Category: 2012

The Master

Easily my most anticipated film of the year, The Master does not disappoint. Paul Thomas Anderson has created another masterpiece, incredibly beautiful to look at and with performances from his two leads that should be hard to beat come awards time (though the subject matter might well work against them).

Joaquin Phoenix, thankfully back from his bonkers years, is astounding here as Freddie Quell, an ex-US navy sailor damaged by war and by the hooch he brews up from paint thinner. We first meet him on a beach at the end of WWII, drunk and showing off to his fellow sailors, his scrawny frame twisted, his eyes full of loss. As we watch him curl up alone, arms around the anatomically correct sand sculpture of a woman he was dry humping for laughs a few moments ago, it’s clear there is much vulnerability underneath the bravado. He’s a little boy lost, damaged by the things he’s seen, driven over the edge by drink and a fear that he’s lost everything that meant something to him. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one of the few times you feel some sympathy for this broken, unlikable man.

Back in the US, and unable to hold down a job, Freddie takes a drunken stroll on the docks one night that leads him into the company of a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd – Philip Seymour Hoffman, as powerful and magnetic in this role as I’ve seen him for a long time. The two strike up what seems at first an unlikely friendship. Their relationship is central to the film, Dodd needs an acolyte and finds someone he can control in Quell, a man with the same craving to be needed and who is more than willing to submit to Dodd’s ‘processing’. Quell at last has the stability he needs and the father figure he’s never had. Crucially both men share a furious rage hidden not far under the surface – Phoenix gives Freddie startling physical characteristics to imply this, and the rage when it comes, is fierce and violent. Seymour Hoffman keeps Dodd’s rage hidden under a cloak of geniality – we only see the fury bubble up once or twice, but when we do it’s all the more startling. Their strange bromance is at the heart of the film, which follows Dodd’s championing of The Cause, his idealistic plan to solve all the world’s problems by regressing everyone into past lives. Yes, it does sound familiar.

You’ll need to let yourself wallow in The Master, it’s fair to say the storyline is meandering and it certainly won’t please everyone (Scientologists, for example, might not entirely take it to their hearts). It’s slow, and the ending rather oblique – there are scenes that don’t seem to add much, and the plot is almost non-existent. In other hands this wouldn’t work, but Anderson (potentially one of the greatest directors working today) creates a driving momentum between Quell and Dodd that fuels the film. Both lead performances are incredible (with another impressive turn from Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife – the real master?), and visually it’s utterly beautiful – wow, if you can see it in 70mm I would urge you to, the colours have a depth you will never get on digital film, the blue of the sea and the sparkling emerald of Phoenix’s eyes could not be more arresting. The colours, the soundtrack, the depth of emotions on display – it’s all quite hypnotic.

Anderson is one of the few directors working in mainstream Hollywood who has the balls to make the films he wants to make, and thank god he does. This is one I intend to see again – and one I think needs a second viewing to get the most out of it. Superb.

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To Rome With Love

I’d not long seen Robert Weide’s masterful Woody Allen documentary when I saw this, it’s a wonderful film and I would urge anyone tempted to see To Rome With Love to divert course accordingly. Weide’s film reminds you what a consummate film maker and comedian Allen is, and takes you on a journey through his best work. He does touch on the tailing off of Allen’s talents in recent years, but then we had the sublime Midnight in Paris which left a bit of hope that he might after all have something left in the pot. He made Owen ‘Penis Nose’ Wilson likeable for goodness’ sake. So there’s always a bit of hope when a new one comes along that it might be a hit rather than the all too frequent misses. Not this time, sadly.

The drive to be constantly working seems to have drained much of Woody Allen’s ability to see beyond cliché. And To Rome is full of them. It’s the sort of portmanteau film where you expect Walter Matthau to pop up guffawing at some point and wink knowingly at the camera. Allen tells us four unconnected stories – one a comment on the vacuity of modern fame (no shit sherlock), one a joke about singing in the shower that would only have been mildly funny as a comedy sketch, another a kind of ‘and then my trousers fell off’ story about newlyweds and the fourth the tale of an unfaithful boyfriend which has the benefit of Alec Baldwin, but wastes this in turning him into some sort of irritating speaking conscience. Penelope Cruz us similarly wasted in the age-old tart with a heart role. And indie darling Greta Gerwig is most wasted of all in a role where she is required to do nothing except look a bit peeved.

