Friday, 28 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey



I LOVED The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I've seen it twice already, and am verging on a third. While my review may turn into a staunch defence of the tiresome criticisms levelled at the film (it’s too long, 48 FPS makes it look like television, why are they making a tiny book into 3 films again?) and I am a self confessed softie for anything Tolkien, here is my main plea for watching this film: ENJOY IT. As with any film that’s been pickled in its own hype for nearly two years it’s going to be pulled apart by fans and non fans alike, and that’s where the problem lies. Just go in and take it for what it is, is my advice: while it may be long, Peter Jackson’s first instalment is far from boring.

We start, as all reviews, with a hobbit hole. An Unexpected Journey not only introduces us to the new characters in Tolkein’s adventurous romp - baby brother to the more epically serious Lord of the Rings - and the first six chapters of the book, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and at one time and still credited Guillermo del Toro, have taken great care to pay heed to that great trilogy of films. They remember that we are in Middle Earth, and there are events in The Hobbit – some brought to life by Tolkien, others hidden in subtext and footnotes – which will impact significantly on things that have not yet come to pass. As well as the key moment when Bilbo meets Gollum and finds the Ring for the first time, a Ring which will later be placed into the hands of his young nephew Frodo, there is also the Necromancer – a foreshadow of a re-emerging Sauron. Jackson and co are tasked not only with telling us a brand new story, but weaving that story into the bigger frame and the wider world and juggling the heavy and prophetic themes with lighter, fun moments with uncouth dwarves and culinary trolls. Pure lovers of The Hobbit are going to feel frustrated, for this has bigger ambitions than even Tolkien had at the time of writing the tale, which was just a bedtime story for his children.

Home loving, stuck in a comforting rut Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is plucked from his lull of second breakfasts and pipes by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who chooses him as the final member of a party of dwarves to join them on an adventure. The Dwarves, scattered for some 60 years after their home at Erebor, a mountainous city of gold, was devastated by Smaug the dragon have formed a group of 13 to reclaim what once was theirs. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), whose grandfather was king under the mountain at the time of Smaug’s attack, the dwarves are thirsty for revenge, but need the help of Gandalf’s wizardry and a ‘burglar’ – that is where Bilbo comes in – to be able to locate the secret entrance into the mountain unnoticed and then destroy the fire-breathing unwelcome guest. To those who say nothing happens in the first part of The Hobbit... well, they must have then completely failed to notice the pack of orcs hunting the group, the greedy trolls spitting them over a fire, the Necromancer’s power spreading through the lands around them, a massive fight between the stone giants, the entire goblin city and the slaying of the goblin king, Bilbo finding a magic and powerful Ring in the mountain caves, Thorin nearly being killed by his nemesis the Pale Orc, and the group being rescued from a burning, falling tree on the edge of a cliff by a herd of badass eagles.

From the moment the opening titles came up, I felt a strange combination of a surge of energy and a warm comforting glow engulf me. I knew I was in safe hands, but I was also beyond excited at what I was about to see. The way I see it, the people who have complained about the film being too long are impatient, and already annoyed at having to devote three whole hours to being in the cinema. If you’re a film lover you should be delighted by that prospect and it should only truly irritate if the film is completely insufferable (in which case, leave). An Unexpected Journey is at worst a little draggy in places, where Jackson’s love of a scene has won over his critical eye (lose the Frodo bits, where he confusingly looks 10 years older anyway and his conversation with older Bilbo (Ian Holm) reeks of a clumsy hindsight), but not once is it dull or meandering. We need time with these characters – there are 13 of them! - and Jackson clearly loves the underlying work and you have to enjoy it with him. Why go in being cynical? I would rather sit back, relax and allow myself to be immersed for three hours than for the filmmakers to feel rushed with their work. This film is all about living in that moment and soaking up every last pixel on the screen – if you’re not in it for the adventure then stay home and smoke your pipe.

I spent most of this film, like Jackson’s LOTR before it, my mouth open agog. Some of his creations are just astounding. Erebor for instance, in the beautiful prologue, is a cavern of decadence, hoards of treasure and jewels and ornate and magnificent halls under the mountain. Rivendell the audience is already au fait with, but its shimmering beauty is just heavenly. Even the foreboding promise of Dol Guldur, which we'll see more of in The Desolation of Smaug, made me giddy. But my favourite (and when my mouth nearly dropped open) is the Goblin City. The intricacy of the drawbridges, the passageways, the contraptions and machines, all in this huge open space - just astonishing vision. I wanted to pause the film, walk up to the screen and just spend an hour trying to drink it all in. I loved how the audience's wonder is also matched with Bilbo's, venturing for the first time outside of The Shire. There will be so much more to explore and enjoy on future viewings! And when the dwarves finally manage to turn on their enemy and drive them back whilst trying to escape this labyrinth of levels, it was like watching the finer workings inside a ball bearing clock : the ladders, the bridges, the boulder – everything just flowed with a hypnotic precision, and with such a deft touch as Jackson's it also oozed with humour and entertainment. It was amazing to behold. New Zealand ain't looking too shabby either, in the breathtaking exterior shots over the 'Misty Mountains'.

But this was just the pinnacle in a dazzling array of set pieces. The fat trolls arguing over herbs and spices provided a lighter moment to the spectacle and the stone giants thunder battle had all the markings of Del Toro. They only amount to the briefest of paragraphs in Tolkien's work, but here Jackson and co have managed to make them some of the most memorable scenes. The danger of the climax when the orcs finally catch up with our heroes, and Thorin having to take a stand before the eagles come to rescue made me cry with joy (I was a bit tipsy first time round; second time...well I just cry at everything). The emotional beats the film hits, absent from the book, are hugely effective. We need Thorin to trust and value Bilbo's presence by the end of the film, and we need Bilbo to be fully invested in the adventure too, no matter how much he dreams of home.

But the scene stealer here, no matter how much I loved the eagles, Goblin City with my favourite character the lil Goblin Scribe on his pulley, and eccentric Radagast and Sebastian the hedgehog, is by far Riddles in the Dark. The joy with Martin Freeman in this film is that you don't even need the time to appreciate the casting and believe he is Bilbo Baggins - it's just instantaneous. His fussiness, his warmth and his bravery all merge wonderfully to bring this character to life, and in this scene he excels, taking part in a game of wits with the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) - to think this was the very first scene they filmed is extraordinary, as we've already had a full two hours with him at this point. Serkis more than matches him here too: the advance in motion capture technology is stunning here, as Gollum's eyes and mouth twitch as he struggles to come up with the answers and is fighting with the surrendering Smeagol ("Shut up! I wasn't talking to you."). And it's here we see an important development with Bilbo: not just keeping the Ring, but his decision not to kill Golum once he has the chance. He remembers Gandalf's words to him in the beginning: "true courage is about not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one." Plus, any riddles game where an answer is "eggses" earns bonus points with me.

There is so much to giggle at in An Unexpected Journey though - the weightier moments do not overshadow the amount of times it tickles you, from the culture clashing of dwarves and elves ("have they got any chips?"), Bilbo's hot spell over his contract, Saruman's dismissal of Radagast ("it's his obsessive compulsion of mushrooms, they've addled his brain!") to Gandalf's surprisingly coy moment at the White Council with Galadriel - a favourite of mine. Jackson has also managed to keep the importance of songs from the book, so as much as "that's what Bilbo Baggins hates!" can make you laugh, the beautiful rendition of the Misty Mountains ballad can strike a note of real poignancy. I'm still singing it now, and have even been moved to buy the official soundtrack, bewitchingly composed by Howard Shore.

What An Unexpected Journey comes down to is a love of fantasy and adventure, and you're not - apart from the later events of Middle Earth - going to get much better than this. Once it hits its stride I didn't want it to end, I could have sat there for hours. And the tease with Smaug's eye opening in the final shot... get me on a train to December 2013. This will all make sense once we have had The Desolation of Smaug and been There and Back Again: trust me.


