Saturday, 15 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: HEAL THE LIVING - Dir. Katell Quillévéré

A synopsis can sometimes do a film no favours and describing the story in Katell Quillévéré’s third feature would bring to mind any number of hospital dramas. The key to the film’s power lies in the Quillévéré’s execution: finding the small moments of humanity amongst the enormity of the situation the characters face. It’s life and death, but not as the movies know it.

Adapted from an acclaimed novel by Maylis de Kerangal, Heal The Living introduces Simon (Gabin Verdet) climbing out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window to catch the early morning tide with two surfing friends. In strictest terms, he’s travelling through the night to stand in the sea on a slab of polyurethane, but it’s his passion for the surf that Quillévéré captures (through some quite breath-taking underwater and in water photography). Just hours later, Simon is declared brain dead after a severe car crash and his parents Marianne and Vincent (Emanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen) must decide whether to donate their son’s organs. There’s no extra special reason why we’re meant to care about Simon but we do care, simply because he was killed doing what he loved on the cusp of the prime years of his life.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: UNA - Dir. Benedict Andrews

The only thing I knew about Una beyond its main cast (the always interesting Rooney Mara and Ben Mendlsohn) was its origins as a play (Blackbird by David Harrower). Sadly, despite the best efforts of all involved, this story of sexual abuse can’t escape those origins to arrive on screen as a fully-fledged film.

BFI LFF 2016: WHAT'S IN THE DARKNESS - Dir. Wang Yichun

With a rarely seen perspective on the murder mystery genre, Wang Yichun’s debut film feels disjointed at first but gradually breaks free of expected genre trappings to deliver an unsettling look at an insidious and repressed modern China.

As a small rural town becomes engrossed by a spate of sexually motivated murders, teenage girl Jing (Su Xiaotong) begins to break free of her stilted family life and explore the wider world, stumbling across much that she isn’t ready for.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: ON THE ROAD - Dir. Michael Winterbottom

This late addition to the BFI London Film Festival line-up captures life on tour with London band Wolf Alice. Amongst the regular crew, Michael Winterbottom places a handful of actors to guide the audience along on the journey. The innovative approach breathes some fresh life into the rock tour doc but it ultimately paralyses the film from ever truly fulfilling its early promise.

There’s a good reason that the film is called On The Road and not Wolf Alice or the name of one of their songs; Winterbottom’s aim here is to capture the life of a touring crew, charging up and down the motorways from one venue to the next. In that regard, this film is a success. Having worked (for a time) a somewhat similar life in television production, the convergence of work life and personal life was immediately recognisable.

Monday, 10 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: ALL OF A SUDDEN - Dir. Azli Özge

When the last guest at his house party dies in mysterious circumstances, Karsten (Sebastian Hülk) faces scrutiny from his friends, family and the police. More questions are raised when he learns that no one at the party knew who the woman was or why she was there.

This premise could be the beginnings of a murder mystery but this finely crafted drama from writer/director Azli Özge examines the fallout from this one event and its widespread repercussions for those directly and indirectly involved.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: LA LA LAND - Dir. Damien Chazelle

In the opening of Damien Chazelle’s modern musical, the camera pans back along a traffic jam. A variety of modern notes and beats emerge from open car windows; travelling back through the years until the camera stops on the first soloist and kicks the film into life. It’s an opening that perfectly captures the film’s affection for the past but also acknowledging the passing of time since then.

In the traffic jam are Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone); the former scanning his tape player for the right song, the latter practising lines for her latest audition. Their paths are destined to cross, though perhaps not as smoothly as they could.

Since its Venice premiere, La La Land has been positioned as a firm Oscar favourite and it’s easy to see why. This is a top-tapping, finger clicking musical that was once the staple of Hollywood studios but is now normally reserved for the theatre. It gently mocks modern Hollywood whilst also showing a great reverence for it too. You can probably get longer odds on the likelihood of the sun rising tomorrow than you could on La La Land taking away the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical in December.

The film is undoubtedly harking back to musicals of old but any references (such as Gosling’s brief dalliance with a lamp post) are either accidental or so well integrated that they don’t overtly draw attention, miles away from the less than conspicuous references that have somehow become a point of praise in modern blockbusters.

