Tagged: reviews

Inherent Vice

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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.

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Whiplash

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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.

Pride

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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.

Obvious Child

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I’m not a fan of romcoms, I see them a bit like science fiction, imaginary tales from a world that doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying that films shouldn’t provide escapism, but I prefer my fantasies to have a more solid base in reality. So for the most part, it’s a genre I avoid unless I’ve drunk my weight in gin and am sitting on the remote.

Having said that, Obvious Child isn’t quite your everyday romcom: you won’t find Jennifer Aniston tumbling over a cute puppy here, or Bradley Cooper tipping his coffee over Katherine Heigl as they reach for the same low-cal gluten-free muffin. This is a romcom for a world where people fart and tread in dog poo and (god forbid) have soiled undercrackers. You know, the real world. It still follows most of the traditional conventions of course – a gay best friend, an oops-we-keep-bumping-into-each-other-don’t-we courtship and a first date at an abortion clinic. Oh, hang on.

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a young stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job within a few days, and reacts by having an enormous meltdown, some of it on stage. When she’s not wiping snot from her nose, she’s stalking her ex and mainlining red wine, until a drunken one-night-stand leaves her pregnant and heading for the abortion clinic.

What makes Obvious Child unique is its honest portrayal of a young woman with an unplanned pregnancy and the unflinching, undramatic way she deals with it. In 2014 this shouldn’t be remarkable, but in movie-land it absolutely is. But it’s also very funny, sharply written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, with most of the jokes at the expense of Donna – Slate is great as this neurotic ball of nervous energy who doesn’t appear to have a filter.

So although it’s maybe not entirely the anti-romcom it sets itself out to be, Obvious Child’s portrayal of abortion as something women just get on and deal with is to be applauded. Better than that, it’ll make you laugh like a drain and is absolutely schmaltz-free.

 

Finding Vivian Maier

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Vivian Maier was one of life’s eccentrics. A nanny who fell a bit short of Mary Poppins’ standards, she kept herself to herself, revealing little of her past or her passions to those who knew her. She might well have remained an unknown forever if it wasn’t for historian John Maloof. Sometimes things are just meant to happen I suppose.

Back in 2007, Maloof was looking for some photos of Chicago and picked up a box of old negatives at a storage auction. He knew straight away he had found something special, but could find out nothing about the photographer apart from her name: Vivian Maier. Maloof became fascinated with the work he’d discovered, and once he realised he was onto something, set about buying up all the other boxes of her property that had been sold at the same auction, eventually tracking down a storage unit where the rest of her possessions were still piled up. Maier had hoarded everything, her belongings auctioned when she could no longer pay the storage fees. Eventually Maloof amassed over 150,000 negatives, which he carefully scanned and examined. He found himself with a collection of stunning images, many taken on the streets of Chicago, dating from the 1950s onwards.

Maloof couldn’t find out much about the elusive photographer, but chanced on her obituary in 2009. It contained a few leads, enough for him to track down Maier’s old charges (most of them remember her as harsh, to put it mildly), her old employers (who didn’t seem to question how well she cared for their children as long as they were out of their sight) and eventually a few more personal acquaintances. But it’s clear from the interviews that even the people who knew Maier didn’t really know her; her main interactions with the world were through the lens of her Rolliflex camera. And though some of her photographs are clearly taken secretly, all sorts of people were willing to stop for a moment, stare back down her lens and let her capture a moment in their lives. What she said to persuade them we’ll never know.

We’ll also never really know why Maier kept her photography so secret. It seems like she knew she had a talent, but she lacked the drive, or maybe the confidence to have them more widely seen. Hundreds of them were never even developed – it seems that it was the taking of the photographs that was significant for her.  The rolls of film and endless strips of negatives were boxed up with everything else she owned, moved from house to house as she took nannying work to pay the bills. Maybe it never occurred to her that she didn’t need to.

While there’s clearly lots more that we’ll never know – and some debate about details that have been omitted from Maloof and Siskel’s film (worth catching the BBC Imagine documentary if you’re interested in finding out more, it’s a much better film) – this is nonetheless a fascinating profile of a talented artist who seemed overwhelmed by life. I like to think Maier would be delighted by her posthumous success, but I suspect she’d be appalled. What matters is the work she left behind, a stunning collection of images that are more than worthy of the comparisons that have been made to some of America’s great photographers: marketing man’s dream that I am, I immediately bought the book.

22 Jump Street

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.

The Lunchbox

In lots of ways, this is standard romcom territory, but two terrific lead performances and some gentle, nuanced direction from Ritesh Batra turn what could have been You’ve Got Mail: the Prequel, into something really rather special.

Set in Mumbai, the story is simple enough. Ira (Nimrat Kaur) suspects her husband is having an affair, and trying to spice up her marriage through her husband’s lunchbox (yes I know). Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is a lonely widower heading for retirement, and expecting nothing special from the rest of his life. His daily lunch delivery is unremarkable, and when he receives the one destined for Ira’s husband by mistake, things start hotting up for both of them. The two start sending short notes to each other enclosed in the daily tiffin tin, and something long-buried is slowly released. A bit like auntie’s spices.

