Tuesday, 26 November 2013

How I Live Now (15) | Film Review

How I Live Now, dir. Kevin Macdonald, wr. Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, Penelope Skinner, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff, st. Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor

Elements of Grisoni's Southcliffe effectively and chillingly course through Macdonald's Threads-inspired drama that concerns a nuclear strike on the UK, and its effects on a group of children. Southcliffe, the recent made-for tv four-part drama about a Dunblane-style Home Counties shooting, conjured atmosphere from the faithful imagining of an event too horrific to comprehend, and here, when the bombs do fall, everything unfolds with rolling-news-style mundanity. The moment of impact is especially effective, with one of the kids' pastoral picnics being interrupted by darkening clouds, an ominous and sudden pickup in the breeze, and drifting fallout. The plot, regrettably just doesn't cut it alas. Poor Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan, spends too much of the first act being reprehensibly angsty and surly. By the time her character turns and steps up, not even Ronan's skills can turn the tide against her. Additionally, loathe as I am to compare the feature to TV, How I Live Now feels much like one of the more mediocre episodes from AMC's The Walking Dead -  a show that does unremittingly bleak depressingly, sometimes unwatchably well - but dressed up and scrubbed down for theatrical release. There are some clever attentions to detail though that do linger; the kids' farmhouse kitchen, initially warmingly brimming with foods, fresh milk and all manner of animals, is a perceptive reminder that as far from cities and skyscrapers as it may seem, nowhere is truly safe from conflict's reach. But the facile slo-mo, sub-vampiric cooing of Daisy and her eldest cousin Edmond (Mackay) had me frustrated at all the film's potential ebbing away with each wide-eyed glance.

Mud (PG-13) | Film Review

Mud, dir/wr. Jeff Nichols, st. Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Jacob Lofland

The Twainish comparisons may ultimately be inevitable, but in this case they say more about Tom Sawyer's continuing ability to inspire filmmakers thanks to the enduring way in which it portrays adolescence breaking free, than a tired excuse to tie just another Boys Go Huntin' adventure to a weighty literary reference. Following on from the rather brilliant Take Shelter I raved about in 2011, Nichols' follow up film shares many of Shelter's themes concerning community isolation, fractured communications, and personal demon-slaying. Sheridan and Lofland play Ellis and Neckbone (a pair that could have easily been inducted into the Wheaton/Phoenix/O'Connell/Feldman clique without so much as a whisper of an initiation) who spend their days exploring all the wild and fecund Mississippi inlets and byways have to offer. On one such remote island, the pair discover an apocalyptic sight - an old boat moored high and dry above ground, stuck in a tree. To their surprise, someone has already claimed it as their own - a drifter who calls himself Mud (McConaughey) - and the boys are soon employed to run errands into town, deliver messages to Mud's belle Juniper (Witherspoon), and steal engine parts with a Fitzcarraldonian idea in mind to lower the marooned boat and provide Mud with liberating transport. It's a more ponderous piece than Take Shelter for sure, and Nichols' desire to show rather than to tell sometimes obstructs opportunities to take a deeper, more empathic view of the boys' relationship with the fugitive, but it's lovingly shot and edited, and its more meditative approach provides a calming respite from more overwrought offerings from the genre.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Betty Blue (18) | Blu-ray Review

Betty Blue, dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix, wr. Jean-Jacques Beineix, based on the novel "37°2 le matin" by Philippe Djian, st. Jean-Hugues Anglade, Béatrice Dalle

27 years after its initial release, Beineix' iconic Betty Blue is released in dizzyingly high-definition courtesy of Second Sight Films - a transfer that finally does respectful justice to Jean-François Robin's exceptionally high-dynamically-ranged du look cinematography that damn-near pops off the screen with clarity and saturation. My only copy up until now has been a battered VHS copy of the film recorded from Channel 4 many moons ago, but even back then, it was possible to see what made the film so enthrallingly immersive. Reception to movies changes as we grow: such is the nature of how we respond to the world as we evolve. But Betty and Zorg's hedonistic affair, carnal and liberatingly abandoned, only communicated its sense of intoxicating lovelorn escapism to a pre-teen kid such as myself. All heart with none of the heartache. As an adult, Betty Blue reminds us that commitment is a transaction. It's a compromise, a promise. It also reminds us the role those we fall in love with play long after they've gone, in shaping our lives, giving navigation to our meandering ambition.