Both Seb and Maria are passionate about dying art forms. Seb has a love of jazz and the endless creative freedom it brings whilst Maria has a love of old movies and the notion of sitting in a darkened cinema to savour them. This draws them together (after some persuasion on both sides). The opening stretches, covering the couple’s courtship, gallops at a relentless pace from one musical number to the next. The music and choreography work in tandem, making a mockery of many modern music videos and their arrhythmic limb waving. It’s a joyously witty game of call and response with Gosling and Stone tapping and swirling their way across a vibrant Los Angeles.

Anyone who’s seen Crazy, Stupid, Love. will be aware of the chemistry shared between Gosling and Stone and Chazelle trusts in their shared timing and delivery to keep the film flowing. Plaudits for his directing have been numerous, but it’s Chazelle’s skill as a writer that is the primary key to his success (his script for Grand Piano acknowledges the inherent ridiculousness of its premise without undermining the tension of the story). La La Land is chock full of wise cracks and jokes with second and third punchlines, all captured by an ever moving but never erratic camera. 

It’s all so dizzyingly wonderful but it’s also not surprising that the film can’t maintain this level razzmatazz and Chazelle doesn’t want to either. Unlike recent Oscar winner The Artist, this isn’t nostalgia for the sake of it and Chazelle confronts the fact that both Seb and Maria are longing for a time already passed. Their idols may have had their own favourite artists but they were visionaries and dreamers in their own right. Where the story goes is for an audience to discover. It feels a little sluggish here but perhaps that’s only in contrast to the earlier pace. The ending though is undoubtedly one for the ages: at once electrifying and yet tinged with the longing for a life not lived. I hope La La Land becomes the huge success it deserves to be; we really don’t deserve nice things in the future if we can’t be bothered to cherish this charming film.

La La Land plays at 60th BFI London Film Festival on Sunday 16th October 2016. It opens in UK cinemas on Friday 13th January 2017.

Visit the festival website for screening times and ticket details.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: THE NOONDAY WITCH (Polednice) - Dir. Jiri Sádek

Furthering the return to prominence of the “folk-horror”, most notably with Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Robert Eggers The VVitch, is the atmospheric The Noonday Witch. First time feature director Jiri Sádek delivers a captivating, if not entirely satisfying, blend of the supernatural and psychological to a story of a mother’s relationship with her daughter.

Eliska (Anna Geislerová) has left the hustle and bustle of the big city for the rural Czech village where her husband grew up, hoping for a fresh start with her daughter Anetka (Karolína Lipowská). With the sun bearing down on the parched land, the weight of a secret takes its toll on their relationship and the threat of the Noonday Witch looms ever larger.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH - Dir. Mahmoud Sabbagh

You can be forgiven for not being able to recall the last Saudi Arabian film you watched, such is mere handful of films that have been made there (Hafiaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda is a recent example). Set about changing that is Mahmoud Sabbagh with his debut film Barakah Meets Barakah.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hell or High Water - Dir. David Mackenzie

Tales of cops and robbers have rarely been far from our cinema screens and at first glance, there’s an inherently timeworn look to David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. It doesn’t take long however for this neo-western to reveal its cynical and unmistakeably contemporary spin on bank robbers and dusty Texan landscapes.

Having cared for his mother in her final weeks, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) sets into motion a plan to secure a future for his sons by robbing the same banks that are set to foreclose on his late mother’s mortgage. Helping him is his ex-con of a brother Tanner (Ben Foster), with Texas rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) on their tail.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Jason Bourne - Dir. Paul Greengrass

Jason Bourne has always been a man of few words, but he’s always been an interesting character and the films have always been about him first and foremost. Identity was about him learning that he was a trained assassin, Supremacy forced him to face up to the effect his work had on those left behind and Ultimatum saw him discovering who he really was.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Evolution - Dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic

The quiet tranquillity of the underwater opening of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution is indicative of the dreamlike qualities of the story that follows, but doesn’t begin to hint at the entrancing horrors of this strange and captivating science-fiction tale.

