Friday, 26 October 2012

London Film Festival 2012 Weekend: Day 3


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.

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


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 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.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

London Film Festival 2012 Weekend: Day 1

This year's London Film Festival was another treat for the senses. I saw eight excellent films last weekend, and here's the low down on all of them - including, drum roll, the first 5 CHEESE film of the year! Cue hollering. Small disclaimer: these reviews are not as lengthy as I would have liked, but, I will be seeing a fair few again in the coming weeks at various screenings and the Leeds Film Festival, so I'm hoping to write up a more detailed review then, with the added bonus of a second viewing to cement my opinion.

So, Friday:

Laurence Anyways
Xavier Dolan's third film is a departure from his earlier works, which feel naturalistic and autobiographical, to a film which has a much weightier subject matter: a man in his mid thirties finally takes the decision to become a woman, having felt trapped in his male body all his life. His life changing decision will have an impact upon his colleagues at the school where he teaches, his parents whom he has always been distant with, but more prominently his girlfriend Fred, and this is the main relationship Laurence Anyways focuses on and spans a chunky 168 minutes. And boy, do you really feel its length. It's not the sort of film which drags and makes you look at your watch every 15 minutes, but it does struggle in its final third to find something new to say: arguments circle over and over again, stomping on previously trodden ground as we stutter to an end conclusion. The end scene, in which we see how Laurence and Fred first met, is actually a beautiful and a poignant finish, but it could have come a good 20 minutes or so earlier. Dolan not only tackles transgender and transsexuality in this film, the idea coming from a story he was told by a friend, but also abortion, adultery, assault, prejudice - and this meshing of heavy themes with Dolan's extravagantly lush visual playfulness is successful mostly, but at times becomes indulgent and irrelevant - this lad sure likes to hang the camera out to dry. There are gorgeous scenes with water, mist, and leaves and he is only growing as a filmmaker with impeccable eye for angles, moving tableau's, and eye popping colours (the fashion and decor is once again divine). The melodrama is there too - these characters scream more than they do talk - which gives the film that watchability and escapism. But Dolan shows his age and naivety at times, and with such an ambitious and bold film it can only be expected. The power of the film stutters as the dialogue begins to contradict the actions of the characters, or muddies the context. It's perhaps more realistic this way, as who sounds completely articulate in a fight?, but doesn't match the melodrama Dolan is a master of - the dialogue should have been more effective, and should move the story forward, but after the second or third time you're just begging for these characters to stop going round in circles and show some initiative. Despite this, the performances are universally excellent - Melvil Poupaud plays Laurence's transformation with real verve and a quiet intensity. Suzanne Clement (I Killed My Mother) is pure raw emotion as Fred, and for me is stronger both on screen and in memory for it - the scene where she lets loose at a cafe worker who continually probes Laurence about his brave styling is powerfully acted. There's strong support too, from Mona Chokri (Heartbeats) as Fred's sarcastic moody sister, and Nathalie Baye as Laurence's mother. Dolan is a master of the strained and complex mother/son relationship on film, and this is actually the true emotional arc of the film for me: as Laurence who has always been estranged from his mother finds a way back into her life, she admits: "I never saw you as my son, but I see you as my daughter." What's lacking from this fine cast is Mr Dolan himself, this time staying firmly put behind the camera (save for a blink and you'll miss it appearance at a showbiz party Fred attends) and his absence is a shame. Not his best, but a remarkable achievement considering he is only 23, and there's so much more to come from him, and I'll be there for every film he makes. I'll be working Laurence Anyways at the Leeds Film Festival in November, so expect more thoughts from me then on this lush but overly long epic love story.

