Sunday, 30 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Anna Karenina



Despite my best intentions to see Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, I ended up seeing it as a back up choice, when my free screening of Liberal Arts was cancelled (thanks, Revolver) and I didn't want to have travelled all the way to Bradford in the pouring rain for no reason. For other matters I won't bore you with, the whole night turned out to be quite a shocker, so it was with welcome thanks that Anna Karenina didn't add to the misery. It was sweeping and luxurious - and all I wanted to do afterwards was curl up with Gone With the Wind (and that's a compliment!).

I haven't read the book by Leo Tolstoy, but the ending is infamous (imagine going in not knowing the ending! envious!) - what I wanted most from this film, and what I was most intrigued by, was to understand how it could get to that point, was there was no other option for her? I wanted the story to pull me in so much that my rational self would be humbled by the strength of this classic and ill-starred love story.

Anna (Keira Knightley) is happy with her life in St Petersburg, married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a wealthy statesman and besotted with her young son Seryozha. She is contented, lives a life of happy luxury, and is thought of well in society. But it's during a trip to Moscow to visit her brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen) where she attends a grand ball held for young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) to make her debut in society when Anna begins to feel the longing of being young and free again, and finds herself daringly attracted to Kitty's suitor, and son of the Countess she travelled on the train with, Calvary officer Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). He, who up until this moment only had eyes for the sweet and innocent Kitty, is also drawn to to Anna, and the two of them share a dance which lasts long into the evening - and their reluctance to separate and find another partner, particularly for Vronsky to dance with his bride in waiting Kitty, becomes inappropriate, and ends in humiliation for Kitty and shamed desire for Anna and Vronsky, who unable to shake her travels back with her to St Petersburg and pursues her until the two of them can no longer suppress their feelings and begin an affair. The two meet in secret, and though Karenin suspects his wife may be treading a dangerous path, is only moved to verbally restrain her after she reacts senselessly in front of an audience when Vronsky falls from his horse in a race and is nearly killed - her irrepressible love for him betrays her stoic and elegant portrayal as Karenin's wife. But she cannot do as her husband wishes and cut all ties with Vronsky - she reveals that she is carrying his baby, and Karenin leaves her. Despite now being free to be with the man she loves, Anna becomes feverish in her pregnancy and begs for her husband's forgiveness, driving Vronsky away when she gives birth to their daughter, but then later feeling horrified that she pushed him away. Karenin angry that she cannot let this young boy go disowns her, prohibiting Anna from seeing Seryozha, and refusing to begin divorce proceedings too - leaving Anna not just in an emotional whirlpool, but as a leper in society, with all her long term friends now frowning at her audacity to show herself in public. Unable to be with Vronsky except for behind closed doors, she becomes increasingly paranoid he is cavorting with other women, especially younger princesses, and despite his protestations her anxiety cannot be cured, but neither can she find a purpose in anything else but her love for Vronsky. This torment will ultimately destroy her.

This is my first Joe Wright film, surprisingly enough. Atonement has long been on my to-see list, but his other films have never ignited my curiosity. There have been plenty of adaptations of Anna Karenina, most notably the 1948 version with Vivien Leigh playing the doomed heroine - a fact I like a lot as she shares many qualities with Leigh's Scarlet O'Hara, my favourite leading lady (and spoilt brat) in cinema. But what Wright does admirably to make his version stand out is he chooses to set the adaptation in a theatre - on a proscenium stage, like a picture frame we are watching these characters play out this epic love story. This device is used so well - I loved when the actors would leave a scene by climbing a ladder up to the fly tower, which would then becomes an attic or a bedroom, or when Anna is meeting Vronsky in a meadow, and the stage and auditorium would be filled with wheatgrass. Beautifully done - the only other film I've seen like this is a Czech film called The Karamazovs, which also centres on a theatre production of a Russian novel, this time Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, but this focuses more on the rehearsals and the actors themselves taking part in the play, whereas with Anna Karenina the theatre audience is us, and the proscenium is more aesthetic than it is functional. Wright also manages to capture the sumptuousness of Russian high society, and the clothes and decor are just divine - I fell in love with wanting to be a Russian Princess and attend balls, and the Opera, and wear lung-squeezing gowns. Credit also to screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who brings Tolstoy's story into Joe Wright's unique vision with seamless effort.

There are ominous portents littered throughout the film: Countess Vronskaya talking about having no regrets for acting upon her passions, something Anna cannot understand; the ruin awaiting Dolly if she were to leave her husband; the railway worker's death under the train; Anna's continual wearing of black - all point towards Anna's ruin and eventual tragedy. I particularly loved the use of trains, especially when Anna leaves the ball after dancing with Vronsky and as her passions overwhelm her all she can hear are the shrieking, clumping roar of the train's wheels against the iron tracks. The end when it comes is a blur of impulsive madness, something you feel is stronger than Anna's mind and will; it brings her only comfort. Knightley is good in this, but I always find her a bit shrill. She is wonderful at being carefree at the beginning of the film, and defiant when she needs to be. But when she's desperate and clinging to both Karenin and Vronsky, she loses the power to be pitied.

Jude Law is just the right amount of broken here: he reins it in beautifully to give a powerful understated performance when in earlier roles of similar heartache he can be completely irritating. Aaron Johnson was the one I was worried for - he is the weakest here, but not as out of his depth as I feared he would be. He matches Knightley well, and they are believable in their impassioned trysts, but he feels a little too young at times. When Vronsky should be strong and seductive, he comes across more persistent. It's the Moscow crowd which really stand out: MacFayden is brilliantly humorous as Oblonsky, despite his inability to stay faithful, and Kelly MacDonald is strong as his poor wife Dolly. But it's the parallel romance of Kitty and Levin, played by Domhnall Gleeson, which I enjoyed the most. Their storyline heavily reduced from Tolstoy's words but I understand given much more screen time than previous adaptations, I loved their gentle and awkward romance,  that is a true and loyal love not born out an illicit affair or an arrangement. The scene with the toy letter blocks, an unspoken declaration of their love, is quite beautiful, as is Levin's determination for princess Kitty not to see his brother's decay into alcoholic ruin and his mistress - and yet she pushes him aside, rolls up her sleeves and begins to wash him - showing us she accepts Levin wholeheartedly, dirt and all.

