Friday, October 17, 2014

A LITTLE CHAOS - LFF14 - Day Ten


A LITTLE CHAOS is a charming amuse-bouche - a witty historical fantasy - gently telling us much about the perils of court life. It stars Kate Winslet as a gardener, Madame Sabine de Barra, in the court of Louis XIV.  We watch her charm Power by speaking Truth, triumph over court intrigue and create a little chaos in the carefully ordered gardens of the newly built Versailles. In all this she is aided by her frank and simple manner and the kindness of many aristos - not least the King’s brother and sister-n-law - a delightfully flamboyant and honestly dutiful couple played by Stanley Tucci and Paula Paul. Sabine also falls for the married Master of the gardens, André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who throws off a typically cynical court marriage to pursue the affair. And what of the king himself? Alan Rickman plays Louis XIV as weary, conservative but willing to listen in a handful of charming cameo scenes.

The movie is so very dripping in charm and liveability that it’s easy to forget that the basic concept of a gauche outsider finding favour in surprising circumstances in lifted from many a genre movie. Alan Rickman’s direction is stylish, elegant and all elements combine so gracefully that it may seem a more frivolous thing than it really is. For behind the sumptuous clothes and reawakening of life are a handful of delicately played scenes about the reality of court life - trapped, bending to the will of the king, discarded as beauty fades, and unable to show public grief. I think the approach Rickman takes is superbly judged and best summed up in a brief scene where Sabine meets the discarded King’s mistress (Jennifer Ehle). It’s not the grandstanding scene with the king that I like, but rather the one that precedes it - as women of all ages meet in secret intimacy to discuss their figures, their loves and their children.

Praise then to Rickman, his cast and perhaps particularly to debut screenwriter Alison Deegan for giving herself the license to go off-piste with history. My only criticism, if criticism there must be, is that I was rather disappointed with just how formal and hard Sabine’s garden was. After all, having spent the opening scenes in debate with Le Nôtre about formalism vs organic beauty it might’ve been nice to see something of that in her final creation.

A LITTLE CHAOS has a running time of 116 minutes.  The movie played Toronto and London 2014 and will be released in the UK on February 6th and in Portugal on March 5th.

SERENA - LFF14 - Day Ten


Sweet tap-dancing Christ, SERENA is so bad people were laughing at the movie at the screening I attended.  In fairness, this final act hilarity was a massive improvement on the sheer tedium, implausibility and banality of the first hour of the film.  God knows what Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Copper were thinking of in signing up to this garbage and I'd love to hear from anyone who read the book upon which the movie is based as to whether it's better/different/other to what landed on our screen.  What's equally bizarre and shocking is that the film was directed by Susanne Bier, whose A SECOND CHANCE is also screening at this year's London Film Festival and is possibly one of the best films this year.  One cannot imagine the distance between A SECOND CHANCE's quiet intensity, closely observed emotion and tense climax and SERENA.  Both films are about the powerful emotions prompted by parenthood but they are otherwise like chalk and cheese.

So, let's take a step back. SERENA is set in depression era North Carolina. Bradley Cooper plays George Pemberton, the indebted owner of a lumber yard. Rather than marry for money he marries a hard-headed businesswoman called Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). A double threat hangs over the couple. Their business is in hock, and their land threatened by its potential forced purchase to create a national park. Second, Pemberton is hiding an attachment to his illegitimate son, something Serena finds intolerable once she loses her own child.

The characters begin as tough and cynical - unwilling to let anyone get in the way of their success. This makes it hard to sympathise for them when they meet tragedy - and all the soupy orchestral scores and dreamy photography can’t overcome this central problem in the film - it’s hard to care about the fate of people we hate. Moreover, as the movie progresses we see the cracks show in the screenwriting, direction and acting. As Serena becomes more unhinged the movie tips over the edge of heightened drama into cheap melodrama, and the attempted reformation of her husband seems automatic and unconvincing. Of course, by this point we care so little about their fate that it’s just a mad dash to the end. And wow! what an ending. I don’t think we’e seen such an absurd and literally laughable denouement to a male protagonist in quite some time. It’s the stuff of Razzies and spoof fan service.