Saturday, 1 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Master


The Master may not be the best film of the year - at least in my opinion - but it's got to be the most heavily digested. Even now, I'm still coming up with new thoughts, new angles on Paul Thomas Anderson's latest which is both an exploration of a soldier's post traumatic stress disorder and the foundations of Scientology. PTA has been especially reluctant to dwell on the latter observation, but screening one of the very first cuts of the film to Tom Cruise wasn't without reason. It's themes and character which drive The Master and gave myself and the audience a lot to think about on the walk home, but it's a neglect for a strong narrative which meant I struggled to tolerate it.

The aftermath of World War II leaves naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at a loss with his life. Dependent on alcohol, aggressive and sexually aberrant he literally flees from one job to the next as a photographer in a luxury department store, to a cabbage picker on a farm. One night, escaping from the farm after his toxic cocktail mix kills a fellow worker, he jumps on a boat and conceals himself below deck. He is found the next morning and brought to the ship's captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes a shine to Freddie and his powerful homemade tipples, and invites him to stay with them - them being his family, including pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and his 'followers'. Freddie discovers Dodd is known as The Master, and is teacher and leader of a new movement called The Cause which focuses on spiritual enlightenment and the idea that all humans are immortal. The two strike up an impassioned friendship - Dodd finds a muse in Freddie and inspiration to write his second book, a complicated soul who he is both infuriated and fascinated by. For Freddie he has found someone who likes him and enjoys his company, and for that he develops a fierce loyalty to Dodd, angrily snapping out at those who question or defame him. Dodd tries to treat Freddie using methods of The Cause known as processing, but he is unable to curb his rages and the fellow members, and Peggy, begin to grow nervous of him and beg Dodd to cast him out. But despite Dodd's troubles with the authorities and naysayers and Freddie's unpredictability, each time they are forced apart they find a way to be drawn back to one another again.

At 144 minutes The Master beguiles and entrances, not least with its hypnotic score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (who also did We Need To Talk About Kevin and PTA's last film, There Will Be Blood), which was one of my favourite things to take away from the film. The hollow and melodic xylophone is like someone running their fingers up your spine - it's perfect. And because of the random nature, almost episodic rhythm PTA chooses to use, 144 minutes is actually the perfect length, as just as you start to grasp for attention the film ends. It's gorgeous to look at too, with sun bleached tones to the frames PTA uses for his shots - I particularly loved the scene where Dodd is arrested at a house call, and the camera is tilting upwards to look at him stood on the patio, with his friends and family surrounding him. He is an unconventional perfectionist, and that's what makes his films so visually appetising (see There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights).

Here is where I struggled. Freddie is an unknown, a character impossible to pin down, yet he is our protagonist. Phoenix's performance is not just in the contours and flexes of his face but in his whole body - it's a very physical performance, playing Freddie slightly hunched over, dragging his feet, arms bent into his back. But Freddie has no arc. He is at the end how we find him at the beginning - listless, angry, sexually obsessed, alone. He has met this man, Dodd, and had, by all accounts and by what we have seen, a life changing experience knowing him and being part of this cult-like following. But by the end, what impact has this had on him? In contrast, the antagonist figure Lancaster Dodd, is as complex as Freddie but has an intelligence that elevates him, and Hoffman's performance is so astounding in its extremes of violent outburst to quiet reflection that it is Dodd, for me, who compels the most. When he meets Freddie he is struggling with his second book, but soon after their first meeting he is up for hours writing, much to the amusement of his wife Peggy. And when the two argue or Freddie repels The Cause, it's always Dodd who brings him back - that is, until the second book has been published. After this there is a significant shift in his tolerance of Freddie's erratic behaviour, culminating in him giving Freddie an ultimatum to stay forever or leave and he will never speak to him again. Freddie leaves, and at the end of the film we are left with their friendship truly broken. It seems obvious that Dodd was using Freddie to further his own reputation and stature as The Master, seemingly lost for words for his next portfolio until Freddie somehow finds them for him, even though it directly contradicts his teachings in his first book. One of his followers (played by Laura Dern) picks up on this with him and he just dismisses her, leaving her full blown devotion to him riddled in doubt and his actions perfectly echoing his sceptical son's words to Freddie earlier in the film, "he's making all this up as he goes along... you don't see that?" But yet there is something untamable in Freddie that Dodd cannot shake, and even at the protests of his wife who cannot abide him, he will not let him go.

I don't think there is any doubt that Freddie fails to buy into the beliefs or is committed to The Cause, and for him his attraction to Dodd is for a friend, a companion, even a brother, a lover. It's about Dodd as an individual, and if he has to play along with the processing and the increasingly confounding tests then he will do it. PTA lingers on these moments which provide some of the best film making and performances of the year. Freddie's initial processing scene on the boat, where Dodd fires probing psychological questions at him and inviting Freddie to answer without blinking, is a mastery of drama. And later, Freddie's back and forth touching of the window and the wall as a technique to break his association patterns is as provocative viewing as you will see from anything all year. I just wish these exercises had amounted to something. They're fascinating to watch, and a great plot device for moulding and exploring a character, but what does it actually add to the narrative? The story is so thin on the ground that it's hard for the film to satisfyingly gel.

The biggest bone of contention is the last thirty minutes of the film, and I think this is a great way of testing your favour for the film. After leaving The Cause once again, Freddie is in a cinema alone watching a kid's film when an usher comes over with a telephone saying he has a call. Freddie picks up the receiver and Dodd is on the other line, telling him to come to England to see him, that he has something very important to tell him, that he has finally remembered where he remembers him from. In their very first meeting, and reiterated throughout their friendship, Dodd has always professed to knowing Freddie from somewhere, but never quite remembering where - "where do I know you from?" So Freddie answers his call again and travels to England where The Cause have set up a new residence. But Dodd and Peggy are cold, and unfriendly, and don't seem to have been expecting him, and Dodd and Freddie have their last meeting together where Dodd delivers and Freddie passes on his ultimatum to stay. Many have since interpreted the scene in the cinema to have been a dream, not least in its implausibility, but in Dodd's sudden change of tone when Freddie arrives in the flesh. But I just cannot buy this. How would Freddie know to go to England? How could he have dreamt that? I wish there had been a scene to show how he could have unconsciously stored that information in his brain (such as reading it in a newspaper, or a radio in the background), but it makes no sense - it makes more sense for Dodd to have known he was in that cinema at that exact moment and to call him. Plus, Freddie is not a dreamer - it's not in his personality, he is too straightforward, to carnal, almost. He doesn't long for Dodd the way Dodd longs for Freddie.

My inability to find a deeper connection and meaning to the film is what left me somewhat cold after it ended, and it failed to win me over enough to see it as anything other than an intriguing and interesting take on the characters and themes offered to me. They're not likable nor admirable, and it's a film that travels without going anywhere. When it tries to engage, the stuff with Freddie's childhood sweetheart for example, it feels flat and detached from the feel of the rest of the film. These people are animals, a notion PTA goes over and over again in Freddie's actions and Dodd's reactions to them. Story doesn't seem to be able to co-exist in this film with such dominant and domineering characters. A note also to say how excellent (if slightly miscast in terms of age) Amy Adams is as Peggy Dodd - revelatory towards the end when you realise she is more committed to The Cause than her own husband is, and it makes you wonder if she was like that when he met her or has he concurrently created this person?

This is definitely a film for lovers of cinema as an art, and for fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, and you'll take out of it what you give to it. As with all art, I appreciate it more than I get it, and for me The Master offers up a really interesting question on our enjoyment of films and judgement of them: what's better, an emotional or an intelligent response? And for me, solely the latter reaction is not enough.





Tuesday, 20 November 2012

LEEDS FILM FESTIVAL 2012


The Leeds Film Festival is always a special occasion for me every November, not just because I work it, but it's my home city's cinematic platform. The biggest UK festival outside of London (that's bigger than Edinburgh) showcasing all the films I've been desperate to see since Sundance and Cannes, but keeping that fun, friendly Northern charm that makes it so accessible to everyone, and such a delight to be in its lively atmosphere.

And LIFF26 has been one of the greats - certainly the strongest line up I have seen since I started attending five years ago in my University days, and the audience response has matched that with more people voting, and voting highly, than ever before. Being at the venues every day, whether it's as a volunteer or as a viewer, and the following the festival's excellent social media, has allowed me to feel closer to the festival than ever before, and now it's over it's left a big hole in my day to day life (a free evening? What am I supposed to do with this? It's like the end of Wimbledon). So I'm feeling snugly proud right now, and can't wait to share with you some of my filmic experiences from the last two and a half weeks.

