Monday, 31 March 2014

The Double (15) | Film Review

The Double, dir. Richard Ayoade, wr. Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine, based on The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, st. Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, James Fox

Adapted from the Dostoyevsky novella and set in a distinctly dystopian world reminiscent of Michael Radford’s 1984, The Double combines tenebrous allegory with Amelie-esque romance and moments of bleak surrealism.  Eisenberg plays the morose, shy and hopeless romantic Simon James who watches lonely, beautiful Hanna (Wasikowska) in the opposite apartment through a telescope in his bedroom window. Out of nowhere, his doppelgänger appears at his place of work and begins to undermine his entire existence. Even the office elevator and photocopier become unresponsive to his desperate attempts to re-assert himself. 

While retaining many of the stylistic similarities and nuances of Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine, (the quirky, coming-of-age story of awkward teen Oliver Tate) The Double looks towards darker, more sinister subject matter, dealing with issues of identity, isolation, and urban solitude. By limiting the setting of the film to only a handful of dingy, innocuous locations, Ayoade creates a claustrophobic, suffocating atmosphere in the stuffy office booths and one room-apartments by completely omitting any natural light. However that’s not to say it isn’t beautifully lit: yellow fluorescents and strip-lights give everything a grubby, run-down, Eastern European feel, perfectly complementing the drained, wistful performances by Eisenberg and Wasikowska. The locations are familiar, yet eerily distant since nothing can truly be placed in any specific time or place: the oversized, Gilliamy computers, big square buttons and muted colours are undoubtedly based on how the future was imagined by the people of the 1960s, some of it reminiscent of old Dr Who episodes and of course Kubrick’s 2001.

Perhaps the best thing about the film though is Ayoade’s precise direction and its keen satirical edge. He deals with some of the most sobering themes imaginable, presents them in a visually dark, doleful way, and yet delightfully nutty humour is never far away. The last act loses some of the momentum and clarity of its predecessors, but the combination of Simon’s endearing, pathetic awkwardness and the piercing, sawing score by Andrew Hewitt - an aural stand-in for the descent into madness - make The Double a rather melancholic but compelling watch.

Review by Bryony Dawson

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Notting Hill (15) | Film Review

Notting Hill, dir. Roger Michell, wr. Richard Curtis, st. Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville, Rhys Ifans, Tim McInnery, Gina McKee, James Dreyfus

It may be an unashamedly transparent attempt to cash in on the runaway success of Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral five years previously, it may depict the London wonderland from the perspective of well-heeled, unicultural middle-classers, it may even strain credibility that bit too far despite its obvious fairytale ambitions, but Notting Hill is a great film for three reasons. Firstly, it's tremendously well performed. Yes, Hugh's Grantisms have since entered into the physical lexicon of bumbling British behaviour, and Julia Roberts' Anna Scott may oscillate wildly between doe-eyed and love-lorn and cantankerously diva-ish, but there's undeniable chemistry between his reclusive book shopkeeper and her Hollywood Queen. Just look again at the famous "just a girl standing in front of a boy" scene towards the end of the movie. It's not only heartbreaking because Will is turning down the girl he loves. Roberts and Grant don't play the demise of the relationship, they play the ugly reveal of the reality of their dreams. You watch Anna and Will's amazement and sorrow at how this is going to end. Incidentally, I love the little interruptions, the unknowing customer instantly turned away from a browse, Will's Mother on the phone, yes, they're comic devices, but they also help to hammer home the idea of a world still spinning when yours seems to be winding down. 

Secondly, there's a low-key but superb supporting cast. Bonneville, McInnery and McKee make great friends, confidants, advisors. They're wonderful characters, maybe not as deeply written as one might like, but the performances are what give them their dramatic weight. Again, as an example, look at the brownie scene. In their attempt to bid for the last cake we get testimony from Bernie (resigned), Honey (breezy), Bella (sincere then confessional), Will (via Max, playful), Anna (revealing), all presided over by Max's watchful, steady hand. The writing - and it's brief, a couple of pages at most - isn't great. Too much is crammed in too short a space, but emotionally, we travel a great distance. The lighthearted mood is punctured not once, but twice, before relaxing once more into the easy charm of the circle. It's no mean feat to enable an audience to engage with these characters from two minutes of dialogue. 