Two hours of glorious and luscious escapism await: perhaps you won't come away feeling like your heart has been through the wringer with Anna Karenina, but it's a distance you'll still savour, having been dazzled by how pretty it is look at, and enraptured by a truly classic love story.


Monday, 24 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Berberian Sound Studio


The paranoia and nightmares of alienation manifest brilliantly in Peter Strickland's second feature film Berberian Sound Studio, starring Toby Jones and set in a 1970s Italian giallo production. The film has been earning rave reviews since its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, and I finally got to see it this weekend after weeks of anticipation... and I have mixed feelings about its 'genius'.

Gilderoy (Jones), the quintessential middle aged polite Englishman, turns up at an Italian film studio where he has been hired as the sound engineer for a new project by the director Santini. Unbeknownst to Gilderoy, who has a background of working on children's TV programmes and nature films set in his own childhood home of Surrey, he has accepted the job on a giallo film - a pulpy fantastical horror film (think Argento) about a horse riding academy cursed by ancient witchcraft called The Equestrian Vortex (there's a great opening scene where we get the credits for Berberian Sound Studio, and then the giallo film - a film within a film). Thrust into a world where he is surrounded by erratic, often angry co-workers including Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who speak a different language to him and have no desire to familiarise Gilderoy, he feels uneasy and lost, emotions which are only perpetuated by the claustrophobia of the film's intense and chilling subject matter. His only moments of comfort are reading the letters he receives from his mother telling him about life back home, and a fledgling friendship with the film's lead actress Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro). But after her departure from the film following sexual harassment from the director, Gilderoy's psyche really begins to deteriorate, giving way to frightening dreams and hallucinations which put him inside the film he's working on.

The first hour is gripping, though very little happens besides watching the making of the film from Gilderoy's perspective (we never see any of the scenes, just the dialogue spoken by the actors and the sound effects to go with the action) and his timid attempts to try and get a reimbursement on his plane ticket. It's so effective in detailing the estrangement he feels in the production, to the people around him and to the film's graphic content. It's an understated and thoroughly convincing slide into madness - and who wouldn't go a little crazy with having no one to speak to practically all day and having your every waking moment consumed by blood curdling screams, deathly whispers and frightening images? To us, the audience, it's actually pretty amusing at times - the girls wandering in poultry tunnels, a 'dangerously aroused goblin' stalking the dormitory - and to the Italian cast and crew working on the film, it's just another day at the office - it's normal. They joke around, indulge in chocolates and cocktails and have the hypocritical and confusing air of not taking it seriously, but at the same time taking it very seriously indeed, and criticising Gilderoy anytime he offers up an opinion on the film. You can see why to a repressed, passive man how this would unsettle and disorientate you to the point of delusion. There's a scene halfway through where Gilderoy is being forced to do the foley effects for burning a witch (sizzling oil) when he freezes and tells Francesco he thinks he should go home - after the Producer reprimands him and tells him to be professional, the director Santini corners him (and hilariously feeds him a grape, in my best force feed scene of the year) and asks him, "why do you want to escape?" Those words came back to me in the film's overblown climax, as Veronica leaves the film mid-way through production and destroys all her reels of footage, leaving Santini and Francesco to audition for a replacement actress - who then also leaves. How can Gilderoy escape when the film can never finish?

As well as setting up the menace and the dread masterfully, Strickland is also the only director who could make a cabbage look so frightening. A long, close-up shot of its veiny leaves was so unsettling - as was the continued shots of the vegetables used for stabbing, pulling out hair, bodies hitting the ground, mutilation, just rotting on the ground: decaying just as Gilderoy's mindset is decaying. There's a constant feeling that everyone is against him - from the other technician's anger at him 'messing around with his faders', to the unrelenting misery and annoyance he receives from the studio's receptionist Elena. Yet there is a beautiful scene, probably my favourite of the film, where just once Gilderoy manages to captivate his co-workers and lead them to adore him: when there is a power cut on set and the place is lit with candles, he shows them how you can make a UFO out of a light bulb. They are so transfixed, but in an instant the power comes back on and the spell is broken as everyone goes back to work. That feeling of belonging is so fleeting, it seems even more dangerous for Gilderoy's fragile emotions.

Toby Jones gives a great central performance here - he is able to carry each stage of Gilderoy's decline with such resolve. When he gets mad you can feel the frustration in him, when he slumps over the desk you feel his apathy, when he stares at the camera you can feel his unbalance. But the humour is there too - more than a couple of times I felt a slight hint of Rowan Atkinson about him - a bumbling Englishman making a show of himself amongst an offhand elite.

But - argh! The final half an hour was just a mess, and a direction Strickland takes too OTT. It starts with Gilderoy furious at the finance department for the delay with his ticket receipt, when they tell him "there was no flight from England on that day." And then the dreams of being attacked in his bedroom at night by intruders, with similar nightmare scenarios from The Equestrian Vortex - a witch coming at him in bed with a knife. And then suddenly he is speaking fluent Italian (albeit dubbed, which was a nice touch), and tormenting the actresses, and the film reel burns into the film he was working on before about the English countryside... it's all amounting to one thing: this is all inside Gilderoy's head.