It’s not the worst thing ever, and it filled a couple of hours on a wet afternoon. In fact the couple sitting behind me laughed loud and long throughout, which wasn’t irritating at all. But it’s so far from Woody at his best that you have to wonder whether Midnight was a fluke.

Take This Waltz

I live in Crouch End, it’s where hipsters go when they grow up, marry and breed. They’ll love this film, it’s hipster heaven – beautiful to look at and full of recognisably fragile emotions, it made me want to fall in love again.

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married five years – long enough to get a bit restless, it’s the time when most couples start thinking of children. They live in a stylishly kitted out house in the Canadian suburbs, he writes books about chicken, she edits travel guides. They’re happy, and surrounded by family including a brilliantly cast Sarah Silverman as Lou’s alcoholic sister. Lou is mainly found in the kitchen cooking chicken, he’s a cosy man. A nice man – one you’d feel lucky to marry and really guilty for cheating on. But despite this, Margot is unfulfilled, not quite ready to write the book she thinks she has in her, and not ready for motherhood either. Just in the right place to flirt with that handsome stranger on a plane that she’ll never see again, then. Who turns out to live over the road. Honestly, if a hottie moved in over the road from me, I’d have my eye on him from the get-go, never mind all that ill-fated bumping into him at a historical re-enactment palaver. I’d have taken over so many cups of sugar he’d have type 2 diabetes. And Daniel, played by Luke Kirby, is a proper sugar-worthy hottie.

The slow burning relationship between Margot and Daniel is gorgeously done – it’s hard not to feel a bit jealous of their burgeoning affections, and if you don’t feel slightly intoxicated during their swirl on a fairground ride then it’s quite possible you are dead. Mind you, I could have done without the When Harry Meets Sally style martini hour. I don’t think they even finished those drinks.

It says a lot for Sarah Polley’s direction that you’re rooting for these two to get together, even at the expense of nice guy Lou’s emotions. The film doesn’t let you wallow in all that lovey dovey stuff though, just as you think you’ve reached the natural end, there’s a canny reminder that the magic glow usually fades, so you’ll need something to fill it – and we see a stylishly done evocation of what those somethings might be (in another infuriatingly stylish apartment. If struggling writers and artists can afford such amazing homes, then I think I might well move to Canada).

Strong performances from all three pull the film away from being irritatingly twee – although there are scenes that venture a bit too close to cringey, and I could have done without the baby voices for sure – and Sarah Silverman and does a great job as probably the only person in the film whose scars are on the outside. It’s hard to leave the cinema without feeling a bit of hipster envy, and although it’s not perfect, this is a brave look at what Silverman’s character calls ‘the gap’. At the time I was a bit annoyed by the ending, but in hindsight I think it’s the cleverest part of the film – where most love stories would fade to black and an Ed Sheeran song, Polley keeps the camera swirling and reminds you what love really is.
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The Imposter

This is a tough one to review – I want to say loads about it, it’s one of those films that I immediately googled when I got home to find out more about. To say too much here would be to risk spoilering on a grand scale, but it’s not giving anything away to say that Bart Layton’s first film is superbly made, expertly paced and completely gripping.

It’s a strange story from the start – a 23-year-old French man (Frederic Bourdin) masquerades as a teenager so that he can be put into care homes, claiming to have been subjected to terrible sexual abuse to gain sympathy and to stop people getting too close (and presumably spotting his five o’clock shadow). This in itself is odd. But the story becomes markedly stranger when, having been taken into a Spanish care home, he claims to be Nicholas Barclay, a 14-year-old from Texas who has been missing for three years. Both the Spanish authorities and the FBI believe this despite Bourdin having the wrong colour hair and eyes and a pronounced French accent. And strangest of all, the family of the missing boy believe him and welcome him into their San Antonio home. And so the weirdness begins.