Before I get to my, very special, round of reviews, here are the awards winners and audience favourites from the festival:

Silver Méliès Award: Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal
Runners up: Sightseers, Thale

Audience Award: The Hunt
Runners up: In Search of Blind Joe Death, Ernest and Celestine

Audience Top 20:
1. The Hunt
2. In Search of Blind Joe Death
3. Ernest and Celestine
4. Wolf Children
5. War Witch
6. Morgan Spurlock's Comic Con
7. Five Broken Cameras
8. Robot and Frank
9. Argo
10. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
11. In My Mother's Arms
12. Amour
13. This Band is so Gorgeous
14. Seven Psychopaths
15. Laurence Anyways
16. When the Lights Went Out
17. Yadig? Presents Seven Signs
18. Jose and Pilar
19. Back to the Square
20. Beserk: The Golden Age 2


Due to the extraordinarily strong line up at this year's Leeds Film Festival, I had actually already seen a fair few of the big draws (you can find my reviews of Laurence Anyways, John Dies at the End, Antiviral, Rust and Bone and audience award winner The Hunt from here) and was thrilled the Leeds audiences took to my already nailed down favourites so passionately. With these in mind, and the excellent Opening Gala film Argo (it gets its own separate write up here), I still wasn't really prepared for seeing a film on the third day and for it to be a SIX CHEESE worthy film. And here I've been complaining all year about nothing quite coming close to blowing me away and achieving top marks, and one film has gone and re-written my whole scoring system! There is a special reason why though, and you'll come to it, once we stroll through the rest...

Here Comes The Devil
Fresh off a screening at the Toronto Film Festival and opening this year's Raindance, this Chilean chiller (hee) about two children who return from playing in a cave on a mountain somewhat changed has been on my to see list for a while. So much so I sacrificed a re-mastered, uncut screening of The Shining in Leeds Town Hall to see this - pity I'll be regretting that decision for some time. A creepy premise is let down by an incoherent script, cheap CGI and poor execution. The biggest drawback being - these children are not threatening. They're clearly not themselves, possessed by demons or shape shifting phantoms, but if all they're going to do is stare dead eyed at the television all day, as a parent that would be the least of my worries. Here Comes The Devil just isn't scary, nor is the atmosphere clogged by unsettling tension. More than a horror film (apart from one token scene of gore, where the parents let loose on an innocent man, thinking he's the cause of their lifeless children's 'trauma') this is more of a mystery, and the unrecognisable children and desolate mountain covered in mazes of caves and rock formations made me hark back to Picnic at Hanging Rock, though of course Peter Weir's haunting masterpiece trumpets all over this middle of the road genre piece. It juggles too many ideas - a serial killer in the opening prologue which precedes the events of the film, though seems to be completely unconnected by the end; hinted incest between the brother and sister which may or may not be part of their mother's warped imagination; the idea of significant and time affecting earthquakes; paedophilia and perversion; and the supernatural, the devil living amongst us. If only the film had stuck to one of these themes and run with it - instead layers are spread too thin and the result is ineffective. If these children are demonic entities, causing doors to slam, lights to flicker, and the children's bodies they are inhabiting to levitate off the ground (cheaply), then what is their plan? To scare the babysitter? They seem only menacing when poked at (and dressed randomly in party clothes), chiefly by their mother who through gaping holes in the script and no apparent logic has somehow managed to come to this horrifying conclusion unaided. The twist at the end made little sense to me, seeming to have neglected showing us a revelatory scene concerning the father, and negate any lasting ramifications on the character's friends and the community - who are made up anyway of incidental characters merely to steer the various plots cooking in the pot. It's the mark of a poor film when you start planning a much better one in your head, but at least director Adrian Garcia Bogliano gets the 70s nasty vibe in there - too bad we're in 2012. Kudos for providing me with one of the biggest lols of the festival though on, "what's causing those noises?" "rocks." Oh yes, EVIL ROCKS.





Stormland
There are certain magical film settings that can get away with anything with me, and Iceland is one of them - I'd pretty much watch any film the country produces, such is the guaranteed beauty of the cinematography and their coarse sense of humour. I've discovered some real Nordic gems over the years at LIFF, including 2009's White Night Wedding. But Stormland spills into melodrama, and has long ditched its ice black tone and humour before we arrive at the heightened, overly ridiculous ending. Our protagonist Boddi (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is angry with today's society, at the shallow wants of people not truly living as his Viking hero Grettir before him, and in particular his fury is directed at the local millionaire who acts and buys things "because he can" (finishing off sentences with what has to be the best laugh of the festival). But these feelings of resentment don't feel reason enough for his extreme actions later on in the film - he's well regarded in the small Icelandic town he lives in, if somewhat teased for his opinions. He writes an angry blog which leads to further amusement (a fat couple live in a fat town but their garden has skinny trees, and they want them to be fat too so they water them with cola) and there's a nicely built up character study here of ostracism and frustration. But then there's some dead mummy drama, some unrequited love drama, some baby drama and who's the daddy drama which all leads up to his big meltdown and his riding to Reykjavik on a horse with a gun to start the 'revolution'. This itself is played for laughs as for such a grand gesture he just ends up blocking the roads and causing a symphony of angry car horns. But the subsequent tragic turn of events in a wild last 30 minutes switches the tone of the film again, and my eyes started rolling. He's a turbulent character, a mini storm unto himself like the titular house he lives in - he is desperately looking for something to fill his life, but when things go wrong he can't control himself. But the slow motion destruction of his kitchen, his hallucinations of the dead, the panning out shot at the end of the film is too much, and it's hard to feel emotion for such a brawling and confused character. And the biggest sin - it didn't make me love and want to leave for Iceland immediately. If it was going for the authenticity, the grittiness, then why not keep the story real instead of piling on the theatrics? Stormland can't get the balance right.





In The House
Francois Ozon's new film is about storytelling, the power and perception of narrative. Adapted by Ozon from the play "The Boy in the Last Row" by Spaniard Juan Mayorga, it explores the fine line between fiction and reality, but in the case of In The House - unlike the other meta fictional film I saw at the festival which we'll get to later - it's too clever for its own good. I won't deny it's an intriguing set up, and for much of the film spins a darkly engrossing tale. An introvert outcast at school, Claude (played by a simmeringly good Ernst Umhauer), writes an essay that captures the attention of his English teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini, in Ozon's last film Potiche) about finally entering the house of his classmate Rapha which he has been dreaming about all Summer. He ends it cheekily with "to be continued" - a sign off he continues to use on the rest of his literacy exercises as he continues the story of meeting Rapha's family and learning about what goes on in the house ("he's given me chapter 2!"). What starts off as a giggle for Germain and his wife Jeanne (an excellent Kristin Scott Thomas, once again dabbling in French cinema) soon turns into an obsession, as Germain begins to meet exclusively with Claude to talk about his writing, and his advice on becoming a better writer - something Germain impresses on Claude, he himself a failed novelist - begins to spiral out of control, as the story's narrative is driven by Claude's own actions inside the house, and begins to play on his desire of having a love affair with Rapha's mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). What transpires is a fascinating dynamic between a jaded teacher and a student with a dangerous intelligence. Like a puppet master Germain begins to manipulate Claude and the story by demanding the events and tone as chief reader, but Claude is no ordinary puppet and is always one step ahead and soon it's difficult to tell what has actually happened against what Claude has fictionalised, peaking when he writes Rapha has killed himself and the next day he is absent from class, sparking Germain to rush in a flurry to the secretary’s office to ring the boy’s parents only to find he is ill with the flu. What does it say for this couple that a story a 16 year old boy creates in true serial newspaper style takes over their life? When they are alone, apart from the odd moan from Jeanne about her art career (an extraneous subplot), Claude and his story is all they talk about - the film is excellent in depicting the power of narrative and being able to change it, and the perversion of the voyeur. Claude is a smart manipulator, able to coerce those around him by inducing sympathy from his own parents break up, and suggesting awkward Rapha is secretly in love with him and Esther - the most bored woman in the world - shares a profound but illicit connection with him. There's humour too which works surprisingly well ("the singular scent of the middle class woman, her middle class curves... where do women learn to speak like that?") and the opening and closing montages are a visual treat. But as Claude struggles to find an ending, so does Ozon. Ironically at one point he gets it perfectly, emulating his protagonist’s own sentiment that a perfect ending should “surprise the reader but make them realise that’s the only way it could have ended.” There’s a moment when, at the climax of the film, we finally see Claude in his own home, how he cares for his disabled father – who has also eluded us – and we see his difficult home life. I WISH they had ended the film there – what better way to conclude the story of a protagonist finding his way into a house and infiltrating its inhabitants than us finally infiltrating his? But sadly Ozon keeps the camera rolling and there’s an incredibly clumsy and melodramatic ending were Claude finally gets into Germain’s house, and – it's implied – sleeps with his wife. Gah! It’s such a clichéd kop out, and spoils the knowing tone of the film. It could have worked – why not see him enter the house, the door close, and then the credits? It holds the mystery and makes the central character more compelling. The ending we are left with is neither surprising nor satisfying which is deeply annoying for a film with so much promise.