But no, no, NO! I refuse to believe this is one of those films with a clever underlying narrative that will be revealed on further watches (though I'm all for watching it again). The ending will not make sense in retrospect - perhaps if you fill your brain with theories from the Internet and then attempt to mould them into a re-watch you will find satisfaction, but based on repeat viewings alone I just feel the end descends into nonsense. Why oh why did Strickland not play this straight? Katalin Varga is so strong because it is simple, effective and its bleakness comes from the tragic vengeance and demise of the titular character. It is understated and linear, and powerful in its nuances. Its frustrating because I can see a perfectly chilling ending to Berberian Sound Studio, with the horror escalating to Gilderoy's filmic night terrors and being so clever to use the devices Strickland has educated us in - foley, sound design, fading - to Gilderoy's end. I loved the witch scene - it's so believable that the world of the film would start to penetrate your subconscious, and choosing to omit any sound from the attack just added to the disjointedness and disorientation of his world. Why include the odd scenes after ward, why the Lynchian tendencies? I've read arguments that Gilderoy was mad before he even started working on the film, that perhaps he was full on Norman Bates and had killed his mother, and was writing letters to himself - that would mean the film's infatuation with violence against women is substantiated. But Berberian was strong enough alone not to have these complexities and other layers which lead to IMDB theories - I just wish the director had dialled it down towards the end.

Still one of the best British films in recent years, Berberian Sound Studio is astonishingly good for its concept and execution - at least Strickland won't have any trouble funding further projects. But only two thirds a great film - the climax is just too opaque to hail it a classic.


Friday, 21 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Premium Rush



18:04

Gotta do a review for this film called Premium Rush that I saw the other day. Got my notes so I'm ahead of the game, might go make a cup of tea before I dive in, yeah.

18:10

OK, I'm here. First up, let me tell you how I got here. Well the hubby and I just can't get enough of Michael Shannon, he's just the best person in the universe bar maybe Natalie Portman on my side and Nathan Fillion on his, so we'll damn well go see him do any kind of film under the cinema roof 'cept maybe if it has Katherine Heigl in but he's too cool for that shit. Anyway so, his next film turns out to be a race against time film on bikes in New York City, and he's playing a dirty cop. YES. He will be a great villain. We're in. But the bus doesn't turn up so we decide to walk into town to get to the cinema, gotta make that 6.20pm showing in plenty of time as there might be good trailers right. And then what does it do - it POURS DOWN like the sky's having a party because it's also a Michael Shannon fan or whatever, so we arrive at the cinema soaking wet and cold and then it turns out we are the only people in the entire screen. Someone is bound to turn up during the adverts though, right?

18:18

Still just us. This is amazing. I start wondering what would happen if Michael Shannon was the only other person who turned up - would it be terrifying being the only people in a cinema with Michael Shannon or would we be giddy with glee?

18:19

Now time for that awful Orange promo for The Sweeney. I almost want that little twat from The Inbetweeners back. In other news, no one is here except for us so we are definitely going to be on our own. Too good. We hang out wet coats on the seats in front of us and everything. 

18:20

Time to get down to the basics. Well Premium Rush is the new film from David Koepp, yeah you might know him from such adventures as Panic Room, Mission Impossible and only freakin' Jurassic Park. Skilled at these confined, against the clock stories he's just the guy you want at the helm for a film about a cocky, thrill seeking bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who's been tasked with delivering a special envelope to a specific address before 7pm (not my time, that would be DAFT). A simple enough task, but that envelope contains a ticket disguising as a great deal of money, which is just what Detective Bobby Monday (Shannon) needs to get him out of his uncontrollable gambling habit. Naturally Wilee doesn't want to give it up so easily, and a chase through the car-locked streets of the city attracts the attention of the NYPD - also on bikes - which means Wilee now has two cats on his tail, whilst also having to deal with moody girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and love rival and competitive workmate Manny (Wole Parks). And it's all gonna go down in 90 minutes.

18:26

The plot's a little murky, a little clumsy - Underground gangs! Hitmen! The Hawala System! - but the central concept is simple enough: who gets the ticket? And it's lots of fun, a proper popcorn flick. Which is great because we snuck in a whole bag of popcorn. As always with an action movie (it's too breezy to be a thriller) that's subjected to a time frame or one location, the script has to be inventive enough to keep the motivation going and the audience interested. It's one of the longer 90 minute 'sprints' I've had to sit through, but there were definitely areas that worked for me: the disjointed chronology of the time line and filling in each character's back stories was well done, the ongoing interplay between Wilee and the out of luck NYPD cop was well maintained and closed too ("I'm out!") and the general pulling together of all the characters for the climax. Koepp is adept at this and pulls it off in entertaining style here, with strong echoes of Danny Boyle with use of lots of whizzy techno devices - locating destinations, street view, plotting alternate routes - this was Google Maps just showing off (take heed, Apple). Enjoyed the in-traffic slow motion breakdowns too, as Wilee analyses which is the safest way to weave through the cars. He has this knack to always finding a way out - until he runs out of options.

18:34

An usher comes in to check on us. We're behaving ourselves, right!

18:35

Where the film dragged and let itself down - the relationship stuff with Wilee and his girl was boring, and an extra layer that could have made the editing room floor - or if he needs to have a girl let's cut the angst at least.  The actress who played Nima, the girl who gives Wilee the ticket to set off the chain of events, was a tad soggy. The drama lacked intrigue too, as you always knew the outcome would end safely. Not to say I wasn't holding my breath in places, especially when Wilee and Manny race through Central Park - an exhilarating sequence. I can't believe these guys didn't break more bones! Speaking of which..

18:41

... Joseph Gordon-Levitt is strong as ever here, in a role which he actually filmed a couple of years ago such is the dusty shelf life of this film's distribution. He had the right blend of tenacious annoyance to be this character - arrogant in places, but with his heart in the right place. Impressive he did the majority of his own stunts too - watch out for the VT in the end credits where he proudly holds up an arm gushing with blood which would need several stitches.

18:45

But as with any down to the wire film, let's leave all the best bits til last. MICHAEL SHANNON! This is the most entertaining I've ever seen him, and the most lively too - refreshing to see him resting his tormented inner demons after the likes of Take Shelter, Bug and Boardwalk Empire (which is back on HBO this week, folks! Sell those irons! What a great poker face!). Loved his frustration, his little ticks, his inner monologues bubbling out of his mouth as he desperately pursues Wilee on his bike - could just imagine him uttering "whyieyesya!" and shaking his fist. His rant to Wilee in the ambulance van about "language today" and his offence at the insult "SUCK IT!" - which Wilee smugly retorts back to him later in the film - was just brilliant. His insane laughs, his bug eyes... he's just so god damn watchable. Can he be in all films please? He would be a great dwarf in The Hobbit. It was lucky we were alone in the cinema as plenty of times I was stamping in delight at his antics! It just wasn't his day, and poor Michael Shannon when he gets flash mobbed by kids on their bikes and his comeuppance by a Buddha Milton from Office Space.