This incredible story is told partly through artily reconstructed footage and also through interviews with Bourdin and the Barclay family. Bourdin is a slightly unnerving presence who has his own opinion on why the Barclays were so ready to believe him. He tells his story very articulately (though he has a long history of grand-scale fibbing), and boy does he love telling it. The Barclays are a bit like extras from Fargo – which is not to say they are entirely stupid, they have plenty of reasonable explanations for not recognising their own flesh and blood. Maybe to face up to the truth would be like losing Nicholas all over again. The story swirls around, prodded by a local private investigator straight out of central casting who has his own theory on what happened to Nicholas and doesn’t believe anyone – you soon realise that while everything you’re seeing is completely plausible, it’s equally likely to be untrue.

Layton tells this incredible story with immense skill, building to a climax that in reality is still to come while keeping you mesmerised throughout. You can’t help but laugh at some of the archive footage of Bourdin with his badly bleached hair and ridiculous disguise of sunglasses, a scarf pulled up high over his face and a hat pulled down low. You find some parts hard to believe, and some parts hard not to believe. But you never forget that at its heart, this is a tragic story about a lost boy.

Total Recall

Those of you familiar with my reviews will see that I’m not generally a sci-fi or action movie aficionado. They are two genres I usually avoid in the same way I avoid anything involving Katie Price. But one glorious night in the West End brought all these things together in a night that I can only describe as Thursday.

I remember seeing Verhoeven’s original many years ago and quite enjoying it –  it’s a classic of its kind with a sense of fun and a reasonably comprehensible plot. Someone somewhere thought it would be a good one to line up for a remake and who better to tackle this pointless task than action supremo Len Wiseman. If you can’t improve on the original, at least you can make it more blingy. Wiseman clearly started by blowing the budget on CGI and leaving 20p and a sticky toffee in the pot for a script. And little more for wardrobe – it disturbed both me and my cinema companion to see Kate Beckinsale blatantly wear the same pants two days on the run. She didn’t even turn them inside out, folks, that’s the sort of girl she is. The fact that we both noticed this also suggests that there wasn’t much else happening on screen to distract us.

So what happens in the new Total Recall? I can sum that up quite simply: fighty fighty fight fight, go on a fast thing, fighty, more fighty and a bit of extra fighty just in case we missed the last bit. I think there’s a vague plot in there somewhere involving a preposterously bouffanted Bryan Cranston (baddie) and a bored looking Bill Nighy (goodie) tussling over Colin Farrell’s brain wherein lies a dark secret. Poor Colin is confused – he wears an earnest expression of bemusement throughout the film which suggests he has no more idea about what is going on than we do but is going along with it just to be polite. Like when your mate takes you to see her child performing in the school play. The girls – bad Kate ‘dirty pants’ Beckinsdale and good Jessica ‘presumably clean pants’ Biel – wear sensible shoes and do lots of running about with guns. Beckinsale seems to be channeling the scalded pout of Victoria Beckham. Honestly, the amount of moody shots of her pouting and flicking her hair you’d think she was married to the director or something. Oh.

In between the fighting there are some very brief and cringily written bits of dialogue and at one point Colin does a bit of Richard Clayderman on the old joanna which reduced my entire row to giggles. Nothing is ever explained, there’s just fighting then a bit more fighting then some fighting until finally we reach the dreadfully schmaltzy ending. I would lay money on the fact that nobody in the screening had a feck of a clue what had been going on, not even Katie Price (who was sat in front of us). There are so many action scenes that the wham bam special effects don’t even seem that special by the end, it’s a bit like having the same scene replayed over and over again on a different fast-moving thing that will explode in a minute while Colin looks baffled but well-meaning and Kate emerges pouting from behind a cycle-helmeted robot man.

Anyway, I had a nice glass of wine afterwards so all was not lost. Am sure if you are a fan of the action/sci-fi thing then you probably won’t hate this quite as much as I did. Just don’t expect it to make any sense.

PS for anyone wondering, yes, there is a triple-boobed lady.