Alps
A very eagerly awaited film for me - Giorgos Lanthimos' follow up to 2009's Dogtooth which remains one of my favourite films of all time, a bizarre and marvellous masterpiece. Alps, which has been hanging around the festival circuit for more than a year (it's official release was finally November 16th), is co-written by Dogtooth scribe Efthymis Filippou and stars the eldest daughter from his first film, Aggeliki Papoulia, as a member of a group of adults who call themselves 'Alps' and stand in for the recently deceased as a coping method for the grieving family and friends. A creepy premise leads way to some dark as night humour we've come to accept (and morbidly delight in) from Lanthimos and Filippou, but also polarised the audience, leading to as many walk outs as there were five stars. The set up is not a million miles away from Dogtooth with the group led by a fiercely strict and menacing patriarch figure (Aris Servetalis) who controls and manipulates his group into taking on different roles - they are always acting a part here, whether it's a girlfriend, a teenager, a gymnast, and it's difficult to tell when the characters are actually playing themselves. There is no easing your way into Alps, Lanthimos likes to throw you straight in at the deep end, and it's your choice whether to sink or swim. The black comedy may be too much for some ("it looks like the girl is going to make it" "...shame") as may be the sporadic bouts of violence (the 'colour changing' club), but if you're a fan of his earlier work as I am there's much to admire about this weird and often chilling character piece. Apart from Papoulia, who again is given the lead role here as the rebel/betrayer of the group after she lies to their leader, the other characters do feel a bit thin on the ground, and could have done with more screen time. The structure and narrative is also less well developed than Dogtooth, feeling too episodic at times as we follow Papoulia's character on her various visits. It doesn't hang together as well, but that's not to say the individual scenes are not completely fascinating and filled with a subtle, clever deftness. Once again the characters show little emotion and seem detached from their actions, and when Papoulia's character is expelled from the group she is unable to react healthily. Lanthimos is fast becoming the Michael Haneke of Greek cinema, and continues his love of dance scenes in his films too, with a full on rhythmic gymnastic sequence here. Whatever your tastes, he's a bold and mesmerising talent and though Alps fails to rise above the Everest of Dogtooth I can't wait to see what he serves up next.




Sightseers
A sublimely funny black comedy from writers and stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, with director Ben Wheatley bringing the gory horror - a winning concoction which is both more coherent and likable than last year's Kill List. Firstly, I have to take a time out to just single out what a glorious trailer this film has: the editing and soundtrack - a perfect slice of the full film - is standout amazing, and it's my favourite of the year so far:



Chris (Oram) arranges a holiday for his girlfriend Tina (Lowe) taking in the sights of the North from his beloved caravan, including Mother Shipton's Cave (yay, I've been there!) and the Pencil Museum (yay, I want to go there!). But things soon take a turn for the murderous, when Chris's unusual method of expressing his anger against litter louts, smug writers and Daily Mail readers begins to dominate their relationship, and their travels. It's a bonkersly brilliant off-kilter script and so very British too - loved the aforementioned litter lout earning a Cornetto at the Tram Museum just because, well, he's on a day out, and the caravan and camping banter and one-upness against the people they meet. It's laugh out loud golden too, managing to hit the right tone despite moments of genuine shock (ALWAYS PUT YOUR KNITTING NEEDLES AWAY). The performances are excellent - Oram and Lowe have been working away at this idea for years before they found a director in Wheatley so their characters seem almost part of them (in a cinematic way, of course). Lowe pips it for me though as the childlike but seriously unhinged Tina - it may be Chris who gets the blood flowing as it were, but in the end she turns out to be more crazy than he is, killing for his attention and for the fun of it, and he gets angry at her for being 'chaotic' - at least he has his justifications! But it's impossible not to like them - Chris, for all his violent tendencies, is so deadpan and such a nerd about British tourist attractions and new ventures in camping equipment and I am absolutely adored when Tina feeds her pasta sauce to the bin! Eileen Davies excellent too as the disparaging and selfish mother who doesn't want Tina to leave (she lies in a heap on the stairs waiting for her daughter to pick up on the phone so she can guilt her back home, but when she doesn't answer she just gets up again), and I don't want to miss out the film's other big star - Palme Dog winning Scruffy, who plays tragic Poppy and kidnapped Banjo. What a pooch! (and speaking of dogs, there was also an appearance by our very own dog mug Pink Hat - not sure when he nipped out of the cupboard to film that cameo, but all I'll say now is he's too big for branded teabags) The location shots were especially welcome for the Leeds audience too, and made the film much more enjoyable, and a fabulous soundtrack to boot too - inspired use of 80s power ballads as people get splattered on screen. And an apt ending which rounds their deranged mentalities off nicely. We were lucky enough to have Steve Oram there for the screening and a Q&A afterwards - he was very down to earth and affable, just don't mention John Craven's niece...





Amour
This year's Palme d'Or winner was the Closing Gala at this year's LIFF, and bore stark contrast to the opening feel good film Argo with its unflinching tale of love and mortality. Michael Haneke is hard-wired against the sentimental, yet I personally found Amour strangely comforting in its devastation, and with its increasingly "stunning but it'll leave you in a heap on the floor unable to move" reviews scaring people, I'd like to lay the case for it being a powerful but essential film for anybody who has ever unconditionally loved. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a happy couple in their 80's, retired music teachers living in their own home in Paris. One seemingly normal morning, Anne begins to act slightly odd, and a concerned Georges has her checked over by the doctors, where it is revealed she has had a stroke, and the resulting unsuccessful operation leaves her paralysed down her left side and unable to properly look after herself. Adamant she does not want to go back into hospital or into a care home, Georges begins to look after her in their home, with a little input from his neighbours and occasional visits from their distant daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who wants to help but Georges can't see how she can so treats her formally which upsets her. They are coping until Anne suffers another attack which leaves her almost unrecognisable and immobile and Georges is truly tested to the limit. Being a Haneke film, no moment is shied away from here, and we are forced to watch these two strong, funny, creative, intelligent, loving people crumble under the inevitability of death. But what's so defining here is Georges unwavering need to help Anne and care for her, no matter the exhaustion and the attention and the discomfort, all of which we are made to endure, just as much as he. It is a natural reaction to take this person whom he has loved all his life, who is part of him, and do all he can for her. His anger comes through because of frustration - he doesn't want to lose her, he cannot fathom nor bear to see her so fragile and dependent and confused as she was always so capable, but his love for her is indubitable. And perhaps this is why I find Amour comforting - if you share that assured and mutual love with somebody, you know you would be looked after in just the same way - it would be absolutely terrifying if her illness had repulsed him and he had abandoned her. This is probably as tender as you're ever going to get with Haneke. I didn't find myself welling up during the film itself but it's such a powerful and fierce imposition on the self that its impact on me meant the tears are a prolonged and lingering remnant after ward - I can't watch the trailer now without wanting to bawl my eyes out. Trintignant and Riva are extraordinary in this - perfect. I do have my favourites already for the acting awards come Oscar season, but after watching this film these two are untouchable and it would be a travesty if they do not win. I have worked in care homes for four years so I know the attention to detail and the nuances to their performances and what they manage to capture from this situation they are portraying is astounding - from lifting, to changing the bed, to eating and drinking, even the sounds. It's beautifully shot too - the vast apartment they live in has its own presence, and the film is full of striking symbolism too, such as breaking/entering, running water, open windows, and my favourite - the cheeky pigeon who manages to keep flying into the hallway, and Georges attempt to capture it coming just after Anne has died. I loved the night terror scene too (even though everyone in the row behind me gasped in fright!) - dreams and the way Haneke has woven this into the couple's reality is superb. There's a wonderfully ambiguous, open and reflective ending as well which provides a talking point on the way home, once you've managed to find your voice. A towering film, both important and necessary for your years to come.