18:54

Film ends. Gotta get the bus. Feeling damp and slightly sorry for ourselves. Grinning from ear to ear about the Shannon. Pretty solid. It's gonna get an extra cheese for ol' mad eyes. We rush down the escalators...

18:57

NO WE MISSED THE GOD DAMN BUS AGAIN. Imma calling a taxi on this god damn travel nonsense.

19:00



Thursday, 20 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Myth of the American Sleepover



Forgive me if I become a complete and utter girl for the next few minutes, but one of the best parts about being a teenager - and I am squarely in the 'being an adult is better' camp to be clear - were the sleepovers. Not just because it was a time when you could wear comfy pyjamas, eat junk food, gossip and watch horror films (or just The X Files) but for the magic that comes with it. If you're a teenage girl then you've been brought up on the romantic notion of sleepovers in books, TV and film from the age of about 6 - there's just something unsurpassably giddy about not having to say goodbye to your friends and leave at some point during the evening, and having the whole night stretched out ahead of you to be with your favourite people at your most content. The idea of staying up past a certain time was also thrilling in itself, and there was a real sense of achievement if you could make it through until morning without a wink. So as a hark back to those lost nostalgic days of youth, this weekend I watched two sleepover films: vastly different in tone, and though this isn't strictly a comparison piece there was no way better than to laud the sublimely better and all round treat that was The Myth of the American Sleepover.

What's instantly likable about David Robert Mitchell's film is that the word sleepover with its connotations of the above - girly chit chat, painting toe nails and playing Truth or Dare, is turned on its head as his representation is about dispelling those forged perceptions - this is The Myth of the American Sleepover. It is the complete antithesis of the other film I watched this weekend which is the epitome of those ideas - and markedly called Sleepover! Four girls dress up in older clothes, dance around to the Spice Girls, paint their nails, order pizza and look at social websites. It's plastic and silly, incredibly contrived, and is the kind of film you'd watch as a pre-high schooler and be completely obsessed with. But you shouldn't be watching it in your mid 20s - slap on my wrist.

But here is a film you can watch 10 years after you leave your tie and blazer behind, and utterly adore it for its juvenessence. The Myth of the American Sleepover is set in the suburbs of Detroit on the last Summer weekend before the new school term begins. Primarily following four teenagers on this everlasting night, the story lines weave in and out of each other as beautifully as the characters dance around one another, searching for their "one". Pool girl Maggie is desperate for one last flourish of the holiday and is attracted to older, pool guy Steven and snubs the main sleepover for a party to find him, dragging best mate Beth along; Scott is on Summer break before his last year at College but doesn't want to go back, instead seeking out the Abbey twins whom he fantasised over when he was younger; Rob sees a girl in a supermarket and becomes infatuated with seeing her again, trailing around the whole night looking in every possible spot for her; new girl Claudia is invited to popular girl Janelle's sleepover, but instead of making friends asserts herself when she reads her host's diary and finds some unwelcome secrets.

This film doesn't meet the expectations of a conventional sleepover - characters drift in and out of the house, they go to parties, 'make out' tunnels, gardens, boats on lakes, College gymnasiums - it evokes that feeling of dreamy sentimentality with a purity that is both so languid and adroit it's dazzling. Each story feels like a memory of your own - and though Mitchell has said none of the film was based on his own experiences, it doesn't feel fictitious or most depressingly theatrical: it's your own adolescence. The setting and the characters may feel slightly alien, but the emotions and observations will hit the deja vu button in an instant.

But it's not the icky, uncomfortable reminiscing of teenage life you get with this - it's far too sensuous and serene for that. It's full of moments that will make you remember your innocence, as much as moments where you'll be full of wonder and amazement at these free spirited teens: Rob watching the girl of his dreams smell and pick a new shampoo in the supermarket, he goes straight over to the shelf to smell the bottle too; a boy telling his best friend how he casually made out with this girl, as she simultaneously tells her friends that they sat on the sofa and watched cartoons; dialogue such as "Can I kiss you?" betraying the emotional vulnerability of a sudden intimate situation. I think my favourite moment of the whole film though was following new girl Claudia (the striking Amanda Bauer) as she nips to the loo at Janelle's sleepover, only to be enticed by being in the girl's bedroom and coming across her diary. Upon finding it, she reads the last entry and finds out her boyfriend and Janelle have been flirting - instead of putting the diary away and taking this information with her, she gets out a pen and writes "SLUT!" underneath Janelle's own words. It was amazing! I love when characters surprise you on screen - up until then Claudia had been relatively quiet and passive, and this revealed a whole new side of her, leading to further events (which I won't spoil here) which made her the pivotal character for me. Whilst the other three story lines centre on a burgeoning romance, Claudia is fiercely independent and impulsive, making her by far the most interesting to watch.

But the other stories were fascinating too - there was no weak link here. Each featured a unique take on grappling with your feelings at such a young age: Maggie is slightly rebellious and finds herself attracted to the older guy, but yet can't stop herself from kissing someone else at the same time. The especially cute moment on the water slide towards the end where Steven does want to kiss her and she says no because she "doesn't want to rush" shows where her true feelings lie. It puts paid to the adage: if you're serious about someone then you don't joke about it with your friends. Scott has lost his way, at college and dumped by his long term girlfriend, and in seeking out the twins from his school days he is trying to find his way back to this limbo between adolescence and adulthood, where everything is still full of promise. Scott is heading backwards just as Rob is moving forward, after discovering the girl of his dreams from the supermarket is the type of girl who hangs out in the make-out tunnels with different guys phone numbers scribbled on her arm, he finally connects with his sister's best friend who is staying at his house and they share a first kiss under the stars. It's cute and perfect, amplified by witty interchanges of dialogue - "I knew you could tell, that's why I told you" and the clever reversal of expectation: throughout the film Rob and the supermarket girl always miss each other by fractions of a second, so surely they are meant to be together - but it is just a dream, and the reality is actually the familiar. This film plays heavily on the idea of intuition and knowing who you are meant to be with - it may be a little fantastical, but it harks back to what I said earlier about the characters dancing around one another and like magnets they are drawn to their partners. The non-professional cast are just standouts.