For Zorg (Anglade), a beach-shack-dwelling handyman, life is simple. The breeze rolls in from the ocean, there's always an open beer on hand, and chilli bubbling on the stove. Then one day, without warning (for as these types of stories go, there never is), in walks the polka-dot dressed Betty, tired of the unwelcome male gaze from her previous job as a waitress, and looking for amnesty from misogyny. Béatrice Dalle, in what was her debut role, comes straight from Djian's original manuscript; pouty- and potty-mouthed with equal ferocity, volatile, vivacious and impassioned to the point of self-destruction, Betty is the embodiment of the type of contradictory woman men are supposed to want to be with. A woman that can devour them one moment, yet exhibit vulnerability and a need for protection the next. After one of her many tantrums (this time it's Betty's frustration at Zorg's subservience to his oily boss), she discovers the many volumes of Zorg's novel he's been composing over the years. She spends the entire night consuming them before typing up every page, convinced he's destined for better things. For Zorg, this casual fling soon evolves into love, a soulful and unintentioned all-absorbing union. But as the relationship rattles along, it soon emerges that Betty is more fragile than initially thought. There are hints from their beach-house days that a deeper trauma may exist in her past, one that initially pushes her into Zorg's arms, but for the most part, it is her bi-polared condition and Zorg's defiant struggle to comfort and love her in spite of it that anchors the relationship between the lovers and elevates Betty Blue to a higher plain.

But there are lighter moments too. The film isn't above slipping into near-slapstick moments of levity, as in a scene in which a billy-bollock naked Zorg attempts to pull out a sofa-bed with a comedy broom while Betty, equally de-clothed, enthusiastically sets about loosening the release pedal with a hammer. Combined with the authentic and intimate love scenes and breezy nudity on display, the cumulative result is a film that truly defies convention with an enviable self-assurance. A Director's Cut that adds an extra 50% on to the original running time expands on Betty's tragic descent from sanity and introduces a number of fringe characters, but the Theatrical Cut is equally concise and compelling. Betty Blue has aged remarkably well. Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Colour may be the current benchmark for plaudit-winning dramatic legitimacy, but Beineix' film and its remarkable performances from Anglade and Dalle lay the groundwork.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Way Way Back (PG-13) | Film Review

The Way Way Back, dir/wr. Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, st. Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet

On the subject of projecting an outward air of confidence and charisma, and with leading provocation, Trent (Carell) asks 14-year-old  Duncan (James) "On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?" "A 6?" Duncan replies. "I think you're a 3." Yes, one of the most striking things about Faxon and Rash's unapologetically sweet-natured coming-of-age tale, is witnessing Steve Carrell about-turn from loveable dick to (truly) loathable dick. It's a portrayal the likes of which recalls De Niro's particularly vicious turn as Dwight Hansen in Michael Caton-Jones' 1993 biography of Tobias Wolff This Boy's Life, a film that shares many sensibilities with The Way Way Back. Both feature tremendous cornerstone performances by terrific young actors - in this case Liam James - playing singular kids of single moms hauling ass from home in a bid to make a new start with a new man, too blinded by disillusion from a collapsed marriage to notice their new suitors' suitability or their sons' retreat into themselves. At the seasidey Cape Cod retreat, Duncan and his Mother Pam (Collette) hang out with Trent's dullsville friends and forms a capricious relationship with their neighbour's daughter Susanna (Robb), but it's at the nearby dilapidated, temporally stranded-in-the-80s water park Water Wizz, where Duncan seeks asylum from grown ups' folly. There he meets Owen, a man who's committed - Ron Swanson-like - to irresponsibility and corner cutting management (much to the chagrin of Rudolph's Caitlyn, the assistant manager by turns delighted and dismayed by Owen's infantilism). Duncan becomes the park's newest intern and in return Owen seeks to lift  Duncan to the 6 he aspires to. The rub here is Faxon and Rash's unhurried breeziness. The writing is wistful, but never cloying, mellow but never lazy. Owen has no real words of wisdom for the teenager, only much needed and beautifully observed companionship. There isn't even really a big finale, just an understanding between the two, and eventually, satisfyingly, between Mother and Son.

Chasing Mavericks (PG) | DVD Review

Chasing Mavericks, dir. Curtis Hanson, Michael Apted, wr. Kario Salem, story by Jim Meenaghan Brandon Hooper, st. Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer

