Category: 2013

Hide Your Smiling Faces

When I was young, one of the girls from my year at school died suddenly. She was the first person I knew who’d passed away and the realisation that we weren’t immortal shocked us all, though we were too young to really take it in. My memories of that time are jumbled up with all sorts of other snapshots of my childhood: racing my bike through the fields at the bottom of our road, making perfume from rose petals, watching from my bedroom window as dad buried another pet rabbit in the garden.

Director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s quietly wonderful first film, Hide Your Smiling Faces, is a look at what happens when death casts its first shadow on childhood. Brothers Tommy and Eric (Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones) are spending summer hanging out with their friend Ian and getting into the sort of trouble boys get into when they’re at a loose end. Then, a tragedy. The boys watch from a distance as the adults deal with loss in different ways and the remaining weeks of summer are overshadowed by thoughts of mortality and a grief the boys aren’t mature enough to express.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue, and the slow pace might not suit everyone, but this is an exciting debut from Carbone, stunningly photographed and with some very naturalistic performances from the young actors. It captures the fractured memories of childhood perfectly – I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Aside from Mystery Train, and Ghost Dog, I always feel I should enjoy Jim Jarmusch’s films more. He knows how to put super-cool on film, and he can create a mood effortlessly, but frankly I like a bit more of a story. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception, although it’s probably his best for a while. It’s also all the L-words you can think of:  louche, languid, listless, lyrical… and slightly long.

It’s the story of Adam and Eve, two vampires who got married centuries ago and are finding the being around forever aspect of vampiring a bit wearying. They are quite bored of each other but still somehow madly in love. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is hanging out in Tangier, exquisitely dressed and gliding through the streets at night like an exotic spectre while being brought top notch blood by Kit Marlow (John Hurt). Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, on the other hand, looks like he hasn’t had a bath for a while and is utterly fed up with the state of the world and particularly repelled by the ‘zombies’ as he refers to the unfortunate living people he is forced to hang around with. I suppose if you’d spent your life chewing the fat with Byron and writing symphonies for Schubert you might find the average Joe a bit less than cultured too. He fills his lonely hours roaming round a crumbling Detroit mansion filled with expensive guitars and vinyl, ever the rock star, and fretting about what will become of the things he loves in a world hell-bent on destruction.

Eve flies to Detroit to lift Adam from his despair, and the pair spend their nights driving round this beautifully desolate city – the images of downtown Detroit are nothing short of stunning – and deep in conversation about their past. It takes the arrival of Mia Wasikowska as Adam’s sister Ava to liven things up – she prefers to drink blood fresh from the source (oopsy) which causes a spot of bother. She disappears too soon, sadly.

Only Lovers Left Alive is beautiful to look at, easily has the two hippest vampires ever seen on screen – and it’s very funny. But to be honest, the ten minutes of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! that I missed to get to this screening on time weighed heavy on me.

12 Years a Slave

This was the only film I saw at the London Film Festival that got a standing ovation, after the audience had taken a minute or two to get their breath back. It’s a harsh and unforgiving examination of slavery, a bit like Django Unchained without the laughs.

Steve McQueen’s first two films were about men in the grip of something terrible – be it incarceration or sex addiction – now he has turned his attention to American slavery. This is a bit off piste for him, it feels more movie than art house. And it’s all the better for that – he’s given slavery the film it needed, something that doesn’t distract from the brutal truth with a neat soundtrack and some funny one-liners (not that Django was wrong to do that, it’s a cracking film). McQueen gave a short Q&A after the screening and said he’d wanted to do a slavery film for some time but hadn’t quite found the right story, then his wife tracked down Solomon Northup’s book and he knew immediately he’d found it. And whatever the horrors revealed in 12 Years a Slave, the biggest one of all is that this is someone’s life. It’s that knowledge that makes everything seem a million times worse than when you’ve seen it before.

