

I’m fairly sure everyone left the cinema thinking ‘what would I do?’ – or more likely, ‘what would you do?’. Emotionally harsh, darkly funny and never anything but gripping, this is solid stuff.

Wild Tales

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With Pedro Almodóvar on board as co-producer, it’s no surprise that Wild Tales is a camp blast of dark hilarity from Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifrón. Full of sound and fury, it’s a collection of stories about people who are, for one reason or another, fully pissed off. And there’s nothing quite as funny as someone in full strop unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end of it.

The first story suffers a bit from unfortunate timing – a pilot locks himself in the cabin and crashes his plane, exacting a terrible revenge on its passengers. As the scene revealed itself, there were some awkward gasps around the cinema from people who clearly hadn’t seen the Daily Mail moaning about it. It’s hard to watch in any other context now, although it’s stylishly done and a great opener.

Each of the six Tales introduces someone who on a normal day is probably a thoroughly charming person. But on this particular day, something gets so far under their skin that they’re overtaken with rage. Road rage, wedding rage, parking rage, it’s all here and in extremes. Things are broken – hearts, promises, windows – vengeance is taken in spades. It’s there in all of us, Szifrón is warning. And maybe not so far below the surface. So you know, you might want to stop rattling that sweet paper in the seat behind me.

Szifrón’s trick is to inject just enough humour to make you laugh even at the darkest moments. He takes you to the worst place, then drags you out of it with a moment of splintering humour – you’re open-mouthed with horror one minute and shaking with laughter the next. Plus there’s Ricardo Darin – you can’t go wrong with a bit of Darin.

Wild Tales is a whirlwind of spite with bursts of laugh-out-loud humour. A real joy.

Ex Machina

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Another outing for Oscar Isaac here, so again no complaints from me on that score. Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina takes us to some unspecified time in the none-too-distant future where Nathan (Isaac), a rich software genius, lives a reclusive life in a pretty spectacular home. He’s invited a lucky random employee to visit, which turns out to be Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a lonely geek who can’t believe his luck – especially when Nathan tells him he’s there to evaluate a special project: Ava.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a robot, the sort of robot only a man would invent – stunningly beautiful, great tits etc etc. To be fair, if I was going to invent a robot I’d probably make him look like ER-era George Clooney complete with built-in nespresso machine, so fair dos really. Ava does that thing that all robots do, and longs to be free from her robotty constraints, and who better to help her than poor gullible Caleb who has not surprisingly developed a bit of a thing for her.

The plot isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, though it all chugs along nicely, building up suspicion and mistrust between Caleb and Nathan. The three leads do well with this slightly clichéd material: Isaac is genuinely menacing behind a veneer of combative mateyness and Gleeson rolls out his confused young chap act as well as ever. And though she’s essentially just wank material, Vikander gives Ava enough intelligence to set her up nicely as a catalyst between ego and wannabe.

There are a lot of big ideas here, but no emotional touchstones, it left me a bit unmoved really. Apart from Isaac’s disco dancing – that is worth the price of admission alone.

A Most Violent Year

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Clearly Oscar Isaac is having a very good year at the moment, popping up all over the place. I have no objections to this, of course. In JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year he’s Abel Morales, a hard-working Brooklyn family man, running a heating oil supplier with the help of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel is determined to keep his business on the straight and narrow, but that’s easier than it sounds in Brooklyn. Especially when someone – most likely one of his competitors –  is hijacking his trucks and threatening to destroy his livelihood.

Chastain and Isaac make the perfect early 80s couple – all hair and labels (there are some seriously good coats here). Anna has grown up with the mob, the heating oil business once belonged to her gangster father and she has no problem running things the way he did. But Abel wants a clean sheet and although he’s surrounded by violence, he wants no part of it. Especially as New York DA (David Oyelowo, wonderful as always) is breathing down his neck. But this determination not to fight back leads him into even deeper trouble, not helped by the fact that his wife is packing more than lipstick in her handbag.

Isaac is superb as Abel, a man driven to succeed but struggling under his compunction to do the right thing. Especially when doing the wrong thing would be so much easier. The strain on his employees and family weighs heavy, and his determination to expand the business at any cost could be the powder keg that destroys everything.

Chandor is in control here, giving us impressive car chases and moments of truly gripping fear. There was a long stretch towards the end when I don’t think I took a breath. It looks great too, with some beautiful shots of the New York skyline glimpsed in the distance, reminding Abel what he’s chasing. With hints of The Godfather, The Yards and Goodfellas (some of my favourites) this one was always going to be a winner.

