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.
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.
Before Whiplash stole its thunder this was the talk of the festival circuit: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo doing the acting in Bennett Miller’s follow up to Moneyball. On the face of it, that’s a promising line-up, although to be honest I found Moneyball a bit tedious so that’s not a big draw for me.
Foxcatcher is a true story – take my advice, if you don’t know it, don’t google until you’ve seen the film, it’s worth not knowing. Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his brother Dave (Ruffalo) are Olympic wrestlers. Dave is at the end of his career and turning to coaching, but Mark still has another gold medal in his sights. When eccentric millionaire John Du Pont (Carell) offers to coach him at his luxury ranch, Mark is fastening his seatbelt on Du Pont’s private plane before you can say chinlock; he doesn’t have anything to leave behind, except a diet of supernoodles and his tv. Dave isn’t interested in joining him despite a big bucks offer – he’s married (to Sienna Miller) with kids, and has no desire to uproot. It all starts off well for Mark, but before long the temptations and pressures from the increasingly bonkers Du Pont are too much and everything goes a bit pear-shaped. Well, a hell of a lot pear-shaped actually. But as I said, don’t google it.
Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent, playing against type and uglying up – all wearing tshirts that say OSCAR BAIT under their wrestling vests. Well, Tatum uglies up as much as he can, his Mark Schulz is an archetypal neanderthal wrestler, lonely and looking for a father figure. He’s a sad case, the gold medal is the only thing he has in life and he clings onto it like a life raft. Ruffalo probably has the least to do out of the three, playing the good big brother and stepping in when Mark’s life starts to spiral out of control. But Carell is almost unrecognisable as Du Pont, a man so rich he doesn’t have to answer to anyone except his mother (a totally underused Vanessa Redgrave). He wears a prosthetic nose so large that at times you can see him struggle to act around it. It’s actually quite amazing he can hold his head upright.
But what should be a slick film about ambition, loneliness and repression turns out to be a rather dull and overlong plod through a story that doesn’t really have enough meat on the bone. You can have the best acting in the world, but if the audience aren’t gripped by what’s going on, it’s a bit of a waste. There’s a lot missing here, parts of the story feel a bit disjointed, we don’t really learn much about Mark Schultz or John Du Point other than that one is desperate to be his big brother and the other is a spoiled rich kid afraid to acknowledge his sexuality. Everyone’s a stereotype.
Ultimately disappointing, Foxcatcher is three great performances in search of a story.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.