Seven Psychopaths
Coming to my favourite two films of the festival now, and the two that I saw twice because I loved them so much. One of the many things I meant to do before LIFF began was catch up with In Bruges, director Martin McDonagh's first film about a pair of hitmen stuck in the Belgian city after a job goes wrong. Smart, violent, and hilarious, I've heard fantastic things but didn't quite find my way round to watching it before it was suddenly time for Seven Psychopaths, his second feature film and my first foray into his blackly comic world. From the opening shot with Jimmy Darmody and Arnold Rothstein as mobsters talking on the bridge in some wonderful Boardwalk Empire reverie, I was on board (I can only imagine my uncontrollable hysteria if Michael Shannon had showed up). The story - and story is key here - focuses on our hero called Marty (Colin Farrell, teaming up with McDonagh again) who is struggling to write the difficult second screenplay. He has a title - Seven Psychopaths - but has no idea what happens to them at the start, never mind the middle and the end. By his side and urging him on is his best friend and biggest fan Billy (Sam Rockwell), who develops his own troubles when he kidnaps the shih tzu belonging to gangster and serious dog lover Charlie (Woody Harrelson) and is hunted down, bringing Marty into the fight with him, along with their friend Hans (Christopher Walken). What's genius about Seven Psychopaths is the script, and how McDonagh manages to cleverly dictate the action through the character's own ideas, which will then ultimately lend itself to the entire storyline of Marty's screenplay. McDonagh, himself a playwright, is so skilled at creating this tightly furled but creatively inspired plot that even when it begins to even slightly flag, the characters and dialogue he has created picks the pace back up again instantly. It's a technique which is much more successful than similarly structured In The House (reviewed above) - Seven Psychopaths is well-crafted storytelling, stories within stories, 'layers of a cake.' The way Marty's ideas for his screenplay turn out to be embedded in his subconscious through stories Billy has told him is so great; the double reveal the Quaker Psychopath story is actually Hans, even better. I loved how the psychopaths were introduced to the audience - each one is so unique, either as a key player in the prevailing action, or as a peripheral character separate to the action (such as the Vietnamese soldier) or looming in the sidelines (a fun Tom Waits, who gets a great pay off scene in the post credits). The cast are uniformly excellent. Farrell hilarious as the out of his depth writer who just wants to keep the peace, Harrelson game as the ruthless gangster who comes unstuck literally by his rubbish gun and his undying love for Bonny the shih tzu, and Walken often steals the show as the composed and deadpan Hans: "You're the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get tiresome after a while, don't you think?" But by far Sam Rockwell was my favourite - he is brilliant in this, completely outrageous and a little bit cuckoo but completely lovable as the cracked up Billy. Some of his mannerisms to nail the character down such as his beaming smiles are just hilarious, and his fine delivery - "life affirming, schwife affirming!" I could spend the rest of this review just quoting from the script: "Put your hands up!" "No" "...but I've got a gun." "So?" "...That doesn't make any sense!" and, "Can't you count back to 5?" "No I cannot just go back to 5!... OK, 5..." The comedy is really dark, especially interspersed with some genuinely shocking and violent scenes which in any other context would have cast a fog over the characters - but not in McDonagh's simultaneously shiny and dirty Hollywood setting. The scenes in the desert are beautifully shot too - with the quippy dialogue the characters throw back and forth bringing strong echoes of Tarantino in many places, but much more likable. The graveyard scene, Billy's ideal of what will go down in the final shootout of the screenplay (and of course, McDonagh's film), is my favourite scene of anything this year so far - it just culminates brilliantly inside Billy's warped mind, as he performs it to an incredulous Marty and bemused Hans round their camp fire. Christoper Walken bursting out of the crypt! Marty's girlfriend getting mown down - MOWN DOWN! Woody Harrelson's head exploding! I could just watch it again and again, it's ruddy marvellous cinema, and the audience (both times) were rolling in the aisles. Seven Psychopaths is one of the best experiences I've had in the cinema in a long time, a dark treacle treat. It would actually make a great double bill with Sightseers - question is would Bonny have beaten Scruffy to the Palme Dog had Seven Psychopaths screened at Cannes? She is the heart of this film, and her eventual connection with Billy - "give me paw" - is quite lovely. What a gorgeous scrunched up face she has, and what gleefully bloody chaos she instigates!





Ernest and Celestine
And here it is - the first ever seemingly impossible six cheese film...and of course, it features a mouse! Ernest & Celestine is the best animated film I have seen in a long time, and is a must see for children everywhere - and the great thing is adults will love it too (and be hugely jealous they never got shown this as a child). It's just exquisite - fusing the poetry of The Snowman, the joy of The BFG and the madcap humour of A Town Called Panic. Directing duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar team up this time with Benjamin Renner, and though the hand drawn style is a long way from the stop motion of Panic, Ernest & Celestine only seems to further their talents. Based on the children's books by Gabrielle Vincent, this is a story of true friendship between a bear (Ernest) and a mouse (Celestine) which is frowned upon by their peers, as bears and mice shouldn't mix together. Young mice are taught to believe bears are ferocious and will eat them, and young bears are told how mice are pests which take over your home. But Celestine has always believed differently, a feisty plucky little thing on a dentistry internship (!), she is a creative soul at heart who lives to draw, and it's this passion she uses to bond with outcast Ernest, a struggling musician who longs for a never ending supply of marshmallows. After Celestine helps Ernest break into the local sweet shop, and Ernest helps Celestine break into the tooth shop (that is a thing), both bear and mice police are on their tail, so they flee to Ernest's little house in the woods to hide, and their friendship grows until they are discovered and taken to court. I fell in love with the film in the opening minutes, where we see Celestine and all her friends in their dormitory, listening to tales of the big, bad bear from the wise grey mouse, and the introduction of Ernest too, fighting with the cheeky plump robins over the last crumbs remaining in his kitchen. Refreshingly, the idea that Celestine is an orphan is never addressed, and her relationship with Ernest is purely platonic rather than the little mouse looking for a fatherly figure - she takes care of him as much as he takes care of her. Both characters are parallelled so beautifully: their crazy dreams ("I am not your nightmare") to the court room scenes (loved the giant bear trap the mice construct) - as individuals they are so charming and vivacious that together their friendship is completely endearing, so all the more heart-breaking when they are forced apart (and melts me to a mush when they are reunited). The mouse city in the sewers was AMAZING! The attention to detail just incredible: a wheel that acts as a lift, cheese fondue street sellers, mouse traps used as a training ground for young mice, The Mouse Weekly newspaper, and their main industry is dentistry, to highlight the importance of their incisors. It's just so clever, and watching it the second time around I was able to drink in more and more little touches. I was also able to enjoy my favourite scenes again and look forward to them with the bouncing energy of a small child: when Ernest and Celestine paint their getaway van to blend in with the background, and then Ernest immediately walks into it, or when the mice and bear police meet each other for the first time and slowly back away from one another; the chocolate biscuit who squeals "hurray!" when Ernest eats him; and my ultimate favourite moment, when Ernest initially tries to get rid of Celestine and keeps throwing her out the front door, only for her to appear instantly again in another corner of the room - the illustrators and directors play on the habits of a bear and a mouse so wonderfully! It just has that magic of a great children's film but yet is grounded in tradition. It will keep anyone of any age entranced. Kids films today can be so awash with gaudy and flashy CGI that it can tire you out so quickly - Ernest and Celestine is gentle, but sparky and inventive and excitingly, sets us up for more possible adventures (there are 25 books!). I ran home with a spring in my step and wouldn't shut up about it until I got to see it again - thoroughly deserving of its high audience ratings at LIFF. There's no official release date yet in the UK, but I am on it chaps. And as for this unprecedented rating, you better mousing believe it.