Apple followers might have heard of "Mavericks,"as announced by CEO Tim Cook at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference, as the latest iteration of the Mac OSX operating system, complete with a new tealed and epic wallpaper shot of a tremendous curling wave, apparently the first in a new trend of naming releases after locales in California that inspire the Apple boffins. Chasing Mavericks, as the name suggests, is a movie as aspirationally titled as it sounds - a kind of Waves Of Thunder - but sadly, puzzlingly, given the talent behind the lens, harnessing about as much excitement and cathartic exhilaration as the news of a software release. That is, non-Apple fans, not much. Odd indeed that from the directors who gave us 8 Mile, L.A. Confidential, Gorillas In The Mist and The World Is Not Enough, should emerge such a bloodless tale of surfer legend Jay Moriarty, a natural-born wave-rider who perished at the tender age of 22 in 2001. The trappings are certainly staple enough to conjure some kind of blood-pumping; an 8-year-old Jay is saved from drowning by his surfer neighbour Frosty Hesson (Butler, decent) and is warned of the savage and untameable nature of the rolling ocean. 8 years later, Jay seeks out a curmudgeonly Frosty, who, softened by his wife Brenda (Spencer), agrees to tutor Jay Mr. Miyagi-style - writing essays, holding his breath as long as possible - the "foundation pillars of surfing" as he calls them. It's all very predictable, even if the true nature of the tale excuses some of the more trite emotional narrative beats, and while the performances are earnest enough, there's a palpable lack of excitement not even competent and dynamic aerial footage of surfers cruising through tunnels of water and a rousing Zimmer-like score can muster.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (18) | Film Review

Blue Is The Warmest Colour, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, scr. Ghalia Lacroix, based on Blue Angel by Julie Maroh, st. Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux

Love, grief, passion, friendship - these are things we all experience in our lives. They play out over intensely concentrated days, emotionally fatiguing weeks, joyously untiring months or even relentlessly unforgiving years. Cinema has always sought to condense these time periods into a concise, manageable running time for its audiences, and great dramas have won their laudations by presenting journeys that flutter seamlessly from resonance to resonance, spanning chronology yes, but also portraying the temporal delineation of emotion in a way that feels natural and recognisable. It is fortunate then, that in employing an expansive and decidedly noncommercial 180-minute running time, director Abdellatif Kechiche has woven a thorough and immersive tale that vividly portrays the meeting of two lovers, and that has enough core narrational and performance heft to warrant the extended hour. You don't end up watching Blue Is The Warmest Colour, you end up living through it with Adèle and Emma, every kiss, gaze, embrace, breath and gasp.

The film's chequered introduction to public consciousness has been well documented by now; its big win at Cannes earlier this year when the panel decided Exarchopoulos and Seydoux should share the Palme d'Or with Kechiche, the film's status as the first award winner to be based on a graphic novel, the synchronicity between the movie's win and France's legalisation of gay marriage within a week of each other, the beaming photos of the three that followed, and the finger-pointing from both stars and director that followed that, each accusing the other of unprofessionalism during the production process. All of this however, is mere window dressing to the more pertinent question that concerns the film's quality and credibility. Firstly, to address the quite naked elephant in the room; the sex. No, it is not gratuitous or lascivious. To accuse Kechiche, as some have, of peddling smut is odd. The author of the original novel, Julie Maroh, denounced the sex as it appears in the film, saying "The heteronormative laughed because they don't understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it's not convincing at all, and found it ridiculous." Well, I'm heteronormative and had no problem placing the film's sex into the context I assume it was meant; as an informative part of the relationship narrative. True, I have never watched gay women having sex, but then again, I've never witnessed straight couples having sex either. I remain curious as to what "convincing sex" might look like. Additionally, surrounding ten minutes of sex, however graphic, with two hours and fifty minutes of intimate character observation that comprises long takes and plentiful and utterly absorbing inaction, surely qualifies Kechiche as the worst pornographer ever.

Kechiche is, however, wholly fascinated by his leads, and the ways in which his camera captures their detail. Exarchopoulos has talked about how close-up filming heightens the sense that Adéle and Emma want to devour each other. Particularly Adéle, whose story this is after all, and with Emma the more reserved of the two, Kechiche is fascinated by the way in which the teenager functions - not just the way in which she thinks or feels. Thus we have scenes that depict her noisily wolf down bolognese, shots that linger on her tear-streaming face, nose running and flushed, or close-ups of her nervously and impulsively re-fixing her hair. Emotionally, Adèle is battered and buffeted like a cork on the ocean. An initial attraction with a (male) school friend loses its appeal after discovering where her sexual predilections may reside, and the subsequent buzz Adèle observes at the chance of some kind of a burgeoning same-sex liaison with another school peer is curtailed when it transpires a kiss is sometimes, heartbreakingly, just a kiss. But on meeting the azure-blue-haired Emma, something stirs within Adèle. The knotty issue of a relationship between a 20-something student and a minor never truly becomes part of the film's central discussion, although Adèle's school friends respond to their suspicion of her sexuality with typical adolescent disgust and back-of-the-bike-shed prurience. Emma is, recognisably, everything we know fascinates those on the brink of adulthood. She is confident and self-assured. With her punky hair and sleeveless denim gilet, arm draped casually around her partner, and possessed of an easy swagger, she embodies the kind of 1950s rebel-cool that we associate with that kind of abandoned recklessness we know may be so mesmeric. A world away from Adèle's gameshow-watching family dinner times.