Chiwetel Ejiofor eats up Solomon Northup’s story and spits it right back out again – he’s a revelation here, his first leading role and one that should pick him up a few major awards. Northup is angry, frustrated, downtrodden but never defeated as the free man who is abducted and sold back into slavery leaving a wife and family behind him. You feel every bit of his frustration and his fury – and his inability to do anything to rescue himself or his fellow slaves. Most notable among these is Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) who will probably have a few award nominations of her own to contend with. And as for Michael Fassbender – he’s superb here as notorious slave breaker Edwin Epps, an unspeakably cruel man on the very edge of sanity who has taken Patsey as his mistress. In a throng of gentlemanly villains, he’s the one that terrifies the most, maybe because he truly believes he is still somehow a good man. Although Northup’s first owner, Master Ford (creepy Benedict Cumberbatch) is just as disturbing somehow, a slave owner masquerading as a good, caring man but ultimately no better than the rest.

McQueen has done what American cinema couldn’t bear to and looked slavery right in the eye, making a film that doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t know, but puts it in a context that makes it seem much more terrible. There’s a quiet dignity here, in the direction, the screenplay and the cinematography, and the but most of all in the lead performance which will make Ejoifor a name to reckon with come awards season and beyond.

Blue is the Warmest Colour

Blue is the Warmest Colour is one of the sweetest first love films you’ll see. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is just at the age where she’s beginning to bloom into a beauty, all pudgy cheeks, bee-stung lips and tousled hair, in true French fashion. She’s dating boys, but a chance encounter with a blue-haired stranger in a local square stays with her. Her first nervous trip to a gay bar throws up another encounter with the same girl, Emma (Lea Seydoux) and they begin a passionate affair.

The two come from contrasting backgrounds, Emma is older and an art student with a family who eat oysters (yes I know) and welcome their daughter’s partner like an old friend. Adele’s family are a bit rougher round the edges, and she’s not exactly open with them about her new acquaintance and what they are getting up to after lights out. Indeed what they do get up to (mainly with the lights on) has been much discussed – there are a couple of quite explicit sex scenes, which don’t feel at all gratuitous in the context of the girls’ relationship and are only really notable for being between two girls. They’re not the sort of thing you might feel comfortable watching with granny, mind you.

Exarchopoulos is mostly filmed in unforgiving close-up, and indeed the romance is often charted through the amount of snot pouring from her nose. The close-ups give the film a very intimate feel, you’re right in there with Adele’s emotions and you experience her heartbreak entirely – by the end of the film you feel as exhausted as she does. It’s a wonderfully honest performance from both girls, but particularly Exarchopoulos. It says a lot for Abdellatif Kechiche’s exquisite direction that it doesn’t feel like a three-hour film, the story – though simple – keeps you there, up close and personal with Adele and her runny nose.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is beautiful, elegiac and touching, both lead performances are perfectly nuanced – and though we know now that Kechiche might have pushed the girls a little to far, what he got from them is surely worth the pain. 

Philomena

I got a last minute ticket for this one – right next to the toilets. You’d be amazed how many people pay a visit while the film’s on. On the plus side, the person next to me was a no show so I got two goody bags. On the minus side, my cat has already shat in one of them. Everyone’s a critic.

Judi Dench is Philomena Lee, a determined Irish mammy who wants to track down the son that was taken from her by nuns 50 years ago. Taken from her and sold for adoption as a wonky sort of punishment for having sex before marriage (this was in an orphanage, the nuns didn’t just sneak into her house one night and steal him, that would be bonkers). It’s a horrendous story, made more awful by the fact it’s true – the presence of the real Philomena at this screening was a stark reminder of that.

Steve Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, the ex-Labour spin doctor in need of a career boost, who takes on the challenge of tracking down Philomena’s lost child against his better judgement and can’t quite believe where it leads him. The two make a sparky couple, although the Dame has all the best lines which she spits out with relish. Both performances are excellent, although to be honest, sometimes I found it hard to see beyond Coogan and Dench doing the acting. That won’t stop Dench picking up an Oscar nomination I shouldn’t imagine, they love people doing the acting.

