Category: Three star films

While We’re Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Birdman

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

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

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

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

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

In the Basement

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These are no ordinary basements, they are Ulrich Seidl basements.

Of course Austrian basements are best known for rather sinister reasons, which is why Seidl’s new documentary takes us inside some that are a bit less notorious. I’ve recently rewatched his Paradise trilogy, so Siedl’s interest in finding the grotesque in the ordinary was fresh in my mind. Put it this way: I was fairly sure the film wasn’t going to be about dusty Christmas trees and back copies of local newspapers. I’m not sure I was entirely prepared for what lay ahead though.

Siedl starts off gently, with a long, slow take of a snake eating a guinea pig. It probably says something about me that this was easily the most distressing part of the film. We’re gradually introduced to a number of people who have, for reasons I can’t quite get my head around, let Siedl take a look at the things they generally keep hidden. There’ll be some eyebrow-raising among the neighbours when this gets out, I tell you.

We meet a chap who has killed and eaten every animal known to man, and has their heads proudly installed on his walls. There’s an inoffensive looking bloke (who looks a bit like Jimmy Hill) with a large collection of Nazi memorabilia, who invites his friends round regularly to admire it, play their brass band music and get completely shitfaced. There’s a sad lady who has a collection of baby dolls tucked away in boxes that she pulls out and talks to. The woman next to me thought they were real babies, which made the whole scene a hell of a lot more traumatic than it really was, let me tell you.

Most disturbing are the S&M basements. The slave who we see acting as human toilet paper and the woman who works for a charity for abused women and likes nothing better than being tied up and hurt. Some of the images here are truly wince-inducing, but it’s the po-faced expressions on the participants that kill you. There was a lot of giggling in the audience, and some nervous shifting in seats.

In the Basement is unforgettable for many reasons, it’s fascinating and repulsive at the same time, and a useful reminder to say no if any Austrians ask you to go downstairs with them.

 

Goodbye to Language

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This is an impossible film to write about without sounding either like a pretentious asshole or an idiot. So instead, here’s a fair representation of what was going on inside my head while I watched it on an enormous Imax screen.

Whoooo Jean-Luc Godard in 3D on this giant screen, I’m so arthouse. Everyone here is very excited, I’ve got my 3D glasses ready to roll. Here we go! Whoah the titles are in shiny red 3D coming at me. Whooooo look it’s as if I was picking that book up myself. This is great. Look at the man! This feels so French. Whooooo! Hang on, is this bit from a different film? I’m not sure what that bit was about. Who’s he? Someone just got shot. I wonder who. Ahhhhh doggy. Is that the same lady? Oh, she’s in the nip. So’s he, but his bits are in the dark. It’s like you’re sitting in the lounge with them! 3D is great. Wait a minute, is he having a poo? Ahhhh doggy. Starting to feel a bit nauseous. Goodbye to Lunch. I like that Hitchcock style music though. I wonder if anyone else knows what’s going on. Ooh that was a good bit. HANG ON – if I close one eye I can see a totally different scene. That’s amazing. Has anyone else noticed? Maybe it’s my eyesight. Is that Gregory Peck? Definitely feel sick now. And she needs to put a top on. Ahhhh doggy. Oh it’s finished. Can I get out of here without going arse over tit?

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 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.

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.

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.

 

Chef

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If you’re looking for a rip-roaring thriller or some cutting edge social commentary, you won’t find it in Chef. There’s not much sex and violence either. What you will find, however, is a funny, good-hearted film about making lemonade out of life’s lemons that will fill a couple of hours quite pleasantly.

As well as taking the lead role, Jon Favreau wrote and directed Chef, taking a bit of time out from directing Hollywood blockbusters to return to the sort of low-budget indies that he made his name with – Swingers is still one of my all-time favourites. He’s been able to call in a few favours this time so the cast list is a bit more starry, but the themes of loyalty and friendship and the general air of likeability remain.

Carl Casper is head chef at a successful restaurant owned by a man who values familiarity over risk-taking (Dustin Hoffman). After a bad review from a well-known food critic goes viral (everything is viral in Chef), he walks out, and thanks to the ex-husband (Robert Downey Jnr) of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) finds himself the proud owner of a slightly worse-for-wear food truck which he takes on the road with ex-colleague Martin (John Leguizamo) and his somewhat estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony). That’s about it, plot-wise – I have to admit I was waiting for the characters to be in some sort of peril, but at the risk of being slightly spoilerish, there’s no peril here. Not for anyone. In some hands that would make for a dull old film, but Favreau gives us strong enough characters and ladles everything with such a big dollop of warmth and humour, that it’s actually quite a relief. Sometimes it’s enough just to see good things happen to nice people.

There are of course innumerable shots of amazing food. For me, a vegetarian on a 5:2 diet fast day, it probably wasn’t the wisest film to choose: Chef is peppered (and salted) with long languorous shots of sizzling Cubanos and the most delicious looking grilled cheese sandwich ever. My local cinema has wisely put Cubanos on the menu, I bet they are doing a roaring trade.

It’s a world away from the clever schtick of Swingers of course, but there’s a lot to enjoy here if you’re in the mood for something warm and tender. On a sandwich. With yuca fries on the side. God I’m hungry.