The tranquility of that opening is shattered when young boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) catches a glimpse of a body nestling in the clutches of the sea floor. He rushes home and tells his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), who sternly insists that he is mistaken.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

John Wick - Dir. Chad Stahleski & David Leitch

A thoroughly juvenile action bore that’s sole aim is to be described as “awesome” and “cool” as Keanu Reeves kills an undefined number of de facto bad guys. There’s a complete disinterest in story and characters that ultimately denotes the occasionally distinctive visuals as completely pointless.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Midnight Special - Dir. Jeff Nichols

As a genre, science-fiction is most often utilised as a vessel to challenge philosophical ideas or to channel observations of the present through a futuristic or alternate reality (Ex Machina and High-Rise being two fine recent examples). Midnight Special isn’t either of these those things; it’s more comparable relative is something like Lost, where only what happened to the characters on a mysterious island is relevant and not the mystery behind the island itself. Midnight Special is a chase drama that happens to feature a child with superpowers.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Oscar Predictions (2016)

Some last minute predictions for tonight's Academy Awards. As per usual, some awards are all but sewn up whilst others are wide open.
Picks for Will Win and Could Win choices are based on all nominated films, Should Win choices are only based on the films I have seen.
Brief list of some of the films that I haven't seen: The Big ShortTrumboThe Danish GirlJoyCreedStraight Outta ComptonSon of Saul.
Best Film
Will Win: The Revenant
Could Win: The Big Short
Should Win: Spotlight
Best Director
Will Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant)
Could Win: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Should Win: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Spotlight - Dir. Tom McCarthy

Its status as an ever present competitor in this year's awards season has perhaps caused the momentum behind Spotlight to dwindle as the race reaches its end, which means it will likely lose to the much showier (and gruntier/more grunty/?) The Revenant

That's a shame, not only because Spotlight is one of the year's very best, but because it's a magnificent testimonial to the shrinking practice of long term journalism and a fascinating exploration of how the deep rooted influence of an institution such as the Catholic Church can directly and indirectly affect the people of Boston.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Witch - Dir. Robert Eggers

Independent or arthouse horror has had a couple of notable hits in the last year or two with The Babadook and It Follows and whilst it deserves to sit alongside the both of them as a terrific film, The Witch is very much it’s own beast and deserves to be approached as such.
Aptly described as a New England Folk tale, The Witch transports us to 17th century New England where an English family set up a new home for themselves on the edge of an imposing forest, after being expelled from the local township. The family unit soon begins to crack when their young baby is snatched from under the nose of eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Revenant - Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Moments of sheer beauty and raw brutality, but they’re simply not enough to make a great movie; let alone a film that’s 8 hours long (it is 8 hours long, right?).

Ok so it’s only a little over 2 and a half hours, but boy does it feel like a whole lot more thanks to its minimal story. There’s nothing wrong with making a film that’s lighter on plot than your typical Christopher Nolan thriller, but the film’s running time should reflect that. The opening skirmish is great, as is the final fracas, but everything else is drawn out almost to the point of ridicule. What’s even more frustrating is that what little story there is, isn’t competently told. There’s no driving force to the film that leaves you feeling unsure of where the story is going next, but also arrives at what you instinctively feel is the right. Instead, The Revenant sticks with Hugh Glass (Leonardo di Caprio) as he grunts and slides his way across the wilderness, occasionally looking in on other supporting characters if only to remind us of their existence for when their paths overlap with Glass’ once more.

Within that band of supporting characters are some good performances from Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter, both of whom actually have some internal conflict to deal with. I’ve been largely nonplussed about Tom Hardy and his strange accents, but he’s quite enjoyable in this. Glass himself however is frankly not that interesting and the attempt to humanise him, by giving him a son who’s sole purpose in the film is to die, made him less interesting.
And let’s not even talk about that risible final shot.

Room - Dir. Lenny Abrahamson

A film of two halves, both structurally and in terms of quality. The film is a mostly well-handled exploration of a most horrific situation; Ma (Brie Larson) raises her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), conceived and born in the 10 foot by 10 foot space that they both call Room. Jack knows nothing of the outside world but when their captor, known only as Old Nick, begins to take an interest in Jack, Ma decides that the time has come to get out for good.