I would simply repeat: it’s hard to see how so many actors and a director of quality went so wrong. I guess it sometimes happens with movies: good intentions just get out of control and the end result doesn’t look like the storyboards. At any rate, this is a film to avoid at all costs. The good news is that the stars are so big, their careers are unlikely to be dented by a small fall.  


SERENA has a running time of 102 minutes.  The movie played London 2014 and opens in the UK and Romania on October 24th, in Spain on October 31st, in New Zealand and Finland on November 6th, in France on November 12th, in Portugal on November 20th, in Australia on November 27th, in Italy on November 30th, in Lithuania on December 5th, in Germany, Greece and Singapore on December 18th, and in Ukraine and the Netherlands on February 5th.

FOXCATCHER - LFF14 - Day Ten


FOXCATCHER is an extremely slow building true crime drama, based loosely on the murder of wrestling coach Dave Schultz by the incredibly wealthy wrestling patron John E Du Pont in 1996.  The tone of the film is wintry cold - one of repressed emotion, deep insecurity and resentment set in rural isolation.

As the movie opens we meet naive and hard trodden wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum).  He's living in the shadow of his elder brother Dave, another Olympic champion, and receives little in the way of adulation or financial support. Accordingly, he's absolutely ripe to fall for John E Du Pont's sales pitch - to live and train at his palatial Foxcatcher ranch - to move out of the shadow of his brother and achieve greatness on his own terms.  But as we move into the second half hour of the film we realise that Du Pont (Steve Carrell) is not just eccentric but deeply disturbed. Utterly resentful and yet still needing the approval of his contemptuous mother (Vanessa Redgrave), Du Pont has a fantasy image of himself as mentor and guru to Mark - one that he pays to make real by creating motivational videos and fake wrestling championships. At one point he criticises his mother by buying him a childhood friend, but his whole adult life is predicated on that same corruption.

As we enter the movie's second hour the dream turns sour. Mark feels betrayed when John brings his brother Dave to ensure Olympic success and John starts to resent Dave for being an actual coach and forming a barrier between Mark and John.  It's a kind of weird obsessive love triangle except without the sex.  It all turns to ashes in the end.  A resentful Mark quits wrestling and binge eats at his lowest moment - self-sabotaging the body he uses as his instrument.  And John, always odd, becomes strangely bizarrely single-mindedly vindictive, shooting Dave in cold blood.

The movie that Bennet Miller (MONEYBALL) has created is absolutely chilling, although it requires patience to get to the high-pitched hatred at the end.  The casting is absolutely inspired.  Channing Tatum captures both the boy-scout naive patriot at the start and the resentful seething self-loathing wrestler Mark.  Mark Ruffalo just oozes decent family values, understanding and empathy as Dave.  And Steve Carrell - well, this is the performance of a lifetime - tragicomic, sinister, deeply disturbed - the tilt of the head, the whiny voice and staccato tone are just petrifying.   And yet at the same time, seeing this poor lonely weird kid still trying to impress his mother and failing so miserably (does anyone convey contempt with a glance better than Vanessa Redgrave?) is to break your heart.

My only criticism of the film is not really valid, because I firmly believe that movies don't owe a debt to the truth.  But still it was weird to me to scan the wikipedia page for the crime and to realise that while Mark quit wrestling in 1988 the murder didn't happen until 1996. So it wasn't a slow burn turned tragic snap prompted by a perceived insult at Seoul that did it.  And maybe that's not what the movie is saying either, but the short time from Seoul to the murder made me think that events had been far more compressed. Moreover, the movie is fairly opaque on how far John was really mentally ill and therefore responsible for his actions.  Was he really a paranoid schizophrenic for example?