Philomena is wittily written by Coogan, and Stephen Frears a safe pair of hands to direct: it’s classily put together – funny, moving and just the sort of thing your mum will enjoy shedding a tear to on Christmas day when she’s had one sherry too many. Frears knows exactly how to tug on your heartstrings and the film plays on this a bit too much for my liking – it’s got a couple of those YOU WILL CRY HERE moments that always leave me cold. I’m ashamed to admit I remained dry-eyed throughout, though I laughed a lot to compensate. Not at the sad bits, obviously, I’m not a monster.

It’s not a bad film by any means, but maybe a bit too emotionally calculating for me. For sherry-soaked mums on Christmas day though, perfect.

Enough Said

It’s probably obvious from the list of films I’ve written about here that romantic comedy isn’t my favourite genre. But I was tempted into this one because Julia Louis-Dreyfus rarely puts a foot wrong, and because it was pretty much James Gandolfini’s last role. It was a good choice, it’s a bit like being enveloped big cosy bear-hug from him while wearing a warm jumper.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Eva, a masseuse, divorced and of a certain age who is a bit nervous of embarking on a new relationship, but unwilling to spend the rest of her life alone. When she meets Albert, a twinkly-eyed bear of a man who makes her laugh, she’s tempted to dip her toe back in the water. Their fledgling romance is sweet and funny, and when Eva discovers a way to find out whether he’s the man she thinks he is, she makes a slightly foolish but completely understandable decision to find out for sure. If you’ve been bitten once, you want to know whether to expect it again, right? But of course her natural curiosity comes all the way round to bite her on the bum.

There’s nothing not to enjoy here, Louis-Dreyfus is great as Eva and Gandolfini plays Albert with real affection – he probably wouldn’t be your first choice for a romantic lead, but here you’re rooting for him from the start. He has all the gruff tenderness of Tony Soprano with none of the murdering.

Nicole Holofcener has directed a smart, funny comedy for grown-ups who know that life is rarely as perfect as you’d like it to be but who understand about compromises and how to make them. And who know that sometimes those awkward compromises can lead to something wonderful.

Watch this on a rainy day with a large bar of chocolate and prepare to be a bit misty eyed when Gandolfini appears.

The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant really blew me away at the London Film Festival, not only that, I did proper sobs. It was my weepiest film of the festival by quite a long way. And I saw Like Father, Like Son.

Clio Barnard’s follow up to The Arbor has a more naturalistic format, but is just as brave. It feels like the sort of film that could only have been made in a country laid low by austerity and recession, where the government seem to be constantly picking at the sores of those with the least, driving them into desperate ways to keep food on the table. It feels like a heartfelt yowl of pain: this is what we’ve become, take a look. It’s not pretty.

Barnard spoke about the film after the screening and said how although it had begun life as something based more closely on Oscar Wilde’s story, it grew into something quite different, but she thought the spirit of the original tale, about a man who wouldn’t share his garden with local children, was still there. (That original story, by the way, also makes me cry – for reference, see this original 70s animation. Then weep.) For all this, and although Barnard’s tale of two teenage boys is certainly gritty, it’s also funny and incredibly moving and driven by two outstanding lead performances.

Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are best friends. Their families don’t really live on the breadline, they’re underneath it scratching for crumbs and the boys shoulder the responsibility to try and make things better. Neither of them are stupid, but both are struggling at school – Arbor because he’s a bit ADHD and out of control, Swifty because he’s been relentlessly bullied. So when they find themselves excluded and a miraculous money-making opportunity comes their way, they don’t waste any time worrying about the dangers involved. Their involvement with local scrap dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder, not particularly kittenish) gives Arbor a way to make the money his family are desperate for while allowing Swifty to spend time with the horses he loves. He’s the sort of role model they’re both looking for in different ways.

