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.)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not afraid to take his time telling a story; Winter Sleep rocks in at 196 minutes. That’s three and a quarter hours. You have to be confident if you’re asking your audience to sit tight for that long, and you have to be able to keep them with you despite, in this case, the lure of things like M&M world and Wong Kei’s all you can eat buffet just up the road. Sadly, there were quite a lot of people who couldn’t resist the rattle of M&Ms: there was a steady stream of walkouts once we hit the two-hour mark. The woman next to me fell asleep after 15 minutes, spent two hours snoring, then woke up and left. But for anyone immune to the pain and suffering that the Odeon West End seats can bestow on even the softest bottom, Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner was a real treat.
Winter Sleep is a beautifully unfolding tale of a dead marriage, and a man waking up to the realisation that his life isn’t quite what he imagined. It’s quite different to Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I loved, but the themes and the landscapes are similar.
The story is told against the cold, bleak mountains of Anatolia – beautiful, silent and watchful, they stand stoic against a sulky grey sky filled with heavy snow clouds. Aydin (Aluk Bilginer) is an aging actor, running a hotel in the hills with his beautiful much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Nekla (Demet Akbag). You may remember Bilginer as Mehmet in EastEnders but there are no echoes of his soap opera days here, this is a very calm, measured performance. Aydin is lord of his manor, and in his eyes the good, benevolent sort of lord who is adored by his subjects on whom in return, he kindly bestows his wisdom. He’s no longer acting, filling his time writing a pompous newspaper column that nobody reads and thinking about writing a book on Turkish theatre. With the emphasis on thinking about.
Aydin has inherited property from his father but doesn’t seem particularly interested in it, or the people he rents homes to, beyond the financial security it provides. But when a small boy throws a rock through his car window, Aydin’s carefully constructed world starts to fall apart. It seems that maybe he isn’t as wonderful a man as he likes to think.
Nihal is slowly dying of boredom, and full of rage at the quiet life she’s been tricked into leading. She married a famous actor for god’s sake, she thought there’d be parties, not an old man who ignores her most of the time and talks as if he’s still on the stage. When she tries to find something to fill her time, Aydin just can’t cut her loose.
Much of the film happens in dark, claustrophobic rooms lit only by the fireplaces, where we eavesdrop on ramblng conversations. There’s a lot of humour here, but the overriding feeling is of people trapped in lives they dream of escaping from. It’s a long film, and it won’t be for everyone. But if you can hole up in a comfy cinema with a frothy coffee, it’s the perfect chilly afternoon escape.
Maybe for me not quite as gripping as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but Winter Sleep is a fascinating story of crumbling lives, related by a master storyteller.
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.
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?
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.
Richard Linklater has got some patience. To start making a film, knowing it isn’t going to see the light of day for over a decade, not be really sure how it’s going to pan out or what stories might emerge – and then to be able to persuade his cast to take the same leap of faith, is a remarkable feat. Filmed for a few days a year over 12 years, it was a big risk for all involved. But it’s paid off: Boyhood is one of those films that changes your perception of film-making and reminds you how amazing it can be to step into the darkness with someone else’s vision.
It’s a simple tale: we follow Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family as they adjust to life after divorce, dipping into their world for a few days each year. Mason goes through gawky, spotty and all the awkward stages of puberty. His sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) goes from show-off child to sulky teen. Mason’s mother Olivia, Patricia Arquette at her best, struggles to find a real purpose in life while giving her children a stable home, and Ethan Hawke is the slacker father who flits in and out of his children’s lives when it suits him, and who has plenty of maturing to do himself. It’s often hard to see the joins as the years pass, but you always feel them.
Boyhood is, of course, all about the boy. But in its portrayal of family life, it’s much more than that. It’s about how we continue to grow up throughout our lives. It’s about the things that drive us, the things that move us and the things we fear. And it’s about how those things never really leave us, we just learn how to use them to our advantage, and how to be happy despite them.
Linkater has created a seamless record of the journey into adulthood. It’s a bit like looking through a family photo album containing all the disjointed memories you have of growing up – the good ones, the bad ones and some of the ugly ones too. There’s something magical about the way Linklater has so tenderly captured this sense of slowly fading memories.
Boyhood is about all our lives, and in its simplicity and brevity it really is quite wonderful.
Joaquin Phoenix really is an amazing actor, he was at his best in The Master, but here in a much less showy performance, he really shines. It’s hard to think of anyone else bringing such careful emotion to a role that could be (and has been) written off as sad male fantasy. But as his face fills the screen for much of the film, it falls to him to take it beyond that – and he does. Theodore Twombly has a funny name and some sex-repelling high-waisted trousers, and he doesn’t show much in the way of an emotional connection with anything, yet Phoenix fills him with a vulnerability and warmth that takes him beyond mere geek.
