Category: 2014

Rosewater

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Jon Stewart’s first outing as director isn’t quite as bad as some of the early reviews might have you believe. It’s not perfect, and there are a few slightly naff touches here and there (enough with the hashtags), but he’s assembled a strong cast and it’s a story that needed to be told.

Maziar Bahari was reporting for Newsweek from Iran during the controversial elections of 2009. When some of his footage of the ensuing protests was broadcast internationally, he attracted the attention of the authorities who accused him of being a spy and imprisoned him in solitary confinement for 118 days. During this time he was interrogated by a man who, let’s say, wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box but knew the power of psychological torture. And the occasional kick to the guts.

Gael Garcia Bernel plays Bahari with quiet dignity and Nordic Noir favourite Kim Bodnia is great as his interrogator (who was always splashed in rosewater cologne). The nameless interrogator is in turns terrifying and hilariously dim – a dangerous combination – perfect for Bodnia who has a weird likeability even as the baddy. I felt a bit sorry for Claire Foy whose role as Bahari’s wife Paola seemed to be restricted to lounging around at home and patting her pregnant belly (when in fact Paola was a key instigator for the campaign to release him).

The film starts with exhilarating footage of Iran as it heads to election full of hope, and mixes in some of Bahari’s own footage to great effect. It falters a bit once Bahari is imprisoned – yes, we feel the angst of being locked in solitary for months on end, not knowing what’s going on outside, but it doesn’t make for an entirely fulfilling cinematic experience. I understand that Stewart wanted us to experience the isolation that Bahari felt, but relying on ghostly visits from his relatives felt like a bit of a lazy way to let us into his state of mind.

It’s Stewart’s smart humour that make the film watchable, his eye for the absurd is the perfect way to highlight the ridiculous paranoia of the regime. And of course the Daily Show had its own role to play in Bahari’s story so I guess this goes some way towards an apology. It’s a promising debut for Stewart, flawed but there’s enough here to make you want to see where he goes next.

It is also worth noting that there are still many journalists falsely imprisoned by extremist regimes around the world and if nothing else, Rosewater is a timely reminder that they need still need our attention.

The Possibilities are Endless

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There’s a BBC Scotland documentary about Scottish musician Edwyn Collins and his recovery from a massive stroke – it’s fairly standard stuff, and quite well done, I was surprised someone had made another one really. Much as I love Edwyn’s music, and inspiring as his story is, two documentaries about it seem to be a wee bit OTT.

But this is no ordinary documentary. The Possibilities are Endless is a stunning recreation of what it’s like to lose yourself. Directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall have created something really special, moulding a work of art from disjointed conversations and whispered reminiscences. You’re lost in the darkness for much of the film, with no sign of Edwyn other than brief shots of him as a spunky young popster. You’re not sure where he is for a while. Then you stagger out of the darkness with him.

This is wonderfully brave filmmaking, perfectly paced to match the impact the strokes had on Edwyn and his wife Grace Maxwell without being maudlin or overly sympathetic. The soundtrack, put together by Edwyn himself before he’d seen anything of the film, is outstanding.

There’s no self-pity here, it’s a portrait of a strong loving couple dealing with something that most of us can’t imagine, and doing it with dignity and humour. The suggestion that the film is a love story brought howls of laughter from Edwyn after the screening, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s about passion, and how Edwyn’s love for Grace and for his music pulled him back from the brink. And it’s about his passion for home, for the sea and the familiarity of the place he grew up. It’s about how those things can find you, no matter what.

The Possibilities are Endless is surprising, moving and expertly realised – a remarkable film about a remarkable couple, I absolutely loved every minute.

We’re all moving to Helmsdale now, right?

The Drop

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The Drop had me at Tom Hardy and a puppy. And even without the puppy, there’s James Gandolfini in his final role, so for me, this was always going to be a win. But with Bullhead director Michaël R Roskam on board, it promised to be a bit more than a standard mobsters in Brooklyn flick.