Finally, Notting Hill is more than just a love story. It reminds us that life doesn't like complexity. Like some great mathematical equation computing away backstage, behind the curtain, propelling all life and existence onward, it insists - Occam's Razor-like - on the shortest distance between two points. But it also tells us that if we have the strength of conviction to change things, we may indeed alter our own orbit and resist the predetermined gravitational pull with the help of those we love. Alone in his flat, Will might have never realised his mistake in turning Anna down, but sitting in Tony's failed restaurant, the issue is put before the council. His friends are determined to remain supportive to the last, but it's Spike who about-turns from buffoon to sage. The resulting chase across town is purest fluff of course, but there's a resonating, hyper-real ending in which, through montage, we see the fairytale achieve a satisfying closure. Notting Hill is smarter than you think and almost certainly more affecting than you remember.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (U) | Film Review

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, dir. David Gelb, st. Jiro Yoshino

Deep in the basement of the Tsukamoto Sogyo Building in Ginza, Tokyo, resides the three-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi - the Apple Store of sushi restaurants - where customers pay a premium for years of care, attentiveness and expertise that the eighty-five year old proprietor, Jiro Ono, brings to bear on his establishment and his mouth-watering creations. We in the West might look at the East's unending pursuit for unattainable excellence with amusement - derision even, given the immense pressure placed upon young adults to succeed and flourish for the sake and respect of family and ancestral pride - and sure enough, Jiro is unapologetically contemptuous of families that allow their offspring to return home should their children fail at their first stab at life, but there's also an undeniable nobility in taking unrushed pride in one's work. Jiro's sushi creation processes have a meditative quality that's more akin to artistic, spiritual practice rather than culinary procedure. For sure, there's a whole heap of food porn sequences in Gelb's film - tender pieces of unctuous fatty tuna reclining on chaise-longues of steaming sticky rice are filmed in glorious close-up that'll have you pawing at the screen to get at them, Mike Teevee-style - but this isn't only a documentary about the purity of sushi construction and execution. Gelb paints a fascinating portrait of Jiro himself, a man for whom abandonment issues during his formative years might shed some light on why and how he and his sons have become the dedicated, unassuming purveyors of perfection they are today.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Under the Skin (15) | Film Review

Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer, scr. Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, based on the novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber, st. Scarlett Johansson

What movie could possibly elicit a reaction whereby boos and cheers ring out together in unholy disharmony? Well try this on for size: in only his third film in fourteen years, Jonathan Glazer directs Scarlett Johansson as a bewigged, fur-coated alien who drives around Scotland in a white van, sporadically picking up single men before leading them, entranced, into an otherworldly, transitive black goo that harvests their soft tissues. To boot, there's barely any dialogue, and a near-constant droning sound-score design hybrid. Johansson's performance has already been labeled by some as 'iconic' and the film as 'a masterpiece' - terms that provoke a high degree of suspicion whenever they are uttered. Yet despite a cautious approach to Glazer's film, those labels once heard that cannot be unheard, Under the Skin is undoubtedly a mesmerisingly quixotic marvel.

There are questions about the plot and meaning (who is the mysterious biker that accompanies Scarl-ET? Is he too not of this world? Why are only men selected? Is she abandoned or on recon?), but such films' unnatural lack of contextualisation forms the bedrock and beauty of their style. Glazer also reminds us of the potential redundancy of dialogue, how once excised from the process, a vacuum forms - all the more space to fill with sound and light. Many images are breathtakingly beautiful and sophisticatedly composed. Some sequences are shocking, not from gore, but from their sheer visceral impact. For me, most memorable was a POV shot from a submerged victim looking up through the brume to see The Alien walk Christ-like across the gunk that had claimed him not a moment before. I'm sure I've had that very same dream, and seeing it recreated onscreen left me utterly terrified.

Yet despite this alleged lack of coherence, where Glazer remains exuberantly unbonded within the shackles of convention and formulae, there is a crystal-clear and rather unexpectedly poignant narrational through-line that's compelling, and more importantly - accessible. The Alien's (she's Isserly in the novel) gradual shift from worker bee, through to the first pricking of what might be called a conscience through her meeting with Lonely (Adam Pearson), a man with neurofibromatosis deformity, and on to her 'awakening' and subsequent off-grid trek, is meticulously chaptered and crafted by a note- (and accent) perfect Johansson, an actor with extraordinary range and skill. Aiding in the majestic sweep of this film is Mica Levi's arresting score and Johnnie Burn's sound design, the two complementing components grinding, swirling, thumping, humming and vibrating together, one seamlessly integrating into the other like some sonic pas de deux. Predictably, there's little here in the way of empathic scoring. In fact we're never explicitly told where to go, what to feel. There are instead, the slightest of illusory nudges, foggy suggestions.