Wednesday, 7 November 2012

LEEDS FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: Argo


26th Leeds Film Festival Opening Gala @ Town Hall

Third time lucky, Ben Affleck has struck gold with Argo, which follows on from his earlier efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town (both excellent) to be his biggest film to date, and his most important. I think this will walk away with Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year - let me tell you for why.

Based on a true story, which remained classified by the American Government until 1997, Argo dramatises the events of the 1979 US hostage crisis in Iran, and the attempt to rescue 6 foreign office workers who have separated from their colleagues and are hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador's house in Tehran. With convoluted ideas bandied around and then shot down, it's the wackiest idea yet that will win out: trained exfiltrator Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)'s idea to construct a fake movie, entitled 'Argo', which will send them location spotting in Iran where he can pick up the six captives and assimilate them into his fake production crew and fly them back out to America. To do this he needs support from a major Hollywood studio - cue John Goodman and Alan Arkin - and support and cooperation from the CIA (channelled mainly through Bryan Cranston). All is progressing well, until at the final hour Mendez is informed the operation has been cancelled and there will instead be a military rescue for the captives. Defying orders, Mendez forges ahead with his plan and takes the six to the airport, where they must pass several check points with their fake passports, whilst at the same time the CIA and the White House rush to resume the original plans and the Iranian officials are closing down on the identities of the escaped Americans.

Affleck immediately makes the story accessible to the mainstream audience, but without dumbing it down. The voice over at the start tells the history and the background to the current situation, using a comic book-eque technique that will echo the storyboards later used in the film for the fake 'Argo'. Middle Eastern relations and government agency politics can be tricky and weighty viewing, but he manages to humanise the characters and the situation to make events not only easy to follow, but coherent in a global sense. This is a very talky, quippy film - a brilliant first time script from writer Chris Terrio - but there is great humour here too which is pitched perfectly, particularly from Goodman and Arkin, the comic relief duo of the film. You'll be shouting "ARGO FUCK YOURSELF" like Father Jack for weeks after, and for my benefit there was even a rights joke in there which I lamely cackawed at - "You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA." HAHAHAHHAHAHAHA... er, right?

A brilliant ensemble cast makes the film shine - as well as the fabulous Goodman and Arkin (who almost steals the show, with his delivery), I'm hoping Bryan Cranston can nab a Best Supporting nod as he was wonderful as the hard nosed yet loyal colleague at the CIA. Strong casting with the captive Americans in Iran too - Clea DuVall continues to bulk up her CV, Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice), Tate Donovan (Damages) all great too. But it's the married couple within the group who make the biggest impact: Kerry Bishe as Kathy delivers the most engaging performance as she is the most vulnerable throughout, and her husband Joe (Scoot McNairy, Monsters) is generously allowed his own character arc - he goes from biggest sceptic to saviour, as his knowledge of the language allows him to confidently converse with the Iranian officials at the airport, and it's his selling pitch of the fake film that gets them on the plane. Overdone? Yes, but it's one of the most memorable and heart swelling moments of the film.

For all his skill behind the camera, oddly Affleck is dull in front of it. His portrayal of Mendez feels generic and bland, especially when thrown in with such alive and kicking characters. He's the integral cog in the operation, but lacks charisma and his marital issues in the background feel tacked on and under developed - whether this was Affleck's intention to make his character understated, but you can't help but feel another actor cast could have turned this role into an Oscar winning performance. The Academy will take note with Argo but Affleck will be circling the Director's award instead.

It's interesting watching this film on two accounts: it's a very North American story, about the rescue of Americans but the lengths the Canadian Government went to protect them as well (there have been complaints this has been watered down in the film, which led to Affleck having to change the post script at the end of the film just before release), but also to see how much Affleck has changed from the true life events. Affleck is not a political director in the same way his co-producer here George Clooney has become - his focus is more on the thrill and suspense element of the drama, which is why he uses the real life event as a platform for this drama. As you watch the final half an hour unfold with Mendez and the captives in the airport, in the moment the suspense is electric and you're fully invested in everything he throws at you - from missing paperwork in the airport to the CIA flying around wild trying to get a sign off from President Carter ("REFRESH THE COMPUTER!"). It's impressive how effectively he manages to pull this off, when you know there is no real danger here of them not getting away successfully. And having slept on it, you'll smile in bemusement at the contrivances, but you'll remember those emotions he brought out in you, and that's what makes Argo a triumph. I won't deny I didn't shed a tear of pure relief when they are up in the air, and they clear Iranian skies.

There are other scenes of excellence too: a great opening scene as the US Embassy is first attacked is frightening and disorientating, and a read through of the Argo script - complete with actors in sci fi costumes - is inter cut with an Iranian woman on the television delivering Iran's statement to the world's press. It's very well put together - a brilliant mixture of archive footage and reconstruction, and the pace zips along - two hours just fly by. The 1970s era is captured perfectly too and I loved the retro credits at the beginning, and the photos of the real life individuals compared to their fictional equivalents at the end - they are so alike.

It's an astonishing real life story, so Affleck is already 50% of the way there before he's begun, but through dramatic embellishment he has made an enjoyable film of real power. He is the one of the most exciting and classy directors working today, and I still think there is more in him yet - Argo will not be his best, but it's his most complete work to date.

A film about film making, by a man who knows how to make films.



Thursday, 1 November 2012

FILM REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild


The above picture provides just one of the many striking images first time director Benh Zeitlin brings us in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year as well as making a name for itself in Cannes. Wildly ambitious, with a premise that evokes both fairytale and apocalypse, it's a shame the film's loose narrative and incoherence towards the end fails to deliver the magic.

Six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a southern community known as the Bathtub. Her mother has long since deserted them, and Hushpuppy has been brought up to fend for herself from a very early age, and due to long absences from her father has learnt to cook for herself and keep house. When a storm threatens the area, herself and her father hide in their home and re-surface to a changed world: everything is underwater, and soon plants and livestock begin to die. Naively believing by draining the floodwater things will go back to normal, it just leaves more carnage and Wink is injured during the attempt. The survivors are then found and 'rescued' by a group of aid workers who order them to leave their devastated land and come to the rehabilitation centre, where Hushpuppy is washed and dressed and her father is put onto medication and treated for what is assumed septicaemia. But unhappy with this 'modern' way of living they break out and return to their homes, where Hushpuppy declares she is going to look for her mother. After a chance meeting in a bar with a woman she believes is her mother, she returns to the Bathtub to look after her dying father.

I struggled when I came out of this film to find a word that accurately described it - it's not a bad film and I didn't want to give any negative connotations to it. However the film it reminded me of the most was Where the Wild Things Are - more about 'play' than narrative, dreamy surreal landscapes, told from a child's POV, large creatures (here the giant warthog Aurochs - above) which are representations of ourselves. It was definitely less tiresome and annoying than Where the Wild Things Are, but shared its core problems. And the word I finally decided upon was "overreaching" - it's a film punching above its weight; a mouse trying to be a bear (and hey, I can relate to that). The ending for all its pertained epicness amused me, "one day history will know that a Hushpuppy lived here with her father in the Bathtub" - no they won't! It's a small, remote community and its their story. Trying to pile on the grandeur and scale feels amiss.

Things do happen in the film, but there isn't really any sense of development. I wanted a fairy tale, but it was too meandering. Very pretty to look at, yes - the cinematography around Louisiana where it was filmed adds to the laconic atmosphere. But there is only so many shots of the river I could take before my concentration began to drift. I desperately wanted to go on a journey with this film but it feels so sporadic. I liked the storm and its aftermath (very timely, too) but hated the direction it took after that - it was too static, and then the 'rescue' by the volunteers didn't go anywhere either, it just seemed to serve a point that Hushpuppy and Wink are indigenous to their land, to the wild, and can't be doing with clean clothes, medicine and technology.