The hilarious Sleepover you don't want an invite to

Myth's natural approach just makes the gauche Sleepover all the more loud and clumsy, seeping over into creepy mode when the main girl (Julie)'s crush is revealed to be hiding in her tree house at the end and they finally share that scene ending kiss. The crush, who's really cool and would never have noticed a girl like her until suddenly he does and they end up together like a fairytale. Except it's too ridiculous to be a fairytale, and is an infuriating caper of coincidences, TV movie by the numbers at best, but to its credit has hilarious pre-fame appearances from Evan Peters (American Horror Story) as a goofy skateboarder, Sara Paxton (The Innkeepers) as the bitchy-but-not-so-different-from-the-uncool-girls teen, and Jane Lynch (Glee) as the over-protective mother who won't let her 'baby' grow up. There was one half decent line about a bridge between ladybugs and boys, and "I'm still standing on that bridge" but overall it felt as annoying as you'd find a teenager today, which makes it even easier to revel in the gentle subtlety of David Robert Mitchell's film.

Whereas Sleepover also felt instantly dated on its eight years, Myth feels timeless, with the director choosing to omit mobile phones, computers, pop culture references and modern music from the film. It feels now, and relevant, but you couldn't place that time. The shooting on a DSLR (I believe) camera as well gives it that retro look that's trendy, meaning it captures that 'anytime' feel perfectly. It had the soupy feel of Stay The Same Never Change, but the captivation of West of Pluto - two indie teen dramas I've seen recently, and it reminded me a lot of the 2008 documentary American Teen in many ways too - it's clear to see why this has been a big festival hit.

Bittersweet and mellifluous, The Myth of the American Sleepover will charm you into a daze of a childhood you once had, or at least touched on at one time. It has one thing in common with Joe Nussbaum's Sleepover - they're not about midnight feasting, secret swapping slumber parties. But here's where they finally stand at the end: one is beautiful and essential viewing.


Saturday, 15 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Dredd



After a few busy days of travelling around the South West, what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon with lots of ballsy, brainless gore? Not usually my type of film, but sometimes you have to follow your favourite people - lovely Olivia Thirlby - and every so often, just something about one of these ten a penny genre flicks will pique my interest. British, refreshingly stubborn with its 18 rating, strong cast and an even stronger trailer - I put my desire for an unchallenged afternoon off in the hands of Dredd (sadly in inescapable 3D). 

Set in the apocalyptic futuristic city of Mega City One, where civilisation has fallen into crime, disorder and ruin, it is up to the Judges of the Hall of Justice to serve as the law: as judge, jury, executioner all in one. When a homicide is reported at one of the major high rise tower blocks in the city, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and his shadowing rookie Anderson (Thirlby) take the decision to investigate, but when they capture a suspect and lead him off to his sentencing, the exits of the tower block are closed when drugs 'queen pin' Mama (Lena Headey) seals off the whole building and demands the two Judges be killed by her posse of Slo Mo addicted henchmen, who live all over the complex.

Firstly - STOP WITH THE COMPARISONS TO THE RAID! Any time I hear this film being talked about, the other British film that's set in the confines of a tower block is brought up needlessly. I haven't seen The Raid so perhaps I am less subjective, but that is a martial arts movie dependent on choreographed fighting techniques to steer the film, whereas Dredd is a gritty, violent sci-fi action film based on a comic book series, so though the plots may crossover comparing the two is lazy. So let's all just drop it.

Some of the set pieces in this film are brilliant. Though the Slo Mo drug was primarily used to jus up the 3D fit, it was also used to supremely violent effect by director Pete Travis when the two Judges storm an apartment in the tower block and take out a number of Mama's henchmen with guns - now you know what happens when a bullet tears through the side of someone's face at high speed in slow motion! *strokes cheek fretfully* And of course, Mama taking out a whole level of the tower block whilst the judges try to escape the line of fire is pretty spectacular. Considering this was made for £45m, it's a really smart opening film for a franchise. There's a sneaky peak of Mega City One in the first 10 minutes and the Hall of Justice, but all action is confined to the Peach Trees tower block (love that name!) to keep the costs down. But this device did little to hinder the film's impact as the story was well constructed to be a balance of suspense and action within claustrophobic, terror laden corridors and an introduction to the character of Dredd and his personality, as well as an insight into his daily life as a Judge, through the eyes of rookie Anderson.

The cast very strong indeed. Urban a great presence as Dredd - even though he's all chin he commands the screen. Thirlby was good - not great, but her character does take a while to get going. The psychic abilities with their wobbly glowy effect every few minutes became a bit tiresome. Heady so, so good as the soulless and dead eyed villain, taking her wicked potential with Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones to a whole new level of cruel brutality with Mama.

The story is very well done - particularly homing Anderson's character from meek and hesitant newbie to powerful and decisive towards the end: "are you ready? You look ready". Nice touch when she realises the woman who has just helped her is the wife of the man she has just killed - her first kill as well. But if there's damning faults it's the dialogue being so ropey in parts - I expected more from a screenplay written by Alex Garland, who has adapted The Beach and Never Let Me Go. Whether he was keeping true to the comics and Dredd genuinely is that stilted, but 'poignant' lines that he growls such as "interesting" "I was waiting for her shoot you" and even "yeaaaaaah" as he finishes off Mama at the end just had me in fits of giggles. Not quite surpassing the heavy-footed action genre into something a little more sophisticated and complex just yet it seems.