Inherent Vice

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Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my absolute favourite directors. He makes films that demand to be seen more than once, films that carry outstanding performances, films that pin you in your seat and leave you astounded. And in this case, films that leave you feeling like you’ve been jiggled round in a tumble drier full of duvets for a couple of hours. When you’re released at the end of the cycle, you’re a bit dazed and woeful that all the lovely chaos has come to an end.

Anderson introduced the screening I was at – the chap next to me was so busy showing off to his date about all the films he’d seen at the PCC that he didn’t realise who it was and talked all the way through. But wow, PTA was there – and it was screened in glorious 35mm. Full geek-out, man.

Pynchon’s novels are not entirely the easiest to follow, even when you can go back and reread the parts where your brain has had a hiccup. And I think Inherent Vice is the first to be turned into a film – so a brave choice for Anderson. But it’s a wholly successful film and one that so perfectly recreates that early 70s LA vibe that you can’t help but let yourself be swept along with it.

My enduring lust for Joaquin Phoenix is enough to overlook the hairy grubbiness of Doc Sportello, the stoner private dick at the centre of the action who has possibly the best mutton chops in movie history. Doc is getting by on half-assed cases that he runs from the local surgery. It’s enough to pay for his dope, so it’s enough. When his ex (Katherine Waterson) appears like a glorious hallucination with a request to track down her missing lover (Eric Roberts), he can’t say no. Nor can he overlook a second case also involving a missing man, this one a hippie saxophone player called Wolfmann (Owen Wilson). The meandering connections between both bring him to the attention of square-headed detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who is pretty much the polar opposite of Doc in every way. The two sidestep around a chaotic universe of mysterious dentists, moth-eaten brothels and nazi bikers, and landscapes filled with people who have long forgotten what they were looking for.

Sometimes not having the faintest idea what’s going on in a film can be a hindrance. Here, it gives you the freedom to just sit back and go on the ride with Doc, letting that fug of weed surround you like a comforter. With a glorious soundtrack, an immaculate cast (Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short and yay, Martin Donovan are all having fun here too – though I’ll never see a PTA movie again and not wonder where Philip Seymour Hoffman might have fitted) and in Phoenix, a lead that you can’t help but like, this is a film that really warms the cockles. Funny, moving and deliriously bonkers, you’ll want to sit through it again immediately. If only to work out what was going on.

God love PTA, he might not make that many films, but the ones he does make are worth ten of most of the yawnsome stuff out there. In Inherent Vice, everyone is having fun, even if they don’t know it. Don’t expect to understand it, do expect to love it.

The Duke of Burgundy

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A kind of Fifty Shades for the arthouse crowd, Duke of Burgundy is Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the much acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio, which I didn’t enjoy at all, frankly. So although this wasn’t top of my list of films to see, word of mouth at the festival was so good that I found a sneaky ticket at the last minute. It was a wise decision, this is a beautiful, strange and melancholy film that is so stylish it credits a perfumier in the opening credits.

The Duke of Burgundy introduces us to a world that’s sort of but not quite the 70s (the opening titles are full on 70s pastiche) and where men seem to have become obsolete. We only see a small part of this world though, so there could be a whole rugby club round the corner with the scent of Je Suis Gizelle in their nostrils.

It’s summer, and everything is beautifully hazy. When Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna) rides in on a bicycle, her hair blowing in the sultry breeze, there’s such a retro vibe that I kept expecting someone to shout out ‘is she or isn’t she?‘. She’s on her way to work as a maid for her rich mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Cynthia is a lepidopterist – try saying lesbian lepidopterist after a couple of gins – and her house is filled with beautiful specimens, pinned into frames. It probably takes a lot of dusting.

Evelyn isn’t a particularly good maid, and Cynthia has a range of punishments lined up for the frequent times when her delicate undergarments haven’t been washed to her satisfaction. This ranges from a bit of light whippage to the rather full on human toilet, with the hapless maid a bit too keen to submit to her mistress’s demands.

Expertly portrayed by d’Anna and Knudsen, Evelyn and Cynthia are embroiled in more than just a bit of kinky stuff, and it’s how that is slowly revealed that makes this such an engrossing watch. Much of the darkness – and the warm humour – of The Duke of Burgundy comes from the shifting power balance between the two women; the focus here is on how far you’re willing to go for the person you love, and how much of yourself you can give up for them.