As the film progresses, the pair draw closer and eventually, engage in a full blown relationship. But the nature in which this is depicted is so subtly rendered and gently metered, we feel every aspect of the pair's ascent into love. Every facet of each stage of attraction is marked out and given room to breathe, held up to the light for close-perspective consideration. The flirting, the dates, the sex, when it eventually and organically unfolds, the meeting of the other's parents - are all given scenes that are meticulously detailed and eminently watchable. Distressingly, this also means that Adèle and Emma's breakup is as comprehensively illustrated. It begins, as we know these things do, through niggling doubts and nagging uncertainties. At one point, two parties are shown juxtaposed against one another; the first, Adèle's birthday, is depicted as a traditionally tepid surprise event in the garden, complete with cake and bopping along to Lykke Li's I Follow Rivers. Later, and later on in the relationship, Emma hosts a party in her garden, where her friends talk about Art and the clandestine exclusivity of the female orgasm. Even their families are polar opposites. Emma, sensing Adèle's Father's leading questions, diverts attention from her sexuality and the nature of her relationship with his daughter, while Emma's parents free-spiritedly toast the couple's love with fine wine. Adèle's is the tragedy of those keen to rush towards adolescence's finish line, hungry for the perks adulthood brings, yet unable to quicken the unrushed progression of teenage life. Her connection with Marivaux's La Vie De Marianne (the novel she studies at school) - a passion atypical of girls her age, and one she enthusiastically attempts to share with her male schoolfling - shows a yearning for answers she's not yet ready to experience for herself. In fact so strongly does this book, that tells of a young girl similarly inducted into the ethics of love, resonate with Kechiche, he's named his film after it in its original national title - La Vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 & 2.

And on top of all this, Kechiche, along with his cinematographer Sofian El Fani, has delivered a beautifully presented film too. Emma and Adèle's first date is played out on a park bench, the camera shooting into the sun, capturing backlit strands of stray hair and dappled light through branches. The whole scene radiantly glows in golden hues. Later, Adèle revisits the same location, the Autumnal breezes dislodging the trees' leaves around her as she lays down forlorn on the very same bench. I suspect this is the essence of what has won over so many to the film. The glut of truths on display. Awareness of our physical surroundings, of our own hearts. How we can be forever altered by a glance or a touch. Our frustration with ourselves, with our desires, with others, those we love. It's all here, in all its agonizing splendour.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Gravity (PG-13) | Film Review

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón, wr. Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón, st. Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Unless you've been living under a rock the past few months, you won't have failed to hear about a little film called Gravity, directed by Children Of Men director Alfonso Cuarón, and the waves it made following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August. The plot is sublimely efficient and economical; during a routine spacewalk, debris from a nearby satellite hurtles towards the five-man crew of the space shuttle Explorer, devastating their ship and equipment on impact, and leaving Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) adrift and spinning out into the vast chasm of infinite space. What follows is ostensibly a one-scene, near one-take ninety minute movie that in 3D - in gimmicky, ghastly 3D... I can barely bring myself to say it... - works gloriously well, as the astronauts attempt to stay alive in their unremittingly harsh environment. Trust an ambitious, astute director like Cuarón, yet to misstep behind the camera, to create a movie that conjures deepest primal fear and most profound empathy for its protagonists from the most granular of elements. If ever there was a movie made for the immersion 3D always promised and never delivered, this was it. Out in space, with no plane of balance or finite perspective to lock on to, Cuarón's camera is free to drift, hurtle, spin and float with the action he synthesises, whilst Clooney and Bullock deliver powerful and flawless performances from the restrictive confines of their spacesuits, and of course, we're right there with them, as their hands frantically seek a lifesaving purchase and our pale blue dot spins and glistens silently beneath. Steven Price gifts the picture with an expansive and emotive score, and London's Framestore VFX impeccably sell the setting, but Gravity is possessed of a poetry that transcends its many technical achievements. The physical machinations of struggle for survival are augmented by equally rich and rewarding character motivations - particularly in the case of Bullock's fearful Dr. Stone, a woman for whom letting go is imperative if she's to hold on. And like Stone, Gravity too lets go - of convention, of traditional structure and tonality, of conforming to genre and trope - and emerges a triumphant and radical example of truly visionary cinema.