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.
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.
This is a really great film. It’s stuffed with all the things that suggest it might be a bit cheesy, the sort of things aimed at Christmas Day viewers – a cast of familiar Brit faces, some light sauce (but nothing to upset granny), some carefully choreographed weepy moments and a couple of rousing tunes. The sort of things that annoy me usually. But bloody hell, I’ll say it again: Pride is a really great film.
Being a teenager in the 80s meant being political. They were days when injustices were happening in front of our eyes, and working people were being well and truly shafted by a government busy lining the pockets of their mates. Oh, hang on. Well, maybe every generation goes through it – for me, the miners strike stirred a belief in socialism and fairness that is still burning in my Billy Bragg theme-tuned heart 30 years later. It made me grow up, and it made me understand the brutal truth that life is fairer for some people than for others. I marched with the miners in Liverpool and I passionately believed in what I was marching for – I wanted things to be right. Watching Pride took me back there, to the days when I believed we could change the world. Maybe we did a bit, but some people changed it more than others, and it’s about time their stories were told.
Pride is the true story of a group of people in London who wanted to raise money to support striking miners. Because they happened to be gay and lesbian, and it was the 80s, nobody would accept their donation, not least take their calls. But they eventually tracked down a union rep from a small village in Wales who wasn’t weighed down with prejudice and welcomed them cautiously into the local community. Not everyone was thrilled about it of course, but recognising a fellow group of people who had been vilified for no reason (this was the Aids era, remember) and some fancy footwork on the dancefloor helped overcome most of the doubters.
Most of the characters here are real people, respectfully portrayed by a cast having the time of their lives. Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy and Dominic West are particularly wonderful and bloody hell, can West shake his ass. But everyone is on form, Ben Schnetzer shines as Mark Ashton, the driving force behind LGSM, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. There’s a warmth flooding through the performances that you’ll find still lodged in your heart days later.
Ok, there is a bit of clunky sentimentality and a couple of YOU WILL WEEP HERE scenes (though fair enough, I did bawl my eyes out as soon as Billy Bragg started singing at the end). But Pride is full of such good-natured ebullience, warmth and humour that I can forgive that. It’s also a timely reminder of why it’s important to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what. Don’t miss it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Benedikt Erlingsson’s first film is a collection of brutally hilarious tales of life, loss and love set in the spectacular Icelandic mountains where, in a small village made up of distant cottages, the even more distant villagers make their living from breeding horses. There isn’t much else to do by the look of it, except flirt with the only eligible man in the village and keep a close eye on your neighbours (the local binocular shop must do great business). They’re a taciturn bunch, but it’s the horses that really tell the stories, standing strong and dignified among people beset with petty jealousies, and watching everything with an expression that suggests they’ve seen it all before.
The stories, grim though some of them are, are shot through with an undercurrent of real affection but be warned, there are a few scenes that are not for the squeamish. Erlingsson balances these out with jolts of dark humour and there are definitely some laughs here – a lot of this is because none of the horses seem quite big enough, so anyone riding them looks a little oversized. Add to that the strange gait that Icelandic horses are famous for, and anyone traveling anywhere at speed immediately looks ridiculous.
Towards the end of the film there’s something of a reversal of fortune from an early scene where the village’s eligible batchelor Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) becomes an unwitting voyeur to a bit of equine love. It seems to encapsulate a lot of what Erlingsson is saying about man and horse – we’re not that different, especially when it comes to rutting around in the dust.
Fuelled by a cast who look as rugged as the scenery and who can convey their life story with a single glance, this is an impressive debut.
I should confess up front that I’ve never seen 21 Jump Street. Or 19 or 20 Jump Street for that matter. I didn’t even watch the tv show (or in fact have any recollection that it existed). So it’s fair to say I wasn’t really expecting much more than an ogle at Channing Tatum’s guns from 22 Jump Street. And frankly, you can do worse for a night out than that, much worse (just got a refund on my Grace of Monaco ticket).