Searching for Sugar Man

A new documentary from Malik Bendjelloul tells the (slightly old now) story of a lost 60s singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. More mislaid than lost, truthfully.

Rodriguez was discovered playing with his back to the audience in a downtown bar in Detroit in the early 60s. Music execs snapped him up, sensing a new Bob Dylan but despite producing a couple of strong albums, Rodriguez sank without trace and the record company soon forgot him. Well, he thought he sank without trace,  but in the pre-world wide web era it was easy not to notice he’d become a star reputedly bigger than Elvis in South Africa where his edgy songwriting became the protest music of a generation growing up under the apartheid regime.

Because nobody back in the US knew how well he was doing (apparently), Rodriguez never toured there, there were no personal appearances or any of the usual promotional palaver and when the music dried up after the second album, it’s easy to see how the rumour he had committed suicide on stage became widely believed. The story fascinated a South African record shop owner and a music journalist who made it a bit of a mission to track down the real story of what happened to their hero.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say he turns up – though I won’t say more, because there are some surprises in store once we meet Rodriguez and fill in a bit of the background. Artistic licence has given the film more of an emotional punch than it maybe deserved,  but it’s sensitively done and turns the story into something joyous and heartwarming. It’s a revealing tale of fame at a time when singing for Simon Cowell seems the only way to make it – this isn’t really about fame, although clearly Rodriguez is rightly enjoying some right now – it’s more a reminder of how not being famous can be just as rewarding and how real talent will find its voice eventually.

Searching for Sugar Man is a beautifully filmed and exquisitely paced documentary – the partly animated scenes of downtown Detroit are stunning and it’s peppered with some fascinating interviews from the execs who worked with Rodriguez and seemed none the wiser about his overseas success. Of course there is the question of what happened to all his royalties, and a deeply uncomfortable interview with Motown boss Clarence Avant seems to answer this, although it’s probably a little unfair to shout ‘thief’ and point at him when there must have been a few people profiting from this remarkable man. Still, I wanted to shout ‘thief’ and point at him as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat under questioning.

It’s the one dark spot in a warm and life affirming film which fascinates from beginning to end. Of course I immediately found the soundtrack on Spotify when I got home and am listening to it now. It’s quite beautiful.

The Hunter

I was put off this originally when I read that it includes a small animal being disemboweled. Am not entirely good with bowel removal, so I put it on the maybe if it’s really rainy pile. Well it has been really rainy, so I gave it a go – and am glad I did. Yes, a small animal loses its innards. But I closed my eyes at that bit and am glad to say the rest of the film is extremely watchable and more or less bowel free.

For some reason we don’t see a lot of Willem Dafoe these days – here he is on stunning form as Martin David, a craggy hunter hired by a biotech company to find a supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger, which is rumoured to have made a reappearance. Their reasons for wanting it – assumed to be the last of its species – are less than savoury but Martin is clearly used to not asking too many questions in his line of work. In Tasmania, under the guise of being a researcher from the university, he boards with the family of another scholar (and eco-warrior) who has gone missing in the wilderness. His wife Lucy (Frances O’Connor, bit insipid) hasn’t handled the loss well and is in bed, tranquilised to oblivion while her two children have gone a bit feral, but in a very cute way, obviously.

The story swings between Martin’s solo trips to the forest to track the tiger and his downtime with the folks back at the cabin. Before long he’s spending more time with the family than he is hunting and this doesn’t go unnoticed by his employers, or by shifty next door neighbour Jack (Sam Neill, no longer as cute as he was in The Sullivans) who appears to have his own plans for Lucy. The story darkens as battle lines are drawn between the local town’s inhabitants, who are making a living from logging the rainforest, and the hated ‘greenies’ who are fighting to save it.

There is some heavy-handed symbolism here (lone tiger, lone hunter etc etc), and some overly sentimental storytelling, but see it for the glorious cinematography and for Dafoe’s superb performance, neither of which you can take your eyes off. It’s hard not to enjoy this one (yes, I cried at the end).