Welcome back miss Cate Shortland! I have loved this Australian director ever since she brought The Secret Life of Us into my life, and then 2004's Somersault - this is her first film in EIGHT years and I'm so pleased to have her back! She returns with Lore, a film which is based on the short story by Rachel Seiffert, the daughter of the woman titular character Lore is based upon. Lore is the oldest child of a SS man's family, living well in Germany until comes 1945 and the downfall of Hiter's assault in Europe, and Lore and her family go into hiding in the Black Forest as the allied forces take over. But it's not long before their father is hunted down, and their mother, with little choice, must also turn herself in for questioning. She tells Lore to head for Hamburg and their grandmother Omi's house, but with Germany now sectioned off into districts of France, England and Russia and a curfew enforced, travelling across her homeland which is now a hostile and barren country forces Lore to not only grow up, but fester a deep anger that threatens to overcome her. The vulnerable children are helped on their way by Thomas, a vagrant soldier who is revealed to be Jewish, clouding Lore's teachings in the Hitler Youth against his compassion to her siblings and his attraction for her. I do love "difficult journey" films, and this film has such an interesting angle, coming from a family in war torn Germany that were devotees of the Fuhrer and his regime, but also just innocent children. Lore has plenty of Shortland traits in it: the eerie quietness and sumptuousness of nature and colour which she brings to the frame, and also the tender brutality she brings to her relationships. Lore is a young teenager still exploring her sexuality when she pries on her parents, her father clawing at her cold and passive mother, she witnesses a rape at a camp, and she is both repulsed and curious about Thomas's want to touch and be near her. Thrust into the role as mother and protector of her brothers and sisters, she is but a child herself, and relief when it does come at the end of the film does not distill the pain and confusion she has had to live with day after day. There's a scene where her younger sister tries to dance with her, and she woodenly accepts before stopping and running away, declaring, "I can't... I just can't." It's a stunning portrayal by newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, who is reminiscent of a young Scarlett Johansson or Cate Blanchett here. The beauty of this film is tinged with the horror of war and loss, and Shortland's camera does not shy away from the traumatising aftermath and does not give us a resolution. It's a transformation of character, and shows the lengths a superhuman girl will go to to protect her family, but also her weaknesses as a young girl with a load too hard to bear - in a moment of madness she tries to kill herself and her baby brother. The sparse dialogue only adds to the film's power, however the spell of Lore wanes in time, and after a whirlwind weekend of films this hasn't had the staying power of others. Very bleak but beautiful, it's a worthy return from Shortland. Hopefully the next film won't be so far off in the making! There is also an excellent scene where a woman offers the young baby an egg, and he throws out his little squidgy arms in eagerness. What a great baby.

My surprise of the festival! I had seen Ursula Meier's debut film Home a few years ago but had remembered little detail about it other than I had liked it. Her second film, Sister, slipped under my radar as it premiered earlier at this year's Berlin Film Festival and won the Silver Bear award. It was on the premise alone that I garnered interest in it, which was then given a lovely bonus to find out who the director was. Meier again goes back to her native Switzerland as the setting for this film, this time focusing on a ski resort popular with rich European families and also the community at the bottom of the mountain which is infinitely poorer and home to Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux). They live alone, struggling to get by on Louise's bit jobs as a waitress and a cleaner. But it's Simon's exploits on the mountain that generate the most income, as he sneaks through changing rooms and lockers to steal brand new equipment from the rich and then sells it as secondhand to unknowing customers and grateful friends. He also steals packed lunches - something of a gourmet meal for Simon and Louise. Their relationship is key to this film, intriguing from the off. Simon devotes on her, desperate to please her and even more so, desperate for her to spend time with him. But she is always pulled away by new boyfriends, and abandons him for days on end as he continues to go up the mountain to provide for them. At 12 years old he is the father of the family, and there's a lovely scene where he steals some skis and then gets Louise to polish them up herself and teaches her how to go out and sell them for the biggest buck. But just as he can be responsible, and a charming wheeler-dealer figure in his theft scam, the young boy in him often creeps out, and no more so than when he meets idyllic mother figure Kristin (Gillian Anderson). Simon befriends her, giving himself the same name as her son, and helping them out on the ski slopes - what he's missing in his life is a role model mother: someone who is beautiful, kind, and loving, and his fascination with her will lead to a big emotional climax later in the film as his lies unravel. Mottet Klein's performance here is just extraordinary, and is tantamount to his engaging presence on the screen that makes Sister for its first half such a joy to watch. We see the ups and downs of his misadventures - having a great profitable day selling equipment to guests, being caught by one of the chefs at the resort's restaurant (Martin Compston) but then developing a brotherly friendship with him, but then also being chased by an angry guest whom he steals from, and is publicly heckled and slapped in front of goggling onlookers. All the while he protects his sister at the bottom of the mountain, and as she finds a true happiness with a new boyfriend - very quietly - the film pulls a massive unexpected twist on the audience. You'd be forgiven for thinking it's another joke or play tactic until you realise its truth and from that moment on the film's tone which was mostly jovial and full of humour and wise cracking from the young boy becomes more poignant and far reaching. I'm not going to spoil that twist here, you can discover it for yourself when the film comes out in the UK on October 26th. Perhaps because of the risky nature of the two's survival antics, there is an underlying threat of danger throughout the film which at times gave me cause to flinch and jump, even when nothing is actually happening (there's a scene with the two of them arguing and pushing each other on the side of the motorway that I just couldn't bear to watch). And the cinematography is just gorgeous, particularly at the ending of them film as the skiing season comes to and end, and Simon spends the last night up on the mountain. It's a test, to see if his sister will come up to find him, and it's only in the morning after when he realises what he means to her - and the film achieves a beautifully apt ending when I was worrying it was rummaging around blind.
This film will also be memorable for the fact we met a slightly deranged Gillian Anderson fan on the way home who was tarrying outside the cinema and bemoaning the fact that she was really petty when she signed a picture for him last time, deliberately writing her name on a black background. We wished him well and escaped.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


