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.
Another outing for Oscar Isaac here, so again no complaints from me on that score. Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina takes us to some unspecified time in the none-too-distant future where Nathan (Isaac), a rich software genius, lives a reclusive life in a pretty spectacular home. He’s invited a lucky random employee to visit, which turns out to be Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a lonely geek who can’t believe his luck – especially when Nathan tells him he’s there to evaluate a special project: Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a robot, the sort of robot only a man would invent – stunningly beautiful, great tits etc etc. To be fair, if I was going to invent a robot I’d probably make him look like ER-era George Clooney complete with built-in nespresso machine, so fair dos really. Ava does that thing that all robots do, and longs to be free from her robotty constraints, and who better to help her than poor gullible Caleb who has not surprisingly developed a bit of a thing for her.
The plot isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, though it all chugs along nicely, building up suspicion and mistrust between Caleb and Nathan. The three leads do well with this slightly clichéd material: Isaac is genuinely menacing behind a veneer of combative mateyness and Gleeson rolls out his confused young chap act as well as ever. And though she’s essentially just wank material, Vikander gives Ava enough intelligence to set her up nicely as a catalyst between ego and wannabe.
There are a lot of big ideas here, but no emotional touchstones, it left me a bit unmoved really. Apart from Isaac’s disco dancing – that is worth the price of admission alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Winner of the BFI London Film Festival’s best film award and definitely one of my favourites of the festival, Leviathan is a tale of modern Russia, in turns hilarious, harsh and heartbreaking.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has created a film that carries its grand themes on small shoulders, focusing on one man’s battle with a corrupt politician. Zvyagintsev skilfully blends in enough humour to lull you into a false sense of security, so that when the film plunges into darkness, it’s that much more shocking.
Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic whose family have lived in a small, barren village by the sea for generations. The environment is grey, full of striking landscapes and forbidding clouds. Decaying fishing boats slump in the harbour and on the beach, the skeleton of a whale lies like the remains of a prehistoric creature, its bones slowly being bleached by the light. Most of the villagers live in small, dingy concrete apartments, a far cry from the beautiful house Kolya has built with his own hands. So it’s easy to see how quickly Kolya’s world crumbles when the local mayor decides he wants the land for himself and Kolya is faced with a compulsory purchase order that will leave him, his attractive young wife and his teenage stepson with no option but to move to the concrete bunkers. He has to fight back. But bringing in an old army friend to give him legal advice has consequences way beyond anything he could have foreseen.
The mayor has more than a touch of Boris Johnson about him, a bumbling buffoon drunk on power and vodka – a dangerous combination. He’s brilliantly played by Roman Madyanov who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Serebryakov is superb too as Kolya, a man who is desperately clinging on to everything around him and unable to comprehend or battle the injustices being heaped upon him. Injustice, it appears, is the one thing you can’t fight in modern Russia.
The desolate, beautiful landscapes provide the perfect frame for Leviathan’s stoic but fragile characters. And Zvyagintsev’s habit of letting the big dramatic moments happen off-screen only adds to the atmosphere of tension and helplessness.
Leviathan blew me away, it’s one of those films you immediately want to see again once you’ve got your breath back – full of grand themes and powerful imagery, and giving a harsh reminder of the corruption at every level in Putin’s Russia.
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.
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?