Your Sister’s Sister

The beginning of Lynn Shelton’s new film is a bit off-putting – a group of indie dahling types are reminiscing about a dead friend – cue mumbly eulogies and embarrassing speeches. They’re all a bit annoying. But once that’s out of the way things liven up and it broadens into a likeable film driven by three striking lead performances which, despite losing its way a bit at the end, is extremely watchable.

Jack (sexy/scruffy Mark Duplass) has struggled to come to terms with the death of his brother and, as a result of the previously mentioned embarrassing speech, is packed off to a lovely lonesome cabin in the woods to sort himself out by his brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt, not nearly as annoying as you might expect). By the way, why do people in the movies always have lovely cabins to run away to in times of crisis when the rest of us have to make do with sulking at bus stops?

The cabin isn’t as lonely as Jack expects, he arrives to find it already occupied by Iris’s sister Hannah who has holed up there after splitting up with her long-term girlfriend. They bond over a bottle of tequila, bad sex happens and then Iris arrives just to make things about as awkward as they could be. The three stumble around each other for a bit before secrets are blurted, a few home truths are shared and the lovely cabin becomes increasingly claustrophobic.

It’s sharply written, and to the actors’ credit largely improvised, with Rosemarie DeWitt as Hannah (it bugged me for about half an hour before I realised she’s  Midge from Mad Men) particularly shining in what could have been a cliched vegan/lesbian role. All three do well  to make their complex relationships work. What I think lets the film down is the way it stumbles clumsily to the end – which is tied up nicely in a bit of romcom ribbon – maybe inevitably, but I kind of hoped it might be a bit smarter than that.

Still,  it’s definitely worth a watch, there are some properly funny moments, some beautiful scenery and a lovely cabin we can all be jealous of as we shiver at the bus stop.

Mission to Lars

Now I’ll freely confess to being a bit of a soft touch when it comes to weepy films. I once caused a commotion on a Virgin Atlantic flight by becoming properly hysterical at the end of Dancer in the Dark, and regularly have to make a dash for the lavs at the end of a film to reapply my eyeliner. So on a scale of one to ten where one is a bit misty eyed and 10 is Dancer in the Dark, I’d put Mission to Lars in at a healthy eight. Proper sobbing but no medics were summoned. (Probably fair to mention I also just filled up looking at the trailer.)

Mission to Lars is a documentary made by brother and sister Will and Kate Spicer – Will is a filmmaker and Kate a journalist. Their brother Tom has Fragile X, a harsh kind of autism, and he’s lived in a care home for most of his adult life, giving them few opportunities to build much of a relationship. Tom has an obsession with Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, so Kate – for reasons you find hard to fathom when you consider the practicalities – convinces Will that it’s a good idea to take him to the States and try to fulfil his lifelong dream of meeting him. This despite not having much of an idea whether Lars will be up for it and of course, having to accept the fact that even if he says yes, Tom might say no. He says that a lot.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t an easy trip, in fact it starts off with Tom doing a runner before he’s even left home. When the Spicers arrive at the first Metallica gig in Vegas Tom point blank refuses to go and ends up in a laundromat with Will trying to wash his smalls while Kate bangs her head at the gig (probably in more ways than one). It’s one of many frustrations, Kate and Will have several fractious exchanges as they travel between shows in their camper van – as someone who spent several childhood holidays in a VW caravanette I can sympathise with the joy of being stuck in a small space with your nearest and dearest. A small space that smells of wee and vomit.

I won’t spoil things by telling you whether the Mission to Lars succeeds, but following the Spicers on their journey is a real pleasure with plenty of funny moments to stop it being at all mawkish. It’s a story about how hard it is to get what you want – sometimes the thing you most desire is the thing you’re most afraid of getting. We’ve all been there, and these emotions are all the more devastating for Tom it seems. But it’s also a story about trying to rebuild relationships that have been cracked apart by something you don’t really understand – and about coming to terms with the realisation that the balance of familial responsibility inexorably shifts as you get older (all three are heading towards middle age).

This is a joyous, heartwarming film that you can’t fail to love – and if you aren’t crying like a baby by the end you need to take a long hard look at yourself. Even better is the fact that some of the profits are going to Mencap.