"Your face looks backwards."

Whilst I was putting together my initial thoughts on Rian Johnson's latest Looper starring It boy Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Bruce Willis as younger and older versions of the same person trapped in a never ending cycle of the same story, it struck me that actually two of my favourite films are time loop-ers: Triangle and The Butterfly Effect. So surely this must be a genre that I really enjoy and get a kick out of, enjoying and revelling in the paradoxes that the narrative creates, and desperately trying to solve the puzzle only to realise that the film is way ahead of you and has closed off all the exits. That's the mark of a great time loop film - whilst Looper is excellent at action, suspense and a brilliant dual genre flick, it lacks the depth of my two favourites to really stand up as a classic. As many have written already, just enjoy the ride and please just stop yourself from picking all the holes apart in the aftermath as it will only lead to despair.

I was a big fan of Johnson's debut Brick (in fact, I believe it was the first film I ever saw at the HPPH - n'aww), despite the mumbling, and whilst missing out on his second feature The Brothers Bloom I reunite just as Gordon-Levitt does with him for Looper, which has been universally acclaimed by all who have seen it only leading to my excitement.

Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a hedonistic junkie with a penchant for the high life from his job as a 'looper' - an assassin whose job it is to knock off criminals who are sent back from the future by his agency, in order to depose of the body and any trace of the man, as such activity is outlawed in the year 2074. It's well paid, solid work - the only catch being one of the men eventually sent back will be a future version of yourself, and killing them will close your loop, and allow you to enjoy the next 30 years of your life in relative freedom and luxury, but of course your future self will soon become you and your fate is already sealed. It's a great premise, one of my favourite things about the film, and for the first half it lets loose with the sci-fi element of it: we see the routine of Joe's life, what happens when you close your loop, what happens when you don't (an unfortunate Paul Dano), and we also see what happens when Joe originally kills his future self, fast forwarding to Bruce Willis in the year 2074 who is happily married and not best pleased when his past catches up with him and literally transports him back there. But something this time changes: and instead of bumping him off, young Joe hesitates and older Joe is allowed to escape and as the loop elongates to accommodate a whole new tangent in their life story, the film also flips genre and suddenly we're in a horror movie.

Many have said they prefer the first half of the film, though the second does add some fascinating layers. But I personally LOVED the second half of the film - I've always had a thing for cornfields (cough) and Looper boasts one of the freakiest kids I have ever seen on film when it all goes a bit bad seed on the audience. It's an extraordinary performance Johnson manages to coax out of Pierce Gagnon who is only FIVE years old - FIVE! He plays a ten year old in this for chrissake! The second half all but ditches the time travel stuff and instead focuses on a strange mutation of this present world - the fact that 10% of the world has telekinesis (or 'TK') and we see the most dangerous and violent form of this in young Cid (Gagnon), who lives with his devoted but terrified mother Sara (Emily Blunt, hugely reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet in this) in a remote farmhouse in the middle of this cornfield, and they soon become the stake between a protective younger Joe, and a hunting older Joe, which plays neatly into the film's core revelation of how do you escape a time loop?