It’s almost like watching a documentary, with performances so realistic that your heart is broken almost before you realise where the story is heading. Barnard directs with an undercurrent of fury and a love for her characters that shines, even in the grimmest surroundings – The Selfish Giant is never anything less than gripping.

It’ll break your heart, make you laugh and fill you with rage: easily one of the best British films of our times.

Gravity

I’m not going to say much about Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, there’s already been a lot written about it and there’ll be a lot more to come. And once awards season kicks in, it’ll be one of the films everyone is tipping. Absolutely right too.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two astronauts on a regular (if space travel can ever be regular) mission to give the Hubble telescope a bit of a wash and brush up. But things go a bit titsup when the debris from a Russian satellite destroys their shuttle and leaves them stranded, floating round space like a couple of helium balloons caught in a draught.  We don’t know much about them, and surprisingly they don’t know much about each other. Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) is all wisecracks and broken hearts (he’s pretty much George Clooney in space to be honest) and Ryan Stone (Bullock) has her own secrets that means she keeps people at arm’s length. Of course when you’re on the loose in space, an arm’s length can be the difference between living and dying, so you have to let something in sooner or later.

Despite a few touches of sentimentality, this is gripping stuff and Bullock in particular is excellent. It’s testament to her performance and the braveness of Cuaron’s direction that you never question the reality of their situation. The power of Gravity is that from the minute the film starts,  you’re up there with them, feeling all the bumps, breathless with fear and exhilarated by the emptiness and splendour around you. It’ll give you goosebumps and take your breath away.

See it on the biggest screen you can – the effects are so good that I completely forgot I was watching it in 3D until a few spanners flew towards me. But there’s more here than just clever effects, Gravity has heart and soul and will drag you along with it into that dark empty space at the back of our minds that we try to forget about.

Blue Jasmine

If you haven’t seen Bob Weide’s Woody Allen documentary, I heartily recommend it. Even if you’re not a fan of Allen’s films, it’s a fascinating if lengthy doc, and a reminder that this is a man who at his best, is nothing short of genius. Of course with an output of one film a year, some of them are going to be duds, and he’s had his fair share of those. Recently a bit more than his fair share, to be honest. And when you watch Weide’s film, there’s a poignant sense that maybe his best years are behind him. 

But wait a minute. Just when it’s all gone a bit ‘move along, there’s nothing to see’, along comes Blue Jasmine. Whether making the documentary woke something in Allen that had been lying a bit dormant, whether heading back to the US to film inspired him, or whether he was just teasing us with the bad films safe in the knowledge he had a few corkers still in the bag… whatever, this is right up there with some of his best.

Blue Jasmine is essentially a character study of a woman trying to survive her own personal fallout from America’s financial meltdown, clinging on to her privileged life by her manicured fingertips. In the meantime, broke and in the throes of a nervous breakdown, she arrives in San Francisco to stay with her adopted sister Ginger, in her ‘homey’ apartment in San Francisco. Their relationship has been more than a bit strained since Jasmine’s husband Ponzied Ginger’s ex-husband’s $200k lottery winnings.

Cate Blanchett is being hotly tipped for some Oscar jollies for her shattering portrayal of Jasmine, and rightly so. It’s a superb performance, capturing the struggle to keep up appearances of someone who is addicted to drama, pills and alcohol, while keeping a lid on some serious mental health issues. It will give you a knot in your stomach for pretty much the entire film. But the entire cast are strong, from Sally Hawkins as the put upon but eternally good-natured Ginger, to Bobby Cannavale as her sweaty vested lover (frankly he can do no wrong in my eyes) and even Andrew Dice Clay surprises as Ginger’s hard done by ex husband. There’s also a great little cameo from Louis CK, though I would have liked to see more of him. There’s an electricity buzzing among the cast, it feels like they all realised this is Good Woody, and stepped up their game accordingly.