It’s a near hopeless situation that Jack and Ma find themselves in but Ma’s love for Jack keeps her going, even if his youthful innocence and exuberance sometimes leaves her exhausted. The escape is a brilliantly tense sequence that leads to an overwhelming emotional release when Jack gets his first glimpse of the outside world; director Lenny Abrahamson beautifully captures the look of shock and wonder Jacob Tremblay’s face.
It’s a high point that the film never comes close to matching, now matter how desperately it wants to. There’s a lot of ground that the filmmakers want to get through, but simply not enough time to approach it all with the same delicacy as the opening. It’s a stretch chock full of cathartic emotional payoffs without the measured build up to make those moments work; like a drummer repeatedly crashing a cymbal without the drum roll. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s superlative Like Father, Like Son spends its entire run time exploring its situation and builds to a conclusion and an overwhelming emotional release.

This too means that the film raises certain interesting aspects, such as Jack’s plasticity and the decision taken by Robert (William H. Macy), but they are glossed over and never properly dealt with. The film’s perspective never properly works either; it’s mostly told from Jack’s perspective but there are moments where it very much switches to a more objective perspective. One moment where Abrahamson abruptly reveals Old Nick’s face, before Jack has seen his face, is particularly jarring. Either ditch the sole perspective entirely or commit to it fully. A special shout out for Tom McCamus who seems to have been left out of conversations, despite giving a great supporting performance as Leo.
There’s plenty to recommend in Room; the performances alone make it worth seeing. It just doesn’t feel as honest as it should be.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Amy - Dir. Asif Kapadia

Yes it's good, but only to a point. Asif Kapadia's overlong documentary is ultimately hindered by its challenging structure and the production's relationship with Amy Winehouse's family.

The use of interviews heard over home movie and footage and photos from public appearances gives the journey through Amy's early life an impeccable and raw authenticity but there are times, particularly towards the end, when I wanted to see the faces of those talking. We don't just express emotion through the intonations of speech and Kapadia denies us from the facial expression of those involved.

A lot of the film is composed of paparazzi photographs and video used in magazines and news programmes that the film partially criticizes for the continued hounding of Amy Winehouse. It just about gets away with this for a while, but the use of footage from Amy's private funeral felt a little hypocritical and frankly uncomfortable.

Kapadia and co. initially had the co-operation of the Winehouse family but their relationship waned as the film grew critical of Amy’s father in particular. Unfortunately, its criticisms are often too broad and certain statements and decisions taken by those around Amy whilst she was alive (e.g. her father's decision to film a TV programme whilst visiting Amy in St. Lucia) are never fully explained.

Other points too are touched upon and are only approached with the benefit of hindsight. Kapadia’s position here is that the precarious condition of Amy’s health was so obvious and everybody was an idiot for not doing anything about it. It’s very easy to say that after the fact but the situation was perhaps different at the time. People never want to believe that they have or a family member has a drink or drug problem perhaps until it’s too late. Similarly, eating disorders were not as widely known about in the late 90’s as they are now, making the connection when Amy was just a teenager might not have been obvious then.

This is entirely speculation on my part and only those around Amy at the time will know for sure whether they could and should have done better by her.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Films of 2015 - The Top 10, the Honourable Mentions, the Hidden Gems and the Clunkers


A quick look back at the films of 2015, from the good to the bad, the surprises to the disappointments and the memorable to the forgettable. The choices are taken from the list of 67 films I've seen this year with a UK 2015 release (hence the inclusion of Foxcatcher, Whiplash etc).

The Top 10

10. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (Dir. Peter Strickland)

In ditching the real world in favour of a fabricated one, Strickland has excised any aspects of reality (such as the existence of men) that would detract from his story of the evolving relationship between two female lepidopterists; instead, he crafts a context and setting that enhances and embellishes it.

9. CRIMSON PEAK (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro's magnificent latest sees him return to the more overtly character driven dramas of his earlier Spanish language films. A resplendent gothic romance that embraces its melodramatic roots that are distinctly old-fashioned but aptly suit del Toro's story. Some of the twists and turns are familiar but del Toro gives all of his characters, especially the nominal villains, a complexity that encourages empathy from the audience. 

8. STILL ALICE (Dir. Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland)

Still Alice isn’t the most visually appealing film but any flamboyant flourishes would give the film an artificiality that betrays the measured, heart-breaking and frankly horrific story unfolding on screen.