At the end of the day, I'm not sure that tho is what the screenwriter and director are interested in. Indeed one could read this film as a straightforward critique of the evils of wealth.  It seems to corrupt and chip away at identity - so that finally a man can pay for friends to enact a fantasy - or a pro-wrestler can take cocaine.  Even the wholesome family man can be bought, and once bought is vulnerable, fatally, to the whims of his patron. Grim viewing indeed.

FOXCATCHER has a running time of 136 minutes and is rated R.  The movie played Cannes, where Bennett Miller won Best Director, Telluride, Toronto and London 2014.  It opens in India and the USA on November 14th, in Ukraine on November 20th, in Thailand on November 27th, in Portugal on December 4th, in Argentina on December 11th, in Australia, New Zealand and Sweden on December 18th, in Italy,  the UK, Ireland and Romania on January 9th, in Estonia and Norway on January 16th, in Belgium, France and Denmark on January 22nd, in Germany and Poland on January 30th, in the Netherlands on February 19th and in March 26th in the Czech Republic.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD - LFF14 - Day Nine


WHITE BIRD IN A BLIIZZARD is the latest Gregg Araki movie after his brilliantly crazy over-the-top half-disastrous KABOOM which played the London Film Festival back in 2010. This movie seems far tamer and more contained - is equally hit and miss - but as ever contains just enough surprising good stuff to keep you in your seat.

The film plays as a kind of did-anyone-do-anything turned whodunit. As it opens, we’re in late eighties suburbia and Kat (Shailene Woodley) seems like a remarkably well-adjusted confident girl even as her depressed mother (a typically deliciously unhinged Eva Green) goes missing. Kat’s assigned a therapist and whatnot but seems utterly unfazed by her mother’s disappearance, using it as an opportunity to bang the hot cop assigned to the case. Fast forward a couple of years and she’s at college, and still looks really well adjusted. Until she goes home and everyone else seems to be telling her that they told her something was odd about her mum’s disappearance, only she was in denial. And so we work our way back through the events of the disappearance until we see Kat accept how deluded she was.

As a mystery thriller, the movie doesn’t work particularly well, with at least one major plot hole. It isn’t suspenseful, although I suppose part of the point is how Kat isn’t suspicious - hence the title. But what Araki does well is showing with a casual intimacy relationships between teenagers and young college students.  He talks about sex without flinching or judging and it's a pleasure to see Shailene Woodley break out of her far more conventional goodie two-shoes heroine roles to play a far more self-absorbed equivocal and sexually confident character.

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD has a running time of 90 minutes and is rated R.  The movie played Sundance and London 2014.  It opened earlier this year in Brazil and France. It opens in the USA on October 24th, in Iceland on November 7th, in Belgium on November 12th and in the Netherlands on November 20th.

MOMMY - LFF14 - Day Nine


MOMMY is Xavier Dolan’s greatest film and indeed one of the best in this year’s festival. It’s brutally authentic, emotionally captivating and technically astonishing. It rightly one the Special Jury Prize at Cannes this year and confirms him as one of the emotionally literate and astute directors of his generation. I’ve had issues with Dolan before - in terms of his pacing, repetition, bagginess and over-use of cinematic technique - but none of that ill-discipline is evident here. Rather he has honed his craft, pared down his view (quite literally) and delivered an unforgettable unique and vital film.

The film stars Dolan regular Anne Dorval as Diane - the exuberant, feisty mommy who is desperate to keep her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) out of juvenile detention and ultimately a mental institution. Society may have branded her son a troublemaker and a reject but she is a mother, with all the tenacity, sacrifice and fierce love that this entails. She matches Steve’s energy and joy - and despite any judgments we may make about her appearance, manners and language - she is utterly at peace with herself. And that in itself is a rarity on screen these days. The second strong woman in the piece is Kyla (Suzanne Clement) - at first a hesitant, nervous and compromised personality who is brought to life through her interaction with Steve and Diane. It’s almost as though she abandons her conventional family (husband, daughter - who we never see) to become the third player in the weird set-up across the road. Diane becomes breadwinner, Steve the child, and Kyla home-schooling him, the mother. And so the relationship blossoms, but always with the threat of Steve’s extreme ADHD in the background, forcing Diane and Kyla to make tough choices about what is truly best for him.