So what does it all mean? What is there to glean when, as Stewart Lee might say, "the Satnav is off"? Well most obviously, as the title suggests, Under the Skin talks a great deal about perception. Of the world around us, of other people, of ourselves. On one level, the film functions as a straightforward Man Who Fell to Earth-style sci-fi. Comparisons to Kubrick quickly follow after anything vaguely abstract apparently, but for my money this is a warmer film than anything Kubrick ever produced. But Under the Skin can also be seen as a paean for isolation and exclusion. How one can look the part but fail to fully integrate into the world around us seems plausible through the eyes of Isserly, but probably occurs frighteningly often amongst us humans as well. This is the familiar world Glazer works so hard to alienate from us. The final trick of course, the flourish that holds everything together, is in the ingenious casting of Johansson, an A-list Hollywooder at the top of her game, surgically severed from Tinseltown, and transplanted to the barrens of urban and rural Glasgow. Under the Skin is startling for many reasons, but perhaps chief among these is the realisation that it's still possible to experience genuine awe and reverence at something you saw at the cinema.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) | Film Review

The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir/wr. Wes Anderson, st. Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, st. Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

A colourful, storybook aesthetic, an array of eccentric, dead-pan characters and a dark sense of humour are at the heart of all Wes Anderson’s films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. The famous Gustave H (Fiennes), concierge of a once magnificent, now decadent and decaying hotel somewhere in the snowy mountains of Wes’s Europe, is accused of murder and of course, chaos ensues. A painting is stolen, the Nazis are invading, and a family fortune is up for grabs. The new lobby boy - Zero (Tony Revolori) - becomes Gustave's protégé and best friend, and together they break out of prison and win back their beloved Grand Budapest.

This being a Wes Anderson movie, every shot is perfectly composed with meticulous detail that is indicative of the director's sheer passion and diligence. The mid-century brown and orange of the hotel lobby, the Cadbury purple of Gustave’s uniform, and the powder-blue Mendl’s patisserie boxes are charming little attentions to detail. The protagonist possesses the usual endearing cynicism, and the post-Soviet setting proves as enchanting a location as in any other Anderson film. As usual, I left the theatre feeling strangely melancholy, noticing how ugly the world around me has become as I make my way home, and, as usual, wishing that my whole life could be directed by Anderson’s superb imagination. 

However, even as a loyal fan of his work, I can’t escape the feeling that Grand Budapest is (dare I say it) a slight regurgitation of what has come before. The style, the nuances, the humour, are all brilliant in their own right, but if you’ve seen The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums, you’ll see all of these tricks coming, and perhaps, as I did, start to grow tired of seeing the same old cast romping back and forth in colour-coordinated outfits, heads popping out of trap-doors and confused shoot-outs. I suppose when such a stylised, specific approach to film-making is adopted and receives a huge cult-following, it becomes difficult to move away from the predicted modus operandi, and perhaps this is why Grand Budapest seems slightly darker and more sombre than the others. Irrespective of Gustave’s adventures with Zero and his many high-society love affairs, he undoubtedly comes across as lonely, and some scenes are noticeably more explicit than Anderson’s other films have been. It could be that this is an indication of what’s to be expected from him in the future: something less playful and more serious, more satirical.

In spite of this, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still an immensely enjoyable film, regardless of whether you are a Wes Veteran or not. Full of energy, colour and warmth, it is the perfect antidote to the gloomy not-quite spring evenings, and its loveable characters will have you smiling to yourself long after the curtain falls.

Review by Bryony Dawson

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Usual Suspects (18) | Film Review

The Usual Suspects, dir. Bryan Singer, wr. Christopher McQuarrie, st. Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollack, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey

There's more of everything these days. And more ways than ever to access it all. Reception to great filmmaking past shouldn't be influenced by heightened awareness of current trending tropes. But it is. You can't, for instance, erase the memory of similar storylines told elsewhere - especially when they're told better. Nor can you ignore narrative devices gone before. Nowadays, we're all looking for anti-heroes to cheer along. For that redemptive arc. For that twist ending. For that thing that elevates it above. Vanilla moviemaking just doesn't cut it any more. And then there are films like Singer's Noiry thriller The Usual Suspects from 1995 - nebulously plotted, bursting at the seams with memorable performances, romantically scored (and occasionally out-Debussying Debussy) by editor John Ottman, and crafted by a director who knows how to imaginatively weave diabolical lies in and around the truths the film purports to tell. The story - a familiar one of honour amongst thieves, a gang of crooks who find themselves on the receiving end of an even bigger master criminal - is really secondary to the way in which it's told; constantly shifting timeframes, shadowy characters with unclear motives, a rabbit hole that gets deeper and darker the further along it Singer leads us. This is one of those rare movies where form compliments content, an utterly symbiotic relationship with each respecting its partner enough not to pull ahead and self-indulge. The film claimed a couple of Oscars - one for McQuarrie's original screenplay, and one for supporting actor Spacey, who plays the cerebral palseyed Roger "Verbal" Kint - but it could have easily earned one for Byrne, Ottman, or Singer himself; the man, after all, with the plan. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Oscars 2014: Full List Of Winners