What’s key to the success of The Lunchbox is the underlying sadness that both characters carry and how they portray this. Kahn’s performance stands out – Saajit is full of melancholy and still grieving, we can see it in the way he shaves, the way he stares blankly through a train window and the way he half-heartedly scolds small boys. Kaur gives Ira a similar sense of loss, as she watches her husband come and go, unable to ask the question she needs the answer to and hoping to reach him through the food she lovingly prepares each day. When both realise there might be a bit more to life than they had expected, we watch them fill with the sort of glow you only get when you know somebody cares.

Batra paints a colourful picture of  a city where amid the chaos, two strangers can find a certain stillness. The Lunchbox is a genuine pleasure.

(Obviously you’ll need a curry afterwards.)

Stranger by the lake

OK first up I underestimated the popularity of this early screening, and ended up having to sit on the second row. This was a little too close for comfort – those things nearly had my eye out.

Alain Guiradie’s sunny, dark thriller really is good. Set in a picturesque cottaging area by a wide, flat lake, we meet a couple of its regulars, looking for love or maybe just company during a hot summer in France. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is good looking and a bit shy, and has a crush on one of the lake’s other regulars, Michel (Christophe Paou), a tall mustachioed hottie who looks – and swims – like he’s in the 70s Olympics. Franck returns to the lake regularly to look out for his crush, and amuses himself with the lake’s other visitors. One of them is Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), an overweight and lonely man who sits a little away from the main action, watching everything but taking part in nothing. Henri’s motives aren’t clear, but the two hit it off and although we don’t see it, their friendship blossoms away from the lake. The three men’s lives become intertwined in a way that it’s hard to imagine, watching those languid summer days where the biggest danger seems to be getting chafed during some of the activity that goes on in the bushes behind the beach.

To say more would be spoilerville so I’ll stop there. But suffice to say the idyll is broken by something quite shocking, which Franck witnesses one evening while spying on Michel and his boyfriend. It’s a moment that you almost wonder if you’ve seen, despite the way Guiradie lets you watch it at length – slowly, from a distance, and almost silently.

From here we’re in proper thriller territory. The action never moves away from the beach, we’re stuck there with the (many many) naked sunbathers, the flies, the rustling in the bushes and that lake. And it’s the lake that draws us – and the men – in. It laps gently at the shore, reflects the golden gaze of the sun, and carries secrets beneath its placid surface that it might never give up, maybe even the giant eel that Henri is convinced lurks within.

All is quiet here and even when under threat, there’s little reaction from anyone, their world is intimate, private and in many ways quite gentle. Which makes the undercurrent of tension even more disturbing. Impressively directed, this will have you thinking about the nature of love, sex and friendship. How much would you overlook for someone who might just be the one?

Her

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.

Dallas Buyers Club

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

The Wolf of Wall Street

As the credits rolled on Scorsese’s latest, I did something I don’t believe I have ever done before in the cinema. I winked at the screen. Winked. It was a completely involuntary reaction to what is essentially three hours of splendidly naughty fun. I bloody loved it.

Leonardo DiCaprio is in his element here – giving one of his best performances as Wall Street bigwig Jordan Belfort whose life Scorsese has captured in all its excessive, sexist and utterly grotesque glory. He’s a bit like a cartoon baddie, blasting his way through the film with his tail on fire, leaving a trail of dirty doings behind him, entirely unrepentant. He’s a bad man, surrounded by other bad men and some quite bad women too. They’re all having a ball, especially Belfort’s closest ally Donnie Azoff, (an also superb Jonah Hill) a man who can’t believe the way his life has turned out and fully intends to make the most of it while it lasts. Both actors deserve all the plaudits they’ve been receiving – they go all out here, but stay just the right side of caricature. Which is no mean feat, given that much of the film is out and out comedy.

DiCaprio and Hill steal the film, but there’s also a blistering Matthew McConaughey cameo, the divine Jean Dujardin pops up as a smarmy Swiss banker and there’s a slightly bizarre appearance from Joanna Lumley in a London straight off a 60s postcard. There are other women here too of course, who look nice but are somewhere on the outskirts of the story. Nothing here to match Lorraine Bracco or Sharon Stone’s gutsy roles, the women really are just eye candy. But that’s Belfort’s world, am not sure it is unavoidable – and this is based on his autobiography of course, so you know, it’s all about him and his idealised memories of the high life.

Belfort made his fortune by selling penny shares to people who couldn’t really afford them, his morals left in the box he cleared his Wall Street desk with on Black Monday. As his wealth and business grow, so did his ego – so much so that he failed to cover his back until it’s too late. But even when he’s down he’s not entirely out –  there’s no crime doesn’t pay moral here, it clearly does sometimes.

But don’t misjudge Scorsese, he knows a thing or two about giving his audience a kick in the guts, and it comes here too right at the end in a scene on the subway with the FBI agent that finally nailed Belfort (a beautifully calm performance from Kyle Chandler). Of everything I saw over the three hours, this was the scene that stayed with me and prompted a sudden prick of tears. It’s that moment of truth that makes this such a great film – a jolting reminder of the people who paid for whatever Belfort stuck up his nose (or up a hooker’s bottom… imagine the casting call for that role).

So yes, I winked at the end. And a great big salacious wink it was too, this is a balls out, wave your willy about joy.