Visually stunning, emotionally compelling and utterly enchanting as well as managing to be sensuous rather than titillating, this is masterful work from Strickland.

 

Winter Sleep

 

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Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not afraid to take his time telling a story; Winter Sleep rocks in at 196 minutes. That’s three and a quarter hours. You have to be confident if you’re asking your audience to sit tight for that long, and you have to be able to keep them with you despite, in this case, the lure of things like M&M world and Wong Kei’s all you can eat buffet just up the road. Sadly, there were quite a lot of people who couldn’t resist the rattle of M&Ms: there was a steady stream of walkouts once we hit the two-hour mark. The woman next to me fell asleep after 15 minutes, spent two hours snoring, then woke up and left. But for anyone immune to the pain and suffering that the Odeon West End seats can bestow on even the softest bottom, Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner was a real treat.

Winter Sleep is a beautifully unfolding tale of a dead marriage, and a man waking up to the realisation that his life isn’t quite what he imagined. It’s quite different to Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I loved, but the themes and the landscapes are similar.

The story is told against the cold, bleak mountains of Anatolia – beautiful, silent and watchful, they stand stoic against a sulky grey sky filled with heavy snow clouds. Aydin (Aluk Bilginer) is an aging actor, running a hotel in the hills with his beautiful much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Nekla (Demet Akbag). You may remember Bilginer as Mehmet in EastEnders but there are no echoes of his soap opera days here, this is a very calm, measured performance. Aydin is lord of his manor, and in his eyes the good, benevolent sort of lord who is adored by his subjects on whom in return, he kindly bestows his wisdom. He’s no longer acting, filling his time writing a pompous newspaper column that nobody reads and thinking about writing a book on Turkish theatre. With the emphasis on thinking about.

Aydin has inherited property from his father but doesn’t seem particularly interested in it, or the people he rents homes to, beyond the financial security it provides. But when a small boy throws a rock through his car window, Aydin’s carefully constructed world starts to fall apart. It seems that maybe he isn’t as wonderful a man as he likes to think.

Nihal is slowly dying of boredom, and full of rage at the quiet life she’s been tricked into leading. She married a famous actor for god’s sake, she thought there’d be parties, not an old man who ignores her most of the time and talks as if he’s still on the stage. When she tries to find something to fill her time, Aydin just can’t cut her loose.

Much of the film happens in dark, claustrophobic rooms lit only by the fireplaces, where we eavesdrop on ramblng conversations. There’s a lot of humour here, but the overriding feeling is of people trapped in lives they dream of escaping from. It’s a long film, and it won’t be for everyone. But if you can hole up in a comfy cinema with a frothy coffee, it’s the perfect chilly afternoon escape.

Maybe for me not quite as gripping as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but Winter Sleep is a fascinating story of crumbling lives, related by a master storyteller.

Foxcatcher

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Before Whiplash stole its thunder this was the talk of the festival circuit: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo doing the acting in Bennett Miller’s follow up to Moneyball. On the face of it, that’s a promising line-up, although to be honest I found Moneyball a bit tedious so that’s not a big draw for me.

Foxcatcher is a true story – take my advice, if you don’t know it, don’t google until you’ve seen the film, it’s worth not knowing. Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his brother Dave (Ruffalo) are Olympic wrestlers. Dave is at the end of his career and turning to coaching, but Mark still has another gold medal in his sights. When eccentric millionaire John Du Pont (Carell) offers to coach him at his luxury ranch, Mark is fastening his seatbelt on Du Pont’s private plane before you can say chinlock; he doesn’t have anything to leave behind, except a diet of supernoodles and his tv. Dave isn’t interested in joining him despite a big bucks offer – he’s married (to Sienna Miller) with kids, and has no desire to uproot. It all starts off well for Mark, but before long the temptations and pressures from the increasingly bonkers Du Pont are too much and everything goes a bit pear-shaped. Well, a hell of a lot pear-shaped actually. But as I said, don’t google it.

Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent, playing against type and uglying up – all wearing tshirts that say OSCAR BAIT under their wrestling vests. Well, Tatum uglies up as much as he can, his Mark Schulz is an archetypal neanderthal wrestler, lonely and looking for a father figure. He’s a sad case, the gold medal is the only thing he has in life and he clings onto it like a life raft. Ruffalo probably has the least to do out of the three, playing the good big brother and stepping in when Mark’s life starts to spiral out of control. But Carell is almost unrecognisable as Du Pont, a man so rich he doesn’t have to answer to anyone except his mother (a totally underused Vanessa Redgrave). He wears a prosthetic nose so large that at times you can see him struggle to act around it. It’s actually quite amazing he can hold his head upright.

