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.)
A perfect-looking family of four go skiing in the French Alps – it looks like the ideal break, beautiful hotel, gorgeous slopes, everyone getting along. Then one morning, during breakfast, an avalanche crashes towards them. It’s a spectacular, terrifying moment. In that split second, is your first thought to save your family or yourself (and your smartphone)?
In Force Majeure, director Ruben Östlund asks that question of Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and opens up a fair avalanche of family and gender politics. It’s no spoiler to reveal that as disaster threatens, it’s Tomas that reaches for his phone and legs it while Ebba clutches at their children. It’s a shocking and blackly comic moment that changes everything.
Once the danger is past, it’s time for the emotional fallout. Tomas’s children can barely look at him, and Ebba takes a more combative role as he tries to deny his actions in the hope that the confusion around the moment might save him. He knows he’s at fault, but there’s a part of him that can’t really acknowledge that. And there’s also a big part of him that resents it.
Both Östlund’s direction and all the performances here are very controlled, giving the film an air of quietness belied by the emotions coursing underneath the surface. There’s a definite sense that all is muffled, as if the snow was hiding everything – which makes the occasional outbursts from Tomas all the more shocking.There’s a superb scene where he’s at a bar with his hairy best friend Mats. You watch as they’re built up from invisible older men to hot sex gods, then brought back to earth again. What does make a man – is it that heroic nature or is it being attractive to women?
I’m fairly sure everyone left the cinema thinking ‘what would I do?’ – or more likely, ‘what would you do?’. Emotionally harsh, darkly funny and never anything but gripping, this is solid stuff.
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.
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.
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.