Theodore is mid-divorce and spending a lot of time alone, preferring the company of his amazing looking video games to actual human contact. His job suits this remoteness perfectly, writing heartfelt letters for people who either don’t have the time, or have forgotten how to. He’s a nice chap, with friends who clearly like him and a boss who thinks he’s great. But the marriage break-up has driven Theodore away from too much socialising and he seems to be settling in for a solitary future. And while outside the world Spike Jonze creates doesn’t seem too different from 2014, a bit sleeker and sunnier maybe, being alone indoors has never been easier. When Theodore installs a new Operating System to his home computer, he is first surprised then intrigued by its intelligence. It’s basically a fruity version of Siri, but called Samantha and breathily voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who not only answers all his questions but asks a few of her own. She’s been programmed almost too well, and starts behaving almost like – well, almost like a human.
Developing a consciousness means Samantha also develops feelings, and it’s not long before the jaunty chit chat between man and machine becomes something a bit more and before you know it, Theodore is in love. And why not? She proves to be the ideal companion: one who is always there when you call, laughs at your jokes and makes a few of their own – who knows everything about you, but doesn’t judge. And who looks just like you imagine them to look. I mean, isn’t that what everyone wants? And isn’t that what we’ve all started to look for in some way online – you’re never alone when you’ve got 1000 followers laughing at your jokes on Twitter and someone has just liked your cat video on YouTube.
Her is set far enough into the future for Theodore’s relationship not to seem entirely bonkers to his friends, and Jonze shows us just enough of the tenderness between him and Samantha to make their attachment believable. But he also shows us that there’s something more here, a man desperate for some human affection but not quite ready to reach for it. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is a by-the-book love story – with all its ecstasies and pitfalls – it’s a relationship we’re all familiar with. And in Theodore’s failed marriage, bad dates and longstanding best-friendship (with Amy Adams, never anything less than perfect) it’s easy to understand how he sees opting out of the real thing as such an attractive option.
So don’t write Her off as a man’s wank fantasy, that’s just lazy. take a deeper look at what Jonze is saying here about all of us – open your heart to Theodore Twombly and feel a little afraid of our future.
Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: Matthew MConaughey and Jared Leto can have all the awards – it’s their performances that lift Dallas Buyers Club out of soap opera territory into something special. The story is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a macho Texan who was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 80s and given 30 days to live. It’s fair to point out that there’s a lot of hoo-hah about how loosely based the story actually is – some artistic licence has been taken with major elements of Ron’s story. Does that matter? Not really, although the real truth is slightly more interesting (google it) and might have made for an even better film. Either way, McConaughey does him justice here in a role that he inhabits like some sort of glorious moustachioed python.
The AIDS epidemic terrified people in these early days – it’s easy to forget that it was in essence a death sentence, treatment was sporadic and ineffective, and the focus was more on prevention than cure. For those diagnosed in these early years there really was no hope. But Woodroof looks his last 30 days in the eye and decides that won’t do for him so after one last binge, spends most of those days researching drugs that might help him live a bit longer. And he finds them, care of an exiled doctor in Mexico whose advice and medication literally give Ron a new lease of life. (Full disclosure, for a minute or two I thought the doctor was Colin Farrell and was amazed at the improvement in his acting skills. It’s Griffin Dunne of course.)
Once he realises the treatment is having an effect – and Woodroof lives for seven more years – he becomes outraged at the fact that the FDA had refused to licence most of the drugs that were helping him and starts to import them in some quantity, selling them on to other HIV patients, mainly gay men. And to help him gain their confidence, who better than Rayon – a striking transgender woman he meets in hospital (Jared Leto). The two forge a Hollywood cliche style unlikely alliance (Ron is portrayed as a rampant homophobe as well as a bit of an arse) and after a few brushes with the law, set up a buyers club which members pay a subscription to join then get their drugs for free.
The queues are round the block, much to the fury of his medical team. Only one doctor, the supremely drippy Dr Saks (Jennifer Garner) takes any notice at all of the fact that the drugs are actually working, but she doesn’t do much about it. It’s this role that for me gave a little insight into what a turgid do-gooding bore this film might have been without McConaughey and Leto – there’s no real point to it, other than to say oh by the way not all doctors are bad. So as I said, let them have all the awards, in a great big bag with a pink bow on it and a quart of bourbon in the bottom.
PS anyone who knows me will know that the dropped apostrophe in the title PAINS ME