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Actor In A Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Actor In A Supporting Role: Dallas Buyers Club

Actress In A Leading Role: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Actress In A Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

Animated Feature Film: Frozen

Cinematography: Gravity

Costume Design: The Great Gatsby

Directing: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)

Documentary Feature: 20 Feet from Stardom

Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Film Editing: Gravity

Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty

Makeup And Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club

Original Score: Gravity

Original Song: Let It Go (Frozen)

Production Design: The Great Gatsby

Animated Short Film: Mr. Hublot

Live Action Short Film: Helium

Sound Editing: Gravity

Sound Mixing: Gravity

Visual Effects: Gravity

Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay: Her

The 86th Academy Awards Best Picture Nominations Recap

Click on the links below to read what The Film Exciter had to say about this year's nominations:

Nebraska (coming soon)

Philomena (12A) | Film Review

Philomena, dir. Stephen Frears, wr. Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, st. Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Not since The Queen in 2006 has Frears made such a dignified and rather magnificent film. His film, but indicatively a personal project of Coogan's, addresses the ethically murky practice employed by the Catholic Church during the 1950s in Ireland whereby a county convent in Tipperary took in young mothers and their illicit children, before selling their progeny off to visiting Americans in search of adoptees. The film follows one of these mothers, Philomena Lee (a predictably faultless and gentle portrayal by Dench) and her chance encounter with journalist and broadcaster Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who resolves to try something new ("what we call a Human Interest story") following his dismissal from Number 10. Irrespective of the outcome of his investigative efforts on Philomena's behalf (his editor simply tells him to list the "goodies" and "baddies"), it's a guaranteed winner of a story for Sixsmith, one that may be spun any which way and still incur massive readership. It's a particularly wry choice of a role for Coogan, a man who has been singularly vocal in his displeasure for tabloid hackery and journalistic malfeasance, knowledge that gives his tropey sapere aude role an added weight and depth. The pairing of Coogan and Dench also reminds one of Michael Winterbottom's The Trip (Rob Brydon's Season Three replacement Michael?), and the couple's gradual melting of suspicions and slow budding of affection for one another is delicately and sensitively orchestrated. For me though, it was particularly satisfying to find such a potentially ungainly clash between the sobriety of the lost child storyline and affable humour mesh with such consonance. It wouldn't be hyperbolic to offer that this is British filmmaking at one of its many finest levels - winsome, unshowy, and quietly resonant. 

Dallas Buyers Club (15) | Film Review

Dallas Buyers Club, dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, wr. Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack, st. Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto

Dallas Buyers Club is the kind of film Oscar loves. It's got a time-tested David and Goliath, anti-hero-against-the-world storyline, solemnity in subject matter themeology, and body-morphing performances from its leads that serve as omnipresent reminders of the actors commitment to character. But alas its arrival just in time for awards season bestows upon it the kind of hysterical praise and elevated status that might not have befallen it were the film released at any other time of the year. That's what happens around Oscar time. Any sense of measured proportion goes straight out of the window. But it cuts both ways. Historically, unworthy films have slipped by only to have accolades lavished upon them, films that don't stand up once the red carpet has been rolled up (Shakespeare In Love, Million Dollar Baby, Crash -  I'm looking at you) but conversely, films have been lauded whose commendation belongs far from the stroboscopic camera flashes and tuxedos (Dances with Wolves, The English Patient, Ben Hur) of the night.

Which brings us to Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club, the true-but-tweaked story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan rodeo cowboy and blue collar electrician who, upon discovering he's contracted AIDS from much unprotected sex, hotfoots it across the border into Mexico in order to purchase life-saving drugs - life-saving, but FDA unapproved back home in the States. Unable to sell the drugs directly, he cleverly sets up a club, whereby membership costs, but the drugs come free.

There is certainly no doubting McConaughey's stratospheric trajectory. From The Lincoln Lawyer to Killer Joe to The Paperboy to Mud to The Wolf of Wall Street to this (with HBO's unfathomably good True Detective along the way), the promise and surprise of his next roll is as delectable as its delivery. He portrays Woodroof as a man slowly disintegrating as much from the booze and coke he mainlines as the toxic drugs that are supposed to be healing him - or indeed the ravages of the illness himself. Ron is an immensely proud man. Bullish, confrontational, aggressively homophobic - all the things that, while effectively and persuasively realised, are laid on a little too thick for us not to predict the closing of the redemptive circle near the film's end. Added to which, it seems to have been invented or at least augmented in order to sweeten its reception with audiences. There is, of course, nothing wrong with dramatic license, but there is when films sell themselves on the supposed veracity of their content. This aside, there's much that's conventionally appealing here. It's a relatively simple tale, boldly and skillfully told with sensitivity and candour; whether its impact burns as bright in post-ceremonial embers remains to be seen.