Wednesday, April 16, 2014

WE ARE THE BEST - a touching coming-of-age comedy

WE ARE THE BEST is an absolute joy! A funny, moving, authentic look at life as a young teenage girl rebelling against everything, no-one taking you seriously, and getting your heart broken. Its bittersweet tone and effortless depiction of close female friendship reminded me of GHOST WORLD - also based on a graphic novel - although the tone is less nihilistic than that. In fact, it felt closer to the delightful SON OF RAMBOW, showing just how much can be achieved by young naive kids who just don't know any better.

The story begins with a fight to control noise.  Bobo and Els are two teen punks in early 80s Sweden, constantly trying to block out the sounds of their fighting or partying loving but ultimately lackadaisical parents.  They try to hide out at their local youth club but under sound-attack from a shitty amateur prog-rock band they decide to book out the rehearsal space and, hey!, why not start a punk band!  This is, of course, the perfect idea because the key point of punk is that you didn't have to play, or play well, to participate. It was an inherently amateur concept. That said, when they see geeky Hedwig play classical guitar at a school concert, they realise they need her musical stylings and bring her into their group.  What follows is your classic SCHOOL OF ROCK style young kids form a band, go up against the prejudices of the community, and put on an awesome show.

That all sounds pretty hackneyed but the focus of this film isn't really on practice montages and winning some concert competition, but just on spending time with these friends and seeing how they interact.  I absolutely adored the feisty Klara with her boundless enthusiasm, absolute conviction and hilarious appropriation of adult terms.  Thoughtful introspective Bobo is something of an enigma, but the heart of the film - she's the one who perceives that geeky Hedwig might not want her hair shaved into a Mahican.  

A lot of the hilarity comes from seeing these guys write rebellious songs about hating their PE teacher, or debating whether God is a Fascist in these ponderous earnest tones. But what elevates this movie into something better and more worthwhile is the delicate way in which Lukas Moodysson essays the kids' relationships with their parents and the shifting loyalties between each other.  It's so rare to see childhood friendship depicted on screen with anything like authenticity - instead we just get those awful generic high school movies - and that makes WE ARE THE BEST all the more welcome.

Just one final note, for those of you familiar with Swedish auteur, Lukas Moodysson's previous films - the harrowing, uncompromising  LILYA 4-EVER and the more tedious but earnest MAMMOTH - don't be surprised when you find that WE ARE THE BEST is utterly different in tone and concern, and that the only commonality is the immediacy of the dogma-lite shooting style.

WE ARE THE BEST has a running time of 102 minutes and is rated 15 in the UK for very strong language. 

WE ARE THE BEST played Venice, Toronto and London 2013. It was released last year in Sweden, Iceland, Spain, Norway and Finland and it was released earlier this month in the Netherlands and Estonia. It will be released on April 18th in the UK and Ireland. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER 3D brought to you by proud sponsor, Edward Snowden

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is an utterly satisfying comic-book summer blockbuster but I wonder how certain members of the audience will view its earnest liberal political agenda.  Which is to say that I agree with absolutely everything this movie says about the trade-off between freedom and security, but even I found the messaging rather heavy-handed. So much so that this movie could've been sponsored by Wikileaks or the Edward Snowden defence fund.  That said, it's the most politically engaged, elegantly written Marvel movie, so I'm really not complaining.

As the movie opens we see the formerly cryogenically frozen super soldier Captain America unfrozen and working for SHIELD  As well as catching up on fifty years worth of pop culture, he's also struggling to reconcile his earnest no-nonsense good guy values with his current job enacting secret missions in a world without clear-cut enemies. His boss, Nick Fury, isn't helping by being all paranoid and on the verge of launching three super-fighters capable of taking out terrorist threats before they happen, with the co-operation of World Security Council chief Alexander Pierce.  But soon Fury is the subject of an assassination attempt, Captain America himself is under attack, and Hydra is rearing its many-heads once again.  His only allies are the newly contemplative Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow and the similarly earnest Sam Wilson aka The Falcon.