But what should be a slick film about ambition, loneliness and repression turns out to be a rather dull and overlong plod through a story that doesn’t really have enough meat on the bone. You can have the best acting in the world, but if the audience aren’t gripped by what’s going on, it’s a bit of a waste. There’s a lot missing here, parts of the story feel a bit disjointed, we don’t really learn much about Mark Schultz or John Du Point other than that one is desperate to be his big brother and the other is a spoiled rich kid afraid to acknowledge his sexuality. Everyone’s a stereotype.

Ultimately disappointing, Foxcatcher is three great performances in search of a story.

Whiplash

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If there’s one film that everyone wanted to see at the LFF this year it was Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. I’d had it on my list after seeing the trailer (watch it and tell me you don’t immediately want to see the rest) but was a little dubious because of the jazz. It’s not my favourite musical genre, by quite some way. But I have to be honest, I’m listening to Caravan now. So will you, after you see this. It’s one of those films that gets hold of you by the scruff of the neck in the first couple of minutes, then when it finally lets go and you leave the cinema, it feels like the world has shifted slightly.

Driven by two blistering lead performances, Whiplash follows a young jazz drummer at an elite music school in New York. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) dreams of becoming one of the greats and getting there means winning a spot in the school band, conducted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). Fletcher is a hard taskmaster who works his musicians as if they were doing life for some awful crime. He’s not one of those teachers who is cruel to be kind, Fletcher is kind to be cruel and is more likely to follow up a polite comment about your timing by throwing a chair at your head and telling you off for being a pussy.

Simmons so inhabits the role you can’t imagine him being anything other than a fist-pumping maniac although I’m sure he’s a very mild-mannered chap off screen. Fletcher is a heart attack waiting to happen, veins popping, sweat pouring, fury so ingrained that it’s coming out of every pore all the time. Even when he’s playing nice, you can see it, just under the skin, waiting to explode out of him like some sort of ectoplasm. Does he really believe this is the way greats are made? Or is he just a violent bully taking out his own shortcomings on people more talented than he is? You’re never quite sure – and we know nothing of Fletcher’s back story so we can only go on what we see. It’s without doubt one of the performances of the year.

Miles Teller is equally impressive. Desperation and desire seep through Andrew’s pores in the same way that the fury seeps through Fletcher’s. Andrew is so focused on drumming that family, girlfriends, dignity and the skin on his hands all come cruelly second – and he doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Like Fletcher, he has to lose the human side of him in order to get what he wants.

The climax is exhilarating, with the two facing off like gladiators in the ring. By the time we reach that last paradiddle you feel as beaten up as Andrew’s drumkit, exhausted and more than a little delirious. Though hopefully not spattered with blood. Good job, Chazelle.

Birdman

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Obviously I was disappointed the BFI London Film Festival’s Surprise Film wasn’t Inherent Vice, but I got over that fairly quickly when Alejandro Inarritu popped up on screen to introduce Birdman. It’s been a while since the surprise was anything genuinely exciting. In fact last year, I did a runner after 20 minutes of The Grandmaster, so it was a massive improvement on that.

Birdman arrives with impressive reviews from the US and lots of awards chatter. It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a has-been movie superhero trying to make a second go of things on the Broadway stage. He’s divorced, egotistical, paranoid, and still fantasizes about his time in the feathers. When another egotistical star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), joins the cast, tensions rise and the play’s previews descend into chaos.

There’s some impressive camerawork here from Emmanuel Lubezki who won an Oscar for his amazing work on Gravity. Birdman is shot to look like a single take, although of course it isn’t. It feels quite claustrophobic at times, as if you’re in Thomson’s poor messed up head, confused and angry about the bird you used to be and the man you want to become.

I know I should have enjoyed this more, all the elements are there – it’s very funny, it looks good, and Norton and Keaton are fantastic. But I just felt a bit disappointed. Maybe Riggan is just too unlikable. Maybe Inarritu just needed to rein it in a bit. Maybe ultimately Birdman is just a bit too pleased with itself. And it did that thing that always annoys me – if you’re going to end a film just end it, don’t fanny about pretending it’s the end then going on a bit longer. Only Blazing Saddles can get away with that.

There’s a lot to admire here, and god knows I’d rather see something like this than one of the tedious superhero blockbusters that keep being churned out. But sorry, Birdman, you just didn’t fly for me.