Hardy plays Bob Saganowski, a bartender working for his cousin Marv (Gandolfini) in a dive bar which intermittently hosts ‘the drop’ ie collects the Chechen mob’s cash. Marv is a bit like Tony Soprano’s dim cousin, using even dimmer henchmen to get one over on the bosses he lost the bar to after his gambling debts got out of hand. That’s never going to go well, right? Bob sensibly keeps out of the scheming, he’s the quiet, steady one – marked out as a good guy from the beginning when he rescues a puppy from Nadia’s (Noomi Rapace) garbage can. When the bar is raided and the owners seem convinced it’s an inside job, things quickly get out of hand, putting Bob, his puppy and his potential romance with Nadia at risk.

Gandolfini is as good as you expect as Marv, a desperate, lumbering man who knows he’s onto a loser but can’t quite see past the chance of a big payday. And as Bob, Hardy brings a more than passable Brooklyn accent and a solid presence, he’s the emotional heart of the film and we need to believe in him despite a creeping sense that he might have his own dark secrets. At times it seems like the film is happening around him, while he waits to see how the next load of shit will land before getting back to his day job.

This is a well-paced, solid thriller from Roskam, wholly enjoyable and with enough twists and turns to keep you gripped throughout. Of course it’s the potential for puppy peril that keeps you on the edge of your seat, but it’s the performances that lift The Drop into something special: with Hardy in impressive form and the wonderful Gandolfini at his best, it’s definitely worth a look.

The Falling

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Carol Morley is without doubt an extremely talented director. I loved Dreams of a Life, it’s one of those films that really stayed with me, so I was looking forward to seeing what she’d do with this story of hysterical fainters in a 1960s girls’ school. Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) is Lydia, a teenager with a troubled home life and a randy brother. Playing the straight girl to her glamorous and sexually active best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh) has its emotional drawbacks and when tragedy strikes, Lydia becomes the catalyst for a rapidly spreading outbreak of swooning among her schoolfriends.

The Falling is stylishly done, calling on influences from both Picnic at Hanging Rock and Heavenly Creatures to create a world of adolescent female angst and nascent sexuality. There’s an other-worldly vibe here that works well and Morley has assembled an impressive cast including Maxine Peake, wearing a beehive like a protective helmet, and a near-unrecognisable Greta Scacchi, as well as newcomer Florence Pugh, who I suspect we’ll see more of.

Despite its potential, there’s a lot about The Falling that just didn’t work for me. A clumsy soundtrack by Tracy Thorn seemed to blurt out too often and spoil the mood, like a drunk in a library, and the film’s climax relies too much on over-the-top amateur dramatics, especially during some of the fainting episodes. It’s a bit like watching a torturous school play at times. I think this is why when there’s a particularly dark revelation towards the end, there was more than a trickle of laughter from the audience: something just didn’t gel. And for god’s sake, you’ve got Maxine Peake on board, give her something to do other than wield a can of Elnett at regular intervals.

There’s talent here though, and a likeable director who isn’t afraid to take chances. So whatever Morley does next will be worth looking out for.

Mr Turner

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Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner is a real tour de force, full of beauty and humour and with a magnificent lead performance from Timothy Spall.

Leigh immerses us in the last 25 years of Turner’s life, when he’s already found success but is craving something more – the love of a good woman, a life away from the social bores that he is surrounded by and a desire to be more experimental on canvas than his contemporaries are ready for. He’s an outsider, grumpily contending with sycophants and leeches (Martin Savage’s Haydon is great) and happy only when he’s in front of a canvas. For a supremely talented man, Turner was remarkably humble.

Spall is in his element as Turner, grunting and snorting his way through the script with glee – it’s a performance with Bafta written through it like a stick of Margate rock. He blusters his way through the film with tenderness, giving this brusque, uneven genius a real heart. When he finds contentment with Mrs Booth, his Margate landlady, his clumsy declaration of love is first amusing, then genuinely touching.

The entire cast is immaculate, not least Dorothy Atkinson as Danby, Turner’s maid who is the recipient of his rather less than romantic attentions from time to time (a bit like being mounted by a warthog with bronchitis), and Joshua McGuire brings a bit of Rik from the Young Ones to art critic and insufferable big head John Ruskin. I loved Paul Jesson too as his elderly doting father, determined to support his talented son until the end.

This is Leigh’s first digital film, and he’s made the most of it with the help of Dick Pope’s immaculate cinematography. You’re immersed in Turner’s paintings from the opening scene, the colours and the light are wonderful – the recreation of The Fighting Temeraire in particular will make you gasp, it’s just stunning. This is a film to luxuriate in, funny, touching and strangely soothing.