I was expecting an evening of slight confusion, eye rolling and maybe the odd giggle here and there. But wait. 22 Jump Street is actually pretty damn good – the leads are brilliantly matched and I think I even laughed at the jokes I didn’t get. It’s that funny. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (fresh from Lego Movie success) don’t so much push the fourth wall as smash through it in a funny little helmet car like something out of Wacky Races. The script is whip smart and joyously self-mocking, turning the idea of a money-spinning sequel on its head and stamping on it. There is a plot but it plays a very low second fiddle to the jokes, which come thick and fast for the entire two hours (which flies by for the most part). So I won’t waste time on it here.
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have wonderful chemistry, from a Harold Lloyd moment early on which sees them dangling from a bridge like a pair of old trainers, to the weirdly referenced Benny Hill car chase, they get a laugh out of every moment. Even one from Cate Blanchett. The end credit sequence might well have been my favourite bit, which also makes you wonder what the team have in store for Jump Street‘s future.
With great support from Ice Cube and Nick Offerman, plus a wonderful scene-stealing performance from Jillian Bell, if such a thing is possible, the cast are clearly having the time of their lives. It’s impossible not to be swept along with them.
PS Tatum’s guns are incredible. Top marks for them too. I shall now return to arthouse cinema and pretend this never happened.
It was well worth the awkwardness of trying not to ask for a ticket to ‘Allo ‘Allo to see this little gem from Singaporean first-time director Anthony Chen. A simple tale of a family trying to keep themselves afloat during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it’s full of deft humour and unspoken tragedy.
Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is pregnant with her second child – her first, Jiale (a wonderful Koh Jia Ler), is ten and going through an uncontrollable phase, in trouble at school and throwing tantrums at home. Some of his behaviour stems from the recent loss of his grandfather, who he shared a room with, but it’s also a reaction to the undercurrent of stress at home. His father, Teck (Chen Tianwen), has lost his job but is hiding this from his domineering wife. Hwee Leng is spending her days writing severance letters for her colleagues, never sure if she’s going to be next.
Tensions rise even more when the family hire a Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who has her own troubles having left a baby behind in the Philippines and who has some unexplained scars on her wrists. She is instantly set upon by Jiale and the fact that she has to sleep in his grandfather’s old bed doesn’t help matters. The four step around each other awkwardly, with occasional outbursts of rage, but underneath it’s clear there is love and respect here and a family that ultimately has everything it needs to survive.
I loved Ilo Ilo, it’s a gentle and moving film that reflects the pressure cooker of regular family life. Chen won the Camera D’Or at Cannes for this debut and it’s not hard to see why – it will be exciting to see what he does next.
The Two Faces of January is Hossein Amini’s first as director, though he’s a successful screenwriter with Drive, no less, under his belt. He picked up the rights to Patricia Highsmith’s book 15 years ago, knowing it would make a great film, and kept hold of it in the hope that one day budget and stars would align. And align they have.
It’s 1962 and we’re in Athens where Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) have arrived on a tour of Europe. Also in Athens is Rydal (Oscar Isaac) a young American student working as a tour guide and running small time cons to bump up his tips. He’s on the lookout for easy targets to fleece, and what could be better than an obviously wealthy couple – especially if one of them reminds him of his recently deceased (and estranged) father and the other just happens to be extremely easy on the eye. You can probably guess which is which.
After some slightly unfortunate shenanigans, the three end up hiding out in Crete. Chester turns to drink to help deal with the fact that his beautiful wife and the handsome young tour guide are clearly hot for each other and Rydal is out of his depth in a situation he isn’t really mature enough to control. As for Colette – she married an older man for his money and he’s suddenly looking his age as well as revealing a slightly wonky moral compass. The three circle each other with fear, desire and mistrust: all chasing money but driven by their inner demons.
It’s the performances that really lift this: Mortensen is great as a man descending into paranoia and fear as he lurches from one disaster to the next, crumbling like the ruins he is touring. Isaac shows the calm depth of character that made Inside Llewyn Davis so wonderful and Dunst gives Colette enough bite to lift her out of eye candy territory.
Despite a third act that sags a wee bit, this is elegant and gripping stuff in the vein of The Talented Mr Ripley, so ideal for anyone who likes to see a rich man sweating in a Panama hat. And, of course, the scenery is beautiful.