Category: Four star films

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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Wonders

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Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is a tender coming-of-age tale filled with magical touches and gentle humour.

Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) is 12 and lives with her two younger sisters and their parents on a ramshackle farm in Italy. She spends her days looking after the family’s bees with her irascible father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), using time-honoured farming traditions. The honey is collected in rather unsanitary conditions that might make you think twice before pouring it on your porridge and if the bees swarm, Gelsomina is the one who has to scoop them back into their hives, sometimes from the top of trees. It’s clear that in the absence of a son, Wolfgang sees her as his successor.

Times are hard, and the family are at real risk of losing their home. To raise some cash, they foster a troubled young boy who arrives with a police guard, never a good sign. Martin says little but quickly falls in with the ways of the family, working alongside Gelsomina to produce the thick honey. A friendship between the two is on slow boil but the pair are awkward and reluctant to trust each other. Soon Wolfgang starts taking Martin to help with the bees instead of Gelsomina, and her simply ordered life is shaken. When she chances upon the set for a tv show promoting a competition for local food producers, she is enchanted by the glamorous hostess (Monica Bellucci) and becomes obsessed with the idea of entering and using the prize money to solve all their problems. Wolfgang, of course, is dead against it.

The young actors all give beautifully understated performances not least Lungu in the lead role, and Louwyck is great too as the father struggling to keep his home together while remaining faithful to his hippy ethics.

I loved Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher’s debut, which had a similar ethereal quality, setting harsh truths against people’s hopes and dreams. She clearly has a deep affection for the rural life (her family were beekeepers from northern Italy) and she portrays it with understanding and tenderness. This lot might bicker, but the love they share is the sticky honey that holds them together.

It’s a simple tale, but there’s something about The Wonders that entrances.

 

Macondo

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Often it’s the small unexpected films at the BFI London Film Festival that impress me most. Macondo is no exception, a coming-of-age tale of a Chechen refugee in Vienna, it’s an impressive feature debut for documentary maker Sudabeh Mortezia with a magnetic lead performance from newcomer Ramasan Minkailov.

Ramasan (Minkailov) is 11 and lives with his mother and two sisters in a run-down housing estate in the outskirts of the city. His father has died in the Chechen conflict and as man of the house, Ramasan looks after his sisters and acts as translator for his mother with the immigration authorities. When Isa (Aslan Elbiev), an old friend of his father, turns up and starts to threaten that role, Ramasan’s whole understanding of his own identity begins to unravel. He’s a boy who needs a father figure, but can’t handle the impact this has on his own role. We watch as he’s torn between his family, his religious leaders and a child’s natural urge to rebel – and between the idealised image of his war hero father and the rather less than glorious truth.

What’s incredible about Macondo is that nearly all the roles are taken by non-professionals; Mortezia has cast the refugees that live on the Macondo estate. Apart from finding a remarkable lead in Minkailov, the cast give entirely natural performances. Everything we see is so close to real life that it’s hard to see the joins: these are their homes, and these are to a great extent, their lives.

Macondo is an incredibly touching story, beautifully realised. What’s inspiring is that Mortezia’s relationship with the people whose stories she’s told here is continuing and making a real difference to their lives. With echoes of the Dardennes, this is a simple tale, beautifully and movingly told. I hope it finds its audience.

 

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?

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.