My one gripe is that at nearly 150 minutes it’s overlong, and I have to admit to a bit of relief when Turner finally popped his clogs and I could lift my rear end from the torture of the Odeon West End’s uncomfortable seats. But that aside, this is without doubt Leigh’s masterpiece: a masterful portrayal of one of our greatest artists by one of our greatest artists.

Listen up Philip

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The 70s are lovingly recreated in Alex Ross Perry’s tale of grumpy old men and the women they tolerate.

Philip Louis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is an author, about to publish his second novel and very pleased with his own success. The opening shakycam footage is the perfect introduction to our charmer, we’re immediately buzzing off Philip’s nervous energy – a burning fury deep in his soul that makes him quite cross with everyone and everything in his life for no obvious reason. Somehow, despite being such an insufferable arsehole, he’s managed to entice a string of girlfriends into his life, each one of which he treats with disdain as they fail to worship his greatness quite as much as he requires. In this opening scene, he’s on his way to meet up with one to make sure she knows how little a part she played in his success. This is a bit of theme with Philip – if you’ve upset him, he won’t have forgotten, he’ll just be waiting for the right time to share his disappointment with you.

For the adoration he feels he deserves, Philip turns to ageing fellow writer Ike Zimmerman (a superb Jonathan Pryce) who’s coming to the end of his career and in need of some reassurance of his own greatness. It’s a bit like Dorian Grey going to that picture in his attic for life coaching. Both men are arrogant, narcissistic specimens of manhood who think the women in their lives are only there for some light relief against the serious business of being a great author. The relationship serves only to make their egos even bigger, if that’s possible. It’s testament to Schwartzman’s tightly-clipped performance that obnoxious as he is, you still hope he’ll find some sort of resolution to his fury.

Listen Up Philip is smartly written and very funny, with excellent performances from Schwartzman and particularly Elisabeth Moss, (playing his latest girlfriend Ashley) who always impresses. Eric Bogosnian’s narration is spot on too. For me, though, it dragged a bit towards the end, and the slightly muted response it got from the festival audience suggest I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

Pride

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This is a really great film. It’s stuffed with all the things that suggest it might be a bit cheesy, the sort of things aimed at Christmas Day viewers – a cast of familiar Brit faces, some light sauce (but nothing to upset granny), some carefully choreographed weepy moments and a couple of rousing tunes. The sort of things that annoy me usually. But bloody hell, I’ll say it again: Pride is a really great film.

Being a teenager in the 80s meant being political. They were days when injustices were happening in front of our eyes, and working people were being well and truly shafted by a government busy lining the pockets of their mates. Oh, hang on. Well, maybe every generation goes through it – for me, the miners strike stirred a belief in socialism and fairness that is still burning in my Billy Bragg theme-tuned heart 30 years later. It made me grow up, and it made me understand the brutal truth that life is fairer for some people than for others. I marched with the miners in Liverpool and I passionately believed in what I was marching for – I wanted things to be right. Watching Pride took me back there, to the days when I believed we could change the world. Maybe we did a bit, but some people changed it more than others, and it’s about time their stories were told.

Pride is the true story of a group of people in London who wanted to raise money to support striking miners. Because they happened to be gay and lesbian, and it was the 80s, nobody would accept their donation, not least take their calls. But they eventually tracked down a union rep from a small village in Wales who wasn’t weighed down with prejudice and welcomed them cautiously into the local community. Not everyone was thrilled about it of course, but recognising a fellow group of people who had been vilified for no reason (this was the Aids era, remember) and some fancy footwork on the dancefloor helped overcome most of the doubters.

Most of the characters here are real people, respectfully portrayed by a cast having the time of their lives. Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy and Dominic West are particularly wonderful and bloody hell, can West shake his ass. But everyone is on form, Ben Schnetzer shines as Mark Ashton, the driving force behind LGSM, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. There’s a warmth flooding through the performances that you’ll find still lodged in your heart days later.

Ok, there is a bit of clunky sentimentality and a couple of YOU WILL WEEP HERE scenes (though fair enough, I did bawl my eyes out as soon as Billy Bragg started singing at the end). But Pride is full of such good-natured ebullience, warmth and humour that I can forgive that. It’s also a timely reminder of why it’s important to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what. Don’t miss it.