I found the whole sequence where she goes off to find her mother just bizarre. This is where the fairy tale element seems to fit the most - though we never know if it's her real mother or not whom Hushpuppy connects with, the idea of magically being drawn to her despite knowing nothing about her exists. But it didn't work for me - the strength Hushpuppy draws from it (to be able to stand up to a Auroch, when the film reminded me of something Miyazaki might do) she had within her anyway, we didn't need a sojourn like this to learn that. It's the scene where Wink is eating his last meal - Hushpuppy has to feed him he's so weak - and they are crying when I knew this film's heart had passed me by: this is the moment when you bawl your eyes out, but I was oblivious to any emotion except for the tiny bit of joy in knowing we were quite near the end.

Quvenzhane Wallis was great as Hushpuppy and had a lovely line of detail to her performance - she could say so much with her eyes alone. But it's just her age giving her acclaim here: she is really good, but it's not an Oscar winning work. I did enjoy the relationship she has with her father - both are fiery animals, he'll hit her, she'll hit him straight back - and he talks to her more as a man and a 'king of the Bathtub' than as a girl, as his daughter. Combined with her fierce spirit and independence it's hard to feel the heartbreak for Hushpuppy, and this is where my disconnect came in.

There were moments and details that I really loved, such as Hushpuppy's 'cave' drawings on her cardboard box, and the loungey 20s music soundtrack (which really reminded me of The Caretaker) was something of a surprise and complimented the film well. But it was more of a pleasant while away the hours than an essential viewing experience for me. Not one I'd watch again - too much vision for me, and not enough on the ground storytelling. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a bit like its young spirited protagonist: a girl trying to be an adult, this is a small film trying to be big, but it has lofty ambitions it can't quite grasp.





Friday, 26 October 2012

London Film Festival 2012 Weekend: Day 3

Sunday:

Rust and Bone
There's a moment in Jacques Audiard's new film Rust and Bone which has been called "the Katy Perry scene" and will make you cry an ocean. The scene features her (now popular on movie soundtracks) hit "Firework" and was the one thing everybody raved about coming out of Cannes. There are actually two "Firework" scenes, so don't be confused when the first one comes along about 15 minutes in and isn't very tear-jerking at all - quite the opposite in fact, as a terrible accident seriously injuries one of our main characters, Stephanie, played by an Oscar worthy Marion Cotillard. No it's the second scene much later which will dissolve you to mush - and this is the moment where Cotillard ascends into another level. No matter what you hear about this film being a tender love story between a broken woman and a man struggling with his own domestic issues (Ali, played by Matthias Schoenaerts) - Rust and Bone for me was about the relationship Stephanie has with her orca whales. The creatures she devoted her life to, her limbs trained in their own unique dance to guide them as they perform at the local marine park - it's these animals which destroy her life, without warning or intent, and from the darkest of depths she must find a way to come back into the world, and reach out to them again: it's the only way she can truly accept what has happened to her and move on. The "Katy Perry scene" coupled with the one just after where she re-creates her routine by tapping on the glass of their water tank (above) are absolutely gorgeous film making and acting. Audiard creates some striking and dramatic images in this film, but this will be what lingers in the mind afterward. Aside from this, it's Ali who the camera follows primarily, as we follow him move with his young son into the town of Antibes to live with his sister and her husband. He picks up odd work as a bouncer - where he first meets Stephanie - and as a security guard, but seems more interested in one night stands with random women and forging a name for himself in the underground fighting scene than he does creating a stable environment for his son, who is mainly cared for by his aunt. He seems incapable of knowing how to be a father, his attention erratic and his temper volcanic - particularly when an incident causes his son to break down into tears and he rashly throws him against a table. He is in all senses not particularly likable, which is why you are drawn to Stephanie's character instead, and where the heart of this film lies. Left in a wheelchair after her accident at the marine park, the confident girl becomes a shell, as her own relationship falls apart (this happens off camera, you're left to understand they cannot overcome her accident) and she moves into a specially modified apartment for her needs, with carers coming to help her with basic tasks throughout the day. She remembers her chance encounter with Ali at a nightclub and phones him on a whim, and the two of them form a strangely tender connection. He does not pity her injury, nor mollycoddle her, and she seems to soak up the strength and charisma he generates to build herself back up into the woman she once was again. For all the melodrama this film creates, I appreciate the lack of angst between these two characters. They're inseparable but they're not a couple; they have sex, but they're not lovers (Stephanie puts a ban on kissing). So much is unsaid. As the film goes on, Stephanie's jealousy at his one night stands grows and she tries to lay down some ground rules, but this is as far as they get to being in a relationship. She has always known from the moment he treated her like a normal human being she has needed him, but it's not until the very end after a (yet another!) tragic accident that he realises he needs her. A killer whale of a film, that also nabbed Best Film at the London Film Festival awards last weekend. I won't knock the stellar work of Schoenaerts and the rest of the cast, but if Cotillard doesn't get a second Oscar for her devastating, renewing portrayal here then I shall go make friends with a cat.
Aside: and this particular screening shall be forever infamously known as "Thrust and Bone" after a couple were asked to leave for having sex in the cinema. It was a sold out screening, I'll point out. Oh, that's what that "shout" was.




Antiviral
Brandon Cronenberg didn't watch his father's films until he was in his 20s. Still, the lust for visceral body horror must have been instilled in him sometime. Antiviral is Cronenberg Jnr's debut film, and draws interesting parallels to his father David's first feature effort, Stereo, which is also set in the near future and focuses on a form of twisted human science. Brandon Cronenberg's vision here is bold, ambitious and stark - all interior action is set against white minimalist backgrounds, emphasising the vibrant colour red in lipstick, or more prominently, in blood. In a celebrity obsessed world, which comes across markedly insular to our protagonist Syd (a strikingly physical Caleb Landry Jones), in an attempt to get even closer to their idols, fans are forking out dosh to have their virus's injected into them, causing them atrocious side effects and deformities they are more than happy to live with. Syd, an administrator of this practice and employee at one of the top clinics in the profession is himself addicted, infecting himself with a new strand of virus which has beset the biggest known celebrity in the world Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) - and which is now slowly killing her.... and him. If you can get past the incessant needles (and needle centric violence later on in the film), Antiviral is a lot like its shiny surfaces. It lures you in, but you're just left staring at an opaque glass surface. It never quite explores its own premise fully enough for this world to seem real - it's too clinical to feel authentic. Engagement is sidelined for looking on in disgust and fascination at these messed up people and the deeper layers of corruption Syd unveils as he tries to get to the truth. But here's the truth: it failed to fascinate me. For long stretches I was bored, detached from what was happening on the screen and finding it difficult to blend back in when my focus re-settled. A cameo from Malcolm McDowell raised a smile, but I was already at a loss as to what was happening and why. Not a film to my taste perhaps, but then again I'm not always in tune with the Cronenberg style - I can take it or leave it, so hopefully there's some greater work still to come from generation 2.0.