I loved the near future distopian world that Rian Johnson creates for the younger Joe to inhabit, 2044, and where the majority of this film takes place. It has that stylish sleek Sin City feel about it, but also shows the widening divide between the rich (Gordon Levitt's character) and the poor (Piper Perabo's lap dancer and single mother). It's the small changes that bring it to life: bikes hover now, but cars are essentially the same; drug use is up but now it's ingested through eye drops; and pollution has led to this break out of TK, and users flaunting their skills by spinning nickels in the air with the power of the mind. It's well constructed, but yet I could have done without the montage near the very beginning which sets up younger Joe's character - a case of too much showing than telling, but I won't hold this against the film too much as it still manages to throw in some clever touches, such as young Joe's decision to retain half of his silver each time he finishes a job. The beginning also sets up two important characters - Seth (Dano), young Joe's closest friend who falls into catastrophe when he fails to polish off his future self and is instantly hunted down by their agency, headed by Jeff Daniels - a strange role for him - and rival looper Kid Blue (played by Noah Segan), whom I felt sure was going to turn out to be Jeff Daniels' younger self but it was a twist that was never quite unveiled. Young Joe's instinct to protect Seth is abandoned when a better offer comes along from his boss, which shows his ultimate selfishness and desire to look after number one as a prime personality trait (and unconsciously cause for the time loop). Perabo's dancer (and on-off fling) Suzie is also an important figure here, as her young boy will become one of the infant suspects Bruce Willis as older Joe hunts down, as he tries to find the source of the man who will destroy his world in the future and kill it before it has a chance to grow up.

The scene which divides the two halves of the film is dynamite, and possibly the strongest: when the two Joes meet face to face for the first time in a 'civilised' environment  at a diner, and whilst older Joe explains his motivations - the love of his wife and their peaceful idyllic life in China, and how this is shattered by a shadowy mastermind called The Rainmaker - younger Joe is adamant that he still must close his loop and kill his man who is in all senses himself, 30 years on. This is the aspect I struggled with the most: when looking at Joseph Gordon Levitt (and I have to say, I didn't even notice the make up, so kudos to the department on this film) and Bruce Willis, to me they represented completely different entities and it was hard for my brain to merge these two together to be the same man. I just didn't buy that at all - it works better when it's the same actor and you can experience them living all these different/same realities, ala Melissa George in Triangle who is completely and utterly Jess. But despite this character flaw, both actors are excellent in this diner scene and trade insults and quips at one another in such enjoyable fashion - I particularly loved "your face looks backwards" and "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." Props to Johnson for being a witty, clever screenwriter too.

After they part, this is when we descend into Children of the Corn/The Omen territory, as older Joe hunts down the three younger Rainmaker possibilities, but younger Joe comes upon him first as he encounters Sara and Cid in the farmhouse, and gains their trust as he waits for the older version of himself to arrive. The film really slows down at this point much to my pleasure, and we really get to savour the suspense and tip-toeing around the evil child with Emily Blunt's mother, and Johnson should really do a horror movie at some point down the line as I think he has a real knack for this. The scene where Sara and Cid are playing a game which falls into an argument which then leads into an outburst by Cid on such a terrifying, chilling level comes out of nowhere, and when the characters are unsettled by a certain presence then we as an audience are too. There's something superhuman about Cid and the way Gagnon plays him (remember, he's FIVE years old) - even before his outburst and later on when his advanced TK powers are revealed, he has already proved he is highly intelligent by inventing an alarm system for young Joe and his mother to use to communicate danger on the farm (and ends up becoming a 'sex frog' in this year's best bootie call), and just by his eloquent and astute conversations with adults. It's just unnerving for a ten year old to behave like that! The mystery around how Sara's sister died is also well drawn out.

The ending was satisfying, and felt right in the moment, but in retrospective it brings me to the biggest problem I have with the film. The cycle of a younger Joe killing an older Joe so he can live his life and become the older Joe only to be sent back and killed by the younger Joe has no beginning to it, a basic causality problem. There will never be a first Joe, as he will always have to kill a future version of himself, and that I guess is the paradox of the time loop. But what about films which do this well? Triangle is extraordinary in that it shows how the loop began - that itself is a version of Jess which exists - but also does the full 360 so you can live and experience every version of Jess there is, as several different ones can exist simultaneously, all with differing degrees of insight into the loop they are acting out over and over again. I didn't get a sense of that in Looper - though the never ending cycle becomes obvious, it feels like too much like this is all happening for the first time, which for young Joe it is, and for older Joe this is the second time around. There doesn't seem to be the range there which gives the characters an angst, a weary feeling of utter frustration and hopelessness, as Evan (Ashton Kutcher) feels in The Butterfly Effect or Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day. Here as well, the reason for the loop is a physical act of human invention and science and is clear from the off, it lacks the mystery of those other films where we only discover the reason for the loop at the very end, and as well as being remarkable, are all the more affecting because of it. There's something so very richly satisfying and moving about a desperate character suddenly having that breakthrough which allows them to escape (or not) their hellish predicament. There is a breakthrough in Looper for Gordon Levitt's younger Joe, but it feels achingly too simple. There is no emotional resonance here: "and then at that moment I realised this and this and this, and then what's when I realised I had to kill myself."