As ever Dolan has a keen visual style and a particular sensitivity for setting key melodramatic set pieces to music. He doesn’t disappoint here, but keeps the number of these set pieces in check. Moreover he pulls off a neat conceptual trick by the filming the movie in 1:1 aspect ratio - a tight boxed close-up of character that literally cuts out any peripheral distractions. In a couple of astonishing moments, utterly in synch with the emotional journey of the characters, this concept is over-written, and the result is absolutely breathtaking and immersive. It makes movies that are content merely to put a story on screen in a conservative and obedient manner (TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, I’m looking at you) seem completely passé and redundant in a festival of this calibre. Kudos to Dolan and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

MOMMY has a running time of 134 minutes.  MOMMY played Cannes, where Dolan won the Jury Prize, Telluride, Toronto and London 2014.  It opened earlier this year in Canada, Belgium, France and Luxembourg. It opens in Germany and the Netherlands on November 13th, in Italy on November 27th, in Spain on December 5th and in Romania on January 23rd.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH - LFF14 - Day Nine


TESTAMENT OF YOUTH drips in heritage quality. It feels like it should be a miniseries shown on ITV before Downton Abbey. It’s all beautiful people in gorgeous costumes full of earnest good intentions. There aren’t any bad people or real arguments. And the misery of the trenches is only briefly shown. Rather, in these memoirs from the real-life pacifist author Vera Brittain show the experience of World War One through the eyes of a woman necessarily at one step removed from the horrors of the front line. And if we occasionally see a soldier suffering from the blisters of mustard gas or an amputation it is done with utmost delicacy. For this is war diary as romantic drama - all soft light and longing glances and thwarted love.

I don’t mean to belittle the subject matter but it’s hard to take it seriously when the director James Kent (tellingly a TV director) seems so loathe to truly engage with the substance of the film. He is keenly interested in the love story but blunts the radicalism. Vera Brittain was an intelligent woman who had to fight to gain entry to Oxford University at a time when women couldn’t formally receive a degree. But on the point of her firebrand feminist speech she falls for dreamy Roland Leighton - a schoolfriend of her brother’s - and abandons Oxford to become a nurse. At this point her politics and aspirations are shifted very firmly to the back of the film, where they appear in a short coda. They feel utterly out of character for what has turned out to be a rather conventional character. A nurse at the start of her training tells Vera that she may have joined the nursing corps with the romantic ideal of being a ministering angel. Well, that’s precisely what this movie shows.

I find myself trying to think how radical Brittain’s memoirs must have appeared at the time, especially if (as in the film) they hint at homosexual love, feminism and the sheer waste of lives that World War One entailed on both sides. We are told in the programme notes that her book was considered to be “the voice of a generation” and was immensely popular. One can’t imagine that such a radical generational voice was really depicting events in the manner of grand heritage drama. And that is a great shame.

Are we are going to go through the centenary of the First World War refusing to look it squarely in the eye - refusing to pull back from the individual love story to the wider view? Indeed I can sum up that hesitancy on the part of the director in one shot around half way through the film. Vera comes out of her nursing hut to the back of the building where many victims of a mustard gas attack have been laid out. It’s a scene crying out for the director to crane up from Vera’s personal fears to the wider context of immense human suffering. But James Kent doesn’t have the guts to pull back wide enough to make this visual and historic point.

In other words, this is a highly conservative film pandering to World War One nostalgia - brave and decent men and women thwarted by war. It seeks no greater insight nor any greater cinematic style.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH has a running time of 130 minutes.  The movie played the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on January 16th, and in Denmark on April 30th.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

WHIPLASH - LFF14 - Day Eight



Writer-director Damien Chazelle's second feature, WHIPLASH, is a tour-de-force that's getting all the buzz at this year's London Film Festival and should, if there's any justice, clean up at Awards season.  The lead performances from JK Simmons and Miles Teller (THE SPECTACULAR NOW) are astounding in their commitment and intensity - the photography and editing push forward the boundaries of how we capture the energy and intensity of live performance - and the score is just sensational.  This movie works on so many levels - in front of and behind the lens - that I left the screening wanting to watch it again and really get under its skin beyond the initial reaction of just Wow.