Dredd is getting a slightly higher cheese rating for the Thirlby, but also because I'm excited to see what can be done with the sequel(s) and exploring the world of Mega City One. I think the franchise has so much potential, and after topping the UK Box Office in its week of release should hopefully secure itself a bigger budget for the next outing. It made me think a lot of Hellboy actually - and look how that progressed in scale and vision in its next trip.

A lot like a first person shooter video game on the big screen, but unabashed enjoyable fodder. Can easily see myself watching again on late night TV in a few years time. Also, can haz Olivia Thirlby's hair plz? What pixie wisps!



Monday, 3 September 2012

PREVIEW: Toronto Film Festival 2012


37th Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Sept 6 - 16 


OK I've had enough: I'm going to damn well look at the Toronto Film Festival this year, as every single time I miss it, and I don't know why, because apart from the magic that is Sundance, and the enigma that is Telluride (currently happening right this moment), TIFF is probably my favourite of the big festivals. This year alone there are more than 30 films I want to bring to your attention, and that's without repeating what's been at Sundance, Cannes and Venice previously. The line up for TIFF this year is nothing short of extraordinary, and I need to cut this waffle short now just so I can get on with it. I'd have a cup of tea and a Curly Wurly at the ready if I were you.

OPENING GALA FILM: Looper
What a year for Joseph Gordon Levitt! After The Dark Knight Rises and this month's Premium Rush he teams up with his Brick writer and director Rian Johnson again for this year's coolest sci-fi action flick, Looper. Tasked with killing future colleagues sent back by his mafia agency from 2077, he faces the ultimate challenge when his next hunt turns out to be the older version of himself (Bruce Willis). The film also stars Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano. Really looking forward to this, particularly with the raft of good reviews that have been coming in lately. As good as Brick was, the noirish language made it very difficult at times to engage with, but no doubting Johnson is one of the most exciting young talents in Hollywood at the moment, and he has the ability to turn a high concept such as this into one of the year's best.



GALA PRESENTATIONS

Argo
This was on my Top Films for 2012 list at the start of the year, and I'm still mega excited about the new film from one of my favourite directors - yes, it's Ben Affleck. With probably the least enticing premise of his films so far on paper - a CIA agent (Affleck) plans to break out six Americans who are taking shelter against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution by staging a fake movie production - I'm already sold on the strength of Gone Baby Gone and The Town. This boasts such an excellent cast as well, from Bryan Cranston to Alan Arkin, to John Goodman, it's clearly a must-see. Could this be a film that finally gets Mr Affleck some Oscar attention?



Hyde Park on Hudson
This is Bill Murray's first leading role in a film since Broken Flowers in 2005, and his turn here as Franklyn D. Roosevelt could see him and the film in serious contention this awards season. The biopic - in the style of The King's Speech - centres on Roosevelt's extramarital relationship with his distant cousin Margaret (Laura Linney) and takes place over one weekend, when the British King (Samuel West) and Queen (Olivia Colman) pay a royal visit. The film is directed by Roger Michell (who did last year's underrated Morning Glory) and is written by Richard Nelson, his first feature film.



Midnight's Children
I know many who have tried to read this huge tome of Salman Rushdie's and failed - it was also thought to be completely unfilmable, but Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta has given it a go, with Rushdie himself providing the screenplay. Mehta is best known for her Elements trilogy, and here takes on the story of children who are born at midnight, on India's independence from Britain, and are imbued with magical abilities. This will be highly anticipated by many who have read the Booker Prize winning novel, and is in itself a highly ambitious work which could fall either way.


MASTERS


Me and You
This is very exciting - Italian director Bernado Bertolucci's first film in nine years since The Dreamers (which I adored), his new one Me and You premieres at Toronto. Based on the novel by Niccolo Ammaniti (who also lends a hand with the screenplay) two siblings, played by newcomers Tea Falco and Jacopo Olmo Antinori, find themselves hiding together in the family basement from their own individual problems. I've read reviews of the book and without wanting to spoilerise this too much, this is perfect Bertolucci material and I can't wait to see the results.

Student
This premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes earlier this year, but hasn't caught my eye until now - perhaps it's because I'm still fairly fresh off a viewing of Afterschool and I'm wanting more dark school dramas! This one comes courtesy of Kazakhstani director Darezhan Omirbayev, and is about a young University student (Nurlan Baitasov) who after hearing a lecture on social Darwinism decides to make his own mark on the world, but takes his actions to extreme lengths. Inspired by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment this film won't provide any easy answers.





SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS



Arthur Newman
I cannot think of a more adorable coupling for a film than Colin Firth and Emily Blunt - just look how cute they are at the side there! Sadly, 'cute' is probably not the correct adjective for Dante Ariola's new (and debut) film about a man (Firth) who is so abject with his life he decides to fake his own death and take on a new identity - Arthur Newman - and in doing so attracts the attention of pill-popping and generally troubled Mike (hmm, unisex name now it seems) played by Blunt and the two of them set off on a misadventure of breaking into empty houses, and resuming the roles of the residents living there... to its ultimate end. Sounds fab to me.



Caught In The Web
Acclaimed Chinese director Kaige Chen (Together With You, The Promise) brings his new film about cyber bullying to Toronto. A term we'd originate with teenagers, Chen's film instead focuses on a young woman (Yuanyuan Gao) who by terrible misfortune ends up the hate victim of an Internet viral campaign. Chen explores the power of having a voice on the Internet, and how one moment of distraction can lead to a life of torment. Looks good - I'm a sucker for these types of films.



Cloud Atlas
This also made my Top Films for 2012 list - and how do you go about describing this one? Surely one of the most ambitious films ever made, not only juggling heavy themes such as life, death, resurrection, karma but several story lines transversing past, present and future and a cast size so big it would take a full day to do a press conference with them all. And to direct this best selling novel of David Mitchell's we have not one but three directors - the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Early opinion from test screenings has been divisive - the Toronto premiere is where it's going to get it's first real judgement from the fans and critics. Hugely expectant for this one.