Older Joe's motivations seemed a little lacklustre too. Of course you can't doubt the power of love, but we don't get very many scenes with his wife (Qing Xu) so it's hard to root for him (I did love how when younger Joe meets Sara it begins to distort with older Joe's memories of his 'true love' though - very clever.) The little nuances of time travel and parallel worlds are well done, but I felt overall the complexity and fatigue of the characters was missing to allow this film to rise above that of just an  entertaining and thrilling sci-fi horror film. But what a great one it is, and Looper certainly deserves your time and effort as it's bloody good fun - an intelligent visual spectacle which gives the likes of Inception a run for its money and is so promising for cinema.

Now, my biggest gripe came from the fact that no one in this god damn film eats their eggs. In the diner scene both Joes order steak, chips and eggs only to ignore them when they come out (!), talk over them as if they're not there (!!) and then as things gets heated throw them off the table as they fight (!!!). If that wasn't bad enough, later Emily Blunt's character is making some scrambled eggs for her son when she is distracted by something out the window, and then just ABANDONS them in the frying pan. She doesn't even turn the heat off! So to stop all this nonsense Looper is getting rated out of eggs today, rather than cheeses. And on a side note, no eggs and cheese definitely do NOT go together.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


Well, I'm still chasing my first 5 cheese-r of the year, and with one of the most lauded films of the year and off an excellent reception in Berlin, I had high hopes for Miguel Gomes' Tabu. It looked dreamy, magical, surreal, a modern fairytale and reminiscent of The Artist for its bold black and White imagery and memorable soundtrack. And Tabu actually did achieve something for me - but it wasn't my longed for top scoring of the year. Instead it managed to surprisingly grab biggest crushing disappointment.

The film is split into two halves, with reverse chronology: the first - Paradise Lost - focuses on the lives of two elderly women, the able, sociable, and pious Miss Pilar (Teresa Madruga) who lives next door to the melodramatic, reckless and increasingly ill Miss Aurora (Laura Soverel). Both women are single, and whilst Miss Pilar is courted by an eager artist, Miss Aurora spends the majority of her time with her carer Santa, and bemoaning her daughter who has moved away from Portugal and her mother to Canada and has become distant because of her new family. It is set in the modern day, with Gomes shooting in colour 35mm and the characters speak, shout and whisper to one another. Though we are told the story through Pilar's eyes, it is clear the main protagonist here is Miss Aurora, whose health deteriorates to the point of nonsensical babbling about Africa and crocodiles and asking to see a man whom Pilar and Santa assume is just another one of her feverish ramblings - until he turns out to be very much alive. As Aurora passes away, it's the old man's turn to take over narration as we switch to the second half of the film - Paradise - and with that, Gomes also changes to a 16mm black and white frame and strips all the dialogue out to a silent, and we are transported back to 1950s Colonial Africa, to the foothills of Mount Tabu, where a young Miss Aurora (Ana Moreira) begins a passionate affair with a young man, Ventura (Carloto Cotta) - who of course is the old man telling the story. Aurora is happily married to a doctor and pregnant with their first child, but she cannot resist the attraction she has for Ventura, who is handsome, charming and plays in a band with her husband's good friend Mario. As they become more involved, the stakes get higher and the arrival of the baby looms - the two decide to runaway together but the ill-judged decision will end in tragedy and heartbreak for both.

I was so disappointed with this - it felt distinctly average, and I kept waiting for the magic to kick in and bring the story and the characters to life, but the limpness rung out until the end. I found the first half more promising and engaging than the second due to its subtleties, but why focus on Pilar the neighbour? I was waiting for some connection to Aurora to be revealed - not as clumsy as being related, but something central and deep-rooted. But there was none - save for the tenuousness of Pilar crying in the cinema as the film plays out the song "Be My Baby" - the song a young Aurora weeps to as it's performed by Ventura's band.