This is a great piece about the film from Kate Kellaway in The Observer

Moonrise Kingdom

I should start by confessing that I’ve hated every Wes Anderson film since Rushmore because I am, you see, severely allergic to whimsy. Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling all left me rushing to the whimsy decontamination tank – lovely to look at but full of characters that were pretty much wearing badges declaring ‘I am kooky’ and overwritten plots that didn’t take you anywhere much. So I was a bit dubious about seeing this one, although having seen the glorious trailer a few times I was minded to risk it (despite Tilda Swinton).

And I’m so glad I did, this is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Essentially a coming of age romance between Suzy and Sam, two troubled 12-year-olds stuck on a New England island in the middle of the 1960s, it reminded me a bit of Submarine. Moonrise Kingdom has all the usual Anderson hallmarks – the set design is stunning, and the characters could easily have jumped off the pages of a comic book, slightly larger than life but incredibly real at the same time. ‘A heightened sense of realism’ I would probably say if I was more intellectual.

Suzy is officially ‘troubled’ and has been kicking off at school while wearing terribly chic eyeliner, and her lawyer parents sleep in separate beds and address each other as ‘counsellor’. Her Dad, Anderson regular Bill Murray, seems to be switching off from family life and Mom (Frances McDormand) is up to no good with a lonely local policeman, touchingly underplayed by Bruce Willis whose eminently likeable character gives the film some real heart. Sam is on a camping trip with the  Scouts, led by Edward Norton’s incompetent scoutmaster, and being bullied by the other boys. He’s used to being an ousider, brought up without parents and has his own behavioural issues as baggage. Suzy and Sam run away, although it’s a small island so it’s not long before they are tracked down by Sam’s fellow scouts.

It’s well written and perfectly performed by the two leads who manage to do endearing but not nauseatingly cute very well. Harvey Keitel pops up as a Baden Powell-esque scout chief  and reminded me that you rarely see him in anything good these days, so it’s a performance to be savoured. The soundtrack too is immaculate, Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra both soundtracked my own childhood and fit the mood here perfectly.

It’s a completely enchanting film perfectly capturing the sweetness of first love, with some cracking performances – and it gives me hope that Anderson might have more Moonrise Kingdoms and fewer Life Aquatics for us in the future. Oh, and don’t be put off by Tilda Swinton, she’s not in it that much and she’s actually not irritating at all.

Monsieur Lazhar

What’s this? A film about an inspirational teacher that Robin Williams doesn’t star in? I bet he’s lining himself up for the remake though. Monsieur Lazhar is an Algerian, living in Montreal, who lands a job teaching a class of 11 year olds who have been traumatised by the inexplicably awful suicide of their teacher. She hangs herself in their classroom for god’s sake. He’s the only one who applied for the role, and is thrust into the middle of this disturbed bunch of children without much support – aside from a weekly session for the class with a counsellor, the suicide is pretty much painted over in the same way that their classroom has been.

Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) has his own demons to fight, and when we find out how awful these are it’s hard to imagine how he’s kept going at all, let alone brought such dignity to his job. He’s not perfect of course, struggling with the rules and regulations in the modern classroom as all teachers do, particularly the no touching no hitting sections. As Lazhar and his new charges slowly get to know each other (his opening gambit of giving them Balzac for dictation makes for an awkward start) the children finally realise he’s the one person they can open up to. Fellag is superb, giving Monsieur Lazhar a broken tenderness that has you rooting for him from the beginning. He also looks a bit like Tom Jones before the Welsh hip swiveller stopped using Just for Men.

This reminded me a lot of Etre et Avoir, the wonderful documentary feature about a schoolteacher in rural France. It has the same generosity of spirit with similar touches of gentle humour (the woman behind me was guffawing so much at times must surely have been a teacher) and the same ability to send me straight to the loo on the way out to tidy up my mascara. The children put in impeccable performances, particularly Sophie Nelisse who plays 11-year-old Alice with just the right amount of adult sensibility.

Monsieur Lazhar was never going to beat A Separation to the Foreign Language Oscar, but it was a worthy nominee – a film about the resilience of the human spirit that will warm the cockles of your soul.