There's a lot to love here without the politics. The dialogue is smart, if not as constantly wise-cracking as an IRON MAN movie.  I love the genuine chemistry between Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha.  I love the elegant way in which the scriptwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) give us the prequel backstory by way of a museum exhibit.   The plot has a pleasing complexity without seeming wilfully obscure, and it allows minor characters a chance to shine - not least Sebastian Stan in what could've been a thankless cameo role as The Winter Soldier but drips with melancholy.  I even love the behind the scenes stuff - particularly the subtle ageing make-up on Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, the gorgeous hand to hand combat choreography, and the cinematography from Trent Opaloch (DISTRICT 9) that's less than the motion sickness of Bourne but still engrossing enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. So kudos to the unlikely directors, the Russo brothers, for pulling it all together.

But this movie ultimately stands or falls on how you feel about its politics because, believe you me, this kind of earnest engagement with a highly contemporary issue is bold and brave, not least because of its ramifications for SHIELD within the real-life complex commercial universe that Marvel has established.  I love that beyond all the fighting this is ultimately a thoughtful, provocative and bold film - one that, like Captain America himself, has the courage of its convictions and a kind of audacity that is rare in a summer blockbuster.  That audacity caps itself off in the anti-casting of arch-liberal Robert Redford as a hawk, and the wonderfully subversive final scene involving Jenny Agutter.  We've come a long way from THE RAILWAY CHILDREN!

CAPTAIN AMERICA was a great summer blockbuster.  Its sequel is something more than that.  A great entertaining movie but one that also has the courage to pose serious questions about our world and doesn't patronise the audience with easy answers.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER has a running time of 136 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for infrequent moderate violence.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is released this week in the USA, France, the UK, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Argentina, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore and Spain. It is released on April 3rd in the UAE, Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Macedonia, New Zealand, Russia and Thailand; on April 4th in Bulgaria, Canada, China, Estonia, India, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Romania, the USA (wide release) and Vietnam; on April 9th in Serbia; on April 10th in Brazil, Hungary and Cambodia; on April 11th in Turkey; on April 19th in Japan.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE - LFF 2013 - Day Eleven - Super late review!

So here's a super-late review of the gloriously weirdly wonderful romantic-comedy ONLY LOVERS LEFT LIVE from art house director Jim Jarmusch (THE LIMITS OF CONTROL).  I originally saw this flick at the London Film Festival, and then watched it again on Valentine's Day at the BFI.  I resisted reviewing it because sometimes the movies you truly love are the hardest to write about. Somehow it's easier to pinpoint exactly why you hate hate hate hate hate a movie and far harder to articulate that nebulous feeling of unashamed joy when you luxuriate in a movie that's uniquely wondrous. But, as this flick is still on a few arthouse screens in the UK, here goes....

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE tells the story of two ancient vampires called, in biblical simplicity, Adam and Eve.  When we meet them, they're living apart. She's in the richly decorated decadent Tangier, hanging out with her friend Marlowe (wry jokes about ghosting Shakespeare), and generally looking effortlessly punk-rock-chic.  He's hanging out in decaying Detroit, writing awesome moody music on self-consciously old-school tech, procured by his cluelessly half-baked muggle friend Ian.  

Adam's in a funk, and Eve comes to rescue him. What's funny and sweet about their relationship is that after all those centuries it has matured into a kind of docile middle-aged marriage and yet we still feel they're passionately in love with each other, and utterly good people who make each other better, which is ultimately the aim, right?  He shows her his decrepit post industrial city by night, dodging fan-girls, and all seems wistfully melancholy until Eve's little sister Ava turns up and throws everything into chaos.  There's a lot of fun to be had at Adam's deadpan response to Ava's hell-raising antics, and the key plot point is that it forces our Lovers onto a plane to Tangier, leaving their ethically sourced blood supply behind them.