Word is clearly out on this one, there have been sellouts in screens across London and the packed audience I saw it with obviously loved it, though I heard a few less than favourable comments about the ending. But you know what – that’s life, sometimes there isn’t a perfect ending. 

The Great Beauty

I’m not entirely sure I can do The Great Beauty justice – it’s one of those films that has a grandness that you can’t quite put into words. A complete joy: beautiful, melancholic, sensual – and funny. 

Paolo Sorrentino’s film really is something special. On the face of it, the reminiscences of a man, Jep Gambardella, whose life has been filled with success: a glamorous career in journalism, beautiful women and extravagant parties – but who is aging alone. Scratch the surface and you see that the real Great Beauty is Berlusconi’s Rome, a mix of faded glamour and something slightly creepy and unpleasant. With a bad wig. We’re treated to soaring images of a city which is aging rather more gracefully than its inhabitants, creeping silently along its streets and peeking into hidden corners, getting a glimpse of things you don’t notice when you’re among a gush of tourists. And the music too is beautiful, from the clear, simple voices of choir in the first scene to glorious Beatitudes that accompany the closing credits, it’s perfect. I instantly came home and spotified it. If that’s a verb.

Toni Servillo is the perfect Jep, looking for reassurance that he hasn’t wasted his life partying and troubled to hear his first love never truly got over him. He’s a success to the hangers on that flock to his parties, but deep down Jep knows you only really succeed in life if you can match up to your own expectations.  

I have to admit, about halfway through I was starting to wonder if there would be much of a point beyond a series of frankly quite stunning vignettes. Then suddenly, after a particularly poignant moment (‘Who will look after you now?’), I realised tears were streaming down my face and that I had been wholly sucked in. So much so that like nearly everyone in the cinema, I was pinned to my seat until the lights came on.

Almost entirely perfect.

My spotify playlist is here

 

 

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

I’m not sure that I needed to see Alan Partridge’s bottom. In fact, I’m absolutely sure I didn’t need to. But when I did see it, I laughed like a drain. I laughed until the tears ran down my face and my eyeliner puddled on my cheeks.

Alpha Papa is funny, there’s no way around it. I guffawed all the way through, and that’s as much as you can ask of an Alan Partridge film I think – in fact, that’s all you can ask of any comedy. One of my all-time favourite things to turn to if I’m in need of a giggle is still Dumb and Dumber. And I like to think of myself as an intellectual. But sometimes, if you can laugh for a couple of hours, or in this case, for an hour and a half, in a darkened room with a lot of other people all laughing as much as you, then that will make even the worst of days seem ok.

A lot of us have grown up with Alan – he used to seem like a middle-aged man, now he just looks like someone I might have gone to school with. Partly this is because they’ve stopped covering him in that hideous flaky makeup, but also because Steve Coogan has almost caught up with Alan in the same way that we all have. Alan, of course, has never grown up. And this is his triumph – he’s still at that emotional stage of needing to be liked, wanting to be one of the cool boys and desperate to be a success so that the cool boys (and girls) will like him. And so that he can have a boat fastened to his car.

Even now, as he quips his way through a small mid-morning radio show on a small local digital channel, he can’t quite let the dream go of the days when he was almost but not quite Terry Wogan. But because he’s Alan, that level of fame is always going to be just out of reach. And when the opportunity suddenly lands in his lap – well, it would be rude not to grab it with both hands. So here he is, becoming an accidental hostage negotiator and potential national hero when a disgruntled DJ (Colm Meaney is great) holds the employees of North Norfolk Digital at gunpoint. I think we all know how well this is likely to turn out.

In my heart of hearts I have to admit this isn’t as perfect as it might have been. But it would be churlish to pick fault really. So my advice is – for 90 minutes of LOLs (or whatever the youngsters call them these days), go see Alan. Though it’s fair to warn you, I can still see his front bottom now in my mind’s eye. I think it will always be there.