Monday, 22 October 2012

London Film Festival 2012 Weekend: Day 2

Saturday:

West of Memphis
There were some great documentaries playing at LFF this year, so I decided to fit one into my schedule - the winner being Amy Berg's West of Memphis, an account of the arrest, prosecution, appeal and release of the "West Memphis Three" convicted of killing three small boys in 1993. Berg, who had success in 2006 for her acclaimed documentary Deliver Us From Evil about the covering up of rape in the Catholic Church, is determined to also expose the truth here and show these men's innocence. What we ultimately get in a case still on-going, ridden with lies and political influence, is more questions, but an important breakthrough is captured in an extensive, fascinating and frightening depiction of the horrors of misjustice. In 1993 three young school boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas and were later found dead, having apparently been tortured, molested and drowned in a local stream. Three teenagers were soon arrested for their murder - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, the "West Memphis Three" - suspected because of their interest in satanic cults and practice and the similarities this matched with the young boys deaths. All three declared their innocence, but with witnesses attesting to their confessions of the murders, the three were declared guilty, given life imprisonment sentences and Echols handed the death penalty. The case was thought closed, until many years later Echols' wife Lorri Davis fights to get an appeal heard and a new, fair trial to be had to prove her husband - and his friends - innocent in light of new forensic evidence being available and a number of the damning witnesses admitting to lying on the stand. With the involvement and backing of director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran, the quest to seek justice is documented. The film does not shy from revealing all the facts, and there are some physical details in the case which do make for uncomfortable viewing, particularly the photos of the young boys bodies. Through archive footage we see how events unfolded back in 1993/4, with interviews from the victims' families and people involved in the trial speaking candidly and, in retrospect, shame. The facts of the case are laid out to us before they are pulled apart one by one supported by new evidence and more people coming forward to speak out who had not been heard from before. All signs pointed to the West Memphis Three being innocent of the murders, and as a convenient and quick way out for the police to close such a highly emotional and delicate case, and the real culprit being that of Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the young boys killed. The film points fingers, but in a considered and factual way, as DNA found at the scene is matched with Hobbs, and his nephew confides to his friends he overheard his uncle confessing to the crime. There are no direct interviews with Hobbs in the film - understandably - and whilst his culpability remains open to investigation (it's hard to see why this film would not act in this way), the real focus is on the West Memphis Three's appeal to be released, which they eventually are under the Alford Plea - a contradictory statement which goes above my knowledge of the legal system where you plead guilty but also not guilty at the same time. This way, the three men are freed but justice has not yet been served - not until the real killer has been caught. West of Memphis is such a vital documentary, vital to being made and vital that many people see it. Let us not underestimate the power of media in situations like this, where everybody involved is so sure of the cause and the need for a resolution - stars such as Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp are long time supporters of their case, and participate in this film (and indeed its distribution and festival appearances) doing all they can to help move things forward in a positive direction. Berg in the Q&A which followed also spoke out about the power of investigative journalism, and in a watered down news industry (she herself came from CNN) its most influential platform is now film documentaries. There are so many elements to this case it could be a work of fiction in itself - it's comprehensive at 147 minutes, but the dogged determination of Davis and fellow supporters keeps you rapt throughout. And if not, the alligator snapping turtles will soon grab your attention - Jesus Christ! Please see this at the earliest opportunity, and spread the word: I knew nothing about this beforehand, and now not only am I enlightened but my eyes have been well and truly wedged open.





The Hunt
I'M STILL RECOVERING. A bit like when I first came out of Take Shelter and couldn't breathe properly for ages afterward because I had been holding my breath for so long, with The Hunt the feeling was more akin to having someone put their hand inside your stomach and then wring the intestines. Needless to say, this film had a profound effect upon me, leaving me with the question: how can something so powerful make you not want to watch it ever again? At least with Take Shelter I was blown away by the atmosphere of the piece, and not long after desperate to re-visit it. Here, I honestly don't think I could sit through The Hunt again, as traumatising and difficult it is to watch. But it's an astonishingly brilliant film, propelled by a monumental performance from Mads Mikkelsen who plays Lucas, a nursery teacher accused of sexually abusing one of his young pupils. Set in a small Danish town, it's fascinating yet horrifying to see how this impulsive lie from a five year old can escalate. Lucas, as we see at the beginning of the film, is well-liked by the community and popular with the nursery kids, he has a loving son he is desperate to spend more time with and burgeoning romance with a cleaner at the nursery. He has a strong group of friends, and it's even more devastating that the lie comes from the youngest child of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). The speed at which they all turn on him in light of these allegations is horrendous - anger will be just the first of many emotions that will encompass you watching this man fall into ruin. The only two people who stick up for him and maintain his innocence are his son Marcus (a brilliantly affecting debut from Lasse Fogelstrom) and his friend Bruun, who interestingly is childless. It's the parents who suddenly disregard the Lucas they have known all their lives and replace him with this monster figure, and all their hate has been fuelled by the nursery's owner and Lucas's boss Grethe. She is the one who picks up on young Klara's remark and twists it into something life shattering. Because we know Lucas is innocent it is near impossible to see Grethe's reasoning and how she was just acting on her instincts to protect the children - more glaringly we see an appetite for drama in her when she starts joining dots in her mind. It's almost as if she revels in the flurry of events which follow, as she informs Klara's parents, and then the whole nursery's parents, and this forms the catalyst of a witch hunt to bring Lucas to justice. Lucas meanwhile is played with a haunting sombreness by Mikkelson - instead of getting angry (like us viewers are!) and screaming his innocence, his shock of what has happened and the disloyalty of his friends and colleagues leaves him numb. Unable to be angry at Klara - she is only five, she cannot know what she has done - he pleads with her to tell the truth, only for her alarmed parents to banish him from their once welcome home. There's a moment when a confused Klara tells her mother, "I didn't mean what I said, it was just nonsense" (sic), and her mother soothingly tells her, "this did happen Klara" when I wanted to get up and smack every actor on the screen. Thomas Vinterberg is excellent in the little details which make this story all the more troubling for its truth to life. In the Q&A afterwards he spoke of how he had studied many real life cases in research for the script, and how the conversation between Klara and the man in the role of unstated social worker/counsellor is the exact transcription of an interview between a child and a carer, but he had "taken the worst bits out." Makes you shudder to the bone. Halfway through the film something terrible happens which tipped me into unbearable anguish and tears for the rest of the film (I won't reveal what it is here, but it's ominous from the off). The stand out scene of the film is a Christmas mass at the local church, in which Lucas stares down Theo, tears running down his cheeks, his eyes pleading for his best friend to believe him. And we are taken back to the very beginning of the film, where the jovial best friends are bantering to one another and Theo tells him, "I can tell when you're lying because your eyes twitch." Lucas' eyes are not twitching here. The ending is very key for me, because the friends I saw the film with interpreted it in a completely different way. I was sure what happens is imaginary and inside Lucas' head, whereas they were adamant that it had really happened. Unfortunately for me, Vinterberg has gone on record saying it really did happen, so my argument doesn't stand up anymore. But my question to you when you go and see this film - as you must - is what do you think?
The Hunt is out on November 30th, but catch it at the Leeds Film Festival sooner than that. IT'S MY FIRST FIVE CHEESE FILM OF THE YEAR!





John Dies at the End
Apologies, apologies for this one: never go into a 11.30pm screening after drinking cocktails. Especially in a cinema so warm and comfy... Yes I hate to say I wasn't as alert as I should have been for my LFF screening of John Dies at the End, even when director Don Coscarelli made a surprise appearance to introduce the film. But I want to stress that this was down to a woozy boozy blanket than it being a dullsville film. In fact, John Dies at the End is the complete opposite of dullsville - it's STARK RAVING LUNACY. It's the most fun and bizarre b-movie horror sci-fi film on a bad drugs trip you are likely to see, well, in your life. From the very first 'scenario' where our hero Dave (Chase Williamson) and his best friend John (of the title - played by Rob Mayes) go to investigate a weird supernatural presence at a young girl's house and it turns out to be a monster made of raw meat who they end up bargaining with - it sets the tone for the rest of the film. If you're not in, get out. It's a bit like Supernatural on acid. The pacing is zippy, the writing hilariously off-kilter, and you've just got to admire - if not worry - about the sheer imagination of David Wong (real name Jason Pargin), the editor of cracked.com who started this adventure as a web series which grew such in popularity that here it is now in cinemas. With a plot impossible to describe coherently with a straight face, let's just say things begin to go awry for Dave and John when they take the drug soy sauce and are suddenly open to other dimensions, creatures, and psychic powers. Dave even has trouble explaining it all to journalist Arnie (a game Paul Giamatti) and what's real and not real is an ever present state of mind. I was lucky enough to be in an audience of die hard John Dies at the End and Don Coscarelli fans, so the mood in the cinema and the peels of laughter and spontaneous applause throughout the film's barrel of bonkers was a joy, from Dave speaking on a hot dog phone to the best world saving dog in the history of the universe. Constantly surprising and hilarious, don't try to thread things together as you watch as it will only hamper the purity of your enjoyment. Just let go and prepare to be weirded out: I can't wait to have a proper, proper go (again) when John Dies at the End comes to the Leeds Film Festival next month.