Throughout all of this, Jim Jarmusch seems to be engaging us in an elegy for high culture.  Adam is weary with superficial modern culture - the source of his depression - and longs for a greater more glorious past.  Eve might try to snap him out of this, mocking Byron as an old bore, but there's a feeling that the times of great dandy fashion and music and writing is over and they are not just the Only Lovers Left Alive as in the only truly passionate people left, but the only Lovers of Art left in a modern world denuded of taste. To that end, Eve's little sister with her insatiable immediate and unfiltered appetites might remind us of modern pop-culture - superficial, insatiable, undiscriminating.  If Eve's reading Marlowe, then Ava's reading TMZ. 

All of which makes this movie sound rather pedagogic but it's only after I watched it, and rewatched it, and pondered it, that I came to this awareness. When you're in the movie, you're enjoying the wonderfully attenuated, chiselled beauty of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, and utterly buying into their love story.  You're enjoying the wonderfully curated ramshackle houses that they live in.  You're glorying in the very British humour delivered in particular by Hiddleston and his interplay with Anton Yelchin as Ian. Plus, did I say that the music is just insanely wonderful?

Really, there's nothing not to like here.  And if you've found Jim Jarmusch inaccessible and wilfully obscure in the past (as I have) then please don't let that put you off this beautifully shot, deeply affecting film.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE has a running time of 123 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK for strong language.  

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2013.  It was released in 2013 in Russia, Croatia, Switzerland, Japan and Germany. It was released earlier this year in Greece, South Korea, the Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey, Belgium, France, the UK, Ireland, Romania, Poland, Taiwan, Denmark and Finland. It will be released in the USA on April 11th, in Australia on April 17th, in New Zealand on May 1st, and in Spain on June 27th.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

BFI FLARE - Opening Night Gala - LILTING

LILTING is a movie that drips with sincerity and authenticity and makes you cry - but not in that emotionally manipulative way that a film like THE BLIND SIDE brings you to a crescendo of weepiness - but in the quiet way that a movie about real loss can. And despite all this - and its profound investigation of grief and the guilt around caring for our ageing parents and the difficulty of coming out - and the way in which we circumscribe our communication to shelter others or shelter ourselves - it's actually a properly laugh-out-loud funny film! That all this comes from a first-time feature writer-director is just astonishing!

The movie is about unpicking the memories and emotions around a dead young man called Kai (Andrew Leung) who lived in  London with his long-time partner Richard (Ben Whishaw) but hadn't come out to his possessive mother Jun (Pei-Pei Cheng).  We begin the movie after his death but in a series of elegantly languidly interlaced flashbacks we get to know and sympathize with Kai over his genuine love for his mother but the way in which he feels trapped by his dependence on her. Meanwhile, in the present, as his boyfriend struggles to grieve for Kai, we see him start to visit her in a nursing home, despite her evident dislike for the rival for her son's attentions, and the ambiguity surrounding how much she really knows about the nature of their relationship.  Much of the humour of the film comes from the incipient relationship between Jun and another resident at the home, Alan (Peter Bowles). Initially, Richard introduces them to a translator (Naomie Christie) to aid their romance, but soon as Naomie becomes more involved in their lives, it's Richard and Jun that she mediates and translates for. 

I want to emphasize just what a beautifully elegant and softly woven film this is.  How authentic and conflicted the relationships feel, and just how good the performances are, so that even in the midst of selfish arguments you can sympathize with each participants.  I left the cinema having laughed out loud but also having quietly cried - feeling that I really knew these people and desperately cared about what was going to happened to them.  I can't tell you how infrequent an experience that is at the cinema and how much these unique voices must be supported.  Moreover, why isn't Ben Whishaw more famous? 

I suppose the final question is, with the movie featuring a gay couple, and centering on the issue of coming out, whether this is exclusively a gay interest film.  I would argue that it deserves a far wider audience that that.  The issue of how we as vital children relate to our ageing parents is universally relatable as is the idea of what we choose to say and with-hold in our relationships.  This is a wise film indeed. 

LILTING played Sundance, where Urszula Ponticus won the cinematography award for World cinema - Dramatic,  and BFI Flare 2014.  It will be released in the UK and Ireland on June 20th.