Both halves focus on Aurora, but through the eyes of other characters: Pilar is anxious about her loneliness and increasing delusions, and in the second half Ventura's laddish lifestyle is tamed by his great love for her, and his despair that she is married and about to have a child with another man. Both care deeply about this woman which I find impossible to accept as she is steely and selfish and someone I hold no affection for whatsoever. I was not intrigued by the older Aurora claiming to have "blood on her hands" (why does she shoot Mario anyway, in an overly dramatic second half climax?) and I am not invested in these lovers, whose epic romance just seems dull and sensationalised to me.  A simple forbidden love story told in a different way, but in order to propel it you need engaging characters to carve out an emotion for the film - is it charming? Is it romantic? Is it tragic? Is it magical? I didn't feel any of these things. The worst reaction you can have with a film is it just being so-so, and worrying when the best character is a crocodile (but he really was a cute little thing and I sort of want one as a pet now... as long as it's tiny and only bites sticks).

For positives, it's well directed and imagined by Gomes, with beautiful arty cinematography by Rui Pocas in Africa, reminding me a lot of The River Used To Be A Man, with its remote setting and supernatural ambiance, but it fails to sparkle amidst unlikeable characters and a plot which zig-zags in tone but forgets to engage.

I looked at my phone a few times which is never a good sign. I was never truly bored, but then it only just held my attention. Tabu is certainly not one I'll be paying a revisit to, unless someone can tell me what I'm missing here please, to make this so adored?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Perks of Being A Wallflower

"We accept the love we think we deserve"

So earlier this year I got married (the bit where the blog was empty for a bit) and then went on a long holiday. And not one of my usual "here is today's itinerary" holidays, but a relaxing one where I was stuck on a massive boat for 8 days and my day's planning went so far as "what can I get from the breakfast buffet this morning?" and "how many milkshakes is it reasonable to have whilst sunbathing and before midday?" The great thing about being stuck on a boat as well is having lots and lots of time to read, something I don't get to do as often these days because of having an iPhone work. And also, I've been having a real problem with books lately as I keep starting deceptively boring ones and lose momentum 30 pages in (I won't name and shame). So I had to be really careful about the books that I chose to take away on my honeymoon cruise: I went with two authors I know and can rely on for becoming completely absorbed, and a well judged random choice - and that was Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I LOVE coming of age novels, and even more than that I LOVE stories set in schools: primary schools, high schools, boarding schools, prep schools, colleges, Universities, magic schools (well, within reason Potter fools). I'm still waiting for my Eureka! moment when the Internet finally tells me Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is going to be made into a film (hurry up, Reitman/Baumbach). So with Perks it was almost guaranteed already that I would love it, and that extra oomph to read it was propelled by the fact the film of the book, directed and written by the author, was coming out in the Autumn. And I do like to read the book before the film if I can, and it's only a slip of a thing, really - especially nestled in my suitcase next to the monster of IQ84 by Haruki Murakami (which I'm STILL chewing on). So there is really no excuse for everyone else out there not to read it too - except for the fact the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower is out tomorrow in cinemas, and being such a nerd for this film not only have I read the book but I also jumped at the chance to get free tickets to a preview screening, where I also stole some pick'n'mix (what a teen rebel!). So a - now very rambly - early review for a change! Let me tell you if it's as good as the very fine novel, which I read in two days.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a Freshman (that's Year 10, to you and me) at High School, but his introverted personality means he has no friends, and his academic enthusiasm leaves him picked on by even the girls in his class. However he's desperate to turn things around, and strikes up a friendship with a boy he admires in his shop class (that's DT to you and me) Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). Being Seniors (Year 13), his new friends help to enlighten Charlie to the side of being a teenager he had always missed out on: parties, alcohol, drugs, joy rides - even simply having someone to sit with at lunchtimes. Charlie almost instantly begins to fall for beautiful and feisty Sam, but she's going out with a college boy and sees him only as a younger brother. He instead finds himself pursued by Sam's best friend Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), whilst secretly hoping for Sam to feel the same way about him but always wanting her happiness to come first. But Charlie's eagerness to please and reluctance to participate stems from a much darker place than sheer lack of confidence: as he reveals more to us as he narrates his life changing year, we learn about his connection to his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), and the trauma and the tragedy that begins to surface in flashbacks which finally admit the secret truth.