The movie is basically a two-hander between Teller and Simmons as music student Andrew and teacher Fletcher.  Teller is at an elite music school and wants to be a legendary jazz drummer to the exclusion of all else. Simmons is the man to impress - his band the one to get into - but he runs that band as a dictator and cruelly abusive bully.  The first hour of the movie sees Andrew punished mentally and physically, drowning his bleeding hands in ice water to practice to the level that'll impress the impossible to impress game-player Fletcher.  This culminates in a set-piece so thrilling it could be in a David Fincher where each of them pushes each other to breaking point. In the final stretch we see the ultimate bait and switch that results in an on-stage concert that plays like a shoot em out between two obsessive characters.  What's spectacular about this is that so much is communicated between the two of them merely by virtue of who's giving the other cues and recognition via the eyes and hand movements.

The resulting movie is high octane, engrossing and memorable.  JK Simmons' Fletcher has to be the most charismatic and quotable bully since The Thick Of It's Malcolm Tucker. And you have to admire Miles Teller's work in being able to play the virtuoso jazz pieces. One final point to make is that I watched this film with a friend who hates jazz but loved this film. You don't need to like jazz or indeed music to find this move compelling but if you do it'll add another layer of enjoyment to the experience.


Teller and Simmons at the press conf yesterday.
WHIPLASH has a running time of 106 minutes.  The movie played Cannes, Sundance, where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, and London 2014.  It went on release in the USA last week and opens this week in Hong Kong. It opens in Australia and New Zealand on October 23rd, in Thailand on October 30th, in the Netherlands on November 13th, in Sweden on November 28th, in Norway and Romania on December 5th, in France on December 24th, in the UK on January 16th, in Poland on January 23rd, in the Czech Republic on January 29th, in Portugal on February 5th and in Germany and Denmark on February 19th.

THE SALVATION - LFF14 - Day Eight


THE SALVATION is a beautifully made, powerfully acted, good old-fashioned Western. There's no meta-narrative, no post-modern reworking, no reimagining.  It's "just" an immensely satisfying  short, taught, austere tale of good, evil and justice served in the Wild West.  I loved every minute of it.

The film is set over a couple of days in a dirt town in 1871.  A Danish ex-pat soldier called Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) greets his wife and young son from the train, reunited for the first time in seven years.  They travel by stagecoach to their ranch, but a couple of thugs rape and kill his wife and son, with Jon utterly powerless to protect them.  He quickly takes his revenge but this sets off a train of violence: the rapist was the brother of the local crime boss Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).  The townsfolk, led by the callow Sherriff and Minister (Douglas Henshall) and undertaker and land speculator (Jonathan Pryce) are caught in a bind.  If they don't hand over the Danish brothers Delarue will continue killing them instead.  

The movie plays out exactly as one would expect for a film in this genre.  There's cruelty and injustice, a steely damsel in distress (Eva Green), a nasty double-cross, and an epic set of climactic shoot-outs.  Mads Mikkelsen does stoic obstinate vengeance like no other and I rather liked Jeffrey Dean Morgan's charismatic bandit (side note - whatever happened to him after WATCHMEN?)  Eva Green plays the role she always plays - sultry, not to be messed with.  And even Eric Cantona doesn't offend in a minor role.  But what really sets the film apart is Kristian Levring's spare style and script and DP Jens Schlosser's stunning photography.  It just goes to show that sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to do something simple really well.

THE SALVATION has a running time of 91 minutes.  THE SALVATION played Cannes and London 2014.  It opened earlier this year in Denmark, Iceland, Finland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany and Austria.  It opens in the Netherlands on November 6th.