Obvious Child

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I’m not a fan of romcoms, I see them a bit like science fiction, imaginary tales from a world that doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying that films shouldn’t provide escapism, but I prefer my fantasies to have a more solid base in reality. So for the most part, it’s a genre I avoid unless I’ve drunk my weight in gin and am sitting on the remote.

Having said that, Obvious Child isn’t quite your everyday romcom: you won’t find Jennifer Aniston tumbling over a cute puppy here, or Bradley Cooper tipping his coffee over Katherine Heigl as they reach for the same low-cal gluten-free muffin. This is a romcom for a world where people fart and tread in dog poo and (god forbid) have soiled undercrackers. You know, the real world. It still follows most of the traditional conventions of course – a gay best friend, an oops-we-keep-bumping-into-each-other-don’t-we courtship and a first date at an abortion clinic. Oh, hang on.

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a young stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job within a few days, and reacts by having an enormous meltdown, some of it on stage. When she’s not wiping snot from her nose, she’s stalking her ex and mainlining red wine, until a drunken one-night-stand leaves her pregnant and heading for the abortion clinic.

What makes Obvious Child unique is its honest portrayal of a young woman with an unplanned pregnancy and the unflinching, undramatic way she deals with it. In 2014 this shouldn’t be remarkable, but in movie-land it absolutely is. But it’s also very funny, sharply written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, with most of the jokes at the expense of Donna – Slate is great as this neurotic ball of nervous energy who doesn’t appear to have a filter.

So although it’s maybe not entirely the anti-romcom it sets itself out to be, Obvious Child’s portrayal of abortion as something women just get on and deal with is to be applauded. Better than that, it’ll make you laugh like a drain and is absolutely schmaltz-free.

 

Finding Vivian Maier

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Vivian Maier was one of life’s eccentrics. A nanny who fell a bit short of Mary Poppins’ standards, she kept herself to herself, revealing little of her past or her passions to those who knew her. She might well have remained an unknown forever if it wasn’t for historian John Maloof. Sometimes things are just meant to happen I suppose.

Back in 2007, Maloof was looking for some photos of Chicago and picked up a box of old negatives at a storage auction. He knew straight away he had found something special, but could find out nothing about the photographer apart from her name: Vivian Maier. Maloof became fascinated with the work he’d discovered, and once he realised he was onto something, set about buying up all the other boxes of her property that had been sold at the same auction, eventually tracking down a storage unit where the rest of her possessions were still piled up. Maier had hoarded everything, her belongings auctioned when she could no longer pay the storage fees. Eventually Maloof amassed over 150,000 negatives, which he carefully scanned and examined. He found himself with a collection of stunning images, many taken on the streets of Chicago, dating from the 1950s onwards.

Maloof couldn’t find out much about the elusive photographer, but chanced on her obituary in 2009. It contained a few leads, enough for him to track down Maier’s old charges (most of them remember her as harsh, to put it mildly), her old employers (who didn’t seem to question how well she cared for their children as long as they were out of their sight) and eventually a few more personal acquaintances. But it’s clear from the interviews that even the people who knew Maier didn’t really know her; her main interactions with the world were through the lens of her Rolliflex camera. And though some of her photographs are clearly taken secretly, all sorts of people were willing to stop for a moment, stare back down her lens and let her capture a moment in their lives. What she said to persuade them we’ll never know.

We’ll also never really know why Maier kept her photography so secret. It seems like she knew she had a talent, but she lacked the drive, or maybe the confidence to have them more widely seen. Hundreds of them were never even developed – it seems that it was the taking of the photographs that was significant for her.  The rolls of film and endless strips of negatives were boxed up with everything else she owned, moved from house to house as she took nannying work to pay the bills. Maybe it never occurred to her that she didn’t need to.

While there’s clearly lots more that we’ll never know – and some debate about details that have been omitted from Maloof and Siskel’s film (worth catching the BBC Imagine documentary if you’re interested in finding out more, it’s a much better film) – this is nonetheless a fascinating profile of a talented artist who seemed overwhelmed by life. I like to think Maier would be delighted by her posthumous success, but I suspect she’d be appalled. What matters is the work she left behind, a stunning collection of images that are more than worthy of the comparisons that have been made to some of America’s great photographers: marketing man’s dream that I am, I immediately bought the book.