After reading the book, I had three chief worries about the film. 1) Because Chbosky is directing and writing the screenplay, would the adaptation be too precious - would he love his work so much that he would want to include every detail and that would make it dry? Not that the book is at all dull, but can he recognise the transition to make this story cinematic? This is his debut film, after all. 2) Would it go in the opposite direction and choose not to include the darkness in the novel that is hinted throughout but only revealed at the end? It's such a shocking and powerful reveal, and helps to explain so much about Charlie's character, it had to be included. 3) The casting. Ezra Miller is fantastic - Afterschool and We Need To Talk About Kevin must-sees, and this role as campy Patrick is such a refreshing role change for him. But Emma Watson as Sam and Logan Lerman as Charlie I was less convinced about - Emma Watson is so green as an actress having only done Harry Potter, and Logan was so bland in Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief - would they have the heft to pull off these emotionally damaged characters?

I needn't have worried about the latter. Lerman was a revelation - so awkward and shy at the beginning, brilliant playing giggly and stoned, and then a strength develops, such fierce loyalty to his friends, but then the cracks when they appear - beautiful scene when he collapses at New Years Eve, swamped by his memories of his Aunt Helen culminating in him lying in the snow and creating a snow angel - made me quiver. He is fantastic in this - so earnest, so childlike in his responses - when he deadpan tells Sam that his best friend killed himself last year, and she stares on in horror at his nonchalance (stoned, albeit) and then whispers to Patrick, "Charlie just told me that his best friend killed himself last year... I don't think he has any friends" as they look on at him drinking a milkshake, the toast Patrick raises is not in pity but in a determination to give this boy a chance to feel like he belongs and he matters - well from that point on I reached one of my tell-tale film loving states: when I'm perpetually on the verge of tears anytime anyone says or does anything remotely heartfelt (which was virtually half the movie, so you can work out how many times I cried).

And to negate my first two worries: such a great adaptation! Chbosky keeps the darkness in, with the flashbacks creeping up on you (and Charlie) more throughout the film until you realise the tragedy, and beyond that, the trauma this boy has repressed throughout his teenage life only to have it paralyse him towards the end of the film. It adds a layer I don't think anyone will be expecting, so as well as being a sweet coming of age tale about a wallflower blossoming into his own spotlight, it also deals with some very heavy subject matters, controlled with quiet power thanks to a fine cast. However, Watson is the definite weak link here - she throws her voice far too much (she sounded dubbed at times), and whilst she captures the slightly dorky but troubled teen well, she lacks the charisma and spark to truly convince you Charlie is besotted and head over heels for this girl. In the book she seems older, and has that unattainable magnetism about her and you understand Charlie's infatuation - but here she seems young and ordinary, if slightly pretentious (I always found the standing up in the truck thing a bit nauseating, plus she has no idea who David Bowie is). Miller is the spark of the film, proving he has excellent comic ability, but when his storyline ramps up towards the end he knows when to turn on the intensity. Playing Patrick could prove to be his best all round work so far.

The supporting cast are terrific too - particularly stand out for me was Charlie's dad played by Dylan McDermott, whom I loathed in American Horror Story but was warm and enduring here, and had the best line of the film: "Dad, can I borrow 30 dollars?" "20 dollars? What do you want 10 dollars for?" Charlie's sister - though she does get more to do in the book - is the perfect blend of spoilt high school girlfriend and over-protective sister played by Nina Dobrev - she is particularly great on the phone to Charlie at the end of the film; and Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth - her relationship and break up with Charlie is probably my favourite storyline in the book, and I was so pleased they captured the humour (when he just leaves her for long stretches on the phone and she doesn't realise he's gone), the awkwardness (their intimacy, Charlie's apathy) and the pain (the Truth or Dare amazing blow up) of it all. Poor Egg - at least she seems happy at the end. Really liked Paul Rudd as well as the English teacher, though wish Chbosky had included more of their friendship in the film (in the book Charlie visits his house and meets his wife). It just felt so well rounded - the characters are instantly real, 3D people with individual back stories, personalities, problems - this film may not be truly original in its themes, but it has so much to say, and does so eloquently and from a prevailing truth.

If there are faults it's the overly sweet ending which - even for me - was too cheesy to bear, though of course I cried like a loon. And though the story is wise, and so full of humour, it ties up things a little too neatly at the end - everything about the film is genuine apart from when it occasionally slips into its own fiction. Not quite matching the high bar set by Juno, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is still one of the best films about adolescence and being on the outside looking in of recent years, and I'm just so glad it has done the book justice and I urge you to read and see both. Hope this isn't Chbosky's one hit wonder.