7. EX MACHINA (Dir. Alex Garland)

Writer/Director Alex Garland choses not to engage with the notion of whether or not we should be trying to create artificial intelligence. Instead he suggests that, quite rightly in my opinion, humanity is misguided enough to try and develop artificial intelligence, despite the possibility that they may one day overthrow us (maybe). Ex Machina also combines its exploration of artificial intelligence with points on gender and attraction and how we may, despite our logical intentions, ultimately be led astray by our desires.

6. THE FALLING (Dir. Carol Morley)

Carol Morley's startling and confounding picture is too dense to dissect on an initial viewing but it's never anything less than utterly captivating. A psychedelic late 60s tale of a mysterious delirium that breaks out amongst the pupils at an all girls school; Morley succeeds in creating the same sense of unease and uncertainty for the audience that the pupils are experiencing. Florence Pugh shines early on as precocious teen Abbie but the outstanding Maisie Williams guides the audience through the nightmare as the troubled Lydia.

5. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Oppenheimer's follow up to his much acclaimed The Act of Killing is a more intimate but no less powerful affair as an optometrist named Adi meets the men who killed his brother, whilst also taking care of his elderly parents. More is often said during the silences in the conversations and as Adi watches his brother's killers recall the horrific past without a shred of shame. The Look of Silence is a perfect companion piece to The Act of KIlling: the latter provides the wider understanding of the genocide, the former focusses on the individuals left to come to terms with the atrocities.

4. FOXCATCHER (Dir. Bennett Miller)

Foxcatcher works so well because it maintains a confounding complexity of the bizarre people and unfortunate events but also finds a path to lead us through to a greater, but not complete, level of understanding.

3. CAROL (Dir. Todd Haynes)

A tender romance shot through the dusty windows and rain-strewn taxi cabs of 1950s New York. Todd Haynes' sumptuous film is practically perfect in every way, from the gorgeous costumes, Ed Lachmann's splendiferous 16mm grainy visuals and Phyllis Nagy's sparse but economical script that lets silences speak louder than any words could. I frequently nearly got lost in the impeccable design and compositions but the two outstanding performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara drew me back into their story; Mara in particular perhaps gives the finest performance of the year.

2. WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

On the surface Whiplash may look like a jazz musical but in reality, it’s the most adrenaline fuelled rollercoaster since Gravity. Lean, ferocious and exhilarating; one of the most assured debut films ever and destined to be a future classic.

1. INSIDE OUT (Dir. Pete Docter)

There’s undeniable sadness (and many tears) in the loss of some of the untainted innocence of early childhood as Riley’s personality is rebuilt, but Inside Out presents Riley’s understanding of more complex feelings as an overall positive experience. The need to accept that there is a place for sadness in our lives is difficult to understand at a young age, but it ultimately helps to prepare for the complex adult world that lies ahead. Age will bring a different perspective, but Inside Out is a film for everyone and, in my opinion, a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding one too.

The Honourable Mentions


INHERENT VICE (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (Dir. George Miller)
STEVE JOBS (Dir. Danny Boyle)

The Underrated Gems

BLACKHAT (Dir. Michael Mann) - Smart cyber thriller that actually has something to say.

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (Dir. Gregg Araki) - Melodramatic teenage coming of age fantasy with a terrific turn from Shailene Woodley and one of the year's best soundtracks.

THE VOICES (Dir. Marjane Satrapi) - One of the year's funniest that also has the year's most powerful and disturbing deaths.

BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (Dir. Yi'nan Diao) - A stylish neo-noir that takes its time to weave its story of an exiled police officer haunted by his last case, but patience is greatly rewarded.

YOUNG ONES (Dir. Jake Paltrow) - Not great, but a distinctive style and committed performances that are deserving of a stronger story.

The Clunkers... in 5 words or fewer

THE TRIBE (Dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky) - Art house torture porn.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (Dir. Matthew Vaughn) - Repugnant.

JURASSIC WORLD (Dir. Colin Trevorrow) - Slapdash and aggressively stupid.

WILD TALES (Dir. Damián Szifrón) - Idiots doing idiotic things.

PREDESTINATION (Dir. Spierig Brothers) - An admirable failure.