The Deep
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband) brings to the screen a true life tale of tremendous will power and steadfast human spirit. In 1984, a fishing boat listed off the coast of Iceland in dangerous waters and freezing conditions - remarkably one of the crew was able to survive, and is rescued making him a national hero. The Deep tells the truth behind his story, which has now become modern legend in Iceland. The hero protagonist is played by Olafur Darri Olafsson, who was brilliant in White Night Wedding as the rowdy best man.


Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
As if I wasn't attracted by the title already - I love girl gangs! - this new docu-drama is the new film from Oscar winning French director Laurent Cantet, who made The Class back in 2008 which was bloody brilliant, and should be watched by all immediately. Foxfire takes place in the 1950s, and is based on the novel about a small town girl gang by Joyce Carol Oates. This is actually a reboot of the 1996 film which starred Angelina Jolie, but flopped - here's hoping the 2012 version can do better.


Frances Ha
Now I'm more informed about this than most, as it's just premiered in Telluride after sneaking up on the film world and declaring its existence. This is the new film from (now real life couple) director Noah Baumbach and co-writer and star Greta Gerwig. It don't take too much culturemouse maths to do Noah Baumbach + Greta Gerwig = HEAVEN! But everything about Frances Ha is like a temperature gauge slowly rising to awesomeness: it's set in New York, it's filmed in black and white, it's about a struggling dancer who failing to get any work and never having any money begins to fall slowly behind her social circle, and her situation becomes more and more desperate and tragic. The reviews have been glowing (and comparing it to Girls, not least for the presence of Adam Driver) and I don't think I've been as hand flappy about a film in a long time. I LOVE Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale, Greenberg). I LOVE Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress). London Film Festival puh-leeeeeeease.


Ginger and Rosa
Set in 1960s London at a time of sexual, political and social revolution, the close relationship between best friends Ginger (Elle Fanning, Somewhere) and Rosa (Alice Englert, the upcoming Beautiful Creatures and daughter of director Jane Campion) is pushed to breaking point. Directed by Brit Sally Potter (Orlando) and with a supporting cast which includes Christina Hendricks, Annette Bening and Alessandro Nivola this looks as engaging and promising as An Education ever was.


The Impossible
This film makes my list for three reasons. 1) it's the first feature film to be based upon the horrific events of Boxing Day 2004 and the huge earthquake and devastating tsunami in the Pacific. 2) It's - rather oddly - the new film from Spanish director and Del Toro protégé Juan Antonio Bayona who made the hauntingly good The Orphanage. 3) the overly saccharine trailer (below) totally had me in tears. So even though the cast includes Ewan McGregor who I can't stand, I'd be willing to watch this when it's released at Christmas (now The Great Gatsby as the big holiday film has been pushed back) to fill my humbug soul with hope and spirit. Naomi Watts also stars as McGregor's wife in this tale of a holidaying family who get caught up in the terrible events. The oldest son, played by 16 year old Brit Tom Holland, is already getting some Oscar whispers.





In The House
Yet another French film with Kristin Scott Thomas in! This is based on the play by Juan Mayorga called 'The Boy in the Last Row' and has been adapted for the screen by French auteur Francois Ozon (Potiche). This is a dark tale, of a student (Ernst Umhauer) who begins writing essays about his friend's family, attracting the interest of his impressed literature teacher, but the boy's intentions may not be so pure... Love a good French thriller so this is on the list!




Lore
This film caught my eye as it's a 'perilous journey' film, a niche genre I do enjoy! And this one has a unique take on a period of history: the film follows a young German girl (called Lore) who is left alone at the end of World War II, after her Nazi supporting parents have been captured by Allied forces. She, with her younger siblings in tow, must make the trek across war ravaged countryside to her grandmother's house in hope of shelter. The lead Saskia Rosendahl is supposed to be brilliant, and Lore is also notable for the fact it's written and directed by Cate Shortland - her first film since 2004's arresting Somersault. Welcome back Cate!




Much Ado About Nothing
I'm not a Shakespeare fan in the slightest, and the only reason I've included this in my picks is because it's a new take on the classic comedic play by Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, The Cabin in the Woods, etc). Bringing back staple cast members he knows and loves such as Nathan Fillion and Amy Acker, this updated version is stylishly shot in black and white, but it will be the dialogue and humour as ever which will be the real winner. Whedon and Shakespeare... it's a bonkers combo enough to be genius.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Also on my Top Films for 2012 list - just missing out of the Top 20 - is the teen coming of age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, and based on his best selling novel of the same name. Since putting it on my eagerly anticipated list in January I have since read the book and enjoyed it very much. The only weak link for me - apart from the excellent Ezra Miller - is the weak casting. And could Chbosky be too precious with his work? The trailer didn't inspire (see below), but still: fingers crossed as the book is excellent and well worth a read.




Stories We Tell
A late entry on this list, the main reason this documentary by Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) is on here is because apart from The Master it's the only other film which has been getting consistent 5 star reviews from critics in Venice which is saying something. It's a very personal film, with Polley speaking to members of her family about not just their lives but her own - an exposing a very private secret in the process. Not entirely my cup of tea, but Stories We Tell is supposed to strike an emotional chord with all who watch it.




The Suicide Shop
Sometimes, the title of a film alone can have me interested without having to know any of the context. This darkly animated French film from Patrice Leconte and based on the novel by Jean Teule tells the story of an extraordinary shop which provides melancholic souls with all they need to end their lives. There's just one problem: the heir to the shop's ownership is a happy excitable young boy who loves nothing more than to live and enjoy life! The drawn animation looks exquisite, and expect lots of dry and blackly comic French humour in this one which showed at Cannes.





Writers
From one eye-catching title to a truly horrible one, Writers (bleurgh) does hold a far more intriguing premise, and first time director Josh Boone has managed to snag a really good cast, with Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins, Jennifer Connelly, and Stephen King - appearing as himself! Kinnear plays a famous writer, who is not only jealous that his young daughter (Collins) is about to get her first novel published - without needing any of his help - but he is fixated on his ex-wife (Connelly) and what she is up to now. Yeah, I'm game if it's about writers and writing - as long as it's not too naval gazing.