God’s Pocket

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As the end of Mad Men hurtles distressingly towards us, it’s good to know that some of my favourites are already settling in to their post-advertising careers. John Slattery, having directed some of the best episodes of this iconic series, is almost certain to find his future in directing. God’s Pocket, his first feature film, is a promising debut – it’s not perfect, but the deftness of touch with character that made his Mad Men episodes so watchable has translated well to Pete Dexter’s tale of people struggling to make ends meet against a backdrop of low-rent mobbery.

This is, of course, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films and his performance here is a heartbreaking reminder of what we’ve lost. He’s Mickey Scarpato, an outsider to God’s Pocket, a small, insular district of Philadelphia where outsiders are always just that. Married to Jeannie (Christina Hendricks), the hottest girl in town, he’s lost track of how to communicate with her and is scratching out a living from dodgy meat deals. When his unpleasant stepson Leon is killed, Mickey goes into freefall and, unable to share or even comprehend Jeannie’s grief, he’s emotionally then physically shut out as her sisters close ranks to keep him at a distance. In the way that only real losers can, he manages to fuck everything up quite spectacularly from this point.

Hoffman is a sombre, lumbering presence and it’s hard to see him and not feel emotional, his portrayal of Mickey seems too close to real life at times. Those beautiful eyes, often red-rimmed and full of sorrow, tell a story that goes way beyond the character he’s playing and it’s impossible not to read a lot more into his performance than we might have if things had been different. It works for Mickey, he’s a sad, lost man well past his prime. But those heartbreaking moments when he’s struggling to make sense of the crap the world keeps throwing at him make for tough viewing.

Where God’s Pocket disappoints is when the black comedy turns to slapstick (the Weekend with Bernie scenes in particular hit an entirely wrong note). But what lifts it are the performances: Slattery is clearly skilled at getting the best out of a cast and there are great performances here from John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan as well as from the endearing shamble of drunks in the bar. And although Christina Hendricks does well with what she’s given, I wanted Jeannie to have a bit more spunk. Yes she’s hemmed in by grief, but it feels as if the film is happening around her – I wanted to understand how she got here, what hopes and dreams she’d abandoned on the way – and not least how she ended up married to Mickey. And I kind of wanted her to find her balls, I know she’s got some big ones.

Having said that, I enjoyed God’s Pocket, the ensemble playing, the excellent soundtrack and the faultless production design make this worth catching – along with one of the last chances to see one of the greatest actors of our time.

 

Boyhood

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Richard Linklater has got some patience. To start making a film, knowing it isn’t going to see the light of day for over a decade, not be really sure how it’s going to pan out or what stories might emerge – and then to be able to persuade his cast to take the same leap of faith, is a remarkable feat. Filmed for a few days a year over 12 years, it was a big risk for all involved. But it’s paid off: Boyhood is one of those films that changes your perception of film-making and reminds you how amazing it can be to step into the darkness with someone else’s vision.

It’s a simple tale: we follow Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family as they adjust to life after divorce, dipping into their world for a few days each year. Mason goes through gawky, spotty and all the awkward stages of puberty. His sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) goes from show-off child to sulky teen. Mason’s mother Olivia, Patricia Arquette at her best, struggles to find a real purpose in life while giving her children a stable home, and Ethan Hawke is the slacker father who flits in and out of his children’s lives when it suits him, and who has plenty of maturing to do himself. It’s often hard to see the joins as the years pass, but you always feel them.

Boyhood is, of course, all about the boy. But in its portrayal of family life, it’s much more than that. It’s about how we continue to grow up throughout our lives. It’s about the things that drive us, the things that move us and the things we fear. And it’s about how those things never really leave us, we just learn how to use them to our advantage, and how to be happy despite them.

Linkater has created a seamless record of the journey into adulthood. It’s a bit like looking through a family photo album containing all the disjointed memories you have of growing up – the good ones, the bad ones and some of the ugly ones too. There’s something magical about the way Linklater has so tenderly captured this sense of slowly fading memories.

Boyhood is about all our lives, and in its simplicity and brevity it really is quite wonderful.