DISCOVERY




Augustine
A French film which has echoes of recent hits Sleeping Beauty and A Dangerous Method (hopefully more in common with the former, though this is also based on a true story), the titular character is a young girl in Belle Epoque France, who is taken into an institution thought to be suffering from 'hysteria' and is taken under the wing of Professor Charcot, where the line between patient and lover begins to blur as he treats her 'disease'. This is the debut film from young Parisian filmmaker Alice Winocour.




Blackbird
Always good to see a new British director getting a star turn at an international film festival! That Brit is Jason Buxton, who's first film Blackbird is about teenage loneliness and angst (my favourite), but with a dark edge - even better! - as isolated teen Sean takes to the Internet to spout what he's feeling, and ends up sending his small community into a terrified tailspin.




The Brass Teapot
Next something very inventive and quirky, and starring one of my favourite actresses at the moment, Juno Temple. A struggling couple (Temple and Michael Angarano, The Art of Getting By) pick up a brass teapot, which they discover dishes out dosh whenever one of them feels pain. Touched by greed, the two go to extreme lengths to keep up with their new affluent lifestyle. Wonderfully enticing, this new film comes from American Ramaa Mosley.


Clip
Serbian filmmaker Maja Milos' debut follows a group of out of control teenagers living in a suburb of Belgrade, who seem more obsessed with capturing their hedonistic, sexual antics on their smart phones than actually living in the moment. Eastern European films never hold back, and I don't expect this one too either - but will it have anything to say?




Les Nuits Avec Theodore
I'm all about the French films in this strand. Director Sebastian Betbeder has made a couple of other features before this one, but is hoping this will be his breakout. Secret trysts between Theodore and Anna in Paris' enchanting Parc des Buttes come under threat from unwanted intruders in this spirited tale which has drawn comparisons to Bresson and Debussy.



Picture Day
We'll have one for the home side as it's only fair. Toronto born Kate Melville's debut film is about a rebellious teen, caught between a boy at her school and a man closer to her real age. It stars Tatiana Maslany, who appeared in the Sundance hit from a few years ago Grown Up Movie Star. It's one to watch out for if the smartly written clip below is anything to go by.



Honourable Mention: Absolutely not my kind of thing at all, but I have to give a shout out to Wasteland by British director Rowan Athale which is also showing in this section of the festival - because it was filmed in and around Leeds! Always good to have my city on the big screen, even if this is a bit of bleakly gritty Brit fare for me.


CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA


All That Matters is Past
I love Norwegian cinema, and that's one of the prime reasons this film has been included here. But I don't think I've ever seen a serious drama come out of there... promising director Sara Johnsen (Upperdog) brings a film to the festival about two childhood sweethearts who come together years later to confront their dark pasts and an over possessive rival (DON'T LOOK THIS UP ON IMDB AS I HAVE JUST MASSIVELY SPOILED MYSELF - GRRRR!). Stars David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Kristoffer Joner (Babycall).




Fin (The End)
Spanish television director Jorge Terragrossa makes the move to film with this apocalyptic drama set in the Pyrenees and the fight for survival for a group of friends who are at the mercy of a sudden blackout. Small screen idea done well, or made for TV fanfare? Sounds a bit like JJ Abrams Revolution, doesn't it? With Maribel Verdu (Pans Labyrinth).




Watchtower
Two isolated and tormented souls are reluctantly drawn together at a watchtower in the barren wilderness of Turkey. Pelin Esmer's new film which she both directs and writes looks haunting and bleak, a film that will linger long in the mind and will seek a mutual redemption for the two characters. Well, I thought I'd thrown a heavy, reflective one in there to consider...





VANGUARD



90 Minutes
I'm including this Norwegian film even though it looks as depressing as hell. Three story lines give us the last 90 minutes of someone's life, set around the theme of domestic abuse. Yeah, told you it wasn't too cheery! Eva Sorhaug (Cold Lunch) directs, with a strong cast of Aksel Hennie (Headhunters), Pia Tjelta (Fallen Angels) and Mads Ousdal (Jackpot).


Blondie
From Norway to Sweden. Toronto Festival favourite Jesper Ganslandt is back with Blondie - a film about three very different sisters who return home for their mother's 70th birthday, and of course, fireworks spark and fly. Currently screening in Venice, this emotionally strong drama stars hot blondes Helena af Sandeberg, Alexandra Dahlstrom and Carolina Gynning.




Here Comes The Devil
This devilish (...) new film from Spanish-Argentinian director Adrian Garcia Bogliano is one of the most exciting of the whole festival. Part horror, part thriller it sees a married couple faced with an inescapable terror when their two young children disappear into some mysterious caves - and then re-emerge changed. Bogliano's new film will also open the 20th Raindance Festival in London later this month.


I Declare War
My last pick comes from Canada, and a film about play fighting between neighbourhood kids which escalates into something much more real and violent. Jason Lapeyre also puts a lot of comedy into his new film too, delivering a strange mix TIFF are calling "a cross between Roald Dahl and Lord of the Flies" - intriguing indeed!



CLOSING GALA FILM: Song For Marion

Closing the festival is a proper crowd pleaser in the vein of The King's Speech (which also premiered here a few years ago). Song For Marion is somewhat of a surprise turn for British director Paul Andrew Williams, who has been used to serving up urban British horrors such as The Cottage and Cherry Tree Lane. His new film has Terence Stamp as a retired man forced to take his ill wife (Vanessa Redgrave)'s place in her local seniors choir. This heart warming celebration of family also stars Gemma Arterton and Christopher Eccleston.


There are over 100 film screenings at Toronto over the next couple of weeks and you can browse the full selection here, including their Midnight Madness strand which features the new film from In Bruges director Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths. And don't forget many of these films fresh from their Toronto stint end up at the London Film Festival in October